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Teaching Students to Say and Decode Polysyllabic Words - September 2007

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Teaching Students to Say and Decode Polysyllabic Words

By: Peg Hutson-Nechkash, M.S., CCC-SLP

As students progress through the grades, the academic vocabulary becomes more complex and specialized. It is estimated that students in grades 4-8 encounter 1000- 3000 new words in text books every year (Moats, 2000). Many of these words are unfamiliar, polysyllabic words which are difficult to decode and pronounce. Yet these words are unavoidable and appear in texts, tests, and classroom discussions. "Starting at about the fourth-grade level, most of what we read contains a high percentage of big, relatively unfamiliar, low-frequency words. Because these big words contain most of the meaning, we cannot comprehend what we read unless we can pronounce and access meaning for these words" (Cunningham, 2000, p. 125).

Students who have difficulty pronouncing and decoding polysyllabic words include:
  1. Students with a history of phonological disorders (Hodson and Paden, 1991)
  2. Students with language and learning disorders
  3. Students with hearing impairments
  4. Students with oral motor difficulties
  5. English language learners
  6. Typical learners who need extra help with longer and more complex words.

To teach students how to say and decode polysyllabic words, a hierarchical, fourstage method which focuses on the syllable unit, is used (Hutson- Nechkash, 2007).

Hierarchical Approach to Polysyllabic Words Stage 1, Expand awareness of syllables Stage 2, Segment words into vertical syllable chunks Stage 3, Develop strategies for pronouncing and decoding of polysyllabic words Stage 4, Guided practice with polysyllabic words

In Stage I, students develop awareness of syllables by counting the syllables in names and simple words. Every syllable had a vowel sound. A single vowel sound may be comprised of one of more vowels. When we say a vowel sound, our mouths open wider and our chins drop. Using a mirror, teach students to count the number of vowel sounds in a word by counting their chin drops. Chin drops can also be felt by placing the thumb below the chin and by resting their fingers on top of the chin.

In Stage II, students learn to segment words into vertical syllable chunks. Beginning with 2-syllable compound words, students write out the words by syllables. The syllables are written vertically which forces students to focus on one syllable unit at a time. Two-syllable compound words are used initially because each syllable is usually familiar to the students. As students become more adept at breaking words into syllables, longer and more complex words are used. A fun activity to segment words into syllables involves the motions for the song, "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes." For one- syllable words, students point to their heads and say the syllable. For twosyllable words, students point to their heads and say the first syllable, then to their shoulders as they say the second syllable. Three- syllable words are said by pointing to their heads, shoulders, and knees.

For four-syllable words, students point to their heads, shoulders, knees, and toes. Words with five-syllables are indicated by pointing to heads, shoulders, knees, toes and then turning around to tap the backside.

In Stage III, students develop strategies for pronouncing and decoding multisyllabic words. Some of these strategies identifying prefixes and suffixes in words, recognizing smaller words within the word, saying the beginning sounds of the word and looking for root words. Clearly, we can't teach students all the words that they will encounter, instead we can equip students with tools to use when these unfamiliar, polysyllabic words occur.

In the last step, Stage IV, students have guided practice using polysyllabic words. Games that develop skills to practice the decoding and pronouncing of polysyllabic words are played. Some games with their directions are provided below:

Syllable War: In Syllable War, words ranging from 1-5 syllables are written on cards. Each student lays down a card and reads the word from their card. The student whose word has the most number of syllables wins all of the cards. A Syllable War occurs when the cards exposed have the same number of syllables. Play continues until a player has all of the cards.

Do you prefer?: In Do you prefer? a choice of 2 items is written on a card. The educator states "Do you prefer?" and shows the card to the students. Students read the choices and state aloud their preference. Choices include polysyllabic words. For example: recyclable or non-recyclable, vertebrates or invertebrates, gravity or gravy, apartment or condominium, positive or negative, etc. Further discussion can develop when students are asked to explain or defend their choices.

Looping Game: The Looping Game is also known as Round Robin. Each student receives a card. On the card are 2 sentences: "I have" and "Who has" The educator begins the game by reading "Who has (polysyllabic word)?" The person with that word reads their sentence and then asks the question on the card. Play continues until the educator reads the last sentence. For example: Educator: "Who has perimeter?" Student 1: "I have perimeter. Who has generation?" Student 2: "I have generation. Who has expedition?" Student 3: "I have expedition. Who has democracy?" Educator: "I have democracy.

Gomuku: Gomuku is a Japanese game similar to tic-tac-toe. Gomuku requires students to decode and pronounce multi-syllabic words quickly and correctly in a game format. A large grid is created with a multi-syllabic word written in each space. One student reads aloud a word and puts an X in that space. The next student chooses another word to read aloud and puts an O in that space. The goal of the game is to get 5 marks in a row, either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. Players can choose any space on the game and try to block the other from getting their 5 marks.

All of these steps help to develop students' abilities and confidence to decode and pronounce words with multiple syllables. Students who can quickly and easily decode and pronounce polysyllabic words will be able to read academic material more fluently and to comprehend the material that they read.

Cunningham, P. (2000). Phonics They Use Fourth Edition. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon Publishing Co.
Hodson, B. and Paden, E. P. (1991). Targeting Intelligible Speech. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed Publishing Co.
Hutson-Nechkash, P. (2007). Saying Big Words. Barneveld, WI: Strategies for Learning Press.
Moats, L. C. (2000). Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

This Month's Featured Vendor: Strategies for Learning Press

Special Thanks to Peg Hutson-Nechkash for providing an article for this issue's Therapy Corner.

Peg Hutson-Nechkash, M.S., CCC-SLP, is a publisher with Strategies for Learning Press. Peg is a speech- language pathologist with over 25 years experience working in schools. Peg is the author of numerous publications including Narrative Toolbox, Story Stunts and Help Me Write published by Super Duper Publications. With LinguiSystems, Peg has written Word Catchers for Articulation and Speech Spinners. For Strategies for Learning Press, Peg has written Saying Big Words and Deeper Meanings.

Tags: September 2007 Newsletter SLP Bilingualism Hearing Loss Childhood Apraxia of Speech Article