Planning a Successful Sight Word Intervention


Why the Three Cueing System Isn’t Supporting Your Reading Instruction


Are you working your tail off to help your struggling readers but nothing that you do is working? There might be something you’re doing every day that is getting in the way of your success! There’s a very good chance you’ve been utilizing the teaching strategies of the Three Cueing System, making reading a much more difficult task than it ever needs to be! 

I want to share with you what it is, why it’s a problem, what you can do to replace this type of instruction in your classroom!

What is the Three Cueing System? 

In 1967 a researcher by the name of Ken Goodman described reading as a cycle linguistic guessing game. He believed that the following three areas were the keys to students being able to figure out how to read: 

  1. Semantic: Teachers teach students to guess a word based on context. (The librarian is reading a book). “What would a librarian be reading?”
  2. Graphonic -Teachers are teaching students to look at the first letter of a word to guess what the word is. “The first letter we see is b. B says /b/. “What do you think that word might be?”
  3. Syntactic: The teacher teaches the student to look at the part of speech the word in question might be. “What noun would fit here?”

Goodman believed that reading should not be focused on the parts of a language, but rather the whole. He claimed that letters are not as reliable and that teachers should be focusing instead on the student’s miscues. You may be familiar with MSV (Meaning, Structural, and Visual) for identifying miscues. This tool is in part where this idea originated. 

1975 Keith Stanovich, researcher and professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto, wanted to study how people learn to read. He thought Goodman was probably right-that we should be focusing more on the whole word and less on the individual letters. Yet through his research, he discovered the opposite was actually true. 

“To our surprise, all our research pointed in the opposite direction,” Stanovich wrote. “It was the poorer readers, not the more skilled readers, who were reliant on context to facilitate word recognition. The skilled readers could instantly recognize words without relying on context.” 

“Other researchers have confirmed these findings with similar experiments. It turns out that the ability to read words in isolation quickly and accurately is the hallmark of being a skilled reader. This is now one of the most consistent and well-replicated findings in all of reading research.” 


Why Does The Three Cueing System Approach Harm Students?

To put it simply, this approach teaches students to read the way poor readers do-by guessing words. We know now that skilled readers focus on individual sounds and poor readers guess. 

Ken Goodman actually called reading a guessing game, and that simply isn’t accurate!   

A Comparison: Three Cueing System vs Direction Phonics Instruction

This comparison will really highlight what changes as students enter the higher grades because there is a big difference in learning to read and reading to learn. When kids have to make this shift, they begin to struggle because they can’t decode multisyllabic words or figure out what words mean in context. This is why students start to perform poorly in social studies and science. 

Step 1 of the Three Cueing System Applied

Let’s take a look at this example: 

The teacher had a great connection in the community. There was cooperation from the enormous crowds that gathered. They wanted to investigate what had happened. 

Connection is the word that we want to model because students are struggling to decode it. 

If you are using the three cueing system, you might say something like, “Okay boys and girls, let’s use our “eagle eye” and take a look at the pictures on the page and see if we can figure out what this word might be.”

This would be that semantic piece. In this piece of text, there are no pictures, which automatically makes this strategy impossible to utilize. 

Step 2 of the Three Cueing System Applied

So then we move on to the next strategy-looking at the first sound in the word. As the teacher you might say, “ Get your lips fish ready! What’s the sound?”

But without the decoding skills, students don’t even have an idea of how to break the word down, so they are literally guessing a three-syllable word based on the first sound. 

So what if they guessed the word condominium

Step 3 of the Three Cueing System Applied

Well if we moved on to the third strategy of the three cueing system, we would want to take a look at the part of speech that the word plays in the sentence. But the real question here is: if a student can’t decode the word, how do they know what part of speech it might be? 

If they had guessed it would be a noun, the word condominium would actually fit, but it wouldn’t make sense based on the meaning of the text! Are you starting to see the problem?

Perhaps you are also familiar with the “skippy frog” strategy where a student is encouraged to skip the tricky words and come back to them based on the context? In this case, no other words would have directly helped them identify the correct word. 


Applying Explicit Systematic Phonics Instruction: 

Let’s take a look at how we would have approached this text through explicit systematic phonics instruction. 

We might say, “Boys and girls, we have come to a word that we don’t know. So let’s use the skills we’ve learned to decode this word.”

In second grade, students learn how to break down multisyllabic words. Let’s assume we have already taught syllable division patterns and how to apply them when they come to a word that they don’t know. This becomes super helpful in those upper-grade levels when students come across words they have no idea what they mean or how to decode them. 

At this point we would model for the student by writing the word on the board, labeling the vowels and consonants. We would demonstrate that we always divide words between two consonants. By doing this, students know how to blend the word to say the word. 

Yet on top of that, we’ve already provided the students with direct explicit instruction about suffixes such as “tion”. They know that it means “the action of”. So when we blend the word, they can recognize that connection is “the act of connecting”. In this one example, we have helped students decode as well as figure out the meaning of the word. 

A Second Example with Explicit Phonics Instruction

So now let’s apply these strategies to help students at even higher grade levels. Let’s take the word, “cytoplasm”. In a 7th-grade science text, a student comes across this sentence: 

Cytoplasm has the internal components of cells in place and protects them from damage. 

What would happen if a student didn’t know “cytoplasm” and they were trying to apply the three cueing system? 

You would prompt them to take a look at the pictures on the page. Unfortunately, a picture of a cell would offer absolutely no clues for the student. More often than not, pictures are extremely limited at this level of text. 

Next, we would try to look at the first sound of the word. You might say, “if you get your lips fish ready, what’s the sound?” But if students have not been taught that a c followed by an e, i, or y makes the /s/ sound, they are already going to have trouble decoding the word. There are no prior skills in place to support them!

Lastly, we would take a look at the part of speech that the word is. Well, we already know that they can’t decode the word, so really, they aren’t going to have any idea what part of speech the word is. 

Most students would not have any background knowledge about cytoplasm, which is also not helpful. Even if we skipped the word in question and came back to it, if they have not received direct explicit systematic phonics instruction, there are a lot of words in this sentence that students would struggle to read. Yet another roadblock. 

What if we had taken the direct explicit systematic instruction approach? 

We would start by saying, “Boys and girls, we have come to a word we don’t know, so let’s use the skills we’ve learned to identify the word.”

To begin, we have already taught the prefixes and suffixes, so students know that “cyto” means “of a cell” and the root word, “plasm” means “material forming cells”, so again, we are able to help students not only decode the word, but also determine its meaning! 

By comparing and contrasting these approaches, we can see the outcomes of implicit versus explicit instruction. 

So now, what can you do tomorrow to be more explicit in your instruction? 

A great place to start is to go back to my blog post about understanding the significance of using a phonics scope and sequence and start implementing that today!  

An Important Reminder

Studies show that 40% of the students in your class will learn to read no matter how they are taught. Have you had students like this in your class? 

The other 60% need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. 

Kids do not acquire reading skills the same way they do language. They need a systematic approach to read and they need to be taught the skills to break down words they don’t know.   

Are you a teacher who has struggling readers and have been using the Three Cueing System to teach reading and have not seen results? 

Are you an administrator whose school has been using this approach and your ELA scores are still low? 

There’s a reason for that! Don’t let another day go by expecting students to become successful readers by playing a guessing game! Give them the tools they need to become consistently confident readers! 

Grab the FREEBIE: Alternative to the Three Cueing System 

And don’t forget to request to join the private FB group for additional in-depth training on the topics covered in these lives. 

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