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What is Guessing and is it a Reading Problem?

by Akash Nikolas || 4 Sept 2018

Question 1: What is guessing when reading?

Which of these is an example of a child guessing while reading?

  1. Reading longer words but mixing up short words like they, them, then, there
  2. Reading a word on one page but not recognizing the same word on another page
  3. Inserting words and sounds that are not there

Like many multiple choice questions, the correct answer is 4) all of the above. Unfortunately, guessing while reading is difficult for some parents to identify because they only think of it as guessing from the first letter on unfamiliar words. Some people do not even realize that any form of guessing constitutes a reading problem.

When a child guesses while reading, especially on short/easy words, it is usually a sign that he has been sight-reading (visually recognizing whole words) rather than decoding (sounding out words from the letter patterns). While many children learn to sight-read in the early days, it is essential that they also learn to decode from the letters too. Some bright visual learners find it easier to whole-word read and guess instead. It is exacerbated by the fact that some educators promote this strategy even though studies have shown that reading with good accuracy requires decoding.

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 contextual clues. But short words look very similar and are easy to confuse.

Parents can be falsely reassured by this outcome: “Sure my child confuses they and them but he can read elephant and dragon, so he can’t be guessing and doesn’t have a reading problem.” Never mind the fact that elephants and dragons 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 guessing.

An Analogy: Reversing letters is like flipping a picture

It is helpful to think about the sight-reading strategy the way one would memorize a picture. If you saw a picture of a cow, you would be easily able to tell it apart from a picture of a cat or a dog, but it would be difficult to distinguish among multiple pictures of cows. Similarly if a child views the word “they” as a picture, she may have trouble telling “they” apart from “them” because both words begin with th and contain four letters, so the words look very similar pictorially. 

Yet sight-reading children can also mix up small words that do not begin with the same letter. For example, a child may read “The girl was happy for the boy” as “The girl was happy and the boy” simply because the two words contain the same number of letters and often appear in the middle of a sentence. That is also a guess from the context.

The analogy of viewing words as pictures also helps explain why some sight-reading children reverse words (reading saw as was) or letters (confusing b and d). Again if you consider a picture of a cow and then imagine that picture reversed, you would still know it is a cow. Similarly the sight-reading child reads saw as was because the latter is a word he already knows and it just looks like the same picture reversed.

Guessing explains why some children can read a word correctly on one page but then not recognize it on another page. Take the word “food”: a child may be able to recognize that word in the context of a sentence about eating, 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 discern the word food. The reality is that the first time around they just guessed food correctly!

Question 2: Is guessing really a reading problem?

You now know that guessing can take many forms and how to identify it, but does guessing necessarily mean your child has a reading problem? Well, if your child is guessing it means she lacks the ability to decode words accurately and according to Chapman and Tunmer, this can lead to significant reading difficulties.

This fits with our experience. We help lots of struggling readers and spellers aged 6-11 and they are almost all guessing words routinely when we start working with them. As their reading-by-decoding confidence builds, the guessing goes away and they end up reading fluently and accurately without stress.

While the sight-reading strategy works when a child is very young and first encounters words, it utterly fails when she becomes older. Her reading and vocabulary begins to include too many words to memorize. So yes, guessing is a serious issue if you are seeing it in your child’s reading.

An Anecdote: Don’t rely on previously read books!

Because some bright visual learners can memorize an astounding volume of words, and derive a lot of meaning from contextual clues, some parents may not realize that this is a significant reading issue. For instance, a common refrain we hear from parents is, “Yes my child has a bad habit of guessing but she is a very good reader—she read Harry Potter!” It’s an easy mistake to make.

For instance, I once taught English Literature to German high school students and I was impressed with a girl who claimed to have read Romeo & Juliet and could recite the plot and themes. It wasn’t until she accidentally referred to “Leo” instead of “Romeo” that I realized she had seen the 1996 film version and could skim Shakespeare’s text having already absorbed the basic outline of it.

Similarly, children who are not decoding can get through books like Harry Potter because they have seen the movies or heard their friends talking about it or just generally absorbed the story from pop-cultural osmosis. Thus it is advisable for parents to have their child read aloud to them from something 1) the child has not read before 2) is not familiar to them and 3) is not already in the home. This assessment can be eye-opening for parents who were not even aware until then that their child was guessing on short/easy words.

A Metaphor: Training wheels for words

Fortunately here at Easyread we can help children who fall into any of these categories by switching their sight-reading strategy over to decoding. We do this via our trainertext visual phonics (TVP) method. In TVP we have dropped the conventional phonics rules and provided the child an image for each sound in the English language. Then each word has the right images above it for the child to work out the sounds of the word.

Think of the trainertext as training wheels on a bike that help the child practice until he can “ride” on his own i.e. read from the letters. While reading may not be a natural skill, it must become a subconscious skill, just as riding a bike is not like walking… but it is an activity that we learn to do without thinking explicitly much about it.