Head ’em off at the pass!


I recently got a wistful email from a mom that said, “He really wants to read, but I know he’s just pretending.” This mom was talking about a young nonreader pretending to read a favorite book. That’s okay. But that brings us to a mine field for children/teens actually learning to read: the “Pretend Habit.”

The “Pretend Habit,” guessing wildly at a word, which I see frequently in students, always raises a red flag. One I like to stop in its tracks.  I’m talking about a learner simply guessing at an unknown word and racing on as if nothing is amiss.

So let’s look at this…

Why do learners do this?

Several reasons.

  1. Pressure. They want to perform for us, to please us, to give us what we want: success in reading.
  2. No one stopped the habit. Letting it continue creates a habit. Repetition makes permanent!
  3. It’s easier than decoding.  LOL. “You want a word? I’ll give you a word. There. I’m done.”

How to handle it

  1. Name it.  I use different terminology depending on the student’s personality and age. “No pretending,” “no guessing,” “real reading,” etc. Name it every time it happens. The learner rapidly gets it that they’ve been busted. It won’t continue for long if the parent/educator “outs” them. I can’t stress enough: give it a name. Make it real. Be consistent.
  2. Give them decoding tools. You’ve probably got a bundle of decoding tips in your teaching toolbox, so add this one to it: based on experience with it, I call it the Magic Decoding Card. Just a simple white card the size of a business card. You use it to do the very first Basic Teaching Tip in my last blog: reduce the task size.
    1. When you see that the learner hesitates/doesn’t know the word, quickly over all but the first letter of the word with that card.
    2. Sound out that letter if the learner doesn’t (give the letter sound, not the letter name)
    3. Pull the card to reveal the first syllable, give sounding help if needed
    4. Pull the card away from the rest of the word and give a verbal prompt if needed to decode the whole word
  3. Encourage them and their ability to figure it out. When older students who already have some reading ability come in with this problem, I know that they simply don’t have the confidence to understand that they can figure it out. So they guess wildly. My repeated message to them is: you can do this. You can figure it out. Here, I’ll show you how…and then the Magic Decoding Card comes out.
  4. Intervene quickly; don’t belabor the issue. For example, if you use the Card, do it quickly. Then move on.

    (Use the blank side of any card…this is a card I give out at conferences.)

Consistency does the trick

As with teaching anything, repetition and consistency will win out in the end. It’s much easier to nip this “wild guessing” in the bud than to later backpedal and erase a long-standing habit.

“You can do this. You can figure it out! Here’s how…”


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