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Written by Lisa Cheaney-Hogan, MEd., OCT, BEd., BASc

As Shakespeare once asked, “What’s in a name?” — Well, apologies to Shakespeare, but to answer your question…EVERYTHING!

Multiple vowel sounds, r-controlled vowels, E at the end of the words, and don’t even get me started on morphology!

The Rise of Cueing Systems to Teach Reading

For decades, we relied on a cueing system to “teach” our learners how to read – but where did this teaching strategy emerge from?

The three-cueing system for reading is based on the psycholinguistic theories of Ken Goodman & Frank Smith, first published in the 1960s. The three-cueing model says that skilled reading involves gaining meaning from print using three types of cues:

1. Semantic (word meaning and sentence context)
2. Syntactic (grammatical features)
3. Grapho-phonic (letters and sounds)

(www.fivefromfive.com.au, 2023)

For almost 20 years, we relied on New Zealand researcher Marie Clay's theoretical perspectives to guide reading development. The prevalence of her world-renowned work was sought out by many educators over the decades, and our own Ontario government incorporated this method of reading instruction into our curriculum development and supportive materials were purchased to ensure “appropriate” delivery. Additional Qualification courses that educators paid for to increase their teaching practice focused on this very strategy—the three-cueing system.

Fountas & Pinnell and Marie Clay are just some of the more predominant individuals who pioneered programs such as Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) and Reading Recovery. These programs, rooted in the cueing system strategy, have been found in classrooms all over the world. They are supported by curriculum departments, purchased by stakeholders, and have been the cornerstone of reading instruction year after year, despite lacking empirical evidence of success.

However, over the last 10 years, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) worked alongside stakeholders to investigate how sound these strategies truly were. In Ontario, evidence from educators, parents, and student feedback, EQAO and OSSLT data suggest that the reading strategies and tools used were far less than effective. In fact, they had become detrimental, which was quite a contrast to the success Clay had once promised.

The three-cueing instructional approach outlined in the Ontario Language curriculum teaches students to use strategies to predict words based on context cues from pictures and text meaning, sentences and letters. As well, balanced literacy proposes that immersing students in spoken and written language will build foundational reading skills – but significant research has not shown this to be effective for learning to read words accurately and efficiently (Right to Read Report, 2022)

The use of these strategies has been proven by the Ontario Human Rights Commission Right to Read Report to not only be ineffective but detrimental to students at-risk (Right to Read Report, 2022).

The problem with three cueing

In February 2022, our literacy world felt the ground rumble and shake as the OHRC released an incredibly comprehensive report indicating we were not making evidence-based, data-driven instructional teaching decisions, thus compromising the development of our learners. The report found that “cueing systems encourage students to predict or guess words using cues or clues based on context or prior knowledge” (Right to Read Report, 2022).

The BIG strategy that we taught our learners was to…guess. Instead of teaching what the grapheme to phoneme combinations sounded like, the English language rules and morphology, we taught our students how to guess.

How did we do this exactly? “Look at the pictures to see if you can find clues”, “I’m going to cover up a word, what do you think it is – does that make sense?” “What does this word look like? The word is ‘cat’, you said ‘octopus’ – that doesn’t look like the right word.” Does this dialogue resonate with you? You’re not alone. However, just as we teach our students to be lifelong learners, we need to model it!

Guessing to read words using the cueing system can be confusing for students. The lack of teacher clarity, inequitable worldly experiences, and developing executive function skills are just some of the many reasons why guessing is not appropriate when learning to read.

There may be times teachers are not clear on what exactly it is they are looking for. Asking questions that are too open-ended and not ensuring learning objectives are clear and relevant can muddle expectations. Ensuring learning goals are visible, clear, and referred to when providing descriptive feedback, supports teacher clarity.

Additionally, the three-cueing system does not support a Culturally Responsive Relevant Pedagogy (CRRP) model. When we ask students to draw on prior experiences to “guess a word” or “meet a learning objective”, we have created an inequitable environment. Not all students have been exposed to the same languages, cultures, media, etc. Expecting students to draw context from images that don’t reflect their own lived experience puts