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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 — but 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 of the world to see if they jerk their heads around while hitting golf balls. If they did 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.


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About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
April 1, 2019