I’m reviewing some strategies that a parent of a Grade One student received from their school.  I am breaking these strategies down and providing some pros and cons, and ranking them from worst to best.  Welcome to part 3!! 

Strategies that will be reviewed in this blog: 

Here is a list of strategies, in random order.  Each of the strategies has a catchy title, a short description, and a picture of an animal to cue/remind the student to use the strategy when reading.  

Skippy Frog:  Skip the word, then go back (reviewed in Part 1 HERE)

Lips the Fish: Say the First sound

Stripes the Zebra: Find the pattern

Stretchy Snake:  Stretch the sounds

Chunky Monkey: Find the chunks or little words you know

Eagle Eye:  Check the Picture (Reviewed in Part 2 HERE)

Flip the Dolphin: flip the vowel sound 

Tryin’ Lion: Try another strategy 

Slow Down Snail: Slow down if it doesn’t seem right 

Check it chicks: Make sure it looks right, sounds right, and makes sense. 

Strategy Countdown Worst-to-Best Blog post 3:

Strategy #8:  Check it Chicks

Strategy Name: Check it Chicks: Make sure it looks right, sounds right, and makes sense

Pros: encourages use of strategies to read; can be a good prompt during coached oral reading IF used appropriately. 

Cons: If not used appropriately, is not an explicit instructional strategy; uses partial-word analysis cueing; 3-cueing system promotes “guessing” and does not teach reading; metacognitively above a Gr. 1 developmental for a poor, struggling, or “late” reader

Rating:  4

First Impressions:  

This strategy has potential and is not inherently “bad”; however, this is by far the most-used strategy in most “guided reading” instruction in schools, and it is almost always used in a detrimental way. 


In schools, Guided Reading is a common intervention practise.  Students read aloud either independently or within a group.  An adult facilitator follows along and points out oral reading errors.

When students make errors, adult facilitators are trained to respond using the 3-cueing system.  They direct students to look for and reflect on 3 sources of information: meaning (M), Structural, (S) and Visual (V). 

When a student mis-reads a word, the adult attempts to determine where the student went wrong, and will cue them with one of the following: “Does that look right? or Does that sound right? or Does that make sense?”

One of the issues here is that most adults who are reading with children do not have a background in linguistics, and quite often cannot accurately determine the source of the error, and therefore, do not provide the right cue at the right time. 

A second MAJOR problem is that “meaning” (does that make sense) and “structure” (does that word sound right in that sentence) BOTH direct a student to the same level of language processing. 

Students process language at 2 levels – the Sentence-Discourse level, and the Sound-Word level.  For a more in-depth introduction to this theory of language development, assessment, and intervention I strongly suggest you read Part 2 of this blog series HERE.

We process meaning using context.  Directing a student to see if the word they read makes sense directs the student to reflect on the context or meaning of the sentence.

E.g., Target sentence:  The cat walked on the WALL

Student attempt:  The cat walked on the WATER

Teacher prompt:  Does that make sense? (Meaning-based cue)

While this does encourage the child to reflect on meaning and draws attention to their error, it strongly promotes GUESSING again, rather than providing explicit direction about how to READ – what part of the word to look at more closely or which sounds we may expect to hear in the word.  (For a more in-depth exploration of the real danger of teaching students to GUESS, read Part 1 HERE).

Ok, that was an example of using a MEANING Cue.  Let’s look at a STRUCTURAL error/cue: 

Target Sentence:  The students WERE waiting for the teacher

Student Attempt:  The students WHERE waiting for the teacher

Teacher Prompt:  Does that sound right? (structural-based cue). 

Here, the adult facilitator is cueing the student to reflect on the sentence structure to see if it sounds like a grammatical sentence. 

Notice they are cueing the student to focus on the SENTENCE level.  We process meaning using context at the Sentence-Discourse level of language processing.  

BOTH of these strategies are encouraging students to “recognize” words based on what would make sense, what would grammatically fit the sentence structure, and which word they would “predict” would fit the context. 

Contextual or predictive guessing is a valid strategy that good readers use SOMETIMES (and they most often guess accurately).  Contextual guessing is a strategy that poor readers learn to use ALL THE TIME (and they are usually inaccurate).  THIS IS A PROBLEM!

Where this strategy fails HORRIBLY is that by using the cue “Does that sound right?” we are encouraging students to listen to how a word sounds within a sentence. 

We are TRAINING children to think from a “whole word” perspective – which vocabulary words do I know that I could use to finish this sentence in a way that sounds right and looks right. 

