Learning multisyllabic words with ‘silent e’ and vowel teams
After a student has mastered the basics of breaking a word with short vowels into syllables to read them, Ms. Farrell recommends these next steps:
- Introduce schwa after students have learned to read multisyllable words with short vowels.
- For multisyllable words with ‘silent e’, add a third question: Do you see a ‘silent e’ at the end? The ‘silent e’ and the vowel preceding it stay in the syllable together.
- For multisyllable words with vowel teams, teach students that two vowels together stay together in the syllable.
Sounding out new multisyllabic words
Mastering reading accuracy
Ms. Farrell listens closely as Xavier reads aloud from one of his favorite books (Dog Man) to help him focus on reading every word accurately. Strong readers have the habit of reading virtually every word accurately.
Multisensory instruction: Instruction that engages more than one sense at a time to help students learn. A multisensory activity can include seeing, talking, hearing, moving, and touching.
Schwa: Schwa is a vowel sound in an unstressed syllable. The most common sound for schwa is /uh/. For example, ‘a’ in around, ‘e’ in open, ‘i’ in robin, ‘o’ in wagon.
Vowel teams: Some vowel sounds are spelled with two or more letters — these letters are called a ‘vowel team’. Examples: ‘ai’ in paid, ‘ee’ in feet, ‘ey’ in key, ‘oa’ in boat, ‘ow’ in grow, ‘ou’ in cloud, ‘ie’ in pie, ‘ew’ in new, and ‘ough’ in though.
Related resources from Reading Rockets
In the classroom
- Two-to-Four-Syllable Words with Short Vowels and Schwa
- Six Syllable Types
- Helping Students Keep Their Eyes on the Words
- Understanding and Assessing Fluency
- Screening, Diagnosing, and Progress Monitoring for Fluency: The Details
- Fluent Reading (video)
Reading 101 online course
- Repeated Reading with Goal Setting for Reading Fluency: Focusing on Reading Quality Rather Than Reading Speed (Iowa Reading Research Center)
- Advanced Phonics: Syllable Patterns (Florida Center for Reading Research)
- Grades 2-3 Activities: Phonological Awareness, Phonics, and Fluency (Florida Center for Reading Research)
- Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able to Do (AFT, Louisa Moats)
About Linda Farrell
Linda Farrell is a founding partner at Readsters , an Alexandria, VA-based firm that helps schools implement research-based reading instruction. She is committed to effective early reading instruction to help struggling readers become strong readers, and to ensure that strong readers achieve their full potential.
Linda works in schools throughout the U.S. training and coaching teachers and modeling effective reading instruction. She also has designed curricula in Niger and Senegal for children to learn to read in their local languages.
Linda is a former English teacher and she was a National LETRS trainer for seven years. She has co-authored assessments and curricula for teaching reading, as well as several other published works. Linda can be reached at: [email protected]
Reading Multisyllable Words with Xavier, Third Grader
Xavier: I think, he — he’s kind of bad.
Linda Farrell: Oh. Dog Man is?
Xavier: Yeah — at his job.
Linda Farrell: He sure is. He chews the table leg. Oh my gosh.
Reading expert Linda Farrel is working with Xavier, a third grader at Windy Hill Elementary in Calvert County, Maryland. She’ll be helping him learn how to read multi-syllable words.
Xavier: … going to study Flippy’s brain.
Linda Farrell: When we visit classrooms, it’s a big issue: “The kids do well with small words, but they can’t read big words.” So I’ll ask a student to read. And they look at a word and it’s volcanic and they read volcano. Or it’s fanatic and they read fantasy. So they guess the most common word that has that configuration that that word looks like it has. What they don’t know is how to break a word into syllables so that you’re not reading a big word that you have to memorize, but you’re just going, “Oh, there’s a little word, a little word, a little word.
Linda Farrell: I’m gonna have you read some nonsense words. They all have short vowels. So, could you just read these three nonsense words.
Xavier: Nad. Naf. Nef.
Linda Farrell: Good. Alright. What are these three?
Xavier: Zib. Zid. Zash.
Linda Farrell: Your, uh, this is pretty easy, isn’t it. Yeah. This is too easy. We’re done with that one. Okay? Now I’m gonna teach you about reading two-syllable words. This is kinda fun.
