Un-balanced literacy

The “three-cueing” system is failing young readers

Adam Worcester
10 min readAug 18, 2020
Photo by Victoria Priessnitz on Unsplash

I do not know how I learned to read.

Like millions my age, I remember the adventures of Dick, Jane, and Spot. About second grade I dimly recall a longer schoolbook I liked that rhymed park and dark and brown and town, and which I sensed was a step up, progression.

But I have no clue how I learned to read those words, or at what point I recognized that the letters s-p-o-t referred to the little dog in my picture book. I just did.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned the Dick-and-Jane method of teaching is called “whole language,” and that there is an alternate way to learn that emphasizes phonics, and that a fierce war rages between proponents of these two methods.

Today many U.S. elementary schools teach “balanced literacy,” which ostensibly combines the best of both reading approaches in a cohesive curriculum.

Except it doesn’t.

As with other ways we teach reading, balanced literacy is a backwards approach that is not only scientifically unsound but harmful, especially for struggling readers.

Don’t take my word for it. Study after study backs me up.

Balanced literacy pays lip service to phonics, but at its core it’s a whole language model that diametrically opposes the way science shows we learn to read.

In common vernacular three-cueing translates to ‘look and guess’…it boils down to guess, guess again, then give up or seek help.

For example, this balanced method encourages readers to use three “cues” to help check accuracy: semantic, syntactic, and graphophonic.

Or in plain English: meaning, structure, and visual.

In common vernacular it translates to “look and guess.”

Memorzing is not reading

First off, three-cueing sends children the message that memorizing a lot of words makes them a reader.

When they encounter an unfamiliar word, kids are urged to use a syntax cue. What word would make the most sense in the context of the sentence?

The problem with this is that there is often more than one word that fits the bill. A young reader could encounter word horse and say pony, or even colt or stallion or filly, and all could sound correct to him.

If syntax doesn’t work, young readers are prompted to look for a structure cue.

Does the unfamiliar word look similar to another word that they know? Could it rhyme with that word?

This might work. But let’s say the reader is stuck on the word “here.” She knows its structure is similar to were, where, and there. Does this help?

Good readers decode every letter and read every syllable. They match individual letters with sounds and units of meaning, forming a picture in their mind of what they are reading.

Finally, emerging readers are urged to scour the pictures accompanying the story for visual cues.

Which object in the picture begins with the first letter of the unfamiliar word? Does it end with the same letter as the word?

If neither meaning, structure nor vision cues work, the reader is encouraged to ask a teacher or skip the word altogether.

It boils down to guess, guess again, then give up or seek help.

Amazingly most students learn to read within this system — though not very well.

Some kids truly are smart enough to keep guessing and they don’t give up. They plow through whole books guessing words incorrectly.

Many are resourceful enough to get through high school. But not much further.

More than half of U.S. citizens cannot read above a high school level, and about twenty percent fail to reach minimum proficiency.

Four percent of Americans are “sub-literate,” meaning they cannot read well enough to perform everyday activities.

For these struggling readers, the three-cueing approach is worthless. It’s like learning piano by sitting down to play and hoping your ears will carry you through.

Changing cues

Ironically these readers could, indeed, benefit from a type of three-cueing system.

But they need different cues, ones grounded in research, cues that improve their reading ability and build their confidence.

This alternate trio of cues is feeling, sound, and sight.

It gives readers a three-way check that does not depend on guessing from pictures or context. It instills independence and promotes automaticity.

Most importantly, it’s based on the way reading really works.

Research reveals that good readers decode every letter and read every syllable. They match individual letters with sounds and units of meaning, forming a picture in their mind of what they are reading.

If accurate decoding doesn’t produce a word they recognize, then good readers turn to context clues. It’s a secondary strategy.

The traditional three-cueing system — meaning, structure, visual — flips the reading process upside down. Reading is graphophonic first, not semantic and syntactic.

For example…

Let’s compare this pair of three-cueing systems through the eyes of a hypothetical dyslexic boy.

