3P versus 3-cueing: Why recommend one and shun the other?

  • Pause, Prompt, Praise (3P) 3-cueing oral reading fluency text reading fluency
  • 09 January, 2021

Teacher question:

Can you explain the difference between 3P (Pause, Prompt, Praise) and 3 cueing? I know you encourage one and discourage the other, but they seem to be the same thing to me. Help. 

 Shanahan reply:

At Shanahan on Literacy, we strive for consistency. Let’s see if we can get this straightened out.

First, let’s make sure we understand what these two trios are about.

Pause, Prompt, Praise (3P or PPP or P3) is used to guide oral reading practice (Glynn, 2002). Research has shown that having students read challenging texts aloud with support and repetition improves reading achievement (NICHD, 2000). 3P tells the reading partner how to help.

When a reader errs, 3P encourages the listener to pause to give readers a chance to fix the problem themselves. Let the reader get to the end of the phrase or sentence before intervening.

Prompting comes next. The student has erred and done nothing about it. Guidance is needed. In 3P, there are a couple of possibilities. One, tell the reader to look more closely at the word, to sound it out, or to break it up into parts and sound it out. In other words, encourage more accurate decoding. This is great for when youngsters read pony for horse, or only sound the beginning letters.

But if the reader makes a good faith effort to sound out a word and failed, then a different feedback is needed. An example of this is when the reader reads ballet as “ball-et” (rhyming with ball-net). The reader has fully analyzed the orthography, taken account of all of the letters, and come up with a reasonable pronunciation (if you doubt that think of, “bullet”). Telling the reader to sound it out or break it into syllables won’t help much in this case.

Here a meaning-based prompt is needed:  Does that make sense?

The third P refers to praise. If the child does something well, say so. Doing things well includes reading the text fluently, erring and trying to fix it, and using a prompt successfully.

Results from 3P are positive and research shows that teachers who tailor their cues to the students’ reading tend to be most effective (Pflaum & Pascarella, 1980).

Now for 3-cueing systems. The idea here is that word identification is a kind of guessing game, with three different clues or cues.

The cues are orthographic-phonemic (the letters and sounds), semantic (the meaning), and syntax (the grammar of the sentences). The idea is to teach students how to use all of these cues in combination to read words – though often there tends to be a greater emphasis on meaning when teachers do this. Thus, if the student replaces “horse” with “pony” or “automobile” with “car,” proponents of 3-cueing systems may judge that to be close enough since meaning is the goal of reading (though this approach clearly makes a hash of nuanced meaning—horses and ponies aren’t really the same thing).

In the 3-cueing scheme, students are often provided a set of steps or strategies to use when reading. For instance, “Look at the pictures” or “skip the word and reread” or “try a word that makes sense” or “look at the first letter and guess.” In the “ballet” example above, one can imagine a teacher encouraging the child to look at the pictures and “dance” might be accepted.

There are successful instructional schemes that use 3-cueing systems (think Reading Recovery), though the value of that part of their approach has never been tested independently so we can’t tell if it contributes anything to learning.

Studies have shown that students who recognize words by looking at the pictures or trying to use context to guess the word tend to be the poorest readers, however (Stanovich, West, & Freeman, 1981).

So your confusion is most likely arising from that meaning-oriented prompt in 3P. It sure sounds like the same guessing game – and, there is no question, that a teacher could implement it that way.

Guidance to sound pedagogy on this is based in the concept of a “mental set for variability or diversity” (Gibson & Levin, 1975). Mental set refers to our tendency to rely on solutions that have worked in the past. When a toddler knows “doggy”, don’t be surprised if the next 4-legged animal he sees is called “doggy” even if it moos. People try generalizing from past success which can lead to rigidity and overgeneralization – trying to use a particular fixed solution even when it doesn’t work.

When it comes to reading, if I know how to sound out words reasonably well, then my pronunciation of ballet may come out somewhat closer to “ball-it” then to “bal-lay.”

English is a rich and complex language, in part because it borrows so many words from other languages. In this case, the “et” spelling that sounds like /ay/ is a French contribution that comes up a lot in English – ballet, beret, bouquet, chalet, ricochet, crochet, and the homographic buffet (thanks, William the Conqueror).

Given the complexities of the English language, psychologists have concluded that the best readers must develop a mental set for diversity rather than a mental set for consistency.

Good readers have greater flexibility when it comes to decoding words. The reader who learns to expect consistency will pronounce “ball-it” and have no other choice but to turn to meaning to straighten things out. In that kind of uncertain world, looking at the picture and guessing “dance” is probably as well as one can do.

Good readers on the other hand try out a pronunciation, and if that doesn’t make sense, they try another one that is legal in the English language. They use meaning, or the failure to make meaning, as a signal that another pronunciation alternative should be considered.

