Reading & Literacy

Is This the End of ‘Three Cueing’?

By Sarah Schwartz — December 16, 2020 13 min read
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Cueing has, for decades now, been a staple of early reading instruction.

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.

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Still, three-cueing is everywhere: in curriculum materials that instruct teachers to prompt students with “think what kind of word would fit;” in classroom anchor charts that encourage making a guess after looking at the first letter of the word and the illustration on the page; in popular assessment tools.

Reporting over the last few years, from American Public Media, Education Week, and others, has demonstrated the extent to which these strategies pervade early literacy instruction, and explained why the research suggests they aren’t effective tools for instructing young readers in cracking the alphabetic code.

In 2019, an EdWeek Research Center survey found that 75 percent of K-2 and elementary special education teachers use the method to teach students how to read, and 65 percent of college of education professors teach it.

Now, there are signs that cueing’s hold on reading instruction may be loosening. Recently, one of the most influential reading programs in the country took a step away from the method—raising questions about whether other publishers will follow suit, and whether changes to written materials will lead to shifts in classroom practice.

‘Cautiously Optimistic’

In a document that circulated this fall, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which develops the popular Units of Study for Teaching Reading curriculum, lays out a series of changes to its philosophy of early reading instruction.

Lucy Calkins, the founding director of TCRWP, is one of the biggest players in the early reading market: Her Units of Study curriculum, commonly known as “reading workshop,” is used by 16 percent of K-2 and elementary special education teachers, according to the 2019 EdWeek Research Center survey. The recent document covers a range of issues, from phonics instruction to text types to addressing dyslexia. And it outlines a new approach to word-solving for the organization that steps away from cueing.

“The TCRWP has always recommended that teachers coach kids who encounter unfamiliar words to be active word solvers, but until recently, we have encouraged kids to draw on all their resources to word solve, which meant both asking, ‘What word would make sense there?’ and also asking, ‘What do the letters say?’” Calkins wrote in an emailed statement to Education Week in late October. (Calkins declined an on-the-record phone interview with Education Week.)

“We are now recommending that for readers in the early stages of reading development, there are times for prompting for meaning and times for prompting for word solving.” When a student is “stuck on an unfamiliar word,” she wrote, “it is important that teachers prompt kids to draw on their phonics knowledge.”

What Is ‘Cueing’? A Key to the Terms

Cueing is a commonly used strategy in early reading instruction, in which teachers prompt students to draw on multiple sources of information to identify words. It’s based on the now disproven theory that reading is a series of strategic guesses, informed by context clues.
The strategy is also referred to as “three-cueing,” for the three different sources of information that teachers tell students to use: 1) meaning drawn from context or pictures, 2) syntax, and 3) visual information, meaning letters or parts of words.
Many teachers also refer to cueing as MSV, an acronym that stands for each of the three sources of information: meaning, structure/syntax, and visual.

This does represent a shift in approach, said P. David Pearson, an emeritus professor and the former dean of the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. But he argues that it’s more of a “tweak” than a radical overhaul.

“She’s saying, go for the code first, and then add in the meaning,” Pearson said. “But I think she would say that it’s still a balanced approach, and you’re still using all the resources available to you.”

Laura Stewart, national director of The Reading League, an organization that advocates for science-based reading instruction, said she is “cautiously optimistic” that the changes could bring a significant shift in how teachers think about cueing. Still, she said of Calkins, “it feels like her evolution has a lot to do with defending her turf.”

Calkins, for her part, says that the changes were prompted by a close reading of research, work with teachers and students, and a partnership with the Child Mind Institute, an organization that supports children with mental health and learning disorders. She claims that EdWeek articles regarding the program have “fueled controversies.”

“We do children and teachers a disservice when we divide ourselves into camps, demonizing and misrepresenting each other,” she wrote, in the statement. “I’ve tried, instead, to listen and learn from proponents of the science of reading, and to encourage other balanced literacy educators to do so as well.”

Change on the Horizon?

Research on the importance of explicit, systematic phonics—and the comparative ineffectiveness of using contextual and syntactic cues to identify words—has existed for decades. For now, though, other major literacy players that employ cueing in their instructional methods haven’t announced similar shifts.