Linda Farrell: We started with nonsense words with Xavier because often syllables are nonsense words … that when you combine them they become real words. So teaching nonsense words is not an exercise in futility. It is preparing children to read multi-syllable words.
Ms. Farrell now knows Xavier can read one-syllable words with short vowels. Next she checks to make sure he knows what a syllable is, because breaking long words into syllables is the key to the strategy she’ll be teaching him.
Linda Farrell: I just remembered something. I have to make sure you know what a syllable is. Okay. So look at me. My name is Linda. It has two syllables in it. Lin. Da. Linda. So what’s your name?
Linda Farrell: How many syllables in your name?
Linda Farrell: Okay. Let’s stomp them.
Xavier: /Ex/, /ay/, I mean, /ex/, /zay/, /vee/, /er/. Xavier.
Linda Farrell: You got it.
Linda Farrell: How many syllables in computer?
Xavier: Com-pu-ter. Three.
Linda Farrell: Yes. You got it. So you know what a syllable is. Alright. Cause that’s really important if we’re gonna read these big words. So if I look at this word, and I want to know how to read that, the first thing I have to do is figure out how many syllables are in it. And I can do that by figuring out what the vowels are. Do you know what the vowel letters are?
Xavier: ‘A, e, i, o ,u.’
Linda Farrell: You got it. Those are the vowel letters. So here’s what I know. Every syllable has a vowel in it. So in order to figure out how many syllables there are, I have to count the vowels. So can you tell me … how many vowel letters do you see in that word?
Linda Farrell: Yep. Are they together or apart?
Linda Farrell: They are apart. If I have two vowels — letters, and they’re apart, I’m going to have two syllables. So I’m gonna draw two lines right here, and I have to have a vowel letter in every syllable. So can you break that word into two syllables for me?
Linda Farrell: Now this is a nonsense word, so we’re gonna read it. What’s the first syllable?
Xavier: Jod. Pum.
Linda Farrell: What’s the word?
Linda Farrell: So read it again.
Linda Farrell: And the word is …
Linda Farrell: That’s a nonsense word. I just made it up. I literally just made that word up right now. I’ve never even seen that word before. But we now know what to do if we have a word that we don’t know. So let’s try another word.
Linda Farrell: Oh! You got the first two syllables — you got the first syllable right. How many vowels do you see?
Linda Farrell: Together or apart.
Linda Farrell: Okay.
Linda Farrell: Okay. Read each syllable.
Xavier: /Vol/, /cay/ …
Linda Farrell: Hmmm. What’s that middle syllable?
Xavier: … /can/, /ic/.
Linda Farrell: Touch each syllable and read it.
Xavier: /Vol/, /can/, /ic/ …
Linda Farrell: Mm-hmm.
Linda Farrell: Wait. Wait. What’s that?
Linda Farrell: Yeah. Let’s do it again.
Xavier: /Vol/, /can/, /ic/. Volcanic.
Linda Farrell: You just read volcanic. So what are the syllables in volcanic?
Xavier: ‘O’ …
Linda Farrell: Those are the vowels. What’s the first syllable?
Xavier: /Vol/, /can/, /ic/.
Linda Farrell: I’m gonna ask you to do something. I’m erasing this. Okay. So say volcanic.
Linda Farrell: How many syllables in volcanic?
Linda Farrell: Okay. I would like you to please see if you can spell each syllable in volcanic. So draw three lines right up here.
Linda Farrell: Do you think you can spell volcanic? What’s the first syllable?
Linda Farrell: What’s that syllable? What’d you just spell?
Linda Farrell: Okay. Next one.
Linda Farrell: Now write the whole word.
Linda Farrell: Oh my gosh. You just spelled volcanic. You couldn’t even read it and now you can spell it. That is pretty good. Do you want me to see if I can get a really hard one for you?
Linda Farrell: In teaching Xavier word attack skills, it’s very important that we choose words with short vowels that have only one vowel all by itself. So you’ll see we’re not going to have words with ‘silent e,’ we’re not going to have words with vowel teams. So we need two questions that we can ask Xavier that can help him break a big word into syllables so that all it is is little small words that he has to put together to read a big word. The two questions are … how many vowels do you see? Are they together or apart? And what we teach him is that … if you see three vowels and they’re apart, you’re going to have three syllables, because every syllable has a vowel. And then we teach him to draw a line for each syllable, write each syllable on a line, and then read each little word and then put them together.
