Sound It Out: The Shifting Landscape of Literacy From Three Cueing to Science-Based Reading
The three-cueing system, also known as MSV (Meaning, Syntax, Visual), has been utilized widely across classrooms for teaching reading skills. However, in light of the increasing focus on research behind effective reading instruction (also known as the science of reading), there have been legislative shifts and a reassessment of the role of three cueing in literacy instruction.
This blog post guides educational leaders through the three-cueing system's relevance today, examining its constraints against modern research and legislative shifts. It delves into an evidence-based alternative tailored for educators' challenges, ensuring strategies that benefit all students, especially those with learning difficulties.
What is Three Cueing?
The three-cueing system was once a common instructional framework in literacy education. It emerged from the whole language movement and later found its way into balanced literacy approaches.
Advocates for three-cuing believe they’re referencing the idea that the brain can use multiple sources of information to solve unknown words. But as the Reading League points out, three-cueing evolved into a method of literacy instruction, one NOT supported by research.
Developed with the aim of providing educators with tools to foster a love of reading in their students, this method is reminiscent of the well-intentioned educational theories that gave rise to it. The system comprises three cues to help students decode written text:
- Semantic cues: Focus on gaining meaning from context and sentence-level cues.
- Syntactic cues: Involve the grammatical features of the language.
- Grapho-phonic cues: Deal with spelling patterns.
If a student, Dora, misreads the word "horse" as "house" in the sentence "The horse eats the hay in the barn," here's how the three-cueing system cues could be applied:
- Semantic cues (Meaning): The teacher asks Dora, "Does 'house' make sense in this sentence? What would be in the barn and eat hay?" This prompt encourages Dora to consider the overall context and realize that "house" might not be the correct word.
- Syntactic cues (Structure): The teacher says, "Look at the sentence again. What word would fit best grammatically as the subject here?" This guides Dora to consider the structure of the sentence, prompting her to re-evaluate her choice of the word "house."
- Grapho-phonic cues (Visual): The teacher points to the word "horse" and asks, "Can you sound this out? What letters do you see?" This encourages Dora to focus on the spelling and phonetic elements of the word, helping her correct her mistake.
The Legacy and Limitations of the Three-Cueing System
The three-cueing system has historically been a significant component of balanced literacy education. However, the recent attention around evidence-based instructional strategies and methods has lead more and more educational leaders and policymakers to acknowledge that three cueing is not supported by research. The science of reading clearly shows this approach does not sufficiently focus on phonics-based methods (sounding out words), essential for honing students' decoding skills.
Consequently, learners overly rely on looking at the pictures and guessing.This practice can lead to accepting errors known as miscueing. A student might guess “bunny” instead of “rabbit,” or “screamed” instead of “squealed,” relying on pictures in the book for clues. With the three-cueing system, these errors might be ignored, because the word is close enough in context for the story.
Then when there are no pictures, or when they come to words that are not familiar to them and recognized from previous stories or automatically, (sometimes referred to as sight words or high frequency words), they don't have a strategy to utilize. In other words, when learners only rely on context or sentence structure for word identification, it limits their ability to read unfamiliar words accurately.
Going back to the example with Dora, what if she had guessed “pony” as the unknown word? It’s a thoughtful choice, which fits semantically and syntactically, and in some classrooms, her error might have been praised. But guesses like these are not reading, and once the student has moved on from level readers with pictures, their struggles will become more evident. By bypassing the essential process of sound-to-print correspondence, the brain might not develop or strengthen these crucial pathways as efficiently. Consequently, this can hinder a student's ability to quickly and accurately decode unfamiliar words, impacting their overall reading fluency and comprehension.
Without explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, many students are left guessing and memorizing under the MSV cueing system. The sound-symbol relationship allows learners to recognize words automatically, focusing their cognitive resources on comprehension. The three-cueing system, however, neglects this crucial relationship by often prompting students to guess words based on context or specific letters. This can lead to confusion, particularly with words that have similar starting and ending letters but different letters in the middle. Students may struggle with comprehending complex texts and may misinterpret words. Moreover, this approach might limit vocabulary development.
Cognitive science and educational research have highlighted limitations like these in the three-cueing system. While all students can benefit and learn from explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, some student populations, like students with learning difficulties like dyslexia, or Emergent Bilingual students, are more likely to be left behind without it. This ultimately widens the educational gap, perpetuating inequalities among diverse student populations. Instead, by adopting approaches grounded in empirical evidence, educators will be better equipped to provide targeted support, thereby fostering more equitable and inclusive learning environments. The shift away from three-cueing and toward evidence-based methodologies like Structured Literacy is an example of more inclusive educational approach.
