Is it a good idea to teach the three cueing systems in reading?

  • 23 March, 2019

Teacher question:

There is a big argument in my new district over whether or not it is a good idea to teach children to use the three cueing systems. What do you think?  Why don’t you ever write about the cueing systems?

Shanahan’s response:

I don’t write about them because I’m not a fiction writer.

Don’t get me wrong, cueing systems exist, but their value in reading instruction is a magnificent work of the imagination.

How do we read words?

Perhaps we just guess dumbly when we see a word. For example, guess what this word is: Þßàm¤.

Obviously, that can’t be what readers do. There are far too many words for that to work. You would have only about .000002% chance of ever getting a word right. Not great odds.

We can use the same kind of reasoning to reject the idea that readers memorize lots of words and then recognize them during reading, sort of like remembering an old friend’s name on a chance meeting. It is certainly possible to memorize and remember words, but what an amazing feat of memory it would be to master the tens of thousands of words one needs to be a reader.

Clearly, readers must do something more systematic than that.

That’s where the idea of “cueing systems” enters stage left. Cueing systems are the different kinds of information sources that someone might use to cue their reading of the words. 

What kinds of information can readers use to read words?

One can use the pictures, of course. Young children often assume that is what is going on when their parents read to them (Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1982). They think the adults look at the pictures and make up stories, not even recognizing the print has any role in the process.

Even more advanced kids, able to read some words themselves, may revert to picture-based-guessing when confronted with unknown words. This kind of thing can also be done when there are no pictures. 

            “Mary always loved horses, so she wanted to see the stallion.”

One may not know the word “stallion,” but words like horse, mare, or pony seem like they might do fine.

These kinds of cues are referred to as semantic cues, they are hints to the word meanings.

Another cueing system is the syntactic one.

Readers may be able to discern what part of speech is needed (e.g., noun, verb), and that can narrow the possibilities down, too. For instance, with the sentence, “John was _____ his bicycle,” it seems pretty obvious that the unknown word is a verb. That means it won’t be pedals, handlebars, chain, ring, or gears, but it could be cooking, cleaning, running, swimming, and so on.

If a reader combines this syntactic information (John is taking an action) with the semantic information (it is being done to or with a bicycle), the choices narrow quickly… riding, fixing, washing, painting, destroying, disassembling, trading, selling, buying, etc.

Finally, readers may use the orthographic-phonetic cues, associating sounds with letters to provide a reasonable pronunciation, or simply to narrow the choices. So, with the example above, now that the reader knows this is something John can do to or with his bicycle, knowing that the word begins with an “r” may be a big help in refining the guess.

Any evidence that readers use cueing systems during reading?

Scads of it. As much evidence as Dylan Thomas claims there to be snow in Wales at Christmas. Analyses of oral reading errors (miscues) reveal definite patterns of variation in the information readers may be using.

So much evidence in fact that a theory emerged claiming reading to be a “psycholinguistic guessing game” (Goodman, 1965). The basic premise of this theory is that readers guess words more than reading them. Readers translate the available semantic, syntactic, and orthographic-phonemic information into guesses as they work their way through a text.

The claim is that, since reading is a guessing game, the purpose of reading instruction is to teach kids to make these different kinds of guesses effectively.

This theory is based upon some pretty weak –and certainly evidence-free—suppositions. And, this is where this all seems like a classic work of fiction.

The support for the theory comes from analyses of reading errors, not proficient reading. The assumption is that if someone uses such cues when erring, then that is how they must read correctly, too. Great story; not evidence.

Is there any good reason to believe that teaching kids to do what they do when misreading words is likely to be a successful avenue to reading proficiency?

Let’s imagine a very different pedagogical situation; golf lessons.

The trainers analyze golfers’ errors and discover head movements during muffed swings. They might assume the head movements to be the problem and then train their charges to hold still on the backstroke. Or, they might assume that head movements take place on all swings and set out to teach their students to make better head movements.

That’s a silly analogy, of course.

Golf trainers aren’t that dopey. They wouldn’t just assume that head movements during a golf swing are a good idea. They’d likely do a bit more research into the matter, perhaps watching videos of the Arnold Palmers and Tiger Woods to see if they jerk their heads around while hitting golf balls. If so, they’d quickly discover the successful linksters to be steady-heady guys and would then train their novices to do the same.

Better to emulate the processes of successful golfers than those of the duffers.

Believe it or not, reading researchers aren’t dopes either. They, too, took a look at how proficient readers read, and found that semantic and syntactic cues weren’t their way to success (Stanovich, 2000). Multiple cueing systems for word recognition are simply too cumbersome and slow to be a part of proficient reading (Greene, 2016). Good readers don’t try to guess words with a minimum of orthographic information but look at all the letters when they are reading (Rayner & Pollatsek, 1986). Good readers are the ones who figure out how to use those orthographic-phonemic cues to read (Lonigan, et al., 2018).

