“It Works” and Other Myths of the Science of Reading Era

  • improving reading achievement science of reading 3-cueing reading research
  • 04 March, 2023

Recently, I wrote about the science of reading. I explained how I thought the term should be defined and described the kind of research needed to prescribe instruction.

Today I thought I’d put some meat on the bone; adding some details that might help readers to grasp the implications of a scientific or research-based approach to reading.

What does it mean when someone says an approach to reading instruction “works”?

The term “it works” has gnawed at me for more than fifty years! I remember as a teacher how certain activities or approaches grabbed me. They just seemed right. Then I’d try them out in my classroom and judge some to work, and others not so much.

But why?

What was it that led me to believe some of them “worked” and some didn’t?

It puzzled me even then.  

Teachers, administrators, and researchers seem to have different notions of “what works.”

Teachers, I think, depend heavily on student response. If an activity engages the kids, we see it as hopeful. We give credence to whether an activity elicits groans or a buzz of activity.  

When I do a classroom demonstration and students say they liked the activity and want to do more, most likely I’ve won that teacher over.

Teachers recognize that learning requires engagement, so when an activity pulls kids in, they’re convinced that it’s a good idea.

That satisfaction is sometimes denigrated because of its potential vapidity. Let’s face it. Bozo the Clown engages kids, too, but with how much learning?

What those complaints fail to recognize is that the teacher already has bought into the the pedagogical value of the activity. They assume it is effective. Student engagement is like gaining a third Michelin star.

What about administrators?

Their needs are different. To them, “it works,” is more about adult acceptance. If a program is adopted, the materials shipments arrive as promised, and neither teachers nor parents complain, it works!

And, to researchers?

To them, it means there has been an experimental study that compared that approach with some other and found it to be superior in terms of fostering learning.

If a method does no better than “business as usual” classroom practice, then it doesn’t work (which, confusingly, isn’t entirely correct, since the difference isn’t that everybody in one group learned and nobody in the other did).

I’ve worn all those hats – teacher, administrator, researcher – and I prefer the last one. The reason? Because it’s the only one that explicitly bases the judgment on student learning.

RELATED: What's the Role of Amount of Reading Instruction?

Will we accomplish higher achievement if we follow research and make our teaching consistent with the science?

That’s the basic idea, but even that doesn’t appear to be well understood.

I think we tend to get misled by medical science, particularly pharmacology.

New drugs are studied so thoroughly it’s possible for scientists to say that a particular nostrum will provide benefit 94% of the time and that 28% of patients will probably suffer some unfortunate side effect.

When I tell you that the research shows that a particular kind of instruction works (i.e., it led to more learning), I can’t tell you how likely it is that you will be able to make it work, too.

Our education studies reveal whether someone has managed to make an approach successful.

Our evidence indicates possibility, not certainty.

When we encourage you to teach like it was done in the studies, we are saying, “if they made it work, you may be able to make it work, too.”

That’s why I’m such a fan of multiple studies.

The more times other people have made an approach work under varied circumstances, the more likely you’ll be able to find a way to make it work as well.

If you show me one such study, it seems possible I could match their success. Show me 38, and it seems even more likely that I could pull it off.

That nuance highlights an important point: Our instructional methods don’t have automatic effects. We, as teachers, make these methods work.

Lackadaisical implementation of instruction is never likely to have good results. The teacher who thinks passive implementation of a science-based program is what works is in for a sad awakening.

I assure you that in the studies, everyone worked hard to make sure there were learning payoffs for the kids. That’s part of what made it work better than the business-as-usual approach.

That point is too often muffled by our rhetoric around science-based reading. But teacher buy-in, teacher effort, and teacher desire to see a program work for the kids are all ingredients in success.

I don’t get it, I’m hearing that some approach (e.g., 3-cueing) is harmful, and, yet I know of research-based programs that teach it. Does that make any sense?

You’re right about 3-cueing being part of some successful programs. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Instructional programs usually include multiple components. Studies of them tell if the program has been effective, but they usually say little about the various components that are integral to the program.  

Without a direct test of the individual components, there are three possibilities: (1) a component may be an active ingredient, one of the reasons for the success; or (2) it’s a neutral ingredient -- drop it and kids would do as well; or (3) it’s hurtful, the instruction would be even more effective without it.

Logically, 3-cueing makes no sense. It emphasizes behaviors good readers eschew.

That said, I know of no research that has evaluated 3-cueing specifically.

Claims that it’s harmful (beyond being a likely time waster) are, for the time being, overstatements. These claims rely on logic, not data.

