Is it a good idea to teach the three cueing systems in reading?

  • 23 March, 2019

Teacher question:

There is a big argument in my new district over whether or not it is a good idea to teach children to use the three cueing systems. What do you think?  Why don’t you ever write about the cueing systems?

Shanahan’s response:

I don’t write about them because I’m not a fiction writer.

Don’t get me wrong, cueing systems exist, but their value in reading instruction is a magnificent work of the imagination.

How do we read words?

Perhaps we just guess dumbly when we see a word. For example, guess what this word is: Þßàm¤.

Obviously, that can’t be what readers do. There are far too many words for that to work. You would have only about .000002% chance of ever getting a word right. Not great odds.

We can use the same kind of reasoning to reject the idea that readers memorize lots of words and then recognize them during reading, sort of like remembering an old friend’s name on a chance meeting. It is certainly possible to memorize and remember words, but what an amazing feat of memory it would be to master the tens of thousands of words one needs to be a reader.

Clearly, readers must do something more systematic than that.

That’s where the idea of “cueing systems” enters stage left. Cueing systems are the different kinds of information sources that someone might use to cue their reading of the words. 

What kinds of information can readers use to read words?

One can use the pictures, of course. Young children often assume that is what is going on when their parents read to them (Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1982). They think the adults look at the pictures and make up stories, not even recognizing the print has any role in the process.

Even more advanced kids, able to read some words themselves, may revert to picture-based-guessing when confronted with unknown words. This kind of thing can also be done when there are no pictures. 

            “Mary always loved horses, so she wanted to see the stallion.”

One may not know the word “stallion,” but words like horse, mare, or pony seem like they might do fine.

These kinds of cues are referred to as semantic cues, they are hints to the word meanings.

Another cueing system is the syntactic one.

Readers may be able to discern what part of speech is needed (e.g., noun, verb), and that can narrow the possibilities down, too. For instance, with the sentence, “John was _____ his bicycle,” it seems pretty obvious that the unknown word is a verb. That means it won’t be pedals, handlebars, chain, ring, or gears, but it could be cooking, cleaning, running, swimming, and so on.

If a reader combines this syntactic information (John is taking an action) with the semantic information (it is being done to or with a bicycle), the choices narrow quickly… riding, fixing, washing, painting, destroying, disassembling, trading, selling, buying, etc.

Finally, readers may use the orthographic-phonetic cues, associating sounds with letters to provide a reasonable pronunciation, or simply to narrow the choices. So, with the example above, now that the reader knows this is something John can do to or with his bicycle, knowing that the word begins with an “r” may be a big help in refining the guess.

Any evidence that readers use cueing systems during reading?

Scads of it. As much evidence as Dylan Thomas claims there to be snow in Wales at Christmas. Analyses of oral reading errors (miscues) reveal definite patterns of variation in the information readers may be using.

So much evidence in fact that a theory emerged claiming reading to be a “psycholinguistic guessing game” (Goodman, 1965). The basic premise of this theory is that readers guess words more than reading them. Readers translate the available semantic, syntactic, and orthographic-phonemic information into guesses as they work their way through a text.

The claim is that, since reading is a guessing game, the purpose of reading instruction is to teach kids to make these different kinds of guesses effectively.

This theory is based upon some pretty weak –and certainly evidence-free—suppositions. And, this is where this all seems like a classic work of fiction.

The support for the theory comes from analyses of reading errors, not proficient reading. The assumption is that if someone uses such cues when erring, then that is how they must read correctly, too. Great story; not evidence.

Is there any good reason to believe that teaching kids to do what they do when misreading words is likely to be a successful avenue to reading proficiency?

Let’s imagine a very different pedagogical situation; golf lessons.

The trainers analyze golfers’ errors and discover head movements during muffed swings. They might assume the head movements to be the problem and then train their charges to hold still on the backstroke. Or, they might assume that head movements take place on all swings and set out to teach their students to make better head movements.

That’s a silly analogy, of course.

Golf trainers aren’t that dopey. They wouldn’t just assume that head movements during a golf swing are a good idea. They’d likely do a bit more research into the matter, perhaps watching videos of the Arnold Palmers and Tiger Woods to see if they jerk their heads around while hitting golf balls. If so, they’d quickly discover the successful linksters to be steady-heady guys and would then train their novices to do the same.