Education Week also asked Fountas and Pinnell, one of the most popular early reading programs, whether it planned to make any changes to how its materials prompted children to identify words. Current versions of the materials for early readers instruct teachers to prompt students with the questions, “What would make sense?” and “Does it look right?” Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, authors of the program, declined comment through their publisher, Heinemann.

Reading Recovery, a popular reading intervention approach that also uses cueing, did not note any specific upcoming changes to the method. However, Billy Molasso, the executive director of the Reading Recovery Council of North America, said that the organization does not view reading instruction as “static.”

“[A]s we learn more about literacy processing and our students and teachers change over time, we have to continue to refine our strategies, enhance our instructional dexterity, and integrate better ways to meet the specific struggles of our emerging readers,” he wrote in a statement to Education Week. “We look forward to continued robust conversations about how to strengthen early literacy education.”
Still, addressing the persistence of cueing is a challenge that goes beyond curricula, said Emily Solari, a professor of reading education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development.

“We have generations of teachers who haven’t been provided adequate training on how to teach reading, through no fault of their own,” she said. “There are multiple things you have to push on—and just changing one curriculum, even a widely purchased and used curriculum, it’s not a silver bullet.”
Some reading teachers agree.

“If teachers aren’t strong in their knowledge about how kids read and how kids write, changes in the curricula are not, in my personal opinion, going to make a big shift,” said Jeanne Schopf, a middle school reading specialist, interventionist, and coach in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. “They’re going to go back to what they’re comfortable doing.”

Schopf, who has taught both elementary and middle school in her 31 years as an educator, said she’d like to see institutional shifts at teachers’ colleges and universities. If teachers don’t learn about evidence-based practices there, it can be hard to introduce them later, she said.

For David Pelc, the process of instructional change is deeply interpersonal and gradual. When Pelc, an elementary reading interventionist in Romulus, Mich., started learning more about explicit, systematic early reading instruction, he introduced it to teachers “little by little,” he said.

He had conversations with teachers who he knew trusted his perspective; he worked alongside others in their classrooms, demonstrating phonemic awareness activities they could do with their students. “I didn’t say, ‘Hey, this is what we need to do; it makes more sense.’ I would say, ‘Hey, check this out, it’s so cool,’” he said.

Now, of course, there’s an additional layer of challenge involved in any change process: Teachers are overwhelmed with the demands of distance learning, and school and district leaders are stretched thin.
But Pelc also wonders whether teachers’ willingness to try out new strategies during this time might open a door. He’s put together screencasts demonstrating evidence-based instruction, and a few teachers have mentioned to him that they’ve watched them.

“Both teachers and students are getting more resourceful,” Pelc said. “They’re looking for information and getting it faster.”

Origins of Cueing

TCRWP doesn’t generally use the phrase “cueing” to describe its approach to reading and writing instruction. Even so, the strategies and philosophies that underlie this approach have been a part of the instruction in the program, and in other widely used early reading curricula.

The idea that children use “cueing systems” to read was popularized by several influential reading researchers in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Kenneth Goodman, the late education researcher who was considered the founding father of whole language, theorized that good readers make predictions about what the words on the page say by drawing on multiple sources of information. This theory was largely based on Goodman’s analysis of students’ errors, or “miscues,” while reading.

He saw that students might use graphic information—i.e., the letters—to phonetically decode the word, or part of it. But they also use their understanding of syntax, suggesting incorrect words that nonetheless conform to the structure of written language, and their grasp on the meaning of the story, predicting words that would complete a coherent thought.

Within this framework, the goal of the reading teacher is not to make sure that beginning readers attend to every part of every word, but to “help them to select the most productive cues,” Goodman wrote.

At the same time, New Zealand researcher Marie Clay was developing running records—a system of analyzing students’ oral reading errors with a similar philosophical underpinning to Goodman’s work. Teachers listen to students read a book or passage, and for every miscue, note which source of information students are drawing on that caused them to make the error: meaning, syntax, or visual information (letters).

