Nearly everyday, I work with children who are struggling with learning to read. For some, they are years behind on their ability to read. For others, their struggle became obvious earlier and they are not considered to be as behind but are behind nonetheless.

Universally, though, all of these children have negative feelings about reading. About themselves. Often their confidence is destroyed. They are usually compliant at first because they understand their parents want them to get the help but they are not trusting that work we will do is going to help them.

Honestly, I cannot blame them. Typically they’ve been through a lot of people who identified themselves as someone that was going to help them with reading and it wasn’t successful. From the child’s perspective, I’m just one more of those people–until I’m not. Until we get working and they start experiencing success. Then they experience a huge shift and their whole attitude changes. They start showing some excitement even about our sessions, about their ability to be successful and this is where their whole reading journey is re-routed onto a positive path.

Much of this is due to systemic problem within education. It involves reading instruction that is based on guessing words rather than teaching the skills so a word can be decoded (fancy word for read) by a child. Children are instructed to guess a word that makes sense with the context of stories. They are told to guess a word that makes sense based on the first letter of the word. None of this is helpful to a struggling child and it only leads to misunderstanding. They misunderstand the story because they guessed the wrong word. They misunderstand the story because their reading was so interrupted by the need to guess the word, they’ve forgotten the contents of the story. Guessing actually interrupts reading fluency, which is the fancy term used to describe the smoothness and efficiency of a person’s reading.

I work to undo this ‘guessing’ strategy on a daily basis. For some children, they easily adapt to not using this strategy as they’ve learned the appropriate skills to decode (sound out) words. Others, however, persist in using this guessing strategy because it was so heavily engrained in their learning to read journey at some point.

Unfortunately, this can have long term negative impacts for children. Some just end up getting by but never truly become a proficient reader and when they do read, may misread words. This can have a negative impact on academics after they’ve switched from the ‘learning-to-read’ mode to the ‘reading-to-learn’ portion of education.

As an example, a student who reads the following sentence:

‘The ants invaded the kitchen.’ as ‘The ants invited the kitchen.’  

This student has a very different understanding of what happened with the ants. In one, they entered the kitchen by force while in the other, they were asked kindly about/into/near the kitchen?? It’s not clear because there are some words missing. Imagine how this could negatively impact a child’s understanding of an event from history, their understanding of a story or even for non-academic purposes, such as reading a recipe for cooking or baking. When children are taught that guessing is a good strategy, they start using it, they feel successful despite getting the word wrong. The implications on the comprehension end are massive.  

Reading is a skill that requires the intersection of knowledge of 3 major areas: individual speech sounds within a language, the meaning of words and the symbols representing the sounds. Reading is a culmination of all of these skills and requires explicit teaching, a lot of practice and use of multiple areas of the brain. There is science behind how to teach reading and guessing is not supported by the science. It’s also not supported by outcomes–just ask the children and families who seek out my services. 

Sara Martin is a certified speech-language pathologist and owner of Speech With Sara LLC based in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. She is licensed in Michigan and Pennsylvania offering individual speech therapy specializing in literacy impairments, speech sound disorders, early language deficits and orofacial myofunctional disorders. Contact her for additional information at  

Literacy for Life: Guessing is Not a Strategy

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