Guessing at words is defined as a reader saying a word without regard to any decoding elements contained in the word or passage being read orally.

Recognized By

The student guesses at new words instead of analyzing the word to arrive at the correct pronunciation.


Guessing at words is similar to, and often difficult to distinguish from, substituting. 

Assessing the Cause of Guessing at Words

Guessing at words may be the result of one or several factors. The student may not possess adequate knowledge of the decoding skills of phonics, structural analysis, or context clues. Before attempting to help the student, you should determine which of the factors are responsible for her guessing at words. An effective way of determining why a student guesses at words is to ask her. You should ask whether she knows the sound of the first letter, the blend, the first syllable, and so forth. Also, you should check to see whether the student knows how to blend sounds together rapidly. Finally, ask questions to determine whether she is aware of the context in which the word is used.

Teaching to Limit Guessing at Words

If you are unsure about the student’s ability to use phonics, structural analysis, or context clues, follow the suggestions listed under Recommendations in item A. If she has some knowledge of these decoding skills but does not use them effectively when decoding, the remaining suggestions should prove useful.

ELL Students and Guessing at Words

Sometimes ELL students and all students will guess at words as a strategy to just keep the lesson moving. The student may not feel confident about her ability to use decoding skills, so a guess might get her out of an uncomfortable situation. Help the student focus on the word or words being guessed and model how the word can be analyzed. Continue providing instruction designed to promote the student’s ability to use phonics, structural analysis, and context clues.


A.  If the student guesses at phonetically regular one-syllable words, administer a Phonics Assessment and provide help where needed according to the results of the test. If the student guesses at words of more than one syllable, administer a Structural Analysis Assessment and, again, give the student instruction on those aspects of structural analysis in which she is weak. Because an inability to use context clues can cause the student to guess at both one-syllable and multisyllable words, testing for the student’s ability to use context clues is also recommended.

B.  While the student is reading orally, the teacher should call attention to the words at which she guesses. At the same time, the student should be taught how to systematically attack unknown words. The most effective way to do this is by teaching the student to use the word-attack strategy

C.  The word-attack strategy teaches students to examine the words that both precede and follow a difficult or unknown word and sound out at least the first one or two sounds of the unknown word. This strategy teaches students to use both the context of the sentence and the letter sounds (or structural parts) of the unknown word. Thus students learn to use more than just the first letter or syllable of the unknown word as the need arises. For example: “The large black dog was ch _____ on the bone.” If the student continues past the unknown word and reads on the bone after decoding the sound of ch, she will in most cases correctly pronounce the unknown word chewing.

D.  Give the student sentences in which there is one difficult word that she has guessed in her oral reading (or words that you suspect she will be unable to decode in isolation). Have her work independently, using the method described in item C, to correctly decode the difficult words.

E.  As the student reads, circle or underline the words she guesses. Replace these words with blank lines and have the student reread the material. Ask her to fill in the correct words from context.

F.  Do not expect the student to read material above her meaning-vocabulary level. Generally, use easy materials and encourage the student to read widely, both orally and silently.

G.  Allow the student to preread material silently before asking her to read it orally. Encourage the student to ask you for assistance with difficult words during the silent reading phase. If the student asks for help on more than 10% of the words, then the material is too difficult and should be replaced with easier material.

I.  Have the student trace over or underline the first and last letters and middle vowel or vowels of words at which she pauses.

J. Teach the student that there are a number of types of context clues. The student does not have to categorize them; however, working with several different kinds of context clues will enable her to become more adept in their use. For example:

Definition context clues:

The word mongrel sometimes refers to a dog of mixed breeds.

Synonym context clues:

The team was gleeful and the coach was also jubliant because they had won the game.

Contrasting words

He was antisocial but she was friendly.

Common sayings or espressions

It was dark as pitch.

K.  Use commercially prepared materials designed to improve use of context clues.