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Thoughts About Reading

Say Goodbye to Guessing!

Updated: Aug 18, 2021


For many years, a common reading practice in elementary classrooms was to "help" kids identify unknown words in text by using the three cueing system known as MSV (meaning, structure, and visual). The idea of using this strategy is to help kids identify unknown words by looking on the page to see if the word looks right and makes sense, if it sounds right, and/or if it matches the picture on the page. Recently, the practice of using this strategy is being talked about and questioned in many of the teacher groups I follow. This caused me to really question this strategy this past school year and dig deep into finding out why it is being negatively looked upon. After reading more about the gaps that this strategy can cause in a child's reading development, I decided to do my own little reading experiment in my classroom. I made a commitment to give up using the three cueing system with my students and focus solely on the phonics skills and other reading skills that my students were learning in class. I wanted to see what would happen and if it would make a difference.


Recently on edweek.org, Sarah Schwartz wrote an article entitled, "Is This the End of 'Three Cueing'?" In this article, she says,

The strategy—which is also known as three-cueing, or MSV—involves prompting students to draw on context and sentence structure, along with letters, to identify words. But it isn’t the most effective way for beginning readers to learn how to decode printed text.
Research has shown that encouraging kids to check the picture when they come to a tricky word, or to hypothesize what word would work in the sentence, can take their focus away from the word itself—lowering the chances that they’ll use their understanding of letter sounds to read through the word part-by-part, and be able to recognize it more quickly the next time they see it.

What does this mean? It means that we do not allow our impressionable young readers to guess when stuck on a word. We encourage them to use their knowledge of the phonics skills learned in class to attack words that they do not know. You might argue that teaching kids to use the three cueing system when stuck on a word actually helps them. Does it really, though? Sometimes as teachers and parents, we do not want to see our students struggle when reading. However, when "guessing" is the go-to strategy of choice and eventually the reading habit that is used over and over when trying to decode unfamiliar words, sounding out the word and doing the work it takes to make that word stick in our brains goes by the wayside. We can do better as teachers and parents, and we can teach our kids to do better as well!


This past year when I decided to do away with the three cueing system, and implement a NO GUESSING reading and writing rule in my classroom, I saw amazing things begin to happen. Kids will rise to the occasion of the expectation even in reading. My students began to stray away from the habit of guessing unknown words to using the phonics skills that they were learning in class. Isn't this what we want as teachers......for our kids to take what we have taught them in class and carry it over into their independent work and practice? Don't we want this to be the strategy of choice not only when reading but when writing as well? Who is going to teach our kids to do this, if we don't? Watch them struggle? Yes! Watch them look at you with those eyes to give them the word? Yes! Watch them get discouraged? Yes! I know it is hard to watch your precious young readers do these things especially when you have the knowledge to make it easy for them. Kids don't like to say goodbye to guessing at first, but this is what is needed if we are going to grow strong and independent readers.


Does this mean that we are to just sit by and not provide any cueing at all? Absolutely not! It is the type of cueing that we encourage and require them to use that makes a difference. Not allowing guessing forces readers to rely on what they know and trains them to consistently go back to already learned skills in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, etc. "Don't know a word? Sound it out. What sounds do the letters make? Look, that's a blend. Look at that word, show me where the digraph is. Tell me again what a digraph is." These are the types of cues and prompting that need to be taking place.


I have watched struggling readers go from feeling totally defeated as readers and not wanting to even try to read to readers who feel good about being able to attack unknown words using what they know. When guessing is allowed, students will sometimes get the word right based on what they see in the picture on the page. They are happy when they guess correctly. That's all fine for the moment, but what happens the next time that child tries to read that same word out of context or in a text without pictures? Guessing is an immediate fix without any carryover. Now take that same child and make him/her sound out the word, talk about the sounds, and do the work to blend the sounds together in order to decode the word. That is reading brain work that is going to stick and help that child remember that word and its sounds the next time it is seen.


Experiencing the success and growth I watched my students have by not guessing, is all the proof that I needed this past year to make the change for good. I will continue to have the "no guessing" rule for my students and encourage my parents to do the same as well! Goodbye guessing! Goodbye uncertainty! Good by giving up! Hello, reading!



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