Is Reading a “Guessing Game”?: Reading Theory as a Debate, Not Settled Science

The word “theory” is a technical term in the sciences that doesn’t mean “guessing.” “Theory” is not “hypothesis,” even as “hypothesis” isn’t really guessing either (maybe it is an educated guess).

Yet, average people tend to use “theory” as just a guess. That tension between laypeople and scientists is central to many problem with attempting to create evidence-based (“scientific”) policy in the context of media, public, and political debate that is mostly among laypeople.

Reading theory is rarely labeled “theory” in those debates among laypeople. Popular labels, such as “whole language,” often lose their theory origin and become teacher practice.

About a decade into teaching high school English, I taught a group of tenth graders with whom I immediately bonded (and was fortunate to teach again as seniors). Many of these students, now well into their 40s, remain friends of mine.

This class was very bright and genuinely eager to learn, but they were also driven to be “pleasers.” I worked hard to help them become more independent thinkers (instead of being incredibly compliant).

The worst way that urge to do the right thing hindered these students is reading. Early in the course, they pleaded with me that they could not read the assigned texts as fast as I wanted. This seemed odd because no class had ever complained about that, and the amount was quite manageable.

We set aside a class period to discuss how they read and such. What I learned was that these students in the early 1990s had been taught (or learned) that reading is done letter-by-letter to create words and word-by-word to create complete thoughts.

And there was their problem with reading speed.

I shared with them an epiphany I had in my MEd program during a course on early literacy. In that class we discusses how proficient and fast readers actually read. The process is much closer to what many would call skimming (“reading” large chunks at a time) and includes skipping as well as continually reading faster until the reader senses a loss of meaning before circling back.

My epiphany was that this described me perfectly as a reader, but I had always thought I was doing something wrong for not sticking to letter-by-letter and then word-by-word.

The discussion freed many of these students from a perception of reading that simply wasn’t accurate.

That explanation of highly proficient readers is also a story about reading as guessing and why reading theory remains a debate and not settled science.

The current “science of reading” movement depends heavily on melodramatic anecdotes to drive a narrative about reading and teaching reading that is overly simplistic and often simply wrong (see Media Coverage of SOR HERE).

One of those anecdotes portrays a teacher prompting a student struggling to read simply to guess at the words instead of using any sort of decoding strategy (what most people would call “sounding it out”).

So a key issue in the current reading debate is “guessing.”

To understand how “guessing” is part of the debate, we have to return to “theory.”

Whole language is a reading theory that is strongly associated with scholar Ken Goodman (see Whole Language HERE). In the 1960s, Goodman published Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game.

Goodman’s stated purpose in the piece is as follows:

Simply stated, the common sense notion I seek here to refute is this:

“Reading is a precise process. It involves exact, detailed, sequential perception and identification of letters, words, spelling patterns and large language units.”

In phonic centered approaches to reading, the preoccupation is with precise letter identification. In word centered approaches, the focus is on word identifications. Known words are sight words, precisely named in any setting.

Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game

And his alternative, where the issue with “guessing” has its roots:

In place of this misconception, I offer this: Reading is a selective process. It involves partial use of available minimal language cues selected from perceptual input on the basis of the reader’s expectation. As this partial information is processed, tentative decisions are made to be confirmed, rejected, or refined as reading progresses.

More simply stated, reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game. It involves an interaction between thought and language. Efficient reading does not result from precise perception and identification of all elements, but from skill in selecting the fewest, most productive cues necessary to produce guesses which are right the first time. The ability to anticipate that which has not been seen, of course, is vital in reading, just as the ability to anticipate what has not yet been heard is vital in listening.

Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game

While Goodman noted later that “guessing” may have not been the best choice, whole language proposed a theory of reading that valued meaning over accurately reading every word. And while the pervasiveness of whole language in K-12 education, I think, is greatly overstated, elements of holistic and workshop approaches certainly impacted practice and informed what would later be called “balanced literacy.”

The problem with “guessing” is the same as the problem with “theory”; both have very specific meanings in science and quite different (and often negative) meanings in day-to-day use.

And when theory is translated into practice, it is entirely possible, even likely, that some practitioners misunderstand and misuse “guessing.”

But it is quite a huge leap, as the “science of reading” movement has done, to announce that we have a unique reading crisis now that can be traced to teacher education teaching “guessing” and a couple reading programs that rely exclusively on “guessing.”

That “guessing” is also being identified (and even banned by some states) as “three cueing.”

So there are a few things to note about Goodman’s “guessing.”

First, that essay and idea is well over forty years ago; Goodman himself noted that he would later in his career have written a much different piece.

Next, the line between Goodman’s theorizing and the use of “guessing” or “three cueing” is complicated and extremely long.

Finally, it is much better to have a debate about reading theory and practice if we all agree to use important terms accurately. Here is a great and well cited overview of “multiple cueing”:

In some cases, proponents of structured literacy approaches have denigrated instructional practices that attend to multidimensional aspects of reading. For example, Spear-Swerling (2019) argued against encouraging students to attend to multiple-cueing systems when reading. Arguing that explicit teaching of decoding/phonics skills should dominate reading instruction, she warned against coaching students to use “meaning in conjunction with print cues and having students ‘problem-solve’ with teacher guidance (e.g., Burkins & Croft, 2010)” (p. 205). Spear- Swerling cited two reports (Foorman et al., 2016; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000) to argue that “research on students’ reading development… has conclusively disproven the multiple-cuing-systems model” (p. 206), although neither of these reports directly addressed or tested that model.

This rally against multiple-cueing systems models has been reiterated by scholars (Paige, 2020) and journalists (Hanford, 2018, 2019, 2020). Although it may be true that as readers become more proficient, they attend less to illustrations, this does not negate the role that illustrations play in helping young students learn to attend to meaning while reading. In short, drawing students’ attention to illustrations is one means of helping them attend to the stories and information presented in texts. Learning to attend to meanings that emerge while reading is essential for understanding both the simple and increasingly complicated texts that students encounter as they become skilled readers. Describing multiple-cueing systems models as having students draw on “partial visual cues to guess at words (Adams, 1998; Rayner & Pollatsek, 1989; Solman & Stanovich, 1992; Stanovich, 1986)” (Paige, 2020, p. 13) misrepresents these models and ignores the important role of illustrations as tools for learning to access and monitor meaning construction.

Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from

In 2022, scholars of literacy have moved beyond Goodman’s initial theories of whole language, but they have also moved on from the “simple” view of reading (yet, SOR continues to blame whole language and balanced literacy while endorsing the “simple” view).

And the current state of reading theory remains a debate, not settled science. And that debate has those who focus on letters, sounds, words, and meaning versus those who envision proficient readers who scan text and create meaning through dozens of strategies, many of which aren’t grounded in letters and words.

This is more of a theory than a guess, but our only hope of not continuing the cycle of reading crisis, reform, reading crisis, reform, etc., we must begin to understand the complexities of reading and teaching reading instead of declaring winners and losers in order to play the blame game.