How to STOP Children from Guessing at Words


As teachers and parents, we all know children who guess at words while reading. Guessing at words can start out as an innocent tactic 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, instead of guessing. If the tactic of guessing at words is allowed to become a habit, the student becomes a chronic guesser. And guessing at words is NOT reading!

The habit of guessing at words is immensely difficult to break! The habit of guessing quickly becomes the first technique that children will attempt to use. 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.

There are three reasons that some children are chronic guessers. First, many children who use the guessing technique do not understand the alphabetic principle, which is simply stated here: letters make sounds, sounds can be blended together to make syllables, and syllables make words. These students may not know the correct alphabet letter and letter-cluster sounds inherent in the English language. They may have poor phonological awareness, poor phonemic awareness, and/or poor phonological processing skills. They may have endured poor reading instruction, which failed to adequately focus on the alphabetic principle, and blending and decoding skills. Some chronic guessers know the alphabet sounds, but don't know how to break larger words into syllables to sound them out. Guessers tend to look at the first few letters of an unknown word and pull words from memory that also start with the same initial letter combination, even if the word makes no sense logically within the text.

The second reason for word guessing is an impulsive nature. 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.

The third type of word guesser is the combination type - low alphabetic principle knowledge, poor phonemic awareness, and impulsivity. These students are the most difficult to remediate. They not only need to learn how to decode, but they also need some behavior modification therapy.

Students who are chronic guessers often have difficulty with reading comprehension skills, as well. These students often guess at words incorrectly, thereby changing the text of the passage that they are reading. By changing the text, they fail to glean the full meaning of the passage. Details can be skewed by guessing incorrectly at key vocabulary words in the passage.

Additionally, chronic guessers are usually poor spellers. If students don't understand the alphabetic principle, they do not have the skills to spell according to the rules of English. Poor spelling confirms the absence of adequate alphabetic principle knowledge.

Children can avoid developing a guessing habit, if they are taught early to read through a phonics-based program. Many public and private schools do not teach phonetic reading sufficiently, and thus, a large percentage of children are having difficulty learning to read accurately. The NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) reports that 33% of students across the nation in grade 4 read below the proficient level. The method for teaching reading in today's schools is called Balanced Reading, and many children fail to become successful readers through this approach. A new surge in another method, called Structured Literacy, has many years of research behind it, and proves successful for all students, including those with dyslexia and other reading disorders.

The ideal way to avoid the development of the guessing habit is to teach children explicitly how the alphabetic principle works in the kindergarten year. Screenings at the mid-kindergarten year are beneficial to flag any student who requires a more intense format of instruction. Then, teach first graders how to blend sounds into words. Limit the number of sight words taught in first and second grade, so students can perfect their decoding skills. Once children reach third grade, they are beyond the biological window of opportunity for learning to read, and need intense remediation.

There are several ways to help children develop strong decoding skills and to avoid developing a guessing habit:

  1. Teach the alphabetic principle and the letter sounds in kindergarten.
  2. Help children to master phonemic awareness skills in preschool and kindergarten.
  3. Screen all students in mid-kindergarten to assure that they are on track.
  4. DO NOT teach too many sight words in kindergarten and first grade. Allow students the time and experience to master the alphabetic principle, blending, encoding, and decoding skills first.
  5. Take your time when teaching the short vowels, and make sure that students know them to mastery before introducing the long vowels.
  6. Teach students the 6 Syllable Types of the English language, so they understand how the English language is organized (Orton Gillingham Approach).
  7. Teach first, second and third graders the sounds of the advanced letter clusters to mastery (sh, oa, ing), and require them to use decoding skills vs. memorization skills.
  8. Teach first, second, and third graders how to divide two syllable and then and multisyllabic words, according to the 12 Syllable Division Rules (Orton Gillingham Approach).
  9. When introducing passages for reading, make sure that they are at the child's developmental level, and expect 90% accuracy. If the student cannot attain 90% accuracy in the passage, then the passage is too difficult for that student.
  10. Remind and require the student to use decoding skills when reading. Do not allow guessing.
  11. Provide students with a physical tool with which to sound out words. The Lil' Reading Scientists TM curriculum uses our proprietary Phoneme Sequence Board, pictured below, to sound out words. Students use their pointer finger of their dominant hand, to swipe one swipe for each sound/letter combination, from left to right, in a word. The raised strips are made of sandpaper, for tactile and kinesthetic feedback while decoding and sequencing letter sounds. The word 'cat' would get three swipes, one for each letter. The word 'ship' would also get three swipes - one for /sh/, one for /i/, and one for /p/. Using a physical tool for decoding which requires a motor response from students exponentially helps students to improve their decoding skills. This is a picture of the Lil' Reading Scientists' Phoneme Sequence Board:


The Phoneme Sequence Board can be purchased on our website at, under Multisensory Materials.

