The Three Cueing System
By Marilyn Jager Adams
Visiting Scholar, Harvard University
Graduate School of Education
From Adams, M. J. (1998). "The Three-Cueing
System." In F. Lehr and J. Osborn (Eds.), Literacy For All Issues In Teaching
And Learning, pp. 73-99. New York Guilford Press.
The meaningfulness of a text depends
no more on the knowledge and thought with which it has been written than
it does on the knowledge and thought with which it is read. Indeed, readers
can interpret and evaluate an author's message from the print on the page
only to the extent that they possess and call forth the vocabulary, syntactic,
rhetorical, topical, analytic, and social knowledge and sensitivities on
which the meaning of the text depends.
Over the last several decades, cognitive
scientists have energetically investigated the extent to which such dimensions
of background knowledge and responsiveness might explain individual differences
in reading proficiency. As expected, children do contrast along such dimensions,
both with each other and with the demands of their texts. Also as expected,
instructional support of such knowledge and strategies generally does result
in increases in the productivity of their reading. Yet, research has also
shown that as children's reading experience grows, these sorts of capabilities
tend to grow alongside. That is, to the extent that children do read, they
generally do learn new words, new meanings, new linguistic structures,
and new modes of thought in course (Stanovich, 1993).
The wisdom of the popular dictum,
that reading is best learned through reading, follows directly. So, too,
however, does the seriousness of its most nettlesome caveat: Where children
find reading too difficult, they very often will not do it--or at least
not with the sort of engagement that best fosters learning. Fortunately,
with respect to the language and meaning of text, finding selections that
are within a child's comfort level is rarely a problem. However, the same
is not true with respect to the wording of text.
M. J. Adams Three-Cueing System
Until well into the middle grades,
children's ability to understand text that is read aloud to them significantly
exceeds their ability to understand the same text when reading on their
own (Curtis, 1980). The bulk of this difference is traced to their difficulties
in reading the words. Moreover, poorly developed word recognition skills
are the most pervasive and debilitating source of reading difficulty (Adams,
1990; Perfetti, 1985; Share and Stanovich, 1995).
Words, as it turns out, are the
raw data of text. It is the words of a text that evoke the starter set
of concepts and relationships from which its meaning must be built. Research
has shown that for skillful readers, and regardless of the difficulty of
the text, the basic dynamic of reading is line by line, left to-right,
and word by word. It is because skillful readers are able to recognize
words so quickly that they can take in text at rates of approximately five
words per second or nearly a full type-written page per minute. It is because
their capacity for word recognition is so over learned and effortless that
it proceeds almost sub-attentionally, feeding rather than competing with
comprehension processes. Most surprising of all, research has taught us
that what enables this remarkably swift and efficient capacity to recognize
words is the skillful reader's deep and ready knowledge of their spellings
and spelling-speech correspondences. During that fraction of a second while
the eyes are paused on any given word of the text, its spelling is registered
with complete, letter wise precision even as it is instantly and automatically
mapped to the speech patterns it represents.
Although scientists are only beginning
to understand the various roles of these spelling-to-speech translations,
they are clearly of critical importance to the reading process. To the
extent that knowledge of spelling-to-speech correspondences is underdeveloped
(as evidenced, for example, by subnormal speed or accuracy in reading nonsense
words), it is strongly and reliably associated with specific reading disability
(Rack, Snowling & Olson, 1992). Moreover, research affirms that except
as children have internalized the spelling-to-speech correspondences of
the language, learning to recognize an adequate number of words with the
speed and accuracy on which fluent reading depends is essentially impossible.
Useful knowledge of the spelling-to-speech
correspondences of English does not come naturally. For all children, it
requires a great deal of practice, and for many children, it is not easy.
The acquisition of this knowledge depends on developing a reflective appreciation
of the phonemic structure of the spoken language; on learning about letter-sound
correspondences and spelling conventions of the orthography; and on consolidating
and extending this knowledge by using it in the course of one's own reading
and writing. Each of these accomplishments depends, in turn, on certain
insights and observations that for many if not most children are simply
not forthcoming without special instructional guidance and support (for
review, see Adams, 1990). As researchers have gained appreciation of the
critical importance of able word recognition within the reading complex,
they have also uncovered reasons for its difficulty (e.g., Juel, 1994;
Liberman & Liberman, 1990; Stanovich, 1986) and a variety of instructional
strategies for easing, speeding, and assessing its acquisition (e.g., Ball
& Blachman, 1991; Byrne & Fielding-Barnesley, 1989, 1991; Henry,
1989; Lundberg, Frost, & Petersen, 1988; Uhry & Shepard, 1993).
Moreover, it is because there is far, far more to literacy development
than recognizing the words that these lessons are of such crucial importance
to everyone in the business of reading education.
What is the Three-Cueing System
Over the last few years, I have
spent much time in schools around the country, working with teachers and
administrators. My challenge has been to tell them about these lessons
from research and their implications with respect to instruction. At some
point during such sessions, I am almost inevitably asked how what I have
said relates to the three-cueing system.