Instead of teaching kids to mimic what readers do when they make mistakes, we need to teach them to do what successful readers do.

No doubt, when readers can’t read, they’ll come up with ways of trying to pretend to read. Our job is to teach them to read, not to guide them to pretend better. Cueing systems should be reserved for science fiction, not literacy curriculum.


Greene, E. (2016). Recognizing words and reading sentences with microsecond flash displays. PLoS One, 11,(1).

Lonigan, C.J., Burgess, S.R., & Schatschneider, C. (2018). Examining the simple view of reading with elementary school children: Still simple after all these years. Remedial and Special Education, 39(5), 260-273.

Pollatsek, A., Rayner, K., & Balota, D. A. (1986). Inferences about eye movement control from the perceptual span in reading. Perception & Psychophysics, 40(2), 123–130.

Stanovich, K.E. (2000). Progress in understanding reading. New York: Guilford Press.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Cindy Heator Jul 07, 2019 07:00 PM

I would also like to thank you for citing the research on the three-cueing system. As we begin to plan for the upcoming school year, it will be helpful to refer to the research. If the three-cueing system isn't supported by reading research, what is the value of assessing students reading skills with running records? LIstening to a student read aloud will always provide instructional insight for the teacher. I'm wondering about the actual data/numbers that are on the running record form. (level, accuracy, self-correction ratio, miscue analysis, fluency and comprehension)

Lauren Thompson May 21, 2019 02:36 PM

Thank you for citing the research that shows that assumptions behind the three-cueing system are not evidence based. Now when I say, "It's been disproven," I have a short list of research to refer to.

Jodi Aug 20, 2019 02:57 PM

Instead of just saying we need to teach what successful readers do could you please tell what that is or point us in the right direction?
Thank you Aug 28, 2019 01:34 PM

Jodi, does this help?

Ed Jones Aug 28, 2019 01:36 PM

Sorry, the name should just be Ed. Auto-fill is so helpful.

Tessa Oct 10, 2019 02:23 AM

This is a deep misunderstanding of how teachers analyze the three cueing system. Readers should only be focusing on initial letter sounds only when they are reading level A text. Teachers should be supporting how to effectively utilize phonics, orthographic knowledge, and how to break words (in ways that were explicitly taught) while reading for meaning. AnalyIng running record using the three cueing system helps teachers see if students are indeed using visual information that was taught to them while reading.

Laura Oct 16, 2019 03:41 PM

Successful readers search for meaning in text. They draw upon their oral language skills and background knowledge to support their use of grapho-phonemic and word knowledge. They monitor themselves to ensure what they are reading makes sense. They re-read when necessary and use multiple sources of information at varying instances to help them to be successful.

It seems many fail to understand that different approaches to teaching reading are required at different stages in a child's literacy development. Early reading instruction is specialized. Different levels of intensity of explicit instruction are required for different children with unique strengths and needs. Noticing teachers understand this and are guided by being aware of what children control in their journey to being literate -- what they do, or do not do. Noticing teachers personalize reading instruction, as necessary.

Ann Marie Johnson Oct 24, 2019 10:05 AM

Ann Marie Johnson Oct 24, 2019 04:33 PM

Mary Howard Dec 18, 2019 12:39 PM

And yet we continue to irresponsibly perpetuate the MYTH of guessing:

Andrea Jan 20, 2020 02:12 AM

Here is a great podcast about the problematic three cueing system:

Leah Jan 31, 2020 04:35 AM

I am a secondary certified English teacher teaching 6th grade language arts. I have also taught 8th grade language arts. In both grades, I of course have encountered students reading far below grade level, and I've never felt qualified or trained to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and provide effective interventions. Because of this, I decided to go back to school to get my Master's in reading education. What have I been learning? All about the the cueing system. In fact, I'm in a basic remediation and diagnosis course right now, and we're learning how to take running records and perform miscue analyses. Last night I happened across an article that referred to the "debunked" theory of the three cueing systems, and now I'm not sure what to do. Would it be impertinent if me to bring it up with my professors?

Caroline Conroy Apr 16, 2021 02:33 PM

I'm a graduate student at Georgian Court University and I am interested in doing some thesis work in regards to phonics based instruction versus the three cueing system. I see that you cited the evidence, but I can't find the references. I am very much interested in reading the original studies to use for my research. Your blog was especially helpful in assisting me in finding my Eureka moment! Thank you!

Lisa Apr 17, 2021 08:14 PM

Oh, gosh. I have to take a big test in a couple of months where I analyze a student's reading record and come up with strengths, weaknesses, and then instructional strategies based on the weaknesses. What I've been reading about focusing on phonics (rather than M/S/V) is instruction happens in real time, not from looking at a reading record (created by me or someone else) after the fact. Is that true? Thank you.

