Skip to main content
Young girl in striped short reading a book next to a cat
Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Language at the Speed of Sight—On Cueing Systems, Phonemes, Speed Reading, and Sequences of Learning

A few months ago, I read Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight (opens in a new window). Seidenberg is a psychologist who studies reading, and his book is remarkably intelligent, frank, and witty. I think there is an occasional mistake or ambiguity here and there, but overall I was mesmerized.

Typically, I don’t do reviews here and don’t intend to today. Instead, I have pulled several incisive quotes from the text that captured my attention (there were many more, I assure you), and I have added comments of my own. I hope you and your colleagues will read these quotes and discuss them, and, perhaps, as a result, some of you might choose to read the whole book — it’s well worth it.

As you can see from these quotes, Professor Seidenberg has a great deal of knowledge about reading and a sharp tongue, willing to write the truth, even if it is a truth that some may not like to hear.

If you are interested in this book, it is on the recommended book list on my site.

“The 3-cueing theory is the product of teachers with little knowledge of the science working with large numbers of like-minded people, under the influence of a few authorities, constructing accounts of how reading works and children gain literacy. This process yielded an amorphous theory that was compatible with existing beliefs … within the teachers’ comfort zone.” (pp. 303-304)

The 3-cueing systems theory is still taught to many teachers and prospective teachers, which is a shame because it is descriptive of how poor readers read rather than how good ones do. The idea that readers use phonological-orthographic, semantic, and syntactic cues to figure out words is the cornerstone of several instructional approaches, and, yet, it fails to describe how good readers actually decode words. I can certainly understand why someone might observe a proficient reader, and then try to teach others to implement those practices and processes that confer proficiency … I just can’t understand why anyone would try to make their students more like the worst readers.

 “The exact number of words per minute is far less important than the fact that this value cannot be greatly increased without seriously compromising comprehension.” (p. 71)

Seidenberg here is talking about proficient readers — and their average reading times (acknowledging the varied difficulty of different texts, etc.). Essentially he is reminding us something that Ron Carver demonstrated pretty convincingly decades ago — speed reading is skimming and skimming lowers one’s comprehension (despite the claims of the companies that want to teach you to speed read). I paid several hundreds of dollars for speed-reading training when I was in high school. I thought these scams were behind us, but the past few years have seen their re-emergence. Save your money, we are limited in how fast we can read.

“Our knowledge of a word is therefore not very much like a dictionary entry, unless your dictionary is endowed with the capacity to experience the world and track statistics about how often and in what linguistic and nonlinguistic context the word occurs.”  (p. 111)

Vocabulary is extremely important in reading, but part of the statistical knowledge about words that children are learning is grammatical (which tells you what role that word may play in a sentence), cohesive (which links it to other words in a text), pragmatic (which tells you under what circumstances that word might be used), and it carries other knowledge along with it, too. Seidenberg points out that vocabulary knowledge is not like a dictionary entry, and I would add that effective vocabulary instruction is not like teaching dictionary entries—and, yet, most of the vocabulary instruction that I see is pretty much that.

 “For reading scientists the evidence that the phonological pathway is used in reading and especially important in beginning reading is about as close to conclusive as research on complex human behavior can get.” (p. 124)

Seidenberg notes this while complaining about educators whose practices ignore this well-proven fact. To become a reader, one has to develop these phonological paths. There are several ways to do this, but no way has been found to be more effective than explicit decoding instruction (focusing on phonemes — not on cueing systems). Again, why not teach what students need to learn rather than things with no evidence?

Learning to treat spoken language as if it were composed of phonemes is an important step in learning to read an alphabetic system.” (p. 28)

This wise statement comes right after Seidenberg shows you how difficult it can be to separate out the phonemes (the sounds) within words. We are able to separate phonemes proficiently because of our knowledge of the visible aspects of words — the letters. Thus, it is smart to try to teach kids to perceive the separable phonemes within words, but it is also smart to make this instruction reciprocal with decoding instruction. Instead of trying to reach complete proficiency with phonemic awareness and then turning our attention to decoding, it is more sensible to work on each of them alternately — moving back and forth between them. (Something that Linnea Ehri told me a long time ago).

“Children who struggle when reading texts aloud do not become good readers if left to read silently; their dysfluency merely becomes inaudible. Reading aloud and silent comprehension are causally connected …”  (p. 130)

If you know that, then it should not be surprising that effective fluency instruction typically involves kids in reading texts aloud multiple times, and that such practice improves reading comprehension. Oral reading is an important dimension of reading instruction and things like round robin reading and Popcorn Reading do not provide sufficient practice (and just working on silent reading does not provide appropriate practice).

“Learning to read is a complex problem because multiple overlapping subskills develop at the same time.” (pp. 104-105)

I still find people who believe that young children would best learn to read if we focused on one skill at a time … teach phonemic awareness and once it is accomplished focus on phonics and then when kids can decode sufficiently start working on oral reading fluency, the accomplishment of which should open the way for vocabulary work, and eventually we’d get to reading comprehension. Just as babies/toddlers who are learning language must deal with the phonology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics systems of language simultaneously, it is important that children get support and experience with all of these parallel tracks of reading skills. That means that even when kids are learning their phonics, they are working on comprehension, and so on.


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
July 10, 2017