The first time I was hit with this
question, I naively asked what, specifically, my audience meant by "the
three-cueing system." Whose three-cueing system? Although nobody could
provide a reference, someone in my audience graciously drew a schematic
of the three-cueing system for me (see Figure 1).
I was greatly relieved. I understood
this schematic. It looked to be nothing more or less than a Venn diagram.
As such, its interpretation was straightforward. The intersection or overlap
of the circles of a Venn diagram correspond to a logical AND between the
sets its circles respectively represent. In logic, when an outcome depends
on any n umber of elements linked by AND, it means that if any of those
elements is missing, the outcome will not follow. Thus by depicting the
meaning of a text in the intersection of its semantic, syntactic, and gral2hol2honic
cues, the Venn diagram succinctly asserts that the meaning of a text depends
on all three; all three of these types of information are necessary, all
three must be properly processed, and not one of them can be safely ignored
or finessed except at the risk of forfeiting or distorting the meaning
of the text. Sometimes, as shown in Figure 1, a fourth cueing system, pragmatics,
is included to indicate that, in addition, getting to the author's point
from what she or he has literally written depends on the application of
practical knowledge and good sense.
Not only was the logic of this schematic
clear to me, its evident message was thoroughly familiar as well. That
the meaning of text is constructed by the reader as jointly determined
by its lexical, semantic, and syntactic constraints had been a central
theme of the reading literature in the late 1970s and early 1980s (examples
include Anderson & Pearson, 1984; Bransford, Barclay & Franks,
1972; Brown, Bransford, Ferrara, and Campione, 1983; Perfetti & Roth,
1977; Rumelhart, 1980; Rumelhart & Ortony, 1977; Sanford & Garrod,
198 1; Smith, 197 1; Stanovich, 1980). It was, as a matter of fact, a literature
to which 1, too, had contributed (Adams, 1980, 1982; Adams, M. J. Adams
Three-Cueing System Anderson, & Durkin, 1978; Adams & Bruce, 1982;
Adams & Collins; 1979; Huggins & Adams, 1980). I was delighted
to find that the essence of the researchers' collective effort had so enduringly
impressed the practitioners before me.
Feeling thus endorsed, I turned
attention to how each of the three "cueing systems" could mislead a reader
except as used in coordination with the others. To concretize the point,
I presented a number of examples and linguistic surprises; I showed how
the system explained a variety of confusions due to developmental difficulties
and crosslinguistic differences; and I led my audience to share examples
from their own classrooms and discuss their instructional implications.
This was happy, familiar territory, and I carried on for nearly an hour.
My audience was clearly interested. Yet, they also seemed a bit uncomfortable.
It was evident from their faces and posture that what I was saying differed
from what they were expecting in some fundamental way. Whatever they saw
as the main point of this schematic, I knew I was somehow missing it.
In fact, I understate the dissonance
in the room that day. When I asked these people what they meant by the
three-cueing system, they looked at me as though I were from Mars. They
were at least as embarrassed as 1. For indeed, how could I not know? How
could I present myself to them as an expert on early literacy and not know.
What was at issue here was clearly not any general notion of the interplay
of syntax, semantics, and graphophonenics but, rather, some particular,
specific version of this notion-one with which I was frankly unfamiliar.
The Source of the Three-Cueing System
From that day on, it seemed that
I encountered the three-cueing system at every turn. Not only was I asked
about it again and again, but I also found pictures of or allusions to
it in in-service materials across the country and at the center of a surprising
number of state and district reading/language arts documents. Though the
schematic differed slightly from one source to the next, the common ancestry
was apparent. Casually, at first, I began to collect examples (see Appendix
Idle curiosity it might have remained,
except that I soon found the three-cueing system getting in the way of
my efforts to communicate with practitioners more often than it helped.
The problem, to my mind, was not the schematic but some of the interpretations
that had become attached to it. Given the widespread familiarity of the
schematic in the community of practice, I wanted to correct and clarify
its intent. To do so, I needed to find the original. I was confident of
the original author's logical leanings and scholarship from the very fact
that she or he had chosen a Venn diagram as means of expression.
I began to search in earnest. In
addition to tackling the literature, I took to asking audiences everywhere
if they had encountered this schematic and if they could give me a source.
People gave me copies of the schematic instead, and my collection grew.
Still, in not one single instance, did the graphic include a citation of
Turning to the internet, I posted
a query to the TAWL (Teachers Applying Whole Language) list serve. A number
of people responded, indicating their familiarity with the schematic ("I'm
looking at it right now," wrote one). Some had hypotheses as to its original
author. Most prominently, these suggestions included Ken and Yetta Goodman,
Marie Clay, Don Holdaway, and Brian Cambourne. However, nobody was sure.
Notably, Ken Goodman, who is himself a frequent participant on the TAWL
list serve, seemed most perplexed of all.
In addition to asking practitioners,
I probed my colleagues in educational research, beginning with those whom
I have long revered as having near-encyclopedic knowledge of the literature.