Imagine our boy is a struggling reader, age 8 or 9. He is tackling a children’s picture book with three anthropomorphic characters — a bear, a beaver and a deer.

Let’s suppose our dyslexic boy gets stuck on the second word of this sentence: “The bear, the deer and the beaver went to the river.”

Using meaning, the first of the traditional three cues, he knows the unknown word is likely to be either bear, beaver, or deer. He’s seen the picture on the book cover, and is looking at a picture on the page. He knows what the story is about.

But the animals in the picture could appear in different order than they are listed in the sentence.

Using cue two, he scours the picture. There is a deer, a beaver, and a bear.

But are they pictured in the same order they are listed on the page? He can’t be sure.

In reading meaning is derived from printed words, not pictures or illustrations…it’s not OK to confuse the words “beaver” and “bear” just because both are in a picture and their names have similar letters.

On to cue three. Graphophonics.

What letter does the word begin with? Here’s where traditional three-cueing really breaks down.

Our young reader looks at “bear” again and meets his first problem. Is that initial letter a b or a d?

Our hypothetical reader is dyslexic, but not only dyslexic learners reverse letters. The mistake is common through second grade.

If our dyslexic boy mentally flips the b he could reasonably read his word “bear” as “deer,” since ea usually sounds /ee/ (eat, mean, etc.)

But let’s assume our boy can discern b and d. He knows the word isn’t “deer,” so it has to be either “beaver” or “bear.”

He compares the ending letters. No help there. In fact almost all the letters in the two words are the same.

He compares “bear” to similar words he knows: dear, rear, near, fear, hear. All have /ee/ sounds. Could the word be beer?

Finally, our boy works it out. There is a /v/ in “beaver.” He sees no v in the word he is stuck on.

It must be “bear.”

He gets it. Eventually.

* * *

Now let’s put the same lad in the same situation using the “feeling-sound-sight” cueing system.

He has been taught how the mouth feels when it makes consonant and vowel sounds.

He has been taught, for instance, that when making a b, the lips compress then pop out, releasing air in a burst — or “stop,” in linguistic jargon. The curve on the b is like the lips popping out, always toward the letter after it.

Thus when he comes to the trouble word, “bear,” he recognizes the b as a /b/ instead of a /d/. The letter feels correct, sounds correct, and looks correct.

Check, check, and check.

“One of the things that I still struggle with is a lot of guilt…I did lasting damage to these kids. It was so hard to ever get them to stop looking at a picture to guess what a word would be.”

It’s in moving to the vowel that our young reader is likely to have trouble. He’s very likely, in fact, to assume ea sounds /ee/ and read the word as “beer.”

At this point the traditional three-cueing system comes into play.

Our reader knows the story involves animals. It does not involve beer.

There is no beer in the picture. The animals are not drinking anything. So the word “beer” doesn’t make sense in the context of the story.

Now what? Two possibilities.

First, perhaps our young reader has been taught the order of popularity for ea and introduced to a picture cue for each sound.

The most popular sound for ea is exemplified in eat. The second most popular is exemplified in bread. And the third most popular is exemplified in steak.

By visualizing these cues, he could deduce that his word is “bear” through process of elimination.

But what if our dyslexic boy has not yet learned the nuances of ea? He can figure his word out the same way!

Let’s assume the lad can decode the other animals in the sentence, deer and beaver, because they’re phonetically accurate.

Since the sentence reads, “The bear, the deer and the beaver…” our boy understands that it is listing the animals. The word he’s stuck on is the name of an animal.

If it isn’t one of the two animals he can read, it has to be the third.


Are pics necessary?

But note something here. Using the alternate three-cueing system, the boy did not need a picture to deduce the word.

The illustration in the book might have been useful to confirm there was no beer in the story. It would also, of course, show the boy which animals he was reading about.

If there were no picture, however, our boy could still have worked out the word “bear” — either by knowing the three sounds of ea or deducing it from the list of animals.

Or, finally, by giving up and asking the teacher.

As a last resort.

“All of our research results pointed in the opposite direction…It was the poorer readers, not the more skilled readers, who were more reliant on context to facilitate word recognition.”