The problem that you identify is a common one – people will tell you that multisensory instruction, a sole focus on decodable texts, advanced phonemic awareness, more social studies lessons, word walls, sound walls, and so on are all certain roads to improved achievement. Each is part of at least one successful program or another. But none have been evaluated directly. The truth is, we really don’t know if they have any value at all.

They might provide benefits, but that isn’t the same thing as knowing that they have done so before.  

Our district has adopted new programs and instructional routines based on science. But our kids aren’t doing any better than before. Does that make any sense?

No, that makes no sense at all. The purpose of any kind of educational reform – including science-based reform – is to increase learning. The whole point is higher average reading scores or a reduction in the numbers of struggling students.

Whoever’s in charge should take this lack of success seriously and should be asking – and finding answers – to the following questions?

  • Were these changes really based on the science and what does that mean?

Administrators often make choices based on minimal information. It is better to vet these things before adopting them, but in a case like this one, it is never too late to find out if the reform scheme was really consistent with the science.

  • How has the amount of reading instruction to students changed?

Some approaches work better than others because they have a bigger footprint. They provide a greater amount of teaching than business-as-usual approaches. Adopting such programs without making the schedule changes to facilitate their implantation will likely undermine potential success. Are kids getting more instruction, less instruction, or about the same as before?

  • How is the amount of reading instruction apportioned among phonemic awareness, phonics, text reading fluency, reading comprehension strategies, written language ability, and writing?

Often the adoption of new programs or reform efforts aimed at a particular piece of the puzzle lead to greater attention to certain abilities, but to diminished attention to other key parts of literacy. Make sure that you aren’t trading more phonics for less fluency work, or more vocabulary for less comprehension. You want to make sure that all components of reading are receiving adequate attention – not going overboard with some and neglecting others.

  • To what extent are teachers using the programs?

Compliance matters in program implementation. The adage that “teachers can do whatever they want when the door is closed” highlights one of the biggest roadblocks to making such efforts work. You need to make sure you have sufficient buy in for the men and women who do the daily teaching. You bought a new program or set new instructional policies. Are they being used or followed?

  • How well prepared are the teachers to provide the required instruction?

Program adoption requires a lot more than issuing a policy proclamation. Research shows that program implementation supported by substantial professional development is much more successful than just buying a program. You need to make sure that you’ve built the capacity for success and not just expected magic to happen.

READ MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Blog


National Research Council. (2002). Scientific research in education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Shanahan, T. (2020). What constitutes a science of reading instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S235-S247.

Stanovich, P. J. , & Stanovich, K. E. (2003). Using research and reason in education. Washington, DC: National Institute of Literacy.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Dr. Bill Conrad Mar 04, 2023 03:26 PM

Your consistent advocacy for the use of reading practices that are based on multiple science research studies is always impressive. I think it would be good to consider a complementary science — the science of implementation. Dean Fixsen has done a great deal of research on the most effective ways to successfully imlement and monitor new research-based programs. Quality implementation is certainly not a trivial pursuit. Solid reading programs can sadly be rejected not because of their intrinsic value but because they were not implemented and monitored properly.

Roshelle Carden Mar 04, 2023 03:37 PM

Are you saying there is no research on multisensory teaching methods, especially relating to dyslexics?

Mark Pennington Mar 04, 2023 03:38 PM

Plenty of gut punches today, Tim. You must be thinking of going to see "Creed 3" this weekend. One of your points could be expanded a bit.

Your "they liked it" criteria for instruction that "works" is tied to behavior management. For both teachers and admin (pre and post Covid), "what works" has been and is characterized by what keeps kids entertained, in their seats, quiet, respectful and out of the administrator's office. Whether or not the instruction impacts learning is secondary.

Particularly concerning to me, as a small publisher, is the impact of some reading technology. The design of "instructional" reading technology, especially "adaptive" reading programs that centers on video-gaming "fun" with all the bells and whistles, badges, congratulatory certificates, etc. If it "works," the teachers and admin are able to catch up on their emails. (Of course, this doesn't apply to teachers and admin reading this post.) In fact, two of the most popular (and extremely expensive) reading intervention programs tout their ability to "check-in" (snoop) on students' screen activities by clicking on the students' names on the teachers' desktops. Sigh.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 04, 2023 03:41 PM


Yep. That is what I'm saying (a point I've made before as have other researchers, such as the stellar group at Florida State University).