Extinguishing an already ingrained guessing habit requires persistence, time, a physical decoding tool, and the principles of psychology! When working with students who chronically guess at words, use your physical decoding tool (i.e., Phoneme Sequence Board) throughout the entire lesson, except for passage reading. Require the student to get into the habit of accounting for each letter or letter cluster by swiping one swipe for each sound, even for known words. This new habit needs to become automatic before you will start to see results.

Then, start to shape the student's behavior by setting intrinsic rewards and consequences. Also, use a bit of operant conditioning. Some students will respond well to rewards. Some will only respond to consequences.

Reward Format: Choose individual words at your student's specific reading and skill level (ex: digraphs in the closed syllable). An Orton Gillingham-based screening will inform you as to your student's specific reading and skill level. Require the student to sound out each word, using a physical decoding tool (i.e., the Phoneme Sequence Board), even for known words. If the student reads the word correctly the first time, he/she gets a token. I like to use plastic teddy bear counters. At the end of the exercise, add up the tokens and make a graph, demonstrating the student's success. Continue to add to the graph in subsequent lessons, to show progress over time. If the student reads the word incorrectly the first time, the student does not receive a token.

Consequence Format: Choose individual words at your student's specific reading and skill level. Utilize a physical decoding tool (i.e., Phoneme Sequence Board) to sound out each word, including known words. Provide the student with 20 tokens (for 20 words) at the beginning of the exercise. If the student reads the word correctly the first time, no tokens are taken away. For each incorrect word read the first time, take one token away. Count the tokens at the end of each exercise and make a graph of remaining tokens.

Consequences & Rewards Format: Create a game, or use a board game (such as Trouble) for individual word reading (decodable real words and decodable nonsense words). Choose only words at your student's specific level. An Orton Gillingham-based screening will inform you of your student's specific reading and skill level. Using the Phoneme Sequence Board, or another decoding tool, have the student read a word accurately the first time (no guessing) before taking his turn in the game. If the student reads the word accurately on the first try with the help of the decoding tool, he/she may take a turn in the game. If the student reads the word incorrectly at first try, he/she misses a turn.

Operant Conditioning Format: In a game format, use a bell and a buzzer during individual word reading. Require the student to utilize the physical decoding tool (i.e., Phoneme Sequence Board) to sound out all words, including known words. Ring the bell for each correct word read the first time. Ring the buzzer for each incorrect word read the first time. The bell and buzzer can be made into a fun activity, like a game show. Students enjoy playing this game. The bell and buzzer set can be purchased on (called Right and Wrong Buttons).

The biggest issue with word guessing is that children who do so tend to have underdeveloped phonics skills Guessing at words may work for them in the early elementary years, however, once in the upper elementary grades, and in middle school and high school, those students sorely lack the decoding skills necessary to figure out longer and more complex words often found in their science and history text books, and in assigned literature.

Additionally, children with underdeveloped phonics skills tend to be poor spellers because they don't understand the logic of English. There are 6 basic syllable types in English, and each type has at least one exception. There are 12 basic syllable division rules, to help English language speakers, writers, and readers break down multisyllabic words. Between 75-90% of all words in our language are decodable, if one knows the rules. The remainder of the words need to be memorized, as they do not fit within the rule structure of English. Thus, 10-25% of our language can be taught as sight words. The remainder should be taught as decodable words, according to the alphabetic principle and the rules of English.

The most appropriate approach to reading and spelling instruction is an approach called Orton Gillingham, (also known as Structured Literacy). This approach teaches the letter sounds and the sounds for the letter-cluster combinations (th, ong, ea). Students learn to sound out every letter sound in a printed word, and blend them together. Additionally, children are taught the rules for syllable division, and are taught the six syllable types (and their exceptions) that comprise the English language. The syllable types are taught to assist with the sounds that vowels make in various patterns within words. Students also learn about word meanings and how words are changed by suffixes and prefixes. Finally, they are taught about word origins - where words have originated from around the globe. Children who receive Orton Gillingham instruction are strong readers and spellers, and present with a strong understanding of word parts, syllables, decoding, the alphabetic principle, basic English rules, and word origins.

So the next time your student or child is guessing at words, ask him or her to sound out the word, letter by letter, sound by sound, and teach him to break apart larger words. And work to extinguish the guessing habit because....guessing is Not Reading!

Jenelle Erickson Boyd, M.Ed., CDP, Author of this Blog, is a certified Reading Specialist, and a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner through The International Dyslexia Association. She is an avid advocate for students with reading issues, a speaker at educational conferences, a teacher trainer, and an educational consultant for schools. She can be reached at

Lil' Reading Scientists Literacy Solutions TM is a highly multisensory Orton Gillingham curriculum, created by Jenelle Erickson Boyd. The curriculum can be viewed and purchased at, and on Teachers Pay Teachers, in the Lil' Reading Scientists' Store.