Better to emulate the processes of successful golfers than those of the duffers.

Believe it or not, reading researchers aren’t dopes either. They, too, took a look at how proficient readers read, and found that semantic and syntactic cues weren’t their way to success (Stanovich, 2000). Multiple cueing systems for word recognition are simply too cumbersome and slow to be a part of proficient reading (Greene, 2016). Good readers don’t try to guess words with a minimum of orthographic information but look at all the letters when they are reading (Rayner & Pollatsek, 1986). Good readers are the ones who figure out how to use those orthographic-phonemic cues to read (Lonigan, et al., 2018).

Instead of teaching kids to mimic what readers do when they make mistakes, we need to teach them to do what successful readers do.

No doubt, when readers can’t read, they’ll come up with ways of trying to pretend to read. Our job is to teach them to read, not to guide them to pretend better. Cueing systems should be reserved for science fiction, not literacy curriculum.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Cindy Heator
Jul 07, 2019 07:00 PM

I would also like to thank you for citing the research on the three-cueing system. As we begin to plan for the upcoming school year, it will be helpful to refer to the research. If the three-cueing system isn't supported by reading research, what is the value of assessing students reading skills with running records? LIstening to a student read aloud will always provide instructional insight for the teacher. I'm wondering about the actual data/numbers that are on the running record form. (level, accuracy, self-correction ratio, miscue analysis, fluency and comprehension)

Lauren Thompson
May 21, 2019 02:36 PM

Thank you for citing the research that shows that assumptions behind the three-cueing system are not evidence based. Now when I say, "It's been disproven," I have a short list of research to refer to.

Aug 20, 2019 02:57 PM

Instead of just saying we need to teach what successful readers do could you please tell what that is or point us in the right direction?
Thank you
Aug 28, 2019 01:34 PM

Jodi, does this help?

Ed Jones
Aug 28, 2019 01:36 PM

Sorry, the name should just be Ed. Auto-fill is so helpful.

Oct 10, 2019 02:23 AM

This is a deep misunderstanding of how teachers analyze the three cueing system. Readers should only be focusing on initial letter sounds only when they are reading level A text. Teachers should be supporting how to effectively utilize phonics, orthographic knowledge, and how to break words (in ways that were explicitly taught) while reading for meaning. AnalyIng running record using the three cueing system helps teachers see if students are indeed using visual information that was taught to them while reading.

Oct 16, 2019 03:41 PM

Successful readers search for meaning in text. They draw upon their oral language skills and background knowledge to support their use of grapho-phonemic and word knowledge. They monitor themselves to ensure what they are reading makes sense. They re-read when necessary and use multiple sources of information at varying instances to help them to be successful.

It seems many fail to understand that different approaches to teaching reading are required at different stages in a child's literacy development. Early reading instruction is specialized. Different levels of intensity of explicit instruction are required for different children with unique strengths and needs. Noticing teachers understand this and are guided by being aware of what children control in their journey to being literate -- what they do, or do not do. Noticing teachers personalize reading instruction, as necessary.

Ann Marie Johnson
Oct 24, 2019 10:05 AM

Ann Marie Johnson
Oct 24, 2019 04:33 PM

Mary Howard
Dec 18, 2019 12:39 PM

And yet we continue to irresponsibly perpetuate the MYTH of guessing:

Jan 20, 2020 02:12 AM

Here is a great podcast about the problematic three cueing system:

Jan 31, 2020 04:35 AM

I am a secondary certified English teacher teaching 6th grade language arts. I have also taught 8th grade language arts. In both grades, I of course have encountered students reading far below grade level, and I've never felt qualified or trained to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and provide effective interventions. Because of this, I decided to go back to school to get my Master's in reading education. What have I been learning? All about the the cueing system. In fact, I'm in a basic remediation and diagnosis course right now, and we're learning how to take running records and perform miscue analyses. Last night I happened across an article that referred to the "debunked" theory of the three cueing systems, and now I'm not sure what to do. Would it be impertinent if me to bring it up with my professors?

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Is it a good idea to teach the three cueing systems in reading?


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