Helen Huber Mar 04, 2023 03:58 PM

Well that was well put. As soon as you posed the question, I thought it was effective if it produced an intended result in the areas of literacy instruction (phonemic awareness, phonics, text reading fluency, reading comprehension strategies, written language ability, and writing.)
I’ve seen terrible teachers ruin good lessons and methodologies with poor understanding, flat delivery, poor planning and an incomplete understanding of what hitting the mark means. Additionally, having a strong foundational knowledge also leads to the Uber-important follow-through. When you deliver a lesson and it doesn’t produce the result, what happens next is equally important. Many experienced teachers can determine where learning failed or was incomplete in so far as students can’t use it independently to produce the intended result. I’ve seen teachers do more of what didn’t work. And if there wasn’t enough practice to reinforce the concept, that might be acceptable. But that’s not usually it in my experience. You’re so right that teacher training and buy-in are essential components for success. Thanks again for the thought-provoking, articulate presentation of why a program works.

Joan Sedita Mar 04, 2023 04:05 PM

Thank you for the practical explanations and examples. I want to pick up on a couple of lines you wrote. 1) "Lackadaisical and passive implementation" -- yes, some teachers may not be interested in using a program or instructional practice with fidelity, but more often I find the problem is that they have not received sufficient professional development to understand the why and how to implement effectively. 2) "teacher buy-in, teacher effort, and teacher desire to see a program work for the kids are all ingredients in success" -- again, professional development is often the missing link. I work with a lot of teachers who buy-in, give lots of effort, and really want to see a program work, but because they do not have the foundational knowledge about effective instruction and quality training for using a program, they are not able to teach the program in a way that will show results.

Bruce Howlett Mar 04, 2023 04:51 PM

Having been involved in biomedical research I cringe at the idea that reading methods should be held to the same standards, especially the requirement for multiple studies. This is a factor in the lack of innovation in classroom instruction and stagnant reading scores.
Billions in funding from the Feds and Pharma prime the research pump so drugs and methods are routinely tested and made available. Nothing like this exists for literacy instruction. Case in point is David Kilpatrick and phoneme proficiency.
I propose a program that tests different combinations of components in diverse classrooms with the goal of continually improving instruction - not to produce peer reviewed articles.

Barney Brawer Mar 04, 2023 04:57 PM

I continue to be surprised (even amazed) that the research on the teaching of reading continues mostly to separate it from the teaching of writing. The creation of relatively literate English sentences and paragraphs -- presenting one's own ideas, experiences, observations, or analyses of events, people, or books -- is usually much more personal and therefore more exciting (for children AND adults) than just the "consumption" of someone else's published ideas or described events.

As a mostly retired elementary school teacher and public school principal in both urban and rural communities, I have never met a child or adult who writes well but reads poorly. Learning to produce and put on paper (or into a computer) one's own words -- e.g. one's own ideas, experiences, observations, analyses of events, etc. in correct Standard English -- is almost always VERY exciting, for almost everyone, young and old.

My first teaching job was as a summer intern at the state reform school for boys in Jamesburg, NJ the summer of the Newark riots of 1967. For those incarcerated young men, writing their own ideas and presenting their own writing to others was as exciting to them as it was, years later, for my adult students in the Dept. of Child Development at Tufts and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

To have others read or hear your words about your own experiences, ideas, or analyses (and not be distracted by poor grammar or spelling) is almost always VERY exciting ... and DEEPLY reinforcing ... for both the reader and the author, whether child or adult. This has been confirmed for me as a teacher and administrator in the public schools of New Haven,CT, Providence, RI, Cambridge, Brookline, and Franklin, MA, Putney, VT, and the Boston Public Schools.

I've had a long, diverse, and terrifically enjoyable career as an educator. I also taught at Tufts and Harvard. I'm an experienced professional. I know what I'm trying to say: WRITING is the royal road to READING.

Playing baseball or basketball, pickle ball or tennis, is much more interesting and engaging than watching someone else's game. Yes? No? Why is the science and practice of reading so routinely separated from the experience of writing -- that is, from the students' and the teachers' own narrative, descriptive, and analytic writing??? I'd appreciate your thoughts about this widespread and routinely accepted phenomenon. Thanks!

Timothy Shanahan Mar 04, 2023 05:12 PM


It is okay to study reading and writing separately, but some scholars have approached the issue as a joint one (me, for instance). These days I would point. you to Steve Graham's work on these issues. Reading and writing together is a powerful combination. This linkage can play an important role in making instruction more efficient and more powerful. There is a lot of speculation on the reasons why R-W have been treated separately (I have a chapter that explores that issue in the soon to be published Writing and Reading Connections: Bridging Research and Classroom Practice, edited by Zoi A. Philippakos and Steve Graham. Watch for it.)