In 3-cueing, the lack of meaning is not a signal to work through one’s alternative orthographic-phonological choices. It is the guide that is supposed to help you determine what the word is.

In 3P, one could use the meaning guidance in that way, of course. But that’s not what I would recommend. The lack of meaning (does that make sense?) should be supported by further guidance – not to context or pictures – but to pronunciation alternatives.

Such oral reading guidance should be supported by high quality, explicit, systematic decoding instruction.

A terrific phonics lesson would be to explore “et” spellings, comparing /et/ and /ay/words… analyzing them, sorting them, talking about them, spelling them, and so on. That would reveal to young readers these two options for pronouncing words with that spelling pattern.

Another relevant lesson would be stress what to do when the pronunciation that you came up with seems wrong. What are the pronunciation alternatives? Have your tried them?

We want students to depend upon the orthographic-phonological system when reading words. We support that by teaching decoding and through guided oral reading practice. Meaning plays a crucial role in oral reading, but not the role 3-cueing accords it. The point is to develop readers with a mental set for variability… learning that if one alternative pronunciation fails, you must try another (not that if one type of cue doesn’t work, you should try another type of cue).

Good readers flexibly work through alternative pronunciations, relying on what they know about the letters, spelling patterns, and phonemes to guide each of their choices.

Poor readers may use some orthographic-phonemic information when they try a word, but if that fails, they seek ways to solve their problem without reading (like guessing from pictures—that’s not reading, of course, but it might provide a right answer in a pinch, and the social situation of schooling too often rewards getting the right answer over learning).  

Good readers use meaning to determine if they made the right choice – and if they didn’t, there needs to be more analysis of the orthography/phonology. Poor readers use meaning to try to figure out the word, instead of using the orthography/phonology (Stanovich, West, & Freeman, 1981).

We need to teach students about the phonological-orthographic system and its relationship to morphology explicitly so they will have a rich knowledge base available when it comes to alternative pronunciations.

We need to build up statistical sensitivity to these spelling/pronunciation patterns through lots of reading experience (and not just with supposedly “decodable text” – all text is decodable), so students will have some notions about which pronunciation choices are most likely to work (Seidenberg, 2017).

We need to build up a flexibility through how we guide oral reading that encourages students to recognize when a different spelling-pronunciation pattern might be the better choice.   

3P can be a good way to contribute to that progression of learning, as long as the meaning cue is used properly. 3-cueing, on the other hand, is just a bad idea that encourages readers to mimic poor reading rather than proficient reading.


Gibson, E.J., & Levin, H. (1975). The psychology of reading. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Glynn, T. (2002). Pause Prompt Praise: Reading tutoring procedures for home and school partnership. London: Routledge.

Pflaum, S., & Pascarella, E. (1980). Interactive Effects of Prior Reading Achievement and Training in Context on the Reading of Learning-Disabled Children. Reading Research Quarterly, 16, 138.

Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight. New York: Basic Books.

Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F., & Freeman, D. J. (1981). A longitudinal study of sentence context effects in second-grade children: Tests of an interactive-compensatory model. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 32, 185-199.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Harriett Jan 09, 2021 06:16 PM

"We want students to depend upon the orthographic-phonological system when reading words. We support that by teaching decoding and through guided oral reading practice. Meaning plays a crucial role in oral reading, but not the role 3-cueing accords it. The point is to develop readers with a mental set for variability… learning that if one alternative pronunciation fails, you must try another (not that if one type of cue doesn’t work, you should try another type of cue)."

You can't say this often enough. Thank you!

Don Potter Jan 09, 2021 06:47 PM

Thanks for this exquisitely nuanced and eminently practical comparison.

Miriam Giskin Jan 09, 2021 08:35 PM

I now see that when I was teaching I was in fact using 3P, thinking it was in the context of 3 cueing because obviously we wouldn't have student's just guess randomly! I never understood why people took such issue with the cueing because obviously you are always going to teach the student what he needs to do to decode the word but that doesn't mean he can't look at the picture! I took it as a given even when teaching whole language in the '80s that I was to teach phonics too and used Open Court Wall Sound cards right along with my homemade big books. It never occured to me not to teach students to decode and I never understood why the Great Debate was such a debate. (even though I was trained at the HGSE reading lab while Jeanne Chall was still the director!) Thanks.

Holly Lane Jan 09, 2021 10:36 PM

Thanks for this excellent explanation of the distinction between effective and ineffective practices. It does make me wonder whether the widespread use of the 3-cueing approach might have emerged from some fundamental misunderstandings of the findings from research supporting 3P?

Silvia Lopez Jan 10, 2021 07:04 PM

Hello so I would I apply this to EL students which different phonemes and may lack vocabulary to even get from pony to horse?