As it turns out, the schematic was unfamiliar to most of them, as it had
been to me. Their best guesses as to its origin were by and large the same
as those offered by the TAWL subscribers. A few were certain they had seen
it before; they reached back into their minds with that pained look of
arduous recall. I became hopeful. But again, to no avail. In every one
of these cases, interestingly, what I ultimately got back was a pointer
to work by Lois Bloom. Indeed, Bloom did publish such a Venn triplet, twice.
In the first case (Bloom, 1970, p. 232), the circles are labeled "Cognitive
Perceptual Development ... .. Linguistic Experience," and "Nonlinguistic
Experience," and their overlap is labeled "Linguistic Competence." In the
second (Bloom & Lahey, 1978, p. 22), the three circles are labeled
"Form," "Content," and "Use," and their overlap as "Language." In other
words, Bloom's graphic was similar, but her topic was not. Bloom was not
the source I was seeking, but her repeated citation did affirm my faith
in these people's mental inventory of the literature they had read. Whatever
the true source of the three-cueing schematic, I was increasingly convinced
that it was not part of the mainstream academic repertoire.
As I continued my search, several
people suggested that the schematic's original printing had been in a publication
of the New Zealand Ministry of Education. Brian Cutting, now Educational
Director of the Wright Group/Sunshine Reading Programme and who has long
been centrally involved in reading practice, policy, and research in New
Zealand, valiantly volunteered to help me out on this front, but again
to no avail.
Among sources of consternation in
this quest was the frequency with which the schematic was used and the
similarity with which it was described in state and district reading documents.
Pushing this angle, I was told by several people that the schematic came
from the Frameworks group. This group operates through the Wayne-Finger
Lakes Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in New York with
funding from Rigby Education and the Children's Literacy Foundation, a
video-disc literacy in-service enterprise started by Ben Brady, founder
of Rigby of America. Featuring Jan Turbill, Andrea Butler, and Brian Cambourrie,
Frameworks is an outgrowth of Australia's "Early Literacy In-service Course"
(ELIC) and offers in-services throughout the country on staff development
and, in particular, on how to write a reading framework document.
Working from an advertisement in
the International Reading Association's newspaper, Reading Today, I called
the Frameworks office and requested information. They were very cordial,
but the information never came.
Turning again to the internet, I
submitted a query to the "Reading Specialists Online" at the Wright Group's
website. In response, one of their specialists, Katy Kane, posted a very
nice explanation of the origin and interpretive intent of the schematic
on the Wright Group's online Question and Answer page: The term "cueing
systems" comes from Ken and Yetta Goodman, Carolyn Burke, Marie Clay, Brian
Cambourne, and New Zealand's Reading in Junior Classes. Cueing systems
are assessed with running records (Clay) and reading miscue analysis (Goodman,
Watson, Burke, et al) to illustrate the strategies that readers have at
their disposal when confronting [unfamiliar words], how these strategies
are integrated, what readers do when they come to something they don't
know, what patterns emerge, how well readers self correct, and always and
ever, what does what they have read mean to them. The Venn diagram is used
and explained in Invitations (1994) by Regie Routman.
The version of the three-cueing
schematic that appears in Routman's (1988, 1994) books is included in Appendix
1. Of note, it is one of only two that I have been able to find in archival
journals or books as opposed to, for example, in-service handouts, framework
documents, and advertising copy. The other, which is also the oldest in
my collection, is from an article by David Pearson that first appeared
in Language Arts in 1976 and was later reprinted in an International Reading
Association volume on What Research Says Lo the Teacher (Samuels, 1983).
1 did not find this article on my own. Instead, it was sent to me by Pearson,
himself, in response to one of my end-of-talk queries. He assures me that
he created it on his own in 1976. Nevertheless, he, too, had been unaware
of the schematic's present-day ubiquity-and seemed wholly bemused by the
thought that it might have been he who started it. In any case, if this
article by Pearson (1976) is the original source for the three-cueing schematic,
then, insofar as I can tell, it lay dormant for over a decade.
The Significance of the Three-Cueing
Again, my concerns with the three-cueing
system relate not to the schematic, which I find wholly sensible insofar
as it goes. My concerns relate instead, and in two major ways, to the interpretations
so broadly attached to the schematic.
First, the three-cueing schematic
is sometimes presented as rationale for subordinating the value of the
graphophonernic information to syntax and semantics and, by extension,
for minimizing and even eschewing attention to the teaching, learning,
and use of the graphophonernic system. This interpretation directly contradicts
the logical import of the Venn diagram which, by virtue of its structure,
asserts that productive reading depends on the inter-working of all three
systems. More importantly in the context of instructional guidance for
teachers and school districts, such marginaliziation of the role of spelling
to speech correspondences is alarmingly discrepant with what research has
taught us about the knowledge and processes involved in learning to read.
My second major concern is that
discussion of the remaining two or three systems syntax, semantics, and
pragmatics-tends to be unproductively superficial in the discourse surrounding
the three-cueing schematic. Given the extreme, if inappropriate, share
of the reading load that is ascribed to these sophisticated systems, this
lack of guidance with respect to the instructional support that each warrants
is all the more troubling.