Navigating Changing Legislation: Bans and Opportunities
As the discourse around literacy instruction evolves, so does the legislative landscape. A majority of states have already enacted laws mandating evidence-based curriculum or teacher training, while some have even explicitly prohibited the use of the three-cueing system in public schools. Others are still in deliberative stages, weighing the merits and drawbacks of such policies.
States in Motion
As of this writing, eleven states have enacted legislation that explicitly bans using the three-cueing system in public educational systems. An additional 5 states have bills under consideration, demonstrating a clear trend toward re-evaluating longstanding pedagogical practices in literacy instruction.
States That Have Banned Three Cueing (as of October 2023):
- North Carolina
- West Virginia
- Virginia (administrative) [PDF]
States Considering Banning Three Cueing (as of October 2023):
- South Carolina
- New Hampshire
- New York
A Race Against the Clock
While the timeline varies by state, most of these legislative changes have been proposed or enacted within the last two years. This quickening pace underscores the urgency facing districts. Delays adapting to these changes may result in conflicts with state mandates, posing financial and ethical challenges.
Urgency and Opportunity
The changing legislative landscape offers district leaders an urgent challenge and a transformative opportunity. The urgency lies in the need to quickly retrain teachers and update curricula to comply with new state mandates. On the other hand, this is a timely opportunity for district leaders to review and renew literacy instruction methods holistically, making them more aligned with recent scientific findings and inclusive practices.
There has been a pronounced legislative shift across several states toward evidence-based literacy instruction, underscoring the importance of grounding reading practices in research-backed methods. This movement reflects a nationwide commitment to enhancing literacy outcomes based on proven methodologies.
While policies can range from rigorous evidence-based instruction/intervention requirements, to teacher-prep and certification requirements, as of July 2023, 32 states (plus Washington, D.C.) have embraced this shift in some way, including:
States with pending legislation (as of October 2023) include:
- Massachusetts (bill sponsored by both parties)
- Oregon (bill sponsored by both parties)
Forward: An Alternative Evidence-Based Reading Strategy Based in the Science of Reading
As a comprehensive body of research, the science of reading (SoR) includes studies that investigate how children learn to read, pinpoints the causes of reading challenges, and suggests strategies to address them. It serves as a framework for effective reading instruction.
Among the methodologies that harness the insight of the SoR, Structured Literacy stands out as one of the most effective. It demands explicit, systematic instruction tailored to cater to the diverse learning needs of all students, especially those encountering learning difficulties. By aligning the empirical findings of SoR with classroom practices, Structured Literacy paves the way for a more informed and efficient chapter in literacy education. This evidence-based approach will shape the next chapter in literacy education, aligning empirical insight with day-to-day classroom practices.
Structured Literacy: Instruction That Fosters Skilled Word Recognition
Structured Literacy is an umbrella approach coined by the International Dyslexia Association. Building on the empirical foundations established by the science of reading, Structured Literacy offers a sophisticated alternative to traditional methods like three cueing. This comprehensive framework incorporates sounds, letter patterns, word meanings, language comprehension, and background knowledge to support students. Developed through explicit, diagnostic, cumulative and systematic instruction, these interconnected systems enable word decoding (word recognition) and a deeper understanding of text.
The Need for Explicit, Systematic, Cumulative and Diagnostic Instruction
Explicit, diagnostic, systematic, and cumulative instruction is not merely pedagogical jargon but is validated by extensive research in the science of reading. This includes cognitive studies illuminating the specific brain activities involved in reading. Explicit instruction is unambiguous in both its design and delivery, ensuring a clear and direct message. A systematic approach refers to a planned sequence of skills that progress from simpler to more complex components. Cumulative instruction builds upon previously acquired knowledge, serving to foster the automatic and fluent application of language knowledge to reading for meaning. Diagnostic (or responsive) instruction is individualized, reaching each student where they are on a personal level when they need a little extra help. Research shows that such an approach is beneficial for all learners, affirming that Structured Literacy is indeed equitable and works for every student.
Structured Literacy’s inclusive and thorough approach helps educators adjust in real time to individual student needs, ensuring a more effective and equitable learning experience.
Why Structured Literacy Over MSV/Three Cueing?
The MSV/three-cueing model has faced criticism for its inadequate focus on the explicit, systematic instruction of phonics and phonemic awareness—key elements grounded in reading science. This lack is not merely a matter of preference; it is a critical omission illuminated by research that advocates for a foundational approach to reading. Put more directly, three-cueing is not backed by any evidence.
In contrast, Structured Literacy zeroes in on the elemental components of words like letters, syllables, and morphemes. It adheres to a sequence that prioritizes decoding these elements before proceeding to word recognition and semantic comprehension. This nuanced focus on the foundational elements of literacy sets the stage for a more accurate and efficient recognition of words, thereby leading to a better grasp of their meaning.
