Word Callers - How To Stop the Guessing

“I have students who read really well, but do not comprehend anything!”

I have heard this statement from teachers across the country... and in fact, I used to be one of these teachers. I was confused as to why my students who loved to read aloud to the class and seemed to be reading well couldn’t comprehend what they were reading. Listening to Emily Hanford’s recent documentary podcast, “At a Loss for Words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers,” brought this issue back to the forefront for me.

Once I learned about how the English language works through Logic of English curriculum, I did eventually figure out the root of the issue with my “good” readers who were not comprehending. This documentary made me realize that I probably was not alone in this and that maybe my experience could be of help to others.

The documentary points out that students who are reading along and miscue (misread a word) but are “close enough” are often thought of as fluent readers, especially those who read with great confidence. However, what is really happening is that these students are really good at predicting and guessing at words.

The big aha moment for me as a teacher was when one of my students who always read aloud to the class volunteered and got to an unknown word and simply said, “that M word.” I of course helped the student with the word and let her continue, but I was listening much more carefully now and realized that she was skipping smaller words, and replacing other words — but always substituting good guesses for the words that were actually on the page. I started asking students to slow down or reread a sentence where words were missed and I realized, no wonder they could not comprehend! These students were not able to decode most of the words they were reading.

These students were working really hard to read as “fluent readers.” Unfortunately, what was happening with these students was that they were working really hard to use all of the “strategies” of cueing they had learned to try to predict and guess the words they were encountering; there was no room left for comprehending the words they were calling out.

I think pretty much everyone agrees that we need context to make meaning of words; however, you should not use context to guess what a word is. Students need the foundational skills of phonemic awareness and systematic phonics so they can decode the words, recognize them if they are already in their vocabulary, and then use the other strategies such as context clues, picture clues, etc. to comprehend and make meaning of the unfamiliar words after decoding them. Without these foundational skills, students are guessing or are left to make the connections on their own... or not.

I didn’t know then everything I now know about reading. It’s hard not to feel a sense of guilt when I realize how many students I might have been able to help had I known what I know now. But we can’t teach what we don’t know.

Now, I strive to share the knowledge I've gained with others. The most important thing I've learned is that not all students will be able to make the sound-letter connections intuitively, and therefore this foundational skill must be explicitly taught.

I would highly recommend teachers check out Hanford’s APM documentary “At a Loss for Words” if you haven't already. It's a great resource for anyone who wants to carefully investigate the science of reading and learn what the research has proven to work for teaching reading.

Dr. Christy Jones has been fascinated with how the brain learns to read and best practices for teaching literacy since she was a high school English teacher encountering students in her classes who could not read. These students and their struggles inspired a journey that led her to earning her doctorate in reading and literacy and discovering Logic of English curriculum. Christy joined the Logic of English team in 2017 and loves sharing what she has learned with other teachers and parents across the country.