Beverly Nov 13, 2021 01:30 PM

Your comments don’t even make sense to those of us with a deep understanding of reading. Dr. Marie Clay studied what good readers do as she developed Reading Recovery. We DO NOT allow children to guess words. We teach children to use phonemes and graphemes as they progress in reading and writing.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 13, 2021 04:14 PM

Studies that compare good readers and poor readers find that good readers rely almost solely or entirely on the spelling of the word as the source of reading while poor readers rely more on context. Teaching children to use context to recognize a word is teaching students to read like poor readers. Research has shown that young children, when they are getting started, expect context to determine the words; they do this naturally apparently without instruction. A big part of teaching beginners to read is to wean them off this logical but inappropriate approach rather than teaching it to children. You might find it interesting to look at the various editions of Clay's "Observation" book to see how the emphasis on decoding has changed over time.

LEONARD HUBER Aug 22, 2021 04:18 PM

Did you ever try reading one of those paragraphs where the letters in the words are jumbled? Or sometimes they put in letters upside down. It's kind of easy if you're a skilled reader. My experience is that having an idea of what the word ought to be is a key to that. Anyway, can you direct us to a comprehensive review of research rather than a few random studies?

Timothy Shanahan Aug 22, 2021 06:22 PM


I can't refer you to a literature review on this, since there are no studies of its effectiveness. Despite this approach being promoted for nearly 50 years now, there are not studies that have attempted to evaluate its effectiveness. There are studies showing that good readers reduce how much they rely on contextual as opposed to orthographic knowledge and that poor readers do not (which means teaching these different cues aim to make kids more like good readers than poor ones), but there are neither instructional studies showing any benefits or harms from this teaching.


Shelly Lee Dec 29, 2020 09:26 PM

How can you have created research that supports Reading Recovery that uses the 3 cue system if it is fiction? Is it just that phonics are taught as part of the program? Shouldn't the harm of the 3 cue system be noted as a reason not to use Reading Recovery? Being taught to guess is awfully hard to get away from for those that struggle to phonetically decode. I find your stance very confusing.

Ruth Drew Sep 29, 2021 10:54 AM

Can you explain why people object to the use of running records? Is it worthwhile seeking to understand the way in which a reader monitors their comprehension? Or if they monitor it at all?
Thanks so much for your blog.

Timothy Shanahan Sep 29, 2021 11:50 AM

There are three basic reasons why various educators oppose Running Records.
First, there are reliability problems with that assessment (Fawson, et al., 2010). To get an accurate estimate of a child's reading performance in that way requires a long testing period with three separate passages.
Second, finding out that a student's miscues were grammatically or semantically correct doesn't provide any information that is useful instructionally (no one has found that teaching those things is helpful).
Third, beyond the earliest levels of beginning reading, there are serious questions about the benefits of matching kids to books in the way that Running Records proponents recommend. (I've written quite a bit about that on my site... and in some journal articles that you can find in the Publications section.
Good luck.


Michael Kerstetter Nov 21, 2022 09:00 PM

Marilyn Adams distinguishes between using the cueing systems for word identification/guessing (this subordinates the grapho-phonic information and is a detriment to skilled reading) versus using/coordinating the systems for reading comprehension (a necessary component of skilled reading and for triggering attention to grapho-phonic cues and perhaps additional opportunities for self-teaching (see Share's self-teaching hypothesis). Any thoughts on teaching children to use cues to monitor comprehension and detect and correct errors. I mean, we see children make errors while reading and it's clearly not a phonics issues as they can easily read the words if given a wordlist (e.g., child reads books for boxes and then corrects the mistake, it was the context (character was in a library) that probably triggered the error). Don't skilled readers make occasional errors while reading aloud? What causes them to detect and correct these errors?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 21, 2022 09:34 PM

It is certainly sensible to teach students to use context to determine word meanings and to use meaning to determine whether you have decoded properly. In the latter case, however, that information should lead to another attempt at decoding (considering alternative pronunciations) not to a guess at what the word is.


Matt Turner Oct 09, 2023 01:30 PM

Thanks for the excellent post. Three cueing really damaged my kids. Despite significant intervention on our part once we discovered the problem in 1st/2nd grade, there are lasting impacts from training reflexive guessing. Now in highschool and middleschool, they recognize the problem, but still fall prey to the cueing neural pathways carved into them at a critical stage of mental development.

a Apr 20, 2024 07:12 PM

Michael Kerstetter --

To your comment a few paragraphs above, Set for Variability. That explains the self-correction.

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Is it a good idea to teach the three cueing systems in reading?


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