Ann Christensen Jan 11, 2021 12:17 AM

The sequence for 3-cueing is teach, prompt, reinforce. I like the idea of adding pause first. That gives the teacher a chance to choose the most effective prompt. The picture doesn’t reveal a word, it creates a context for the text.
As you note, teacher knowledge is essential for them to be able to assist the child in taking action on the text.
Teaching the child how to act on text is what we do. Asking a child to check a misread word by looking at the word is common practice. “You read horse. Look at the word. Does that match what you said? Let’s sound it out.”
Working on sounding out happens during writing and reading. Teaching for transfer, and reinforcing (or praising) the cognitive action increases the child’s metacognition and the likelihood of repetition. I have never seen F&P, Dorn, or Clay encourage guessing.
And finally...
I fail to understand why you degrade the work that has been done, rather than seeing it as part of the scientific process of problem solving. Finding ever more effective treatments for cancer does not make all the oncologists that applied earlier solutions guilty of malpractice.
Does it?

Carol Gallegos Jan 11, 2021 01:25 AM

Many of us use the 3 cue system along with a 3P approach. As a former Reading Recovery teacher, this was a part of the training. Wait to see if the student can resolve without intervening, use a prompt based on a gradual release if needed, and definitely use explicit praise to acknowledge what the reader is doing well, so that reader will know he is doing something well and know what it was. Instruction is frequently not black and white. The most effective literacy teachers have a variety of tools to address needs. As Marie Clay (2000) once said, "If children are unable to learn, we should assume that we have not as yet found the right way to teach them." Being too stuck on a single methodology leads to the belief that something is wrong with the child instead of being willing to evaluate and adjust our own practice. I typically use 3 cues, 3 Ps, and I am a fan of phonics for most kids. But I have experienced poor readers who learned to decode at the expense of hating to read as well as poor readers who learned to love to read once the "right way" to teach them was uncovered. One shouldn't be closed off to a method that works for some because the next struggling reader to be worked with might be that one. If there were one magic method that worked for all, the would be far fewer struggling readers in the world. In my experience, some methods are effective in the hands of an effective teacher using the method well and ineffective in the hands of a teacher employing the method poorly.

Tim Shanahan Jan 11, 2021 03:35 AM

Yes, if the word is far off you might in 3 cueing guide the student to sounded it out, but meaning cues tend to predominate and since the goal is meaning a reasonable meaning based guess is usually acceptable.the point here is that the cues always need to be to work with letters and sounds.


Tim Shanahan Jan 11, 2021 03:37 AM

Indeed, when it comes to reading words you have to learn to treat English like Spanish and try to sound it out. Of course, instruction needs to continue to build English language fir these students,


Tim Shanahan Jan 11, 2021 03:38 AM


3 cueing is from 1960s, 3P firm 1980s.


Tim Shanahan Jan 11, 2021 03:41 AM

Experience tells us that kids who don’t learn to decode hate reading (and hate RR teachers). Better to teach kids to read than to pretend to read, the key here is whether you prompt appropriately not whether you pause prompt and reinforce, you are promoting a view of reading processes from the 1960s. We know more now so should do better.


Alison Clarke Jan 11, 2021 05:34 AM

Thanks for your emphasis on teaching kids to try different possible sounds in words, and think this is something that is very under-taught. Many kids who have been taught "letter sounds" think that each letter/spelling represents only one sound, and don't know what to do apart from guess from context when that doesn't work. I see a lot of autistic kids, who aren't known for their cognitive flexibility, so I have to be very upfront about the many-spellings-represent-more-than-one-sound thing, and actively teach them to flex.

If a child is reading aloud and reads "ballet" incorrectly, I would never use the 3P prompt, "Does that make sense?" because it encourages the child to abandon accurate decoding at the first hurdle, and encourages partial decoding then guessing from context, just like 3-cueing. I find it more useful to:
1. Say "good try" (they got half the sounds right, and the most likely sounds for the other letters),
2. Provide them with the sounds they missed ("say /a/ here, and say /ay/ here" while pointing to the relevant letters), then allow/assist them to blend the sounds to arrive at the correct word.
3. If need be I could then show them the same French ending spelling in words like sachet, valet, sorbet and camembert (or save that for later), then check they know what 'ballet' means if it's not obvious they do, before reading on.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 11, 2021 04:37 PM

From the beginning Clay endorsed the idea of meaning cues to guide reading. I reviewed the program back in the 1980s and it was already there at that time, and that seemed sensible. Research has accumulated since then indicating that meaning cues are problematic... that approach is still heavily emphasized in RR lessons and in many other programs today. (Clay's text on RR went through several editions; the decoding aspects of her program had been vestigial initially, but increased in the late 1990s.