The Demise of the Graphophonemic
Pearson's 1976/1978 article might
well have been the original source not just of the three-cueing schematic
but also of the de-emphasis of spelling-sound instruction that so often
attends it. With respect to graphophonernic instruction, Pearson proposes
that teachers should "value most highly those phonics skill activities
which allow children to utilize the most semantic and syntactic information
while they are 'cracking the code,"' and, conversely, "value least highly
those phonics skill activities which are most isolated from context" (Pearson,
1978, p. 90). To anchor this argument, he writes, . Efficient readers maximize
their reliance on syntactic and semantic information in order to minimize
the amount of print to speech processing (call this decoding, phonic, or
grapho-phonemic analysis) they have to do.... For example, it doesn't take
much visual or grapho-phonemic information to confirm the hypothesis that
telescope fits into the sentence, "The astronomer looked through the _."
Presented in excerpt, however, the
force of such quotes may be misleading; in journal articles as in children's
literature, context matters. A full read of the paper assures that Pearson's
goal is one of promoting classroom support of semantic and syntactic factors
not instead of but relative to phonics. Thus, he clarifies, although initial
phonics instruction may need be conducted "in isolated contexts, we will
always require the intermediate phonics-in-context step p[Lor Lo the attempt
to have children transfer the skill to a real reading situation" (Pearson,
1978, p. 90). To illustrate this intermediate, phonics-in-context step,
he provides examples that look very much like traditional skills worksheets
and very little like the whole language activities of today; the suggested
activities are primarily designed to teach phonics, albeit with semantic
and/or syntactic support (e.g., given a picture of a can, choose the label:
can. cane). In overview, Pearson's intention seems not in the least to
dismiss or even diminish the teaching or learning of the graphophonernic
system. It is instead to criticize texts and activities that are made abstruse
or incomprehensible through emphasis of phonics elements to the exclusion
or at the expense of the other, potentially supportive dimensions of language
and learning. At the same time, he strives to emphasize the pedagogical
importance of providing enlightened instructional support for the other
Pearson (1976, 1978) attributes
the inspiration for his three-cueing system graphicor at least the ideas
that the graphic was intended to capture-to a book by Frank Smith (1975).
Smith, I would agree, deserves singular credit for the philosophy that
spellings and spelling/sound correspondences are essentially irrelevant
to reading or leaning to read (see Adams, 1991). On the other hand, insofar
as I can determine, in neither that book nor any of his others, has Smith
discussed reading in terms of semantic, syntactic, and graphophonernic
Rather, the description of reading
in terms of semantic, syntactic, and graphophonernic cueing systems seems
best attributed to early work by Ken Goodman (e.g., 1970a, reprinted in
Smith, 1973; Goodman, 1970b, reprinted in Singer & Ruddell, 1976).
Each of the systems, Goodman explains, is necessary and used simultaneously
in the reading process.
The graphophonic system, Goodman
continues, is particularly useful for beginning readers as they are developing
control over written language. Drawing on their oral language competence,
children "recode graphic input as speech" such that "the alphabetic character
of the writing system makes it possible to match sound sequences already
known with less familiar graphic sequences" (Goodman, 1976, p. 48 1). The
print-to speech route, he suggests, falls to secondary or back-up status
only as the reader becomes proficient and, even then, he points out, "there
is some echo of speech involved as the reader proceeds even in silent reading.,
At times, the reader may find it helpful to recode print as speech and
then [construct its meaning]" (p. 482).
Meanwhile in his model, which he
emphasizes "represents the 12roficient reader" (Goodman, 1976, p. 483),
the process of rapidly sampling, predicting, and comprehending the text
is continually monitored and adjusted through instant, easy access to words
from their spellings and, as needed, spelling-sound correspondences. Given
that the model "also represents the competence which is the goal of reading
instruction" (p. 483), he quite reasonably cautions that restricting children's
early instruction to isolated words and meaningless phonic elements is,
at best, shortsighted. Goodman's thesis, in short, is that instruction
should be designed with sensitive awareness that as readers gain in skill,
their active attention is devoted less and less to sounding out words and
more and more to the higher-order nuances and import of the text. In this
spirit, he also provides more insightful and sophisticated discussion of
the kinds of support warranted than I have seen in any recent text. Within
the present discussion, however, the point is that neither can contemporary
dismissal of spelling-sound instruction be traced to Goodman's early work.
If Routman (1978, 1994) borrowed
the three-cueing system schematic from Pearson (1976), she does not mention
him. Nor does she credit Goodman. Instead she attributes her inspiration
to Holdaway (1979) and, indeed, Holdaway's express view of the utility
of graphophonemic information is extreme.
Holdaway begins his discussion of
graphophonernic cues with an example:' "An illuminating exercise to place
oneself in a similar position to the beginning reader ... by using our
own alphabetic code with deprived cues" (1979, p. 91). Through an exercise
suitable to the London Times, he therewith purports to demonstrate the
superfluousness of letters and spelling-sound correspondences. He then
walks us, insight by insight, through an explanation of how it is that
the full and complete wording of the following sentence leaps to mind,
almost instantly and with incontestably clarity:
The exercise is intended to demonstrate
not merely our scant dependence on letters while reading-only 12 of the
39 letters of this sentence are available-but, further, that what letter
information we do use, need entail "no necessary phonic involvement" (Holdaway,
1979, p. 93). Instead, he assures us, our ready success in understanding
the sentence is the product of nothing more than our deep and ready knowledge
of the semantic and syntactic constraints of text. Plus our faith that
the author would not write so as to foil or confuse our initial expectations.
