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Active Problem Solving in Reading is NOT a Guessing Game

Published On: November 17th, 2022 | Categories: Latest News |

By Jamie R. Lipp, Ph.D.

Originally posted December 16, 2019

“They are not guessing. They are computing the likelihood of the features that they recognise belonging to the word they have predicted” (Clay, 2016, p.145).

You may have heard the ongoing debate around teaching students to read. According to some critics, educators have much to learn about reading instruction, likely from those who have never closely watched or helped support beginning readers as they build their knowledge and expertise. These criticisms are often based on small, experimental studies that contrast older skilled, and struggling readers. In these types of studies, critics are quick to determine what struggling readers can’t do. From Rudolf Flesh’s 1955 article Why Johnny Can’t Read to Emily Hanford’s recent articles and blogs, their solution is simple — teach phonics. Teach it more and teach it better.

The critical voices are loud and their misconceptions regarding what they claim we “do” in Reading Recovery and all forms of balanced literacy have become even louder.  One particularly misguided belief centers around the idea of “guessing”. In short, critics assert that teachers of Reading Recovery and/or balanced literacy teach students to guess when they arrive at an unknown word. This, for multiple reasons, is an extremely false assertion that calls for clarification.

What Does it Mean to Guess?
The Merriam- Webster dictionary defines the verb “guess” as: to form an opinion from little or no evidence. Based on this definition and the claims of critics, it would appear that we (the communities of Reading Recovery, balanced literacy, and anything short of direct, systematic phonics instruction) approve of students arriving at an unknown word and simply inserting any word of their choice. This is not the case, and I imagine the educators reading this right now who have ever taught a child to read are shaking their heads at the idea that teachers would simplify the process of learning to read to such a trivial notion.

How Did This Start?
The idea of guessing in the current debate goes back to Kenneth Goodman’s article, Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game (1967). Based on his analysis of student’s reading errors, Goodman describes a 10-step process of using different types of information that a reader’s brain may progress through when problem-solving an unknown word. This is far from a random guess, however, it seems the title of the article has been most misleading for understanding this process.

Because Marie Clay’s early literacy processing research was taking place at precisely the same time, with neither aware of the other’s research, it seems this idea of “guessing” at words was inadvertently over-applied to the work of Clay, Reading Recovery, and balanced literacy in general. But Goodman’s theory places far less emphasis on the change over time that occurs in the ways in which readers access and apply information sources during their progression from beginning to skilled readers.  Goodman applies his 10-step process to how skilled readers work on text, not just how novice readers solve unknown words.

Clay, on the other hand, takes a much deeper dive into the power of language structures and the ways in which beginning readers use oral language and meaning as support for word-solving, never implying that visual information should be neglected. Even at the earliest levels, when a child makes an attempt based on their oral language knowledge, Clay suggests that a teacher might prompt, “That makes sense, but check to see if it looks right?” This encourages novice readers to begin to use their developing phonics knowledge to monitor their attempts and self-correct errors based on oral language predictions. The use of meaning and language structure for word recognition is temporary and fades in priority as beginning readers build their knowledge of sight words and orthographic knowledge. Using visual information for word recognition becomes a least effort approach, over time, for skilled readers. However, this is not to say that the use of meaning and structure disappear throughout this progression.


Further Considerations
Clay’s literacy processing theory includes a “conscious search for solutions” and “fast brainwork” that children use to become active problem-solvers on text (p.128). Clay’s theory argues that children attend to multiple sources of information when reading. How children use these information sources, however, changes over time. Novice readers may initially use their oral language strengths to generate word recognition attempts, but as word recognition becomes more automatic, readers’ attention to meaning increasingly supports text comprehension rather than word recognition. It is for this reason that Clay’s support of children integrating multiple sources of information when reading is widely misunderstood by critics. If you haven’t read the recent blog posts aimed to support understanding in this area I encourage you to do so now:

“The Stories We Tell Ourselves” by Jeffery Williams

“The Three Cueing Systems in Beginning Reading Instruction: Good Idea or Hoax?” by Robert Schwartz

In addition, a recent blog post by Literacy Pages aims to sort out yet another misconception that the use of meaning is tied only to picture cues. Please take the time to read this valuable post, “M is not for Picture Cues”.

These misconceptions align themselves with the issue at hand, that students are being taught to “guess” when they arrive at an unknown word. Many of the prompts found in Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals (Clay, 2016) are being overly simplified by critics to yield this sense of “guessing” rather than to support active problem-solving by students. Clay reminds teachers that the purpose of those prompts is to initiate problem-solving, direct students toward the use of something they know, and to do some careful checking.

For example, a teacher may prompt, “try something” or “what would make sense?”. These prompts are not used in the absence of visual information. Asking a child to “try something” does NOT mean that the teacher would accept a random guess at a word. Clay (2016) acknowledges that a prompt is a “call for action to do something within the child’s control” (36). So, the prompt “try something,” while simplistic in the nature of language, is used after a child has been taught to check one source of information with others.  The teacher’s goal is to support students in making a useful attempt, one that would monitor meaning, structure, and visual information in support of oral language.  These attempts cannot be classified as simply making a guess at a word.  A guess is something very different.


What Can YOU Do?
The bottom line is this: The idea that teachers are simply telling students to “guess” at a word is a blatant attempt to negatively simplify the careful work we do with students to support them in becoming strategic, active problem solvers. This oversimplification is an attack on our experience, expertise, and understanding of the reading process.  Guessing at words is not part of Clay’s research and work, Reading Recovery or reading instruction as we know it.  Teaching reading is NO guessing game.  Reading is, however, a “message-getting, problem-solving activity that increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced” (Clay, 1991, p. 6). Skilled word identification is important, but some critics tend to ignore the change over time that occurs as beginning readers evolve into more skilled readers. However, at no point would guessing be an acceptable option to support students in learning to read.

In an educational time where complex processes are being replaced with simplistic views, it is important to consider the frequent misconception of guessing. If you have ever taught a child to read, you know first-hand the complexity of that endeavor. Literacy processing is about active problem-solving and is not a simplistic act of guessing.  Therefore, if you find yourself reading an article or listening to a podcast that attempts to oversimplify the world of reading instruction, I hope you’ll remember that guessing is not part of the complex world we reading teachers inhabit, nor is it part of the skill set of a successful reader. And finally, if you have ever prompted a child to “guess” at an unknown word, please discontinue this practice immediately, as guessing is not the action you wish to observe, nor is it what your skillful teaching has taught them to do.

Special thanks to Dr. Robert Schwartz and Dr. Lisa Pinkerton for your ongoing communication and insight regarding this immensely important topic.  And, an extended thanks to all of those who have written about this topic before I attempted to do so- your voices are critical!

Clay, M. M. (2016). Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals (2nd ed.) Aukland, NZ: The Marie Clay Literacy Trust. Global Education Systems (GES) Ltd.




Jamie Lipp is a Reading Recovery trainer at The Ohio State University. Dr. Lipp has over 15 years of experience as a classroom teacher, Reading Recovery teacher, literacy specialist, ELA Curriculum Specialist, and graduate instructor. Register today for LitCon 2023 to hear Dr. Lipp speak and follow her on Twitter @Jamie_Lipp.


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