For the purposes of teaching reading, we will divide the structure of words into five multiletter word parts: (1) compound words, (2) contractions, (3) prefixes and suffixes, (4) Greek and Latin roots, and (5) syllables.

Compound Words

Compound words are two words glued together to form a single word, such as base + ball = baseball. The meaning of some compound words is quite similar to the two words individually, as in barefoot and campfire. If children know the meaning of the individual words that make up this type of compound, they can infer the meaning of the compound itself. The meaning of other compounds has little connection to the meaning of the two words. For instance, butter and cup do not suggest the meaning of buttercup. Children might assume they know the meaning of buttercup because butter and cup are familiar words. To understand compounds like buttercup, children must look beyond the individual words to consider sentence context and prior knowledge. You will need to directly teach the meaning of these compound words if the sentence context does not give enough clues to meaning.


A contraction is a single word formed by combining two words. We use an apostrophe to represent missing letters (is not = isn’t). In English, we abbreviate the second word in a contraction. In order to read and write contractions, children must understand the basic concept behind using the apostrophe and know the difference between an apostrophe that indicates an abbreviated word (wasn’t) and an apostrophe that shows possession (Jane’s book). Word meaning is the same whether words are written separately or as contractions.

Prefixes and Suffixes

Prefixes are added to the beginning of words (re + play = replay); suffixes are added to the end (play + ing = playing). Prefixes change meaning (un + happy = unhappy) or make meaning more specific (re + play = replay). The suffixes -es/s, -ed, -ing, -er and -est, called inflected endings, change the number (cats) or the verb tense (played) or indicate a comparison (bigger). Other suffixes affect meaning and grammatical usage. Children who understand the effect of prefixes and suffixes on word meaning have better comprehension (Carlisle, 2000) and are better spellers than children who do not have this knowledge (Leong, 2000).

Every child needs a plan to tackle long, complex words. One way to tackle a word with prefixes and/or suffixes is to “use your fingers” to cover these word parts. The Use Your Fingers strategy consists of these five easy steps:

Use Your Fingers

Step 1 Do you see a prefix? Put your finger over the prefix. unbreakable – un = breakable

Step 2 Do you see a suffix? Put your finger over the suffix. breakable – able = break

Step 3 Read the word. break

Step 4 Take your finger off the prefix. Read the word. unbreak = unbreak

Step 5 Take your finger off the suffix. Read the whole word. unbreakable Greek and Latin Roots

Many English words include a word from the Greek or Latin languages. We call the borrowed portions root words. English words with the same root belong to a meaning family. For example, magn-, of Latin origin, means great. Magnificent, magnify, magnitude, and mag-nanimous are examples of words in the magn- meaning family. Grouping words into meaning families helps children identify roots and gives children insight into word meaning.


The syllable is the basic unit of pronunciation. Every English syllable has one and only one vowel sound. Syllables may have more than one vowel letter (rain), but never more than one vowel sound. Every vowel sound we hear in a word equals one syllable. This is true for short and long words alike.

In order to break long words into syllables children need to know which letters form syllables and which do not. Teach children to look for the following syllable patterns:

  1. Compound Word Syllable Divide compounds between the two words (flash/light).

  2. VC Closed Syllable A closed syllable ends in a consonant sound and the vowel is usually short (pen/cil).

  3. CV Open Syllable This syllable ends in a vowel sound and the vowel usually represents a long sound (me, si/lent). In words where one consonant is placed between two vowels, the consonant often goes with the second vowel.

  4. Cle Syllable Le at the end of a word usually forms the last syllable. The consonant preceding the le typically begins the syllable (han/dle).

  5. VCCV Syllable When two consonants are between two vowels the first syllable is often the VC closed syllable (com/mand, per/fect).

  6. Prefix and Suffix Syllables Prefixes and suffixes usually represent separate syllables, with the exception of -s/es and -ed when the -ed is pronounced /t/, as in the word equipped.

  7. VCCCV Three-Letter Consonant Cluster and Digraph Syllables If three consecutive consonants include a consonant cluster or digraph, try dividing the syllables either before or after the cluster (ex/tra) or digraph (to/geth/er).