And solid sense of the informational value of word length and configuration
cues. Along with an ability to parse words into roots and affixes given
the scantiest visual cues. Complemented by a prodigious sense of the distributional
properties and redundancies of English spelling.
Holdaway's exercise is fun. It sparkles
with energy and intelligence as does his text throughout. His encrypted
sentence (which, by the way, is intended to read, "Letters are not the
only clues to unknown words") is a clever springboard for discussing the
layers upon layers of redundancy that characterize written language. As
a developmental analogy, however, it is unconvincing at best: The knowledge
and processes he leads us to use in its decryption are not remotely available
to the beginning reader. Nevertheless, this exercise is the departure point
from which Holdaway builds his theory of how the reading process works
and the instructional recommendations on which Routman, in turn, builds
Routman's books, Transitions (1988)
and Invitations (1994), in which she shares the attitudes and process of
becoming a whole language teacher, are extremely popular among practitioners.
Her treatment of phonics in her first book, Transitions (1988), is full
of angst and ambivalence. On one hand, she acknowledges the pressure, from
both within the educational community and without, that phonics be taught
first and well; on the other, she is concerned that this pressure is misguided.
On one hand, she reports that the teaching of phonics had been the main
emphasis of her pre-service and graduate training; on the other, she has
just read, and been strongly impressed with, Holdaway's (1979) book. On
one hand, she cites the validation of phonics instruction by the then recent
report of the National Commission on Reading (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott,
& Wilkinson, 1985), Becoming A Nation of Readers; on the other, she
does not see how such phonics emphasis can be reconciled with the report's
tandem recommendation for the use of more meaningful, memorable stories
with beginners. Although she has heard "enthusiastic talk by salesmen of
'predictable text,' 'meaningful story,' and 'real literature,"' the basal
textbooks she has seen are still "driven by skills and phonics" (1988,
p. 23). She disdains the detailed teacher manuals that accompany the basals
as "demeaning to teachers and to children. They discourage independent
thought and imply that teachers and students are not to be trusted" (p.
24). Yet she also reports with satisfaction her past pleasure and success
in using Recipe -for Reading (Traub & Bloom, 1975), a phonics supplement
in which skills are taught explicitly, systematically, and in isolation.
Routman observes that good readers
both know and use phonics well. In contrast, nearly all poor readers struggle
with phonics and, when reading meaningful text, this struggle directly
detracts from their capacity for comprehension. The epiphany came, she
claims, in the course of her experience as a Reading Recovery trainee.
There she has witnessed beginners who "became competent readers by relying
primarily on meaninge specially picture cues-and memory for text" and "without
ever having mastered short vowels and other phonics generalizations" (19-88,
p. 45). The paradox, to her mind, was resolved. "Effective readers," she
concludes, "use all three cueing systems interdependently. Ineffective
readers tend to rely too heavily upon graphophonic cues" (p. 41). Moreover,
she explains, "It has become crystal clear to me-and it has taken about
ten years to come to this understanding-that children learn phonics best
after they can already read. I am convinced that the reason our good readers
are good at phonics is that in their being able to read they can intuitively
make sense of phonics" (p. 44).
Thus, in her second book, Invitations
(1994, p. 147), Routman presents the three cueing schematic with the following
introduction: Proficient readers function with an interdependence between
the three cueing systems: semantics, syntax, and grapho-phonics. Semantic
cues (context: what makes sense) and syntactic cues (structure and grammar:
what sounds right grammatically) are strategies the reader needs to be
using already in order for phonics (letter-sound relationships: what looks
right visually and sounds right phonetically) to make sense .... While
phonics is integral to the reading process, it is subordinate to semantics
and syntax. (This is apparently why the graphophonic system is depicted
beneath the other two in her version of the diagram. Note, however, that
the position of the circles is formally of no significance to the logic
of a Venn diagram. What matters is only whether they overlap partly, totally,
or not at all with each other and the outcome of interest.)
The major reason for poor readers'
over-reliance on graphophonic cues, Routman surmises, is its instructional
overemphasis by their parents and teachers. To help teachers discourage
parents from asking their children to sound words out, she provides a reproducible
letter (see Appendix 2), entitled, "Ways to Help your Child with Reading
at Home" (1994, p. 200b). I ask that you read through the recommendations
in this letter to parents: Phonics truly seems the last resort.
To help teachers deal with unknown
words without directing attention to graphophonernic cues, Routman provides
a similar reproducible set of guidelines for the classroom (1994, p. 226b).
In addition, she describes a few ways of introducing various phonic elements
in what she deems proper subordination to other literacy goals. Although
some of these activities are similar to those proposed by Holdaway (1979),
the differences are also noteworthy. First, Holdaway's recommendations
were intended principally for kindergarten children and motivated by his
experience with Maori children who approached the challenge of learning
to read with much trepidation and little notion of what it was all about.
