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Is Your Child Really Reading? How to Stop the Guessing Habit.

Is your child really reading? Does your child guess at unfamiliar words instead of sounding them out? Let’s find out what’s behind it and what you can do about it!

It’s a known fact that guessing at words can stand in the way of learning to read. I am going to unpack why kids guess and how you can solve it. It’s hard for some parents to identify when their child is guessing because there are so many subtle forms of guessing. They only think of it as guessing when it happens after the first letter of unfamiliar words. Most people do not even realize that any form of guessing constitutes a reading problem.

How Come Kids Guess? Most kids don’t guess to annoy us or because they’re lazy. They are simply using the process that seems most logical or intuitive to them when they are lacking decoding strategies.

Some kids guess because they have been taught to guess. Believe it or not, guessing is taught as a reading strategy in many schools. Previous teachers may have encouraged a student to look at the pictures or use context clues to see if he could figure out what the word is.

Guessing is more common among children who have been taught using the whole word or sight word method. They are trained to look at the beginning letters and shapes of the words instead of paying attention to each sound or phonogram in the word.

Some guess simply because they don’t know what else to do. They are lacking strategies to break down multi-syllable words and/or haven’t been taught the sounds of the alphabetic code.

See if you recognize any of the following reading habits with your beginning or struggling reader. Please note they are not in any order of occurrence.

1. Picture Clue Guesser: Pictures are used to guess the word. For example, the child may come across a sentence like; The slender snake slithered along the path. The child doesn’t know the word slender, so he looks at a picture of the skinny-looking snake and doesn’t know slithered so he says. “The skinny snake slid on the path.” Or they read; “The boy was gasping for air in the water.” And they don’t know the word gasping and based on the picture clues they read; “The boy was sinking in the water.” Pictures are there to help the reader visualize what is happening not to read the passage. If a child is relying on picture clues they are guessing. As we get older there are fewer and fewer pictures leaving these guessers stranded.

2. First Letter Guesser: The first letter is sounded out and then guess what the word is. For example, if the word is freckle and the child looks at the f and says friend. These guessers tend to look at the first few letters of an unfamiliar word and pull words from their memory that also start with the same initial sound, even if the word makes no sense logically within the text.

3. Adding Sounds Guesser: Letter sounds are commonly inserted into words when children do not know how to properly decode a word and they are making an attempt and trying to make sense of it. If you see this happening they are guessing.

4. Context Clue Guesser: Context clues are used to guess the unfamiliar word. For example, the child may come across a sentence like; The rancher bought grain for his cattle. Let’s say they don’t know the word rancher and they say, farmer. Or the text says, “The two brothers were misbehaving so badly they were sent to their room.” And without being about to read some of the words they read; “The boys were fighting so they were sent to their room.”

5. Word Shape Guesser: Some are taught to look at the word pictorially. They look at the first and last letters of a word and the basic shape in between and take their best guess. For example, if the word is fruit and the child says first, or house and they say horse, or maple, and the child says maybe. The words begin with and end with the same letters, and the words have a similar shape in the middle.

6. Reads Long Words but Mixes up Short Words Guesser: Surprise! Most do not realize this is a form of guessing. Ironically sight-reading can make it easier to get long words right and short words wrong. This is because long words are more distinctive and may have more context clues. But short words look very similar and are easy to confuse. The longer words with more distinctive spelling patterns have been memorized. For example elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, dinosaur, etc. And they have trouble reading the shorter words such as her, there, where, them, then, of, and for all of which have many similarities and can be difficult to distinguish in a string of words. When a child guesses while reading, especially on short or easy words, it is usually a sign that he has been sight-reading or visually recognizing whole words rather than decoding words from the letter patterns.

Parents can have this false assurance by this: “Sure my child confuses them but he can read elephant and dinosaur, so he can’t be guessing and doesn’t have a reading problem.” Never mind the fact that elephants and dinosaurs appear in many children’s books with pictures, making it easier for the child to memorize! If your child is mixing up short, easy words they are likely guessing.