Running records are a cornerstone of Reading Recovery, the intervention program Clay developed. But they’re also widely used as an assessment tool outside of Reading Recovery, and a key piece of many packaged reading programs.

Over the past few decades, research has disproved the theory that fluent word reading is the result of a highly sophisticated predicting process. Instead, studies have shown that strong readers attend to the letters in words.

After sounding out a new word a few times, that word becomes recognizable on sight through a process called orthographic mapping. Proficient readers don’t need to rely on context or syntax to identify what words say.

Still, listening to students’ errors while reading can be “very useful,” said Nell Duke, a professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan School of Education. With the right tools, teachers can discern which sounds students are struggling with, or whether students are monitoring their comprehension.

“But the MSV approach to doing so I think has led to a lot of misconceptions,” Duke said.
The running record is “such an open-ended tool that it’s not really clear what to do with what you find,” she said. For example, if a student uses context to guess at a word, and gets it wrong, how should a teacher respond?

Some teachers, Duke said, will praise a miscue as long as it makes sense in context—for instance reading the word bunny in place of rabbit. “It’s definitely true that it’s better that it make sense than not make sense, but it’s very important that it not just make sense, but be the actual word,” she said.

Not a ‘Zero-Sum Game’

Calkins said that TCWRP has made revisions to the Units of Study in Phonics and K-2 Units of Study in Reading curricula to reflect a change in its prompting approach.

The revisions affect, on average, about six pages in each of the 20 phonics books and each of the 20 reading books, and they will be in the next reprint. This new approach was also discussed at a recent free online TCRWP teacher conference, with about 7,000 participants in attendance, Calkins said.

Simply telling teachers to prompt students in a different order may not uproot the more entrenched issues with cueing, Solari, the University of Virginia professor, cautioned. Importantly, she said, students need explicit instruction in phonics before the prompt “look at the letters” can yield any results.
Calkins’ materials include a dedicated phonics component, though it wasn’t introduced until 2018. Still, Calkins said she has always supported foundational skills instruction, including assisting schools in implementing other phonics curricula, like Fundations and Words Their Way, together with the Units of Study in Reading.

“I have always held the position that every single child is entitled to systematic, explicit phonics instruction, and that every school must adopt a planned, sequential phonics curriculum,” she wrote to Education Week.

Without a foundation in letter-sound correspondences, students may pronounce words incorrectly, which could lead to their teachers trying a different cue, Solari said.

“Is it the most awful thing in the world if a kid reaches an unknown word and they’re trying to sound it out, and then they move forward and figure it out by the context? It’s not,” Solari said. But, she stressed, it’s better if they can decode it.

“If they’re having a hard time figuring out one word, they’re probably having trouble figuring out the other words. So using the context is not even on the table,” she added.

Of course, researchers emphasize, this doesn’t mean that students shouldn’t pay attention to the meaning and structure of the text that they’re reading.

In an often-cited 1998 article on cueing, reading researcher Marilyn Jager Adams wrote that semantic and syntactic knowledge are essential to reading. They, in addition to the ability to read printed words, are all equally necessary for understanding the meaning of a text.

“If the original premise of the three-cueing system was that the reason for reading the words is to understand the text, it has since been oddly converted such that, in effect, the reason for understanding the text is in order to figure out the words,” Adams wrote.

In her statement to Education Week, Calkins indicated that teachers can prompt students to think about meaning—but in moments when they’re trying to comprehend text they’ve already read, not when they’re still working on decoding it.

It’s a subtle, but very important, distinction, said Duke, who created a chart to support teachers in deciding when to use prompts related to meaning. “Before they identify the word, they really need to be looking at letters and groups of letters in the word to figure out what that word is,” she said. After the child has correctly read a sentence, she said, then they can use context to figure out the meaning of any word they don’t understand.

“What I’d like to see is not the perpetuation that it’s an either or, that it’s a zero-sum game. That somehow if you focus on the foundational skills, that somehow you’re detracting from meaning,” said Stewart, of The Reading League. “Phonics, having kids sound out words, is the runway to meaning.”

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