Routman's recommendations are directed to teachers across the kindergarten
and primary grades. Second, although Holdaway uses context for motivation
and support, he gradually does expose and exercise the full logic of the
alphabetic system, if somewhat haphazardly. Routman's (1994) activities,
in contrast, are focused on initial and final consonants: The vowels, she
submits, are generally unnecessary for printed word recognition, and their
evident difficulty should convince us that beginning readers are not developmentally
ready for them anyhow. In refusing the vowels and focusing instead on bits
and pieces of occasional words, Routman's approach not only denies the
utility of the alphabetic principle but falls to reveal its basic logic
and structure. Routman frequently acknowledges the difficulty of pursuing
her avowed instructional course:
It has taken me well over ten years
to feel completely comfortable with this approach. One thing that eased
my further transition was holding onto the spelling workbooks for a while
after I had long given up phonics worksheets. Knowing that the skills were
still being covered relieved my conscience and helped my comfort level.
Like many teachers, I did not believe children would really learn to read
without a heavy dose of phonics first. (1994,p.149)
Encountering such remarks again
and again, I kept wondering if the reason she was able to make the switch
complete was because she had become a resource teacher. Visiting classrooms
only "by invitation" to give demonstration lessons, she was no longer responsible
for monitoring the children's larger developmental progress. In any case,
here is a note Routman received from a regular first-grade teacher:
I did more phonics in context this
year, noting beginning and ending sounds and digraphs in chart poems and
Bic, Books. The kids really like the big charts we made where they could
add their own words, but I am still struggling to find a balance in teaching
phonics. I find myself feeling pressure from some of the second grade teachers
who expect kids to arrive with solid word attack skills. Also, I feel guilty
for not giving spelling tests. When I'm teaching all the phonics sounds,
I feel as through I'm teaching spelling too. I still teach phonics separately
even though I don't see kids transferring the skills. I notice that every
time I pull a sound out of context, two or three kids give me an example
of a word that doesn't fit the rule at all. I'm still not comfortable with
the way I handle phonics. (1994, p. 157)
Having reprinted this letter
so as to encourage others to take heart, Routman consoles,
"Most of us seem to find the transition
from prescribed phonics in isolation to teaching meaningful phonics in
the context of literature very difficult and slow going. It may be reassuring
to know that most teachers are struggling with making phonics teaching
more relevant and applicable to reading and writing" (1994, p. 157).
Whether Routman's text is
its source or echo, this attitude about the disruptiveness of phonics and
its instruction is one that is very broadly held in the field. Appendix
3 shows a tabular summary of the three-cueing system, used in inservice
sessions provided by the California Early Literacy Learning (CELL) Project
which is affiliated with the Reading Recovery center at the San Bernardino
campus of the California State University. Note, in particular, the admonition
at top: "Let's all work together to avoid the phrase, 'sound it out'!"
According to David Pesetsky, a professor in the Linguistics Department
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it was an in-school poster
very like Routman's letter to parents, along with his first-grade son's
steadfast insistence that he was not to sound words out, that initially
triggered his own concern about how reading was being taught. Seeking an
audience for that concern, first in his son's classroom, then in his son's
school, then at the district level, he was ultimately given a copy of the
proposed Reading Curriculum Framework for the State of Massachusetts--only
to find the phonics-last philosophy promoted in that document as well.
The result was the famous letter
from 40 linguists and psycholinguists to the Massachusetts Secretary of
Education (see Appendix 4). The focus of the linguists' protest is the
document's promotion of the view that "the decoding of written words plays
a relatively minor role in reading compared to strategies such as contextual
guessing. This treats the alphabetic nature of our writing system as little
more than an accident, when in fact it is the most important property of
written English." They conclude: We are concerned that the Commonwealth,
through its powers to set standards for schools, should presume to legislate
an erroneous view of how human language works, a view that runs counter
to most of the major scientific results of more than 100 years of linguistics
and psycholinguistics. We are even more concerned that uninformed thinking
about language should lie at the heart of a "standards" document for Massachusetts
schools. (See Appendix 4) Broadly circulated via the internet and in part,
no doubt, because of the world renown of many of its individual signers,
this letter quickly found its way into policy forums on reading across
the country. In Massachusetts, it was singularly responsible for the retraction
and rewriting of the state's language arts framework to include due acknowledgement
of the importance of teaching children to how to understand and use phonics.
Routman's observation that good
readers, as a group, are quite facile with phonics is correct. Yet her
conjecture that this is because they are good readers is just backwards.
Again, scientific research argues incontrovertibly that becoming a good
reader depends on understanding and using spellings and spelling-sound
correspondences and, conversely, that poorly developed knowledge or facility
with spellings and spellingsound correspondences is the most pervasive
cause of reading delay or disability (Rack, Snowling, & Olson, 1992;
Stanovich, 1986). Research further demonstrates th at, with the exception
of no more than 1-3% of children, reading disability can be prevented through
well-designed early instruction (Vellutino et al., 1996). However, such
instruction must include attention to phonics, and is most effective when
it includes explicit, systematic instruction on the alphabetic principle,
including phonemic awareness and on the spelling-sound patterns and conventions
of English, as well as an active emphasis on practicing and using that
knowledge both in isolation and in the context of meaningful reading and
writing (Bond & Dykstra, 1966; Brown & Felton, 1990, Chall, 1967;
Foorman et al, 1997).