Laurel Mar 04, 2023 05:24 PM

There are many variables to consider within the classroom from year to year: The number of students in the class, the makeup of the class in terms of students who are generally focused and cooperative, and students who demonstrate disruptive, and distracted behaviors, students who read above grade level in the same class with students who are not reading at all, English speaking and second language students, students with special needs, the amount of extra adult support in the classroom (usually not much), and the number of pull out programs which take students out of the classroom at various times.

I'm curious about the educational research process. Do they carry out the research under these real life circumstances? In some senses the actual classroom is the ideal place to try things and see if they work. It is the ideal place to refine and innovate. Is this ever part of the process? Just because a particular approach or program works for one student, it does not mean it will work for another student... I know that there has been a piloting process in our district in the past, but this is a selection process after several full programs have already been developed. If I am given a decodable story to teach r-controlled vowels with "or": "Scorch and Dorn are forlorn due to the storm and the thorn in Scorch's foot." I feel like someone rushed this curriculum, and did not thoroughly test it and try it with students. Teaching does not have a hippocratic oath, but I'm still going to rewrite some "or" sentences rather than using the Scorch and Dorn text.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 04, 2023 05:26 PM


Indeed, there is a good deal of classroom research (which varies in quality, of course). The Institute of Education Science of the U.S. Department of Education supports a good deal of this kind of research and there are other sources for this as well (including lone researchers doing as well as they can with the disparate support they cobble together).


Julie Lewis Mar 04, 2023 05:50 PM

I have read at least two articles that claim to either be meta-analyses, or to have reviewed a meta-analysis, of research on teaching reading to "disabled" readers, both of which stated there is no evidence multi-sensory instruction adds value. Not sure it hurts, but methods without that component apparently do just as well. I am not trained in statistics and in research design, but these articles appeared in peer reviewed journal(s) and the authors were careful to detail the inclusion/exclusion criteria used when selecting the studies meta-analyzed. I still read "stuff" that purports to tell teachers how to best teach dyslexic children to read that espouses multi-sensory teaching. This stuff is all over the place and it gives me pause. I am thankful to this blog and to the peer reviewed publications that aim to help practitioners such as myself make sense about what to do, why and when. There are still plenty of folks who engage in knee-jerk reactions to certain "charged" words, assuming that the use of a particular term or phrase surely means that person knows nothing, is out of date, is promoting debunked methods. Some things are nuanced, like pictures in books for young readers. It depends, I think, on how the teacher uses them. I don't know about you, but I use visuals when I read.

Julie Lewis Mar 04, 2023 05:55 PM

Joan's point is something I see. Teachers, and the ones I work with are well-meaning and caring, often have minimal training and incomplete understandings, so they implement methods and materials ineffectively (sometimes even destructively), with no clue. I seem this at times, this is not to say it is always the case. Districts typically do trainings in short bursts, sending teachers back to class armed with something new to use, and teachers begin using the new material thinking they understand, or not understanding and things go south. Follow-up opportunities and mentoring are rarely available (it is costly).

Harriett Janetos Mar 04, 2023 06:19 PM

Recently, the distinction is being made between multisensory and multimodal as explained in the article Understanding Multimodal Instruction in PreK-5 Literacy.


What is multimodal instruction?

Multimodal instruction involves having the learner engage simultaneously or in close sequence with the material using two or more of their sensory “modalities”. For example, a student using manipulatives during phonics instruction may be engaging their visual, auditory, and tactile modalities. The term multimodality is currently being used to replace the older term “multisensory” because multisensory instruction sometimes promoted instructional practices (such as having students trace sandpaper letters, or form letters or shapes in rice trays in shaving cream) have not been confirmed as helpful in more current research.

The learning styles approach can actually be harmful in early literacy because the focus on one single modality deprives students the opportunity to learn in other modalities outside of their perceived “style” and there is reason to provide instruction in multiple modalities — just not isolated to one modality per student.

Why does multimodal instruction work?

We’re always learning more about how the brain works, and there’s so much that we still have to discover. In the case of multimodal instruction, researchers are still working to understand exactly why the brain seems to respond so positively to this kind of teaching.

