What to Do When Your Child Guesses at Words
Guessing at words is a common strategy for struggling readers. It doesn't mean a child is being lazy or disinterested in reading. If a child is guessing, it's likely they haven't been taught the strategies needed to properly decode a word and determine its correct pronunciation.
Guessing is common among children who haven't been taught early phonics skills. Phonics teaches children the principles of letter‑sound relationships, which gives them the ability to correctly decode and pronounce written words and figure out words they haven't seen before.
A child who hasn't been taught decoding strategies will persistently guess at words based on the first letter or two or based on its shape. For example, if the word is bread, they might read the word as bird or break.
There are several reasons for why a child might guess at words, and it's important to speak with your child's teacher if you pick up on a habit. Persistent guessing will make reading meaningless and frustrating for a child, and may discourage them from reading altogether.
Here are some ways you can help your child overcome their guessing habit.
1. Explain the 'how' of decoding words
When your child comes across an unknown word, show them how they can sound out the word by breaking it up into smaller parts (e.g. /c/…/a/…/t/).
2. Break up words into two parts
Cover the last part of the word with your finger and ask your child to say the first part. Then cover the first part and say the last part.
3. Read slowly and have your child repeat after you
Point to each sound as your read a sentence, and then ask your child to repeat after you. This will encourage them to pay attention to each individual part that makes up a word.
4. Use context clues
When your child guesses a word incorrectly, ask them if what they have read makes sense. Go back to the words they have read correctly and look at the pictures to help them use context clues to figure it out.
5. Combine context with sounding out parts of a word
Go back to an unknown word and ask your child to repeat the words that precede and follow it. Then ask them to sound out at least the first one or two sounds of the word. This will encourage them to use both the context of the sentence and the letter sounds.
6. Read nursery rhymes
Rhymes help children pay closer attention to word sounds by listening out for patterns. Take turns reading aloud each line of a nursery rhyme so that you can set up the rhythm and pace for your child to follow.
7. Play word family games
Choose an ending word family (e.g. -am, -at, -ed, -it) and ask your child to say and write all of the words they can come up with that end with that sound. This will help them build essential phonics skills.
8. Create word cards
Write some words that have three sounds on separate pieces of card, e.g. cow, bat, dog, lip, sun, pot. Let your child choose a card, read the word together, and then hold up three fingers. Ask them to tell you the first sound they hear in the word, then the second, then the third.
9. Use letter magnets
If your child struggles with middle vowel sounds, prepare letter magnets on the fridge and pull the vowels to one side (a, e, i, o, u). Say a CVC word (consonant‑vowel‑consonant), for example cat, and ask your child to spell it using the magnets. To help them, say each vowel sound aloud (/ayh/, /eh/, /ih/, /ah/, /uh/) while pointing at its letter, and ask your child which one makes a sound similar to the middle sound.