The Diminution of the Other Cueing
Given that the principal argument
for the de-emphasis of phonics instruction has been that children are in
greater need of developing their sensitivity to the syntactic, semantic,
and pragmatic cues of text, one might expect an attendant surge in the
amount and rigor of instruction on the latter. Yet, quite the opposite
has happened. I had struggled with resulting problems a number of times
from a number of angles and in a number of different situations before
I realized them as part of the same elephant. One such encounter occurred
as I was reviewing a draft language arts framework for one of the state
departments of education. The topic was that of supporting vocabulary knowledge.
The text did a laudable job of explaining the importance of ensuring that
children possessed the background knowledge on which productive understanding
of a word's meaning depended. However, the text neglected to mention anything
about helping the children add the words per se to their vocabularies.
I wrote a comment to this effect. But it went unheeded. On the next draft,
I provided a carefully worded insert to the same effect. Still it was not
accepted. I ran into this same oversight again as a worked on the reading
advisory for another state. This time I was a legitimate co-author of the
document, so I exercised the prerogative of adding the point:
Written language places far greater
demands on people's vocabulary knowledge than does casual spoken language.
Indeed, more advanced texts depend so heavily on precise wordino to build
meanincy and message that, from the middle grades on, students' reading
comprehension can be closely estimated by measures of their vocabulary.
Students will be able to learn from these texts only if they approach them
with most of the vocabulary they require. (California Department of Education,
1996, p. 9). The text goes on to discuss both the prospects of expanding
one's vocabulary through reading, as explored by Nagy, Anderson, &
Herman, (1987), as well as the potency of Matthew effects (the rich get
richer) in understanding and retaining new vocabulary items (e.g., Robbins
& Ehri, 1994), and suggests, quite sensibly I thought, that "Beginning
in kindergarten, vocabulary growth should be actively supported in the
classroom" (p. 10). Not long thereafter, I received an unauthorized copy
of an email that had been circulating through the state internet referring
to "Marilyn Adams's pernicious use of Nagy's vocabulary data." I didn't
get it. I wrote to Bill Nagy. He didn't get it either.
I had a similar experience in critiquing
the explanation of semantic cues in one of these draft frameworks. The
text explained that semantic cues "are meaning cues used as readers bring
their knowledge of the world, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs to the printed
page." Correcting what again seemed to me to be nothing more than an oversight,
I suggested the most minor edit: Semantic cues "are meaning cues used as
readers bring their knowledge of the meanings of words and of the world,
feelings, attitudes, and beliefs to the printed page." Again, the insert
was rejected. How strange. After all, in cognitive psychology, the distributed
semantics of words are held to be the starting points from which the meaning
of text is constructed.
One of the fundamental tenets of
the three-cueing rhetoric is that readers must learn to monitor their comprehension
as they read. Thus, in the typical exposition of the threecueing system,
a question is provided with each system. For the semantic cues, readers
are to ask, "Does it make sense?" For the syntactic system, they are to
ask, "Does it sound like language?" And for the pragmatic system, they
are to ask, "Is this the language that should be used in this situation?"
Encountering these questions in the draft framework on which I was working,
it seemed to me that each could be augmented so as to give teachers better
guidance as to comprehension difficulties associated with its system. With
this thought in mind, I added to the semantic question, "Do I understand
to what the author is referring?" To the syntactic question, I added, "Do
I understand how the author wants me to interrelate the concepts s/he has
But I balked at the question provided
for the pragmatic system. Pragmatic sensitivity is about the larger meaning
and message of the text. It is about understanding why the author chooses
to say what she or he says and how she or he chooses to say it. It is about
the author's point and point of view. In Goodman's words, it is about "the
subtle differences between the straightforward and the sarcastic, the profane
and the profound, the humorous and the serious" ( 1976, p. 832). Pragmatic
processing, in short, is Just another term for metacotgnitive processing.
As such, and more so than for any of the other systems, sensitivity to
pragmatics depends on readers' willingness and ability to examine the language,
the cohesion, and the nuances of the text and to bring their own background
knowledge actively and critically to bear. Of all the questions one might
provide to clarify the role and importance of pragmatic processing, why
in the world would the first choice be: "Is this the language that should
be used in this situation?"
And then it hit me. In discussions
of pragmatics within the three-cueing rhetoric, the standard explanation
is that proficient readers, having experienced language in many contexts,
are familiar with the kinds of words and language that are used in informal
versus formal situations, in literature versus science, and so on. In other
words, the question, "Is this the language that should be used in this
situation?", is not intended to guide readers' pragmatic understanding
of the text at all. It is instead intended exactly and only to remind them
to use any such understanding they might have as means of assessing whether
they have misidentified a word.
I was stunned. Yet, when I looked
again, the questions attached to the other systems had the same character.