Some researchers attribute the value of multimodal instruction to enhancing a learner’s memory: engaging multiple senses may cause the brain to store information in long term memory. Others believe multimodal instruction has more to do with attention. For example, using both auditory and tactile modalities during phonics instruction may simply prolong the time and focus students spend thinking about letters and sounds. Both of these explanations have to do with what we know about neural processing, and pathways created in the brain (Shanahan, 2020).

Regardless of the exact brain activity, multimodal application in the classroom seems to have the potential to boost engagement and retention. Digital Promise lists multimodal instruction as a strategy in their Learner Variability Navigator tool, explaining that “instruction in multiple formats allows students to activate different cognitive skills to understand and remember the steps they are to take in their literacy work. Instruction can be given using text, visuals, gestures, or audio to facilitate retention in Short- and Long-term Memory.”

Nancy Duggan Mar 04, 2023 06:30 PM

Thanks for your insight. LLI in at least one study appears to be worse for the kids that hit it? As it is targeting struggling students, it's the kids that need more effective instruction that are left behind when using LLI.
What Works Clearinghouse approved a different study as a "strong study". The LLI marketing touts this a "proof" it is evidence based. But in fact, what that strongly designed study shows is that LLI had "no discernible effect " on early reading skills like phonics and phonemic awareness.

Jo Anne Gross Mar 04, 2023 08:05 PM

Nancy`s comment
So far WWC has supported studies from RR and LLI-Both showing strong results.
I have zero faith in them nor should anyone else.

George LILLEY Mar 04, 2023 08:31 PM

I have not heard the debate about 3- cuing reference the work on Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). CLT notion of "Dual Coding" suggests the load on working memory is reduced by using pictures in addition to text. Thus improving memory. Recently they've added the concept of "Embodied Cognition" with the claim Dual Coding is extended to Multiple Coding by including physical experiences, e.g., Sweller et al (2019), "asserting that cognitive processes, including information processing and learning, are inextricably linked with sensory and motor functions within the environment, including gestures and other human movements (Barsalou 1999). Research supporting the embodied cognition view shows that observing or making gestures leads to richer encoding and therefore richer cognitive representations. Interestingly, the involvement of the more basic motor system seems to reduce load on working memory during instruction (e.g. Goldin-Meadow et al. 2001), which means that this richer encoding is less cognitively demanding and which confirms the evolutionary account of CLT."
cognitive load theory.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 04, 2023 09:08 PM


There is no question that students could engage in multiple coding during reading and that this might improve their memory for what they have read -- but it would sure slow reading down a whole lot. That just isn't how proficient readers read.


Melissa Mar 04, 2023 09:11 PM

Just a question about your brief mention of advanced phonemic awareness- I was sure I had read something about studies which showed advanced phonemic awareness skills showing greater effect then just blending and segmenting, I think it was in work by David Kilpatrick. Is there more information on this you could direct me to?

Timothy Shanahan Mar 04, 2023 11:17 PM

Jo Anne--

WWC doesn't "support studies", it evaluates them. Yes, indeed, there are studies with positive results on approaches that you do not like.


Kerry Mar 05, 2023 01:05 AM

Thanks for this thoughtful piece. As my district has been discussing the Science of Reading a lot, and I have been a strong proponent of moving towards more research-based reading instruction, I have begun to think more about implementation—what will happen if teachers don’t have the professional development, sufficient background knowledge, buy-in to implement new curriculum or ideas, or even (and crucially) strong enough classroom management skills to make effective use of the allocated minutes in the program for all of the crucial components.

I read a blog post a few days ago from Louisa Moats titled “Why the Science of Reading Needs the Science of Teaching”. She discussed direct instruction and explicit instruction, and mentioned Hattie’s research on the factors that most influence learning. I wonder if you’d consider doing a blog post on the “science of teaching”, or also sharing any thoughts you have on direct/explicit instruction. As I’ve been thinking more about what an SOR movement might look like in our schools and potential barriers to success, I’ve been thinking a lot about good content needing to be matched with excellent instruction and delivery. Thanks for the well-timed and thoughtful blog!

Harriett Janetos Mar 04, 2023 10:15 PM

From George Lilley: "Research supporting the embodied cognition view shows that observing or making gestures leads to richer encoding and therefore richer cognitive representations. Interestingly, the involvement of the more basic motor system seems to reduce load on working memory during instruction (e.g. Goldin-Meadow et al. 2001), which means that this richer encoding is less cognitively demanding and which confirms the evolutionary account of CLT."