Laurie Lees Jan 11, 2021 02:10 PM

I have been teaching for 35 years and am currently a reading specialist who is also trained in the Orten Gillingham approach to help students who may have dyslexia or who struggle with phonemic awareness and phonics. I state this only to say that I am well informed as to the importance of phonology (specifically phonemic awareness) and it's crucial role in teaching students how to read. As a former Reading Recovery teacher (did it for 13 years), I was never trained to have students guess a word, or only use the picture as an aid. I spent half of my students' tutoring time working on phonemic awareness and phonics. Marie Clay came up with the cueing systems as "an assessment tool which provides an insight into a student's reading as it is happening" (Clay, 1993). It's an indicator, or assessment of what types of errors students are making so that we, as teachers, can then help them to self-monitor and self-correct (our ultimate goal). The visual cueing system was one of them - if a student wasn't using the visual cues of a word, it was our job to get them to do that. Her books are filled with ways to draw attention to the sequence of letters and graphemes in words in order to read them. I think we (educators) took those cueing systems and turned them into what it wasn't meant to be - a sytsem of prompts to teach students how to read. They were never meant to be that! Once you find out that a student is lacking mainly in the visual analysis of words, it is our job to analyze those errors to find out how to best to help the student. For example: a student only reads the first part of words and guesses the rest, or a student leaves off endings, etc. The running record can show us what the student is doing at difficulty and then we can teach to that difficulty. And yes, as stated here, we should also be prompting students to self-monitor and listen to themselves as they read in order to stop when meaning breaks down. If students aren't noticing when meaning breaks down, they are essentially word callers and their comprehension will suffer. The cueing system does what it was meant to do - it allows educators to assess and then see the types of errors students are making in order for us to focus our teaching in that area.

Max Riter Jan 13, 2021 11:44 PM

Dr. Shanahan,
I greatly appreciate the distinction you provide between the two approaches. I was trained in a reading recovery-like system of intervention that utilized the terminology of 3 cues, but did seem to do so with more emphasis and direction toward fixing the phonics gaps that students had. I had never heard of 3P and did some digging, to find that Ted Glynn was tangentially/directly connected to Marie Clay's work. I found this on the web and after reading it and viewing the videos, I am really struggling to see the distinction between 3P and 3Cues. https://kep.org.nz/module-7a/6-coherency-across-the-school
It might be due to the practitioner's interpretation of the original work, my interpretation or something else. I think this illustrates the issue that many educators experience, that of exposure to a technique or approach with a subsequent interpretation that then takes a different path that strays from it's original intent. Any insight or clarification you can provide is greatly appreciated.

Max Riter Jan 13, 2021 11:48 PM

And Laurie, I couldn't agree more. I see how Clay interpreted that information and how other reading "experts" and publishers took this idea and created an entirely different and unproductive method for teaching children to read.

Tim Shanahan Jan 14, 2021 02:35 AM


You are definitely right inbth3 connects, and Glynn very well may have intended this to be meaning cues to figure out words. However, I think you could easily do what I suggest (use meaning as a signal rather than a cue)... that interpretation or application makes it different from all the teaching aimed at 3 cueing.


Kathy Kersul-Wiener Jan 16, 2021 01:28 PM

I'm a former Reading Recovery teacher and I am mystified when I hear that Reading Recovery encourages students to guess at words. I was NEVER trained to do that, nor would I ever do so. Let's take the example of the child who substitutes "horse" for "pony." I want him to read to the end of the sentence to see if he catches his own error, because we never want to do for kids what they can do for themselves. If he doesn't, I would ask him if the word "horse" looked right. If he was still confused, I'd ask him to make the first sound and think about what would make sense. But we're not done. He needs to run his finger under the word to check it. My beginning reader simply does not have the decoding strategies to sound out the word "horse." He is not going to be taught about r-controlled vowels for another year. And then there's that silent e at the end. Beginning first graders know that e at the end makes the vowel say it's name. If I want my striving reader--who has lots of confusions about reading--to decode "horse," I've only deepened his confusion. So do I avoid giving him books with the word "horse" until his decoding skills have caught up?

Jennifer Wicklow Jan 19, 2021 02:36 PM

This is a gross misunderstanding. 3-cueing comes from prompting for MSV; meaning, structure or visual. The point is to get the reader to use all sources of information when problem solving. It is absolutely not OK for readers to ignore visual information. Readers always need to check to see if they are correct if they are making a guess or an assumption. This process changes as readers are learning.

Teresa Jan 31, 2021 03:24 AM

I think of the difference between 3P and 3 cueing in this way... 3P is what the teacher does and 3 cueing is what the student does. The teacher pauses, prompts and praises while the student uses 3 cues as strategies to decipher a word.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

3P versus 3-cueing: Why recommend one and shun the other?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.