None of these questions was directed toward supporting or strengthening
the children's comprehension skills. The semantic question had nothing
to do with prodding readers to monitor or extend their understanding of
the text. The question is not "Does the text make sense given the words
I've read?" but, instead, "Does this word make sense given my understanding
of the text?" In view of this, the strong emphasis on choosing literature
that matches students' prior knowledge and interests is understandable.
However, the converse message-that comprehension instruction integrally
involves building students' background knowledge and vocabulary so as to
meet the demands of new textstends to get lost. The latter message was
among the focal points of both Pearson's (1976) and Goodman's (1970b) works.
It was, moreover, among the central and critical lessons of schema theory.
Similarly, the syntax of written
text is important and tricky. Syntax is language's formal means of communicating
the intended relations between concepts and events, as in the difference
between "Students who like school get good grades" versus "Students who
get good grades like school." In reading essays and informational texts,
where the motive is to create new understandings and knowledge by building
new relationships between familiar concepts, syntax is vital. In understanding
algebra. problems, syntax is almost all that matters; whether the problem
is about a plane in the wind or a riverboat in a current is only incidental
with respect to the mathematics at issue. Learning to use the syntactic
cues of text well is not easy. Yet, the syntactic issue in focus with the
question "Does is sound right?" is only that some strings of words are
permissible in English, and some are not. The purpose of the question is
only to alert the reader to syntactically anomalous word recognition errors.
I finally understood why my audience
looked so puzzled on that first run-in with the threecueing system. They
had been operating on the belief that the semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic
cues were straightforward and familiar to children, and, because of this,
were wholly available for use in finessing the graphophonernic system,
which was complicated and unfamiliar. It had never occurred to them that
there was much to teach or learn about the semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic
cues involved in skillful reading. What I was saying must have been totally
disorienting to these people.
If the intended message of the three-cueing
system was originally that teachers should take care not to overemphasize
phonics to the neglect of comprehension, its received message has broadly
become that teachers should minimize attention to phonics lest it compete
with comprehension. If the original premise of the three-cueing system
was that the reason for reading the words is to understand the text, it
has since been oddly converted such that, in effect, the reason for understanding
the text is in order to figure out the words. How did this happen?
My reason for quoting so extensively
from Routman's (1988, 1994) text was to convey a sense of how the three-cueing
belief system is realized in the field-in terms of both its classroom practice
and the arduous commitment of its practitioners. Although Regie Routman
is extremely influential among practitioners, I do not believe her books
to be the source of this widespread belief system. First, if they were,
more people would have cited Routman as a source of the schematic. Yet,
of the many, many people I asked, only one did so. Second, the very fact
that there are so many slightly different versions of the schematic around
suggests that people's knowledge of it is not coming from a book. Given
the option, after all, it is much easier to cut and paste than to draw
a graphic anew. Third, marginal interpretations of the three-cueing schematic
are also too scattered for me to believe they are a product of book-learning.
For example, in the core curriculum of one district with which I worked,
cursive writing and spelling conventions are given as instances of the
syntactic cueing system; inasmuch as the syntactic cueing system was explained
as knowledge about the order and structure of language, these errors were
understandable--except for the fact that syntax has nothing to do with
the order or structural properties of letters.
Again, the simplifications and distortions
that the three-cueing system has suffered are uncharacteristic of the fate
of written information. My hypothesis is, instead, that the three-cueing
system has principally proliferated through inservices, workshops, and
conferences, and that it is through that process that its interpretation
has been changed and its heritage forgotten. Such forums have become a
common mode of inservice education in recent years:
With some exceptions, university-
and college-level literacy courses have not kept pace with the widespread
implementation of process instruction. Instead, process instruction has
been largely a grassroots movement spreading from coast to coast. Organized
teacher groups, known as Teachers Applying Whole Language (TAWL), have
sprung up everywhere ... and have served as support groups for those implementing
whole language. The majority of teachers not involved in these groups,
however, has relied primarily on information learned from institutes, workshops,
and conferences conducted by whole language and writing process advocates.
In many cases, teachers attending these meetings have taught other teachers
in their school districts.
While the enthusiasm of teachers
teaching teachers is commendable, the short-term nature of such training
presents a unique problem; it virtually assures that only the rudimentary
elements of these theories can be presented. (Reyes, 1992, p 429)
Consistent with Reyes's (1992) lament,
the sobering revelation of this story is the profound breach in information
and communication that separates the teaching and research communities.
In the world of practice, the widespread subscription to the belief system
that the three-cueing diagram has come to represent has wreaked disaster
on students and hardship on teachers. At the same time, it is the underlying
cause of not insi-nificant distrust and ill-will between teachers, teacher
educators, and researchers. Yet, while teachers widely believe that the
lore of the three-cueing system is based on the best of current research,
researchers are barely aware of its existence, nature, or influence. The
lesson of the story is thus clear and urgent. We must work together to
rebuild the bridge, socially and intellectually, between those involved
in research and practice. Toward regaining respect for as well as the productivity,
morale, and forward momentum of our educational system, there may be no
more important effort we can undertake.
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