This is NOT reading. 

We NEED children to be thinking of sounds, BUT we need them to be thinking of sounds within WORDS.   The cue “Does that sound right” should IMMEDIATELY clue them into sounding out the word by looking at each letter, NOT trying to substitute a different word into the sentence! 

E.g., Target sentence:  The cat walked on the WALL

Student attempt:  The cat walked on the WATER

Better Teacher prompt:  

“Which letter do you see at the end of the word? (L).  Which SOUND does that make you think of? (/l/ sound).  Do you HEAR the /l/ sound in the word ‘water’? (No.) We need to look again, and make sure that the word we are saying makes sense – we need to hear the sounds that match the letters that we see”.

Notice the cues “look again, does that look right, and does that sound right” can be VERY beneficial – but these cues must be used to direct the student attention to the Sound-Word level of language processing – the sound and letter structure of the word, regardless of what the word means in that particular sentence. 

There are potential in these cues, but they are not used appropriately.  When M-S-V cues are used to teach whole-word recognition and guessing, they are DETRIMENTAL for poor readers. 

It is unfortunate that the “S” in M-S-V cueing stands for “structure” instead of SOUNDS, and that the cue “does that sound right” encourages students to guess a word that can fit the sentence structure, rather than encouraging students to sound out each letter in a word, then blend those sounds to read the word. 

The Visual cue is used the same way:  When students have been “trained” to read this way, the cue “does that look right” is basically the same as saying “guess again”.  Most students will look at the first letter, retrieve the first sound, and just start guessing words from their vocabulary that start with that sound. 

E.g., Target Sentence:  The cat is FAT

Student Attempt:  The cat is FAST

Teacher Prompt:  Does that look right? 

Student’s 2nd attempt:  The cat is FIRST.

Teacher Prompt:  No, you have to LOOK.  Does that look right? 

Student’s 3rd attempt:  The cat is FURRY. 

Frustrated Teacher:  You’re not even trying. You have to use your strategy. Look again!

I WISH the above example was made-up.  It’s not. 

You wonder why your child is frustrated? angry? defiant? shut-down? silly and off-task? losing confidence and self-esteem? 

There is ZERO instruction here.  No one is providing anything helpful to the child.  No one is teaching a skill, providing tools, helping them to break down the process of reading.  No one is telling them WHERE in the word to look, or what to think about when looking there!! 

The child has NO CHOICE in an experience like this, other than to think:  This adult is an expert.  They know how to read and how to teach reading.  It’s not working on me, so there must be something wrong with ME.  I must be ____ (broken, stupid, different).  THIS is where children take on life-long shame – their internal messaging is something like “I’m broken, I’m stupid, I don’t belong).  And this goes FAR beyond academics.  It is a parachute dragging on their potential and achievement across their whole life span, in every endeavour they take on. 

It’s not fair, it’s avoidable, and it’s OUR responsibility for these students.  Hence this blog series!

Encouraging students to LOOK AGAIN promotes the use of visual memory.  Visual memory is NOT how we learn to identify words.  We can store a few hundred words in our visual memory; we can store a visual vocabulary of 50 – 100,000 words in the language processing part of brain. (For a deeper discussion on this, please view part 2 HERE). 

Students who rely on visual memory may fool teachers and parents until about Gr. 3.  Then the rug gets pulled out from under them – there are too many words, the words are too long, and too similar to “memorize” the way they all look.  I hear this all the time – “I don’t know what happened.  It seemed like he was ‘reading’ just fine, and all of a sudden he is a grade-level behind and really struggling”. 

Encouraging a poor, struggling, or late reader to “memorize” the way a word looks is DANGEROUS.


This strategy does teach students to use a variety of strategies and not approach all words the same way; however, it strongly encourages guessing, rather than focusing on sounds or word structure.  So, while they learn to apply different strategies, it does NOT teach them any useful strategies to try!

We DO need to process language at the sentence-discourse level, which is what these strategies cue students to do.  It is important for comprehension.  However, for MOST poor readers, this isn’t the level of language processing where they have difficulty; so, it is playing to their strengths and teaching them to COMPENSATE with intact skills rather than teaching to weak or deficient skills at the sound-word level of language processing.

Comprehension either comes once a student can accurately identify words, OR there is an underlying comprehension deficit that is impacting both ORAL language AND written language, and this should be assessed and targeted with language therapy.  NOT guided reading. 