Linnea Ehri's research supports the use of letter-embedded picture mnemonics to teach alphabet knowledge. Some programs that use this approach also use gestures that accompany each letter. I had success using the Zoophonics program with my kindergartners and regularly saw students make a gesture when trying to recall how to represent a certain sound in their writing.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 04, 2023 11:15 PM

Here is a piece that David and I wrote recently that you might find interesting.



Beth Norwood Mar 05, 2023 01:11 AM

Ugh!! Let me also add that teachers stray from science and best practice because of the checklist (observation) that their jobs are tied to! We have to tap dance around the room with all of the 927 things that must be taking place spontaneously at any given moment on any given day… I would say most teachers are just doing ‘the things’ to keep their jobs!

George LILLEY Mar 05, 2023 12:33 PM

g'day Tim I think you've dismissed my point too easily, we were addressing teaching kids to read not proficient readers.

Jo Anne Gross Mar 05, 2023 01:47 PM

What works is known by parents of students who were failed by the Public Education System, Private too for that matter because teacher preparedness is vacuous for struggling kids and in a bizaare extremely unsophisticated manner the schools decided to put all the kids that were struggling in RR. Quel Dommage!
The word Science is very useful to share what works more effectively for struggling kids.
It`s also very useful to explain how we could do better to reduce the number of failures but because teacher training is virtually nonsense when it comes to Reading we are in a very difficult position and stuck in a world of PD. We all know that PD falls apart in the trenches.
I applaud your reality check here. I am cautiously delighted by the new movement but I see many awkward efforts that say they are evidence based but aren`t.
I think the word Systematic is too frequently missing from the conversation.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 05, 2023 03:03 PM

Okay, George, let's say that you are correct. Then it should be possible for proponents of 3-cueing to show that such instruction does better than explicit decoding instruction. However, those claims haven't been tested directly in more than 60 years. I won't recommend an approach to teaching that runs so counter to existing research (no matter how interesting the logic) unless the people promoting it believe in it enough that they'd be willing to go to the trouble to see if it actually works.

Much of the theoretical work on word reading supports the idea that memories for words are consolidated (including orthographic, phonological, semantic, and syntactic information), but even with that, there is no reason to believe given existing research on the topic that readers rely on that information to initially recognize words.


Lisa Jimenez Mar 05, 2023 03:08 PM

I have been a bilingual Special Education / ELD teacher is some fashion for over 30 years. I was one of those straight A university students who had NO idea how to teach reading ( decoding/encoding/ comprehension) when I got out of college. I have trained extensively since then and consider myself to be very science based ( reading this blog is an example.) I despise the phrase "well the kids love it" as the major reason to perpetuate an activity. I have seen time and time again actual achievement being the treasure my students expect, yearn for and love.
With all that said, in all this time I have never experience a school board and/or a curriculum planning committee that adopted science based methods; reasonably developed the methods within the teachers ( very much imposed, not instructed) or stuck with such a program past a few years. Reasons? Superintendents, school boards, curriculum planners, principals come and go. Also, if a program has been adopted and doesn't make enough progress, the state requires we make a plan to improve which always means abandoning what we are currently doing in order to purchase another "evidenced based" program and then implement it with fidelity.
So in order for me to follow a "science based" reading program while interacting with many differing teachers and situations, I have to 'close my door and do what I think is best". I don't want to, I don't feel I have a choice. My best case scenario is a principal who watches to see how my students actually perform and then lets me go. I guess that phrase really touches a cord with me. I wish to be an accelerated, diagnostic responsive teacher who loves her students and does what best for them; my definition of a professional. When a doctor does this, we applaud or chose another doctor. When a teacher does this, we can be accused of malpractice as we are "closing our door and doing what we think best". Thoughts?

Elizabeth Clemens Mar 05, 2023 03:45 PM

What are your views on the traditional grade-related reading expectations as a measure of student success? As a reading specialist I was trained to bring students up to grade level, or beyond. Now, the books are coded to meet the student's deficiency, for success. Please address this in your column, Aren't we selling students short here, in an effort to equalize instruction? Is not data still available to teachers with testing, or has that deteriorated, also? Are parents being told whether their child is reading at grade level, under grade level, or above grade level? Are students and teachers even aware? The verbiage indicates otherwise.

