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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.

That Hypocrite Shanahan — Cueing Systems vs. Context Analysis

May 11, 2020

Teacher question: I attended your recent webinar and you said that students should figure out the meanings of words from context and that they needed to be able to deal with syntax. But I’ve also read that you are against the 3-cueing systems. Isn’t that a contradiction? It seems hypocritical to criticize teachers for teaching 3-cueing and then to turn and around and recommend that they do just that.

Shanahan's response:

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that, “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”

What I said may seem inconsistent, but it would be foolishly so if I had ignored the fact that two distinctly different processes have to be developed in reading —word reading/decoding and reading comprehension. That these two processes have different purposes and operate somewhat differently shouldn’t be beyond the grasp of even the “small minds” among us 

The idea of cueing systems comes from analyses of oral reading errors (or miscues), and a theory of how words are read that simply has not held up to scrutiny. The late Kenneth Goodman examined word reading and found that when words were misread, you could categorize the errors. For example, a student is reading a sentence like:

The man drove his automobile into the drive.

But instead of saying "automobile," the student reads “car.” This error obviously shows no attention to the orthographic/phonological characteristics of the word (its letters and sounds), but car and automobile are both nouns (so they are syntactically similar) and they are synonyms or have similar meanings (which brings in semantics). 

From this, Goodman (1973, p. 9) theorized that a reader collects as little visual information as possible when reading; that he guesses or predicts what is coming based on the semantics and syntax and then “sampling the print to confirm his prediction.” In Goodman’s theory, the best readers minimize the amount of orthographic/phonemic processing that they do and figure out the words as much as possible based on context.

The problem with that theory is that it isn’t right. It turns out to be inconsistent with what we learned about how words are processed during reading. For instance, we know that readers don’t “sample the print” in that way; in fact, studies show that we look at pretty much every letter in a text, including those words that would be highly predictable from context.

Additionally, readers are able to recognize words in about a 1/4-second too fast to allow for the amount of neural processing that would be needed to sample all of these types of information. And, we also know that the best readers are the ones who are proficient with orthographic/ phonological processing, and poor readers are the ones who rely on alternative ways to read the words (Stanovich, 1980).

If the reader could have read “automobile” he would have, but since he couldn’t he used the syntactic and semantic information to make a best guess. (The reader found a work around since he couldn’t really read the word.)

Teaching kids to use these cueing systems to figure out the words is essentially an effort to teach them to read like poor readers. Good readers avoid using anything but the letters and sounds to figure out the words, the poor readers lack this facility so do the best they can otherwise.

Eye movement studies, speed of processing studies, neural processing studies, instructional studies, and so on, all concur. Good readers recognize words by translating letters to phonemes, and poor readers are stuck relying on pictures, and semantic and syntactic contexts to do the best they can under the circumstances.

I do not support the idea of teaching students to read like poor readers, even if this was an interesting and provocative idea in 1965. (And, I’m stunned by people who refuse to change their minds after the accumulation of 55 years of contradictory evidence – talk about “flat-earthers.”)

But reading is not about recognizing words alone. It is also about comprehending and using the information in text.

Reading the words properly enables us to make sense of the message in a text – but that making sense requires additional processing.

That’s why we need to teach phonemic awareness, phonics, and oral reading fluency so thoroughly and so well. We want readers to have automaticity with these; that is, we want them to read the words accurately, but with little conscious attention. This allows readers to devote their cognitive energies to thinking about the ideas in text.

What do we do to comprehend?

One thing comprehenders do is to figure out word meanings. For words we already know, we simply retrieve meanings from long term memory. In other cases, figuring out a word meaning (not the word, but its meaning) may entail the use of a dictionary, guessing based on context, analysis of the morphemes, or asking somebody for help.

Comprehenders also need to make sense of sentence structures and text structures, and to track ideas across a text. They need to bring their prior knowledge about the content to bear on the text, too, and to apply their critical senses to the information (is the information true?).

Word reading needs to be automatic and instantaneous. That’s why you don’t guess words using syntactic and semantic information.

Comprehension, on the other hand is slower and more consciously thoughtful. It requires analysis, reflection, critical thought, and consideration of the language and the content.

My research-based advice is to teach kids both to decode words and to comprehend texts. Those are different things, they entail different abilities, and therefore sound teaching advice is going to differ for each.

When it comes to word reading, I'm going to teach students to decode. When it comes to figuring out word meanings, I'm going to teach students to use context to make sense of the words (and morphology and references). Just like the research says.

That’s wisdom, not inconsistency!

See comments here >

Comments

Thank you for this letter, and I definitely understand what you are saying, but I have a question. If I am reading with a student , and they read the word car instead of automobile, what move would I make next as a teacher? My instinct says to say, “does that look right?” Which I believe is in support of the 3 cueing system. Is that not the right thing to say? I think I would note that this student needs more phonics work as well as build vocabulary, and I would do so in my further instruction, but in the moment I would want the student to know that they are not attending to print, so I would ask, does that look right? My other thought is that I would assume that they don’t know the word automobile, so I would probably tell them that another word for car is an automobile and take note of that. I am just curious. I was there for your webinar, and I learned a lot so thank you!

Just...yes! No other response required. Thank you, Dr. Shanahan! Anne

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