Keep in mind in our example that “bear” is a difficult word for young readers to decode. With more phonetic animals — dog, cat, pig; or cow, horse, goat — feeling-sound-sight cueing works seamlessly.

Rather than “guess, guess, give up,” our alternate three-cueing system encourages students to “feel, listen, and see.”

Is meaning important? Of course! But meaning arises from reading, and reading begins with decoding.

In reading meaning is derived from printed words, not pictures or illustrations. In reading it’s not OK to confuse the words “beaver” and “bear” just because both are in a picture and their names have similar letters.

Some might ask why it matters which order our boy reads the animals in the sentence.

Whether bear-deer-beaver or deer-beaver-bear, the point is the lad knows the names of the creatures; it doesn’t distract from understanding the story.

This is true, as far as it goes. Except it’s not reading.

If our dyslexic boy pointed to pictures of a beaver, deer and bear and said “deer,” “bear,” and “beaver,” his teacher would immediately correct him.

The instructor would want the boy to recognize that a beaver is different than a deer and a bear.

So why shouldn’t the teacher exercise the same diligence if the youngster misreads the three words?

Out of balance

Balanced literacy has it wrong.

Good readers do not have to know what a word means to be able to read it.

Good readers can read irregular words such as “bear” out of context. They can decode nonsense words such as clusper, prevode, and distransive quickly and accurately.

They rarely confuse similar words such as “house” and “horse.” They do not read the first syllable of a word (e.g., excitement) and guess the rest (e.g., excellent.)

Good readers will use context, including pictures, to grasp the meaning of what they’re reading. They will make educated guesses.

But first they decode the words! Every one of them.

Eventually they can’t feel themselves decoding. They just do it. This is called automaticity.

When they begin, though, they need some help.

It’s like learning to walk or ride a bike. Initially you need to concentrate on every step. However, soon the training wheels come off and you can’t imagine you weren’t always zipping around the neighborhood so quickly and easily.

Balanced literacy promotes the end result while glossing over the process.

If you applied this approach to basketball, you would hop in, start playing, and figure out niggling details such as dribbling, passing and the rules as you go.

In de-emphasizing decoding and over-emphasizing context and meaning, balanced literacy is failing all emerging readers.

Studies conducted by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), in fact, indicate that three-cueing is actually harming young students.

The NICHD found that “teaching children to use context and prediction as strategies for word recognition resulted in greater numbers of reading disabilities than instruction that taught children to use their sound-spelling knowledge as the primary strategy for word recognition.”

Researcher Keith Stanovich discovered this in 1975 after conducting a graduate school experiment at the University of Michigan.

“To our surprise, all of our research results pointed in the opposite direction,” Stanovich wrote. “It was the poorer readers, not the more skilled readers, who were more reliant on context to facilitate word recognition.”

He wasn’t the only one shocked at this discovery.

Margaret Goldberg, a teacher and literacy coach in the Oakland Unified School District, had been teaching traditional balanced literacy for several years before being introduced to a more phonics-based curriculum.

She told Education Week magazine how she felt after seeing the effectiveness of phonics-based reading instruction with her first-graders.

“One of the things that I still struggle with is a lot of guilt,” she said….”I did lasting damage to these kids. It was so hard to ever get them to stop looking at a picture to guess what a word would be. It was so hard to ever get them to slow down and sound out a word because they had had this experience of knowing that you predict what you read before you read it.”

So why are we still teaching a reading strategy that is useless for struggling readers and detrimental to all readers?

Good question.

Teaching kids cues for accurate reading is a great idea, if those checkpoints improve their reading skills. Teaching balanced literacy is fine, if it’s truly balanced.

The cues we’ve been teaching kids to rely on, however, clearly aren’t working. The scales of “balanced literacy” have gotten out of whack.

We need to re-calibrate those scales, and teach kids a trio of cues that encourages decoding and minimizes guessing.

A trio that actually teaches them how to read.

Adam Worcester is a reading tutor and freelance writer who lives near Seattle.



Adam Worcester

Adam Worcester is a freelance writer who lives near Seattle