This sequence—decoding first, then progressing to meaning making—is not only in alignment with the science of reading but also adheres to systematic and cumulative instructional principles. It underscores the necessity for a pedagogical approach that is grounded in a sequential, building-blocks methodology, which stands in stark contrast to the fragmented, guesswork-laden methodology that MSV/three cueing often embodies.
The Components of Structured Literacy
Research identifies several fundamental components crucial for reading proficiency, all of which are embedded in Structured Literacy:
- Phonological and Phonemic Awareness: Essential skills like rhyming, blending, and segmenting are foundational for reading.
- Phonics: The relationship between letters and sounds is vital for decoding words.
- Syllables: These units of sound in words are critical for spelling and reading proficiency.
- Morphology: Understanding word structure enables students to decode meaningful parts like prefixes, suffixes, and roots.
- Syntax: This element focuses on sentence structure, essential for both reading and writing.
- Semantics: Comprehension of word meaning is enhanced by employing context clues.
Evidence Supporting Structured Literacy
The efficacy of Structured Literacy is not just theoretical; it is empirically validated. The International Dyslexia Association® coined the term Structured Literacy for comprehensive, evidence-based approaches (more than just phonics) that are a scientifically-proven contrast to balanced literacy or whole language approaches. Through a Structured Literacy approach, educators can use the science of reading to help 95% of students become confident, capable readers.
Partnering for Success: Transcending Old Practices Through Evidence-Based Resources
Following recent legislative changes, it is clear time is of the essence for district leaders seeking to update reading instruction methodologies. Bans on the three-cueing system have generated a sense of urgency for finding evidence-based solutions. Structured Literacy provides an actionable alternative teachers can use. Whether through curriculum changes, supplementary SAAS literacy products, or evidence-based professional development, implementing an evidence-based approach to literacy instruction is achievable.
Directing Resources Where They Matter
Navigating the educational landscape amid legislative changes demands pinpoint accuracy in choosing instructional materials. Lexia® provides resources that align precisely with the science of reading and Structured Literacy. These tools are validated by rigorous research and are scalable across varied educational settings, offering a reliable pathway for instruction that meets ESSA standards and qualifies for ESSER funding.
Lifelong Learning for Educators
The scope of teaching literacy, especially to students with specific learning needs, makes ongoing professional development imperative. Building a culture of continuous improvement will ensure educators are always armed with the latest, most effective instructional methods.
Leveraging Lexia's Solutions
We encourage you to explore Lexia's literacy solutions to meet teacher and student needs. Backed by empirical evidence, Lexia's products offer the exact strategies for a transformative literacy instruction approach.
Lexia® Core5® Reading
|Rooted in the Science of Reading: Core5 provides personalized learning paths for each student, emphasizing foundational skills in phonemic awareness, phonics, and vocabulary—key pillars of the science of reading.
|Support for Processing Systems: This product offers multimodal activities that help students use various processing systems for word recognition, facilitating the seamless integration of sounds, letter patterns, and word meanings.
Lexia® PowerUp Literacy®
|Rooted in the Science of Reading: Designed for struggling readers and adolescent learners, PowerUp focuses on enhancing advanced literacy skills like comprehension and academic vocabulary, which are all grounded in the scientific evidence of what makes reading instruction most effective.
|Support for Processing Systems: PowerUp includes explicit instruction and practice in word recognition and language comprehension, bolstering the processing systems needed for skilled reading.
Lexia LETRS® (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling)
|Rooted in the Science of Reading: Lexia LETRS provides educators with a deep theoretical framework of the linguistic and cognitive processes contributing to proficient reading and writing, all backed by the science of reading.
|Support for Processing Systems: The professional development from Lexia LETRS helps teachers understand and implement processing systems for skilled word recognition in their instruction, equipping them to address individual student needs effectively.
Lexia Aspire™ Professional Learning
|Rooted in the Science of Reading: Aspire empowers teachers by providing the essential knowledge and techniques rooted in the science of reading. This allows them to effectively instruct a diverse student body with differing literacy skills. Additionally, teachers have the flexibility to select content specifically tailored to enhance their students’ literacy achievements.
|Support for Processing Systems: Language processing skills help students understand and use language effectively. Aspire emphasizes the importance of phonological processing as well as orthographic processing in supporting automatic word recognition and accurate spelling.
Each Lexia product offers a distinct yet complementary avenue to integrate the science of reading and Structured Literacy into contemporary literacy education.
Charting the Path Forward
The goal is to ease the transition from outdated practices like three cueing to more evidence-based approaches like Structured Literacy, with the help of SAAS tools and professional learning built on the science of reading.
Don't let legislative timelines hinder the progress. The need for change is immediate, and the resources to effect that change are available now. Take advantage of Lexia's suite of solutions, built on years of evidence-based research. Your students, staff, and educational community deserve this commitment to excellence.
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