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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

3P versus 3-cueing: why recommend one and shun the other?

January 11, 2021

Teacher question: Can you explain the difference between 3P (Pause, Prompt, Praise) and 3 cueing? I know you encourage one and discourage the other, but they seem to be the same thing to me. Help.

Shanahan's reply:

At Shanahan on Literacy, we strive for consistency. Let’s see if we can get this straightened out.

First, let’s make sure we understand what these two trios are about.

Pause, Prompt, Praise (3P or PPP or P3) is used to guide oral reading practice (Glynn, 2002). Research has shown that having students read challenging texts aloud with support and repetition improves reading achievement (NICHD, 2000). 3P tells the reading partner how to help.

When a reader errs, 3P encourages the listener to pause to give readers a chance to fix the problem themselves. Let the reader get to the end of the phrase or sentence before intervening.

Prompting comes next. The student has erred and done nothing about it. Guidance is needed. In 3P, there are a couple of possibilities. One, tell the reader to look more closely at the word, to sound it out, or to break it up into parts and sound it out. In other words, encourage more accurate decoding. This is great for when youngsters read pony for horse, or only sound the beginning letters.

But if the reader makes a good faith effort to sound out a word and failed, then a different feedback is needed. An example of this is when the reader reads ballet as “ball-et” (rhyming with ball-net). The reader has fully analyzed the orthography, taken account of all of the letters, and come up with a reasonable pronunciation (if you doubt that think of bullet). Telling the reader to sound it out or break it into syllables won’t help much in this case.

Here a meaning-based prompt is needed: Does that make sense?

The third P refers to praise. If the child does something well, say so. Doing things well includes reading the text fluently, erring and trying to fix it, and using a prompt successfully.

Results from 3P are positive and research shows that teachers who tailor their cues to the students’ reading tend to be most effective (Pflaum & Pascarella, 1980).

Now for 3-cueing systems. The idea here is that word identification is a kind of guessing game, with three different clues or cues.

The cues are orthographic-phonemic (the letters and sounds), semantic (the meaning), and syntax (the grammar of the sentences). The idea is to teach students how to use all of these cues in combination to read words — though often there tends to be a greater emphasis on meaning when teachers do this. Thus, if the student replaces horse with pony or automobile with car, proponents of 3-cueing systems may judge that to be close enough since meaning is the goal of reading (though this approach clearly makes a hash of nuanced meaning — horses and ponies aren’t really the same thing).

In the 3-cueing scheme, students are often provided a set of steps or strategies to use when reading. For instance, “Look at the pictures” or “skip the word and reread” or “try a word that makes sense” or “look at the first letter and guess.” In the ballet example above, one can imagine a teacher encouraging the child to look at the pictures and dance might be accepted.

There are successful instructional schemes that use 3-cueing systems (think Reading Recovery), though the value of that part of their approach has never been tested independently so we can’t tell if it contributes anything to learning.

Studies have shown that students who recognize words by looking at the pictures or trying to use context to guess the word tend to be the poorest readers, however (Stanovich, West, & Freeman, 1981).

So your confusion is most likely arising from that meaning-oriented prompt in 3P. It sure sounds like the same guessing game — and, there is no question, that a teacher could implement it that way.

Guidance to sound pedagogy on this is based in the concept of a “mental set for variability or diversity” (Gibson & Levin, 1975). Mental set refers to our tendency to rely on solutions that have worked in the past. When a toddler knows doggy, don’t be surprised if the next 4-legged animal he sees is called doggy even if it moos. People try generalizing from past success which can lead to rigidity and overgeneralization — trying to use a particular fixed solution even when it doesn’t work.

When it comes to reading, if I know how to sound out words reasonably well, then my pronunciation of ballet may come out somewhat closer to “ball-it” then to “bal-lay.”