Linda Farrell: Let’s see if we can try this one.
Linda Farrell: How many vowels did you see?
Linda Farrell: Okay. Could you underline them please?
Xavier: I mean four.
Linda Farrell: Okay. Four vowels. Are they together or apart?
Linda Farrell: So how many syllables?
Linda Farrell: Okay.
Linda Farrell: Could you move that ‘n’ over there? Okay.
Linda Farrell: Okay. So read each syllable.
Xavier: /Con/, /tic/ …
Linda Farrell: What’s that?
Xavier: /ti/, /tin/
Linda Farrell: What’s this?
Linda Farrell: /t/, /i/. What is it?
Linda Farrell: Okay. So it’s …
Xavier: /Con/, /ti/, /nin/, /tul/. Continental.
Linda Farrell: You just read continental. Are you ready for another one?
Linda Farrell: Okay. Here we go. Let’s try this one.
Linda Farrell: How many vowels do you see?
Xavier: /o/ and /i/, /e/
Linda Farrell: Okay. So how many? You can underline them if you want.
Linda Farrell: Why don’t you start here and go this way. Yeah.
Linda Farrell: Okay. So how many?
Linda Farrell: Together or apart?
Linda Farrell: Okay.
Linda Farrell: Do you wanna try to read it without breaking it into syllables? Try it.
Xavier: Accosh — accomplishment.
Linda Farrell: What was the word?
Xavier: Accosh — accomplishment.
Linda Farrell: It’s accomplishment. You are right.
As Xavier grasps the strategy, you can see him thinking through the two questions: How many vowels? Are the vowels together or apart? And he’s able to read big words without writing out the syllables.
Linda Farrell: What’s the word?
Linda Farrell: Wilmington! It’s the name of a city …
Linda Farrell: Xavier does a great job of learning how to attack a word. After this lesson he has a strategy to help him break words into syllables and read them. He will need lots of lessons. We start with short vowels, then we move to ‘silent e,’ then we move to vowel teams. So it’s explicit and it’s systematic when we’re teaching him this. Xavier responded beautifully to reading these long words.
Linda Farrell: We’re gonna do one more. It is …
Xavier: Electric — cal. Electrical.
Linda Farrell: You got it! That was a good one to end on. High five! Yes!
We’d like to thank the wonderful students and families at Windy Hill Elementary School in Calvert County, Maryland. We hope that sharing these experiences will help other children who are learning to read.
Special thanks also to Kelly Cleland, Julie Donovan, Joanne Harbaugh, and their outstanding colleagues at Windy Hill Elementary … and to Leanne Meisinger at Calvert County Public Schools.
We are deeply grateful to Linda Farrell, Michael Hunter, and Nicole Lubar of Readsters for their invaluable contributions to this project.
Produced by Noel Gunther
Edited by Christian Lindstrom
Graphic Design: Tina Chovanec
Camera: Richard Chisolm
Audio: Dwayne Dell
For more information about teaching reading, please visit
Reading Rockets is a service of WETA, Washington, D.C.
© 2019, WETA, Washington, D.C.
Extra tips from the session with Xavier
1. Learning Multisyllabic Words with ‘Silent e’ and Vowel Teams
After Xavier learns how to read words with one vowel all by itself in each syllable, the next thing we do is we teach him ‘silent e,’ so that if he gets a word like porcupine that has ‘silent e’ at the end, we teach him — we add a new question. And it is: do you see a ‘silent e’ at the end? So then we say, “How many vowels do you see?”
And he’ll say, “Four.”
“Are they together or apart?”
“Do you see a ‘silent e’ — yeah — at the end?”
And then he sees a ‘silent e’ at the end, and you know that that ‘silent e’ stays in the syllable with the vowel before it. So of course they have to read one syllable words with ‘silent e’ before they can read multi-syllable words with ‘silent e.’ It’s just another question. So then we read some of those.
Then the next step is to read words with vowel teams. So let’s say the words is refrain. “How many vowels do you see?”
“Are they together or apart?”
“One is apart, and two of the vowels are together.”
