What to Do When Your Child Guesses at Words

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.

Reading Eggs includes hundreds of self-paced and structured phonics games, activities and lessons designed to teach children to read in a fun and motivating way.

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Overcoming Comprehension Difficulties

child comprehension difficulties

Comprehension is the essence of reading – a skill that is not only critically important to the development of reading skills, but for lifelong learning as well.

Two aspects of comprehension

Children who experience comprehension difficulties usually struggle with one or both of the following skill subsets that are needed to develop strong comprehension skills:

  1. Difficulty recognising and decoding individual words in a text.
  2. Difficulty understanding the meaning or message that the text conveys as a whole.

The inability to decode individual words in a text is generally directly related to struggles with understanding the meaning of a text as a whole. Both skills are critical to comprehension.

Tips to improve word decoding skills

Developing word decoding skills is a lot about developing vocabulary. Some helpful tips include:

  • Make flashcards of new words – writing down any new words that your child encounters in the form of flashcards that they can flip through regularly.
  • Keep a word journal – an exercise book where your child can write down any new words and their meanings.
  • Discuss the meaning of words – when reading together, pick out particular words and explain their meaning.

Tips to improve text understanding

  • Ask questions – before, during and after reading. Questions like ‘What do you think the book is about?’ What interests you about the book?’‘Where is the story set?’ ‘Who are the main characters?’, ‘What happened when…?’ ‘What do you think will happen next?’
  • Use graphic organisers – which are written exercises that allow children to visually map out different elements of a story. There are countless graphic organiser templates available for free online. These will help your child organise their thoughts to provide a clearer picture of the different elements of a story.

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