English is a rich and complex language, in part because it borrows so many words from other languages. In this case, the “et” spelling that sounds like /ay/ is a French contribution that comes up a lot in English – ballet, beret, bouquet, chalet, ricochet, crochet, and the homographic buffet (thanks, William the Conqueror).

Given the complexities of the English language, psychologists have concluded that the best readers must develop a mental set for diversity rather than a mental set for consistency.

Good readers have greater flexibility when it comes to decoding words. The reader who learns to expect consistency will pronounce “ball-it” and have no other choice but to turn to meaning to straighten things out. In that kind of uncertain world, looking at the picture and guessing dance is probably as well as one can do.

Good readers on the other hand try out a pronunciation, and if that doesn’t make sense, they try another one that is legal in the English language. They use meaning, or the failure to make meaning, as a signal that another pronunciation alternative should be considered.

In 3-cueing, the lack of meaning is not a signal to work through one’s alternative orthographic-phonological choices. It is the guide that is supposed to help you determine what the word is.

In 3P, one could use the meaning guidance in that way, of course. But that’s not what I would recommend. The lack of meaning (does that make sense?) should be supported by further guidance – not to context or pictures — but to pronunciation alternatives.

Such oral reading guidance should be supported by high quality, explicit, systematic decoding instruction.

A terrific phonics lesson would be to explore “et” spellings, comparing /et/ and /ay/words … analyzing them, sorting them, talking about them, spelling them, and so on. That would reveal to young readers these two options for pronouncing words with that spelling pattern.

Another relevant lesson would be stress what to do when the pronunciation that you came up with seems wrong. What are the pronunciation alternatives? Have your tried them?

We want students to depend upon the orthographic-phonological system when reading words. We support that by teaching decoding and through guided oral reading practice. Meaning plays a crucial role in oral reading, but not the role 3-cueing accords it. The point is to develop readers with a mental set for variability … learning that if one alternative pronunciation fails, you must try another (not that if one type of cue doesn’t work, you should try another type of cue).

Good readers flexibly work through alternative pronunciations, relying on what they know about the letters, spelling patterns, and phonemes to guide each of their choices.

Poor readers may use some orthographic-phonemic information when they try a word, but if that fails, they seek ways to solve their problem without reading (like guessing from pictures — that’s not reading, of course, but it might provide a right answer in a pinch, and the social situation of schooling too often rewards getting the right answer over learning).

Good readers use meaning to determine if they made the right choice — and if they didn’t, there needs to be more analysis of the orthography/phonology. Poor readers use meaning to try to figure out the word, instead of using the orthography/phonology (Stanovich, West, & Freeman, 1981).

We need to teach students about the phonological-orthographic system and its relationship to morphology explicitly so they will have a rich knowledge base available when it comes to alternative pronunciations.

We need to build up statistical sensitivity to these spelling/pronunciation patterns through lots of reading experience (and not just with supposedly “decodable text” — all text is decodable), so students will have some notions about which pronunciation choices are most likely to work (Seidenberg, 2017).

We need to build up a flexibility through how we guide oral reading that encourages students to recognize when a different spelling-pronunciation pattern might be the better choice.

3P can be a good way to contribute to that progression of learning, as long as the meaning cue is used properly. 3-cueing, on the other hand, is just a bad idea that encourages readers to mimic poor reading rather than proficient reading.


Gibson, E.J., & Levin, H. (1975). The psychology of reading. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Glynn, T. (2002). Pause Prompt Praise: Reading tutoring procedures for home and school partnership. London: Routledge.

Pflaum, S., & Pascarella, E. (1980). Interactive Effects of Prior Reading Achievement and Training in Context on the Reading of Learning-Disabled Children. Reading Research Quarterly, 16, 138.

Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight. New York: Basic Books.

Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F., & Freeman, D. J. (1981). A longitudinal study of sentence context effects in second-grade children: Tests of an interactive-compensatory model. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 32, 185-199.

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"Reading is not optional." —

Walter Dean Myers