Well, we teach you that when two vowel letters are together, they stick together in the syllable. So you’re only going to have two syllables in that word. But of course, in order to read refrain, you have to be able to know that ‘a-i’ spells /ay/, so you would have to be able to read one syllable words with vowel teams before you go to two syllable or three syllable or four syllable. It’s very simple. It’s not — there aren’t any really rules that we teach. It’s how do you look at a word and break it up.
2. Sounding Out New Multisyllabic Words
If they saw the word ‘r-o-b-i-n’ and they, I said, “How many vowels do you see?”
“See a ‘silent e’?”
“How many syllables?”
“What’s the word?”
“Could be /roe-bin/. You decoded it perfectly. Flex that first ‘o’ to a short ‘o’ instead of a long ‘o.’”
So the kid goes /rah-bin/. Oh, robin. And if the word’s in his vocabulary, he’ll go — “Oh! Robin.” And if the word robin isn’t in his vocabulary, he’ll go /rah-bin/, /rah-bin/. And you know it’s not in his vocabulary, and you say, “That word’s /rah-bin/. It’s like a bird. What’s that word?” “Robin.”
3. Mastering Reading Accuracy
Maryland third grader Xavier is sharing one of his favorite books with reading expert Linda Farrell. Ms. Farrell is going to help him focus on reading every word accurately.
Linda Farrell: Can you read some of this to me? Can you read?
Xavier: Look. We’re heroes because we save the world from Flippy. This — it says here that scientists are going to study Flippy brain.
Linda Farrell: Get the ‘s’ on that.
Xavier: Studies …
Xavier: -dy …
Linda Farrell: What’s this word right here — this one right here?
Linda Farrell: Yeah. Read that whole thing again.
Xavier: It says here that scien- scientists are going to study Flippy’s brain.
Linda Farrell: Keep going.
Xavier: Dog Man, I have a important job for you.
Linda Farrell: What’s that word?
Linda Farrell: Keep reading again.
Xavier: Dog Man, I have a, an important job for you.
Linda Farrell: Can you read that — an important.
Linda Farrell: Read it again.
Xavier: … important. Dog Man, I have an portant job …
Linda Farrell: Okay. We’re gonna do this. Read this with me. An.
Linda Farrell: Important.
Linda Farrell: Now do it. So read An.
Linda Farrell: im
Linda Farrell: por
Linda Farrell: tant
Linda Farrell: Okay. Now, read it again.
Xavier: Dog Man, I have an important job for you.
Linda Farrell: Keep going.
Linda Farrell: One of the things I notice is that teachers often will let an inaccurate reading slip by if the meaning isn’t changed. Ah, it’s close enough. Move on. And that is setting students up for poor comprehension.
Take for example a sentence like, “The horse got a cold.” If a student leaves out the article a and reads it, “The horse got cold,” the meaning changes significantly.
Linda Farrell: That one little word that seems so inconsequential, a, made a difference in meaning. “The horse got cold” and “the horse got a cold is different.” We never know when that’s going to make a difference in comprehension. We have to build good, strong reading habits for students. And that means as a teacher, it’s my job to help my students develop accurate reading habits so that they don’t miss a question on a comprehension test because they misread a sentence. They left off an ‘s.’ They left off, they left out an article. They added an article. They read present tense instead of past tense. They read – they read a contraction incorrectly. All of those can lead to poor comprehension. And we need, in kindergarten, first and second grade and even third grade, to be making sure that our students read accurately. It’s our responsibility.
Xavier: Who wants to protect the scientists? Who’s a good boy protector?
Linda Farrell: Wait. Who’s what?
Xavier: Who’s a good boy — good protector.
Linda Farrell: Yeah.
Xavier: Who — who wants to protect an, and survive?
Linda Farrell: And what’s that word?
Xavier: Surva — suh-verve?
Linda Farrell: Okay. I’m gonna tell you that ‘v’ is — that ‘e’ is silent. So what does that say?
Linda Farrell: You got it. So read that again.
Xavier: Who wants to protect and serve?
Linda Farrell: We’re teaching students, our children, that every letter does make a difference and that when you come to an unfamiliar word, you have to pay attention to every letter. And then when you read that word two or three times, it then becomes a word that you’ve seen before and you just read it because it’s part of your vocabulary and you’ve seen that spelling before.
Linda Farrell: And what does he do? Does he save people?
Xavier: Yeah. He helps people. These are …