7. Inconsistent Guesser: Reading a word on one page but not recognizing the same word on another page is a form of guessing and explains why some children can read a word correctly on one page but then not recognize it on another page. For example a child may be able to recognize the word food in the context of a sentence about eating, “We ate all of the food at supper.” but if the same word appears in another sentence like “Tom packed food for the trip”, the child will not have the contextual clue to recognize the word food. The reality is that the first time around they just guessed food correctly!

8. Impulsive Guesser: Children with ADD, ADHD, or poor executive function skills may have difficulty slowing down enough when reading to decode the unknown word, even if they have the skills to sound words out.

9. The Combination Guesser: This child has poor knowledge of the alphabetic principle (that letters and combinations of letters represent specific sounds), poor phonemic awareness, combined with impulsivity. These children are often the most difficult to remediate. They not only need to learn how to decode, but they also need some behavior modification therapy.

10. Ambitious Guesser: These children have a strong phonetic knowledge base and are relatively good at decoding words. Then they are simply reading too challenging of text and want to get through the text rather than take time to decode the word.

All children need to learn to decode words. At some point or another in their reading journey, they will come across an unfamiliar word that they will not know and need to decode to understand what they are reading. There are some very bright visual learners who find it easier to whole-word read and guess instead of learning to decode words. They too must learn how to effectively decode words to avoid guessing as they progress to read more challenging reading selections.

Unfortunately, there are some educators who promote guessing even though studies have shown that reading with good accuracy requires decoding.

Research also shows that chronic guessers most often have difficulty with reading comprehension skills. By changing the text, with their guesses, they can’t get the full meaning of the passage. Many details can be affected by guessing incorrectly at key vocabulary words.

As well, chronic guessers are usually poor spellers. If children don't understand the alphabetic principle, that letters and combinations of letters represent specific sounds, they do not have the skills to spell according to the rules of English. Poor spelling confirms the absence of adequate knowledge of the alphabetic principle.

The Solution?

The Early Readers Academy, Bright Future Reading System teaches many different strategies for the different stages of reading. One of which is the “Track As You Read” approach. I have found it to be the most effective way to resolve word guessing. I’m a strong believer in figuring out the simplest solution for solving reading problems, including word guessing. The “Track As You Read” approach is highly effective, and it has worked for every child I’ve used it with. It is one of the multiple skills taught in the Early Readers Academy video reading program; Bright Futures Reading System that sets ALL children up for reading success! It is designed for children ages 3-8 years old and provides the proper foundation that will set them up for life as a strong reader who has the most effective reading skills that they need to advance quickly and successfully!

As teachers and parents, we all know children who guess at words while reading. It can start out very innocently when children are first learning to read. However, as time progresses, and with proper instruction, children should be developing the skills necessary to decode words accurately and fluently, using the alphabetic principle, rather than guessing. If the tactic of guessing at words is allowed to become a habit, the child becomes a chronic guesser. And guessing at words is NOT reading! Put a STOP to guessing!

The habit of guessing at words is immensely difficult to break! The longer a child is allowed to guess at words, the more difficult the habit is to extinguish. Guessing gets in the way of decoding development, and is a roadblock to accurate reading skills.

If you have a beginning or struggling reader who is guessing at words when reading, then use the “Track-It As You Read” approach. It is easy to learn and will increase word fluency and accuracy when reading. Give it a try and see first-hand the power it has on improving reading skills!

Here’s to great readers!

Miss Mary

P.S. If you are interested in teaching your child over a dozen foundational reading skills guaranteed to give your child the advantage of being a strong reader for life, I recommend the complete reading program, Bright Future Reading System Level 1 and Level 2. Give your child confidence and 100% guarantee they will read and NOT guess!

Mary Printz aka Miss Mary is the co-founder of Early Readers Academy and Accelerated Potential Academy. She is a seasoned educational consultant, researcher, Reading Consultant and Developer and International speaker. Contact her at

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