Stevenson Learning Skills

In phonics instruction, students progress from combining a few letters into a few words to combining more letters into more words. Along the way a simple, but very challenging thing happens. Groups of letters that make up one-syllable words are joined by groups of letters that have two or more syllables.

While this change can seem small to those of us who may have learned to read easily, for struggling readers it can present a major challenge. In some cases, you will see students whose reading problems previously seemed minor begin to struggle and fail. So the transition from single syllable to multisyllable words needs to be made carefully.

The correspondence of sounds and letters in English (in contrast to Italian or Spanish) is often a problem for struggling readers, even in one-syllable words. These students often have poor phonemic awareness so they have difficulty distinguishing the different sounds in words. The addition of multiple units creating multiple beats in a single word compounds the issues. A student cannot simply look at the number of letters in a word to know how many syllables it contains. The words into and also are relatively short, but contain two beats, while words like scream or strands are longer but contain one syllable.

Different reading programs handle the challenges of multi-syllable words differently. Some try to teach rules to the pupils. However, the rules are numerous, abstract and confusing. Most college-educated adults would not know them. And there are different ways to divide words into pieces. Breaking down words into their linguistic components is not the same as dividing them for hyphenation.

The real key is being able to recognize units containing vowel sounds and associating them with the beats (syllables) in the word. Then students can distinguish between letters that have to be blended together and those that need a separate emphasis (beat). However, “Units containing vowel sounds” is not an easily understood phrase for most students, nor is “blended sounds” or “separate emphasis.”

The Stevenson Program takes the same mnemonic (memory-aiding) clues that help students decode single syllable words and uses them to build their skills with two-syllable words. We move systematically from compound words with the most familiar vowel patterns (sandwich and cake patterns) to two-syllable non-compound words with the same patterns to other patterns and eventually to words with three syllables or greater.

We also use the most familiar vowel patterns to introduce suffixes. Students can easily grasp the changing of different flavored frostings on cake words and the addition of fluff to sandwich words. Once students are comfortable with the frostings (suffixes), we expand their use to many other patterns. We also use the same clues to explain when root words need to be altered (letters dropped or doubled) by the addition of the suffix. Stevenson students learn to look at long words, quickly recognize the key components, break the words apart and decode them with the appropriate number of syllables. And they gain this command of the concepts without having to rely on confusing rules or abstract terminology. You can see some important elements of the Stevenson approach in the lessons from our Multipurpose Multisyllable books that are posted under “Teaching Resources” on our web site at

Of course, it would be difficult to teach these skills so effectively to struggling readers if we did not use our mnemonic clues and create a special sequence that strategically links them together. Nancy Stevenson, the late author, designed all of her instruction around what seemed to make learning easiest for her students. In the process she did not always follow convention, but she did create a method that helps many, many students who otherwise would be left behind. The way she simplified the process of learning multisyllable words is one of her best legacies.