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Good readers decode. The 3-cueing system describes how poor readers read.
Good readers decode. The 3-cueing system describes how poor readers read.
Vol. 6, No. 18
December 2018

Decoding Before Context

The Three-Cueing System vs. the Four-Part Processing System
In the past several weeks, we have participated in a lively and respectful SpellTalk discussion about how to move teachers away from the widespread use of the Three-Cueing Systems pictured above and towards more effective decoding practices depicted on the right. Although many schools have embraced a so-called "balanced literacy" approach by adding phonics to their workshop models, any word attack advantages are blunted if teachers continue to teach their students to use the three-cueing systems to tackle unknown words.
What is the Three-Cueing System? 
The Three Cueing Systems strategies are a proposed way to help struggling/emerging readers when they get stuck on a word. First described in the 1980s, the system is not grounded in research. Students are directed to use a series of cuessyntactic, semantic, or graphophonicto help them figure out unknown words. They're taught to use meaning and context cues first; the role of phonological processing is minimized.
This hit-or-miss set of strategies, which describe how poor readers read, fails to describe how good readers decodeby sounding out words. 
The Four Processing Systems
The Four Processing Systems above illustrates the underlying processes involved in decoding unfamiliar words. The Phonological Processor, the Orthographic Processor, the Meaning Processor, and the Context Processor each play a role in decoding words and understanding text. 

Students are taught phonicsspeech sounds and print patterns and how the two are linked—and to use decoding as their first strategy when they get stuck on a word. Accurately read words are then associated with meaning and placed in context.
Meeting Teachers Where They are to Move Them Forward
Literacy How Mentors face the Three Cueing System challenge on a regular basis. We have had many conversations with teachers about the fact that the system is not only void of research and evidence, butequally importantit is also teaching children habits that are difficult to change. Worse yet, this approach sets children up for frustration and failure. 
We know from many years of experience working closely with teachers, however, that we have to tread carefully and respectfully if we want them to consider changing the way they teach children to read.
Reordering the Steps
Since it is difficult to ask someone to stop doing what they’ve been doing for a long time, instead, we suggest that they reorder the steps in the system.
  1. Specifically, we ask them to have the student try to read the word first (all the way through, not just read the first letter, then guess the rest).
  2. Then, after the student has attempted to decode the word, we suggest that s/he use the other two cues (syntactic and semantic) to confirm whether the word was decoded correctly. 

When teachers trust our expertise and try this out, they usually ‘see the light,’ realizing that their students need to practice reading the words to build accuracy and automaticity. This change process is labor-intensiveone teacher at a timebut each teacher x 25 students/year x the number of years of teaching = many students who are taught to read using evidence rather than guessing strategies. 
For Further Reading
Kilpatrick, D.A. (2015) Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties (Essentials of psychological assessment series). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Seidenberg, M. (2017) Language at the speed of sight: how we read, why so many can't, and what can be done about it. New York: Basic Books.

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