It does teach children to self-monitor and promotes comprehension; however, I find that most children who can understand SPOKEN language and also comprehend what they read independently, IF they can identify the words they are reading on the page quickly and accurately. 

Said another way, instruction that focuses on reading accuracy – QUALITY (accuracy) over QUANTITY (speed, general comprehension) pays multiple dividends over the first few grades. 

What can you do instead?

Use these strategies to have students focus on word structure.  When a student mis-reads a word, I often take that word OUT of context – I write it by itself on a whiteboard, so we can really study why that word says what it says. 

“Does that look right” should get them to look at every letter, in order, and convert those letters to sounds, in the right order.  This should be enough for them to recognize the word! 

“Does that sound right” should encourage them to check which sounds they said, and make sure they are saying the right sounds in the right order to match the letters they see. 

Questioning strategies like this (Socratic questioning) directs the student where to look.  It is a START.  If the cue doesn’t help, you HAVE to follow up with INSTRUCTION (e.g., look at the 3rd letter – what sound will it say?  or “think about the word you just said – you started the word by saying /br/, but it looks like the word starts with the sounds /be/.” 


Target sentence: The girl had a sheep

Student attempt:  The girl had a suh-huh … I don’t know

Response from experienced and educated adult (like yourself): 

“I like how you sounded out ‘s-h’; do you remember how those sounds often work together to make one sound?  What sound do you hear when you see ‘sh’ together?” 

THIS is cueing, with a sprinkling of instruction.  It provides information, it directs them toward what to think about. 

2nd Student attempt:  The girl had a cheap

And when it doesn’t work, you add in EXPLICIT TEACHING.  

Response from experienced and educated adult (like yourself): 

 “When you see the letter ‘s’ before the letter ‘h’, when they stand side by side like in our word “sheep”, we read the letters “sh” like this. /ssssshhhhhh/.  I call it the “quiet library sound” and I say /ssshhhhhh/ (add in the gesture of one finger in front of the lips. 

NOW the kid is getting something out of reading aloud with you. 

Remember, we are working on this word on a whiteboard.  We have taken this word OUT of context. 

BEFORE I dive back into the book, I often write a few more words on the white board for the student to read: perhaps “ship”, “she”, and “wish”. 

I LOVE these “mini-lessons”.  We teach the new concept (reading “sh”).  We practise this concept in isolation, in a controlled and discrete manner.  THEN I re-introduce the book, and have the student re-read the entire sentence. 

Honestly, I don’t CARE if the student understands the sentence “the girl had a sheep”.  I’m not going to teach that for a student at this level of reading.  The comprehension of the meaning of the sentence will be there as a natural by-product of accurately reading all the words in the sentence.  When the student accurately reads the word “sheep”, she WILL understand the sentence. 

I care that they know how to convert the letters “sh” into the /sssshhhhh/ sound EVERY TIME they see those letters in a word, REGARDLESS of which word they are attempting to read, or which sentence they find that word in. 

My students don’t try to figure out the word “sheep” from the context and meaning of a sentence; and they don’t memorize the way the word “sheep” looks.  They learn how to read ALL sh- words. 

** Important Note:  Many of the books that promote guessing use a structure such as “I see a ___.  The target words that students are expected to read are “fox, cat, caterpillar, dinosaur, alligator”.  Trying the read the word “cat” is LIGHT YEARS away from reading a multisyllabic word like “caterpillar”.  This is NOT a book that has been “levelled” for word complexity.  These words are TOO HARD.  If your child is doing a lot of guessing, there is a very good chance that the texts they are trying to read are TOO HARD.  For a more in-depth discussion of this, please review part 1 of this blog series HERE.


When I used to observe Guided Reading instruction in schools, I would see students mis-read the same word 5 times on a single page.  When we encourage the student to “guess” a specific word in a specific sentence, we have taught them NOTHING about how to recognize that word the next time, in a different sentence!  Key take-away:  WE – HAVE – TAUGHT – THEM – NOTHING. 

You can use strategies to draw attention to errors, but quite often, you MUST add in actual TEACHING to help them process and resolve that error – to UNDERSTAND the error (and learn something for next time! 

Your strategies MUST direct students to attend to word structure – the Sound-Word level of language processing.  THIS is the source of almost all reading errors we see, especially in Gr. 1 students and poor/struggling/late readers. 

Watch for part 4 and beyond of this blog series as we move from the WORST of these strategies to the BEST. 

Got questions, concerns, yeah buts?  Visit www.speak2read.ca to engage in some delightful conversation on how you can improve your reading instruction or your child’s learning.