Ann Christensen Mar 05, 2023 03:45 PM

Teacher development is an intensive, focused endeavor. I have done this work at a school, district, and university level and watched teachers learn to use their power to change outcomes for children. This has to involve adequate curriculum and materials, both professional development classes and support regular coaching, close examination of student data in both reading and writing, and instruction that responds to data. I have seen many narrowly focused programs that teach one aspect of reading that ‘work’ because a child taught to sing the same song everyday will sing it better than a child who hears it as background music. Supporting teachers to develop a broad understanding of literacy development and how they can impact trajectories for children who struggle is so much more intense than curriculum adoption and fidelity.
My experience as a coach taught me that the least effective teachers work very hard and go home bone tired, just like the most effective teacher. They are working hard at time wasting, ineffective tasks. I have seen very few lackadaisical teachers in my 40 plus years.
Finally, most universities are trying to teach waterskiing by reading about it and watching video clips. They have no access to a boat or water. This is about funding. You cannot learn to teach literacy in a university classroom without a lab setting. That is why most teachers are unprepared. Study as they might, they drown while being dragged behind the boat and are blamed for their failure.

PT Mar 05, 2023 04:48 PM

THANK YOU. The problem is, no matter how much you say, many don't hear, don't want to hear, or afraid to follow instinct and do what is in the best interest for children

Linda Mar 05, 2023 05:58 PM

As a classroom teacher, I find this blog to be a great source of information.
My district will be implementing a new reading program (SOR approach) next year but has also purchased the DRA 3 assessment system. Is this assessment a mismatch for SOR approach? Does the DRA 3, still assess the 3 cuing approach to reading? There is not much on their website to discern this.

JoAnne Gross Mar 05, 2023 08:07 PM

That assessment is being used in Canada too.
It’s not finding the children that are struggling early . By grade 3 they are in quicksand up to their necks.
In my conversations with school boards I am very clear on that.
I know it’s not my place to comment on Dr.Shanahan’s blog but you hit a nerve!

Cynthia Wirth Mar 05, 2023 10:24 PM

This is the very first article I’ve read recently that takes into account multiple components involved in teaching and learning reading. There is no methodology that is “ one way benefits all”. Statistics are slippery things , the entity that pays for the research has the right to choose which results to share. I’ve been in teaching since 1968 and have been trained, instructed, coached and mentored in a variety of researched based programs. When the old, previously discarded techniques came around again, repackaged and rebranded I realized- it’s a business- companies are interested in selling materials more than teaching students,

Enrique Andres Puig Mar 06, 2023 03:55 PM

Great points Tim. Please let me know if you come across any empirical research that validates the use of decodable texts or multisensory instruction. BTW, thanks for the SS Eastland metaphor. I've used it many times already in Florida.

Diane Snowball Mar 06, 2023 05:49 PM

Why do you say ‘ Logically, 3-cueing makes no sense. It emphasizes behaviors good readers eschew’? I find that I frequently use context (semantic cue) to understand what I am reading and to work out the meaning of an unknown word, but I am a very good reader. If I have not heard the word before I can’t be sure how to pronounce it and need an online dictionary to hear the pronunciation. However I rarely do that because most of all the most important thing to do is work out the meaning. I only need to know how to say the word if I’m reading the text out loud to an audience. I also use the syntactic cue to help me work out the meaning. I would always want my students to be able to use all cues to work out a word. Part of the evaluation of their reading is to check they can use the three cues to support each other and cross-check their reading. I feel like the reading world has gone mad to say that readers should not use the 3 cueing system. I can understand why readers should not guess a word, but gathering multiple evidence to support a prediction is definitely not guessing. I can certainly understand why students should be taught to use phonetic cues to read a word but to say that they MUST use this cue first ALWAYS is not what good readers ALWAYS do.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 06, 2023 10:54 PM


You are correct that readers use context to determine word meanings... but that isn't how good readers read the words. Children learning to read tend to be trying to recognize the words, not to figure out their meanings. Figuring out word meanings that you don't know is a separate process and not at all what 3-cueing is about.


Timothy Shanahan Mar 06, 2023 11:09 PM


I wish someone would do those studies.. the decodable text one is the harder one to do, but there are folks who are finally starting to explore that problem rather than just telling everybody how it must work (without any data).


Timothy Shanahan Mar 06, 2023 11:29 PM

DRA3 will provide you with some useful information about how well students can read (by about second grade). It won't provide K-1-2 teachers any information about alphabet knowledge, phonemic awareness, decoding ability, text reading fluency, or spelling. It isn't that it is contradictory of reading science, it just ignores most of it.


Timothy Shanahan Mar 06, 2023 11:38 PM


Indeed, one thing that makes medical analogies not work in education is that no matter how successful an approach is, you can bet the schools will dump it in a few years when the new school board is elected, the new school superintendent is hired, or the curriculum director has attended a conference. Success means building quality on quality -- changing programs should have nothing to do with fashion, but should be a data-based enterprise aimed at making things better for kids. Unfortunately, you are right.


Ellen McGrath Mar 07, 2023 10:55 AM

The beauty of tutoring individually is teaching students to find "what works" for them. In the end, we all need to find what works for us. I teach a multisensory approach-based program, but it varies depending on the student's learning needs. The first thing I tell my students is we are going to find "what works" for them. It involves time to allow the students to verbalize the methods that are working for them beyond our tutoring sessions.

Nicola Apr 12, 2023 01:19 AM

The 3 cueing system is grossly misunderstood by many. It had been taken out of context and misrepresented. The 3 cueing system was meant to ‘make visible’ the early reader’s decoding attempts. It was never meant to undermine the 5 pillars of reading- phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension (and ‘oral language’- which many , including myself, see as the 6th pillar).

The 3 cueing system was part of a larger repertoire of decoding strategies- not an approach to reading. It is based on the assumption that the reader does not know and recognise every sound-symbol relationship in English prior to practising reading on real, continuous text. Text that supports and that engages the reader. Text that has simple sentences with controlled vocabulary. Text that incrementally becomes more challenging over time, as the reader’s experience with written language - and the world- develops.

The 3 cueing system is simply a ‘scaffold’ - scaffolds are withdrawn over time as the learner becomes more proficient. Additionally, the 3 cueing system is meta cognition strategy.

None of the 3 cues were to be used in isolation from each other. Nor were they to replace segmenting and blending as effective decoding practises. Rather, the 3 cueing system was a bridge to more effective decoding, using an ever increasing range of phonic knowledge, acquired through explicit language learning: For example, one was not expected to guess the unknown word just from the context of the sentence ‘meaning’. Nor was one to guess the unknown word only from the syntactical pattern of the sentence. Neither was one to guess the unknown word from the initial letter sound of the target word. Readers were expected to ‘cross check’ these cues against each other. Using ‘grapho- phonics’ or phonic knowledge, the reader was asked to scan through the unknown word. They were not instructed to STOP at the initial letter and guess at it from one grapheme. They were expected to ‘sound out’ the word. Then they were then instructed to cross check the phonics information (known to them at the time), against meaning and syntax. This is a constructivist approach- but it is heavily reliant on explicit teaching of PHONICS and grammar taught via the writing program.

As phonic knowledge grows in the early reader ( via explicit spelling/word study/phonics/phonemic awareness ) looking strategically into words, to analyse and decipher word orthographic and morphological patterns becomes the more dominant decoding approach. The reader then relies less on the 3 cues. However, the ‘self monitoring’ encouraged by the cross checking process, remains a positive meta cognitive strategy, when required.

Alongside the 3 cueing system, students were taught word attack strategies based on PHONICS. This was also taught during reading, at point of need, but expressly and explicitly taught through the reciprocal writing and spelling programs in the classroom . CVC words, word families and sight words, short and long vowel sounds, onsets/rimes were a significant part of teaching early reading. These concepts were systematically taught, and matched to the individual reader’s developmental stage.

Teaching reading effectively is the sum of many interconnected parts. The 3 cues were only one part of teaching early reading and did not take away from the significance of the other parts or negate the necessity of explicit teaching of phonics.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 14, 2023 06:41 PM


I think it is a gross misunderstanding to believe that teaching 3-cueing to children makes any sense. It would be very reasonable if it were used to make visible what students are doing when they try to read (teachers could see whether kids were actually paying attention to the words and their constituent letters or if they misunderstanding or just avoiding the process of decoding). None of those issues that you raise (like teaching these in combination with each other) matter. Studies show that all/most/many young children start out trying to guess words based on pictures and context and that they have to learn to suppress these instincts in favor of using the letters to determine the author's words. Studies that look at students oral reading mistakes do not reveal the system of reading, but what students try to do before they master the system of reading. Any misunderstanding of the research on 3-cueing is by those who try to teach it. The poorest readers are the ones who use those alternative ways to figuring out words; as students become better readers they shed those approaches for the most part. Learning to read is not learning ways to get around reading.


Marissa Nov 20, 2023 11:26 PM

You bring up so many great points. I often feel that our district makes decisions without asking teachers and then we are given a minimal amount of time to prepare and then implement the new programs into our schedules. I agree that it is so important to make sure whatever new program is being implemented does not decrease or take away from other skills that students also need to work on.

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“It Works” and Other Myths of the Science of Reading Era


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