Friday, September 30, 2011

Language Learning Strategy: Guessing

Guessing has bad connotations for many language learners because, let's face it, if you're guessing, it means that you don't know. In a setting where knowing and understanding is so vital to a feeling of success, being unsure can be less than ideal.

guessing language learning strategy
GUESS WHO: One of my favorite board games!
Picture Credit*

However, this compensatory strategy (i.e., one that compensates for missing knowledge) can be a great tool for language learning. Studies have shown that that “guessing meaning from action or context” is positively-related with language learning achievement (1). Moreover, a study of language learners of French found that students who were made to guess words from context rather than being handed a word list not only learned more words in a shorter amount of time, but also retained the knowledge of the words longer (2).

A language learner's ability to guess accurately is affected by several factors, including knowledge of vocabulary, as language learners rely mainly on vocabulary, and rarely on syntax clues, in their guessing. The higher the proportion of comprehensible words in the dialog or text surrounding an unknown word, the more accurate the language learner's guesses will be (3). One study also showed that the guessing ability is improved in areas where the students are cognitively similar to people from the target language (by which the author seems to mean that they have culturally similar ways of thinking) (4)

Despite the seemingly positive applications of properly applied guessing strategies, it is not always beneficial to promote guessing in language learning. Some studies have shown that despite initial gains in vocabulary learning, guessing often impairs some students' abilities to learn the right definition quickly. Moreover, inaccurate guessing can quickly become frustrating, as has been discussed in this blog post by The Linguist.

Instead of promoting a global guessing strategy campaign, it may be better to teach learners to identify situations where it is good to guess and situations where it is better to ask or look up a word (3).

Promoting Guessing in Language Learning

As guessing is a strategy for understanding received data, it can be applied to both reading and listening activities. When teaching students to guess while developing these two macro-skills, it is important to focus on teaching them when and how to make better guesses, rather than just teaching them to make guesses. Increasing language learners' awareness of context and guessing strategies, as well as other, “mutually supportive” strategies (i.e. a strategy chain) will allow learners to develop this strategy in a useful way (5).

Other ways to promote good guessing skills include teaching learners to activate their past knowledge on a subject. Brainstorming words, topics, verbs, and ideas on the subject at hand could enhance their guessing. Also, since learners naturally look to known vocabulary words to support guessing, it may also be beneficial to teach them how to better consider syntax and any other non-linguistic clues.

This article offers an activity using a guessing chart, based on Clarke and Nation's 1980 inductive 5-step approach to guessing (the chart is on page 7). These five steps are, simply, one, to determine the part of speech of the word; two, to consider the surrounding context; three, to consider the wider (syntactic) context; four, to guess; and five, to check the guess by making sure the part of speech matches, by seeing if the parts of the unknown word relate to the guessed word, by filling in the guess for the unknown word, and by checking the dictionary (6).

What do you think? Any experience as a learner or as a teacher? Do you promote guessing in language learning? Why or why not? Any suggestions for activities that help?

  1. McGroarty, Mary E. (1989). The "Good Learner" of English in Two Settings. California Univ., Los Angeles. Center for Language Education and Research. Accessed:
  2. Redouane, R. (2010). Assessing Instructional Methods in L2 French Vocabulary Acquisition: Guessing-From-Context Method versus a Word List Method. Annals of Spiru Haret University, Journalism Studies, 11. p. 73-87.
  4. Qi, R. & Li, F. (2008) The influence of cognitive factors on guesses about the meaning of English word groups and phrases. U.S. - China Education Review, 5(9). Accessed:
*Picture Credit - Unknown. Google had only the picture, but the connected website was no longer maintained.