Stop the Guessing

posted in: Reading | 0

The ‘go to’ strategy for many poor readers is to guess unknown words, often based on the first few letters of the word. For example, they may read ‘super’ instead of ‘surprise’ or ‘purpose’ instead of ‘pursue’. The substitute words will often not make sense in the context of the passage and at times the substituted word is not even a real word, and yet these students continue to read on, even though the sentence does not make sense.

Students often using this guessing strategy because that is what they have been taught. They have been told:

  • Look at the picture and have a guess (e.g., unable to recognise the word ‘surprised’ the student looks at the picture and guesses the word as being ‘happy’).
  • Read to the end of the sentence and have a guess (e.g., unable to recognise the word ‘palace’ in the sentence ‘The gold was stored in the palace’, the student guesses the word as being ‘place’ as it make sense and also begins with a ‘p’).
  • Look at the first few letters and have a guess (e.g., the student looks at the word ‘piano’ and says ‘pineapple’ because they both begin with ‘pi’). Sometimes, these students are influenced by word shape (e.g., the word ‘Saturday’ is read as ‘Sunday’ as they both begin with ‘S’, end with ‘day’ and are about the same length).

If students haven’t been taught how words are encoded, then their only option is to guess. Consequently, guessing is a really common strategy among students who have been taught with a focus on ‘sight’ or ‘camera’ words whereby they are instructed to remember the word as a single whole unit.

To move beyond guessing students need to be systematically and explicitly taught:

The following activity is a very effective, but simple, strategy for encouraging students to read with accuracy and to attempt to decode words which are not instantly recognised.

  • Find some text which is outside the students’ current reading ability. You want the text to contain a significant number of words that they don’t instantly recognise so that they have to apply their phonic and morpheme knowledge and break multisyllabic words into manageable chunks.
  • Ask the student to read no more than one paragraph. Choose a different paragraph every time you do this activity, so the student is always working on unfamiliar text. The activity requires a significant amount of ‘mental energy’ so it is important to keep it short.
  • Every time the student makes an error (whether it be a substitution, incorrect pronunciation, addition or omission) this is recorded.
  • At the end of the paragraph, count and record the number of errors.
  • The next time the student does the activity, the challenge is to reduce the number of errors.
  • There is one other important component to this activity. Students are told that if they can’t decode a word, that they can ask for help and this will not be recorded as an error. This encourages students to take responsibility for their reading.
  • Every time a student asks for help or makes an error, the teacher needs to help the student decode the word by first breaking it into manageable chunks, determining the phonemes represented by the different graphemes, blending everything together and then, if necessary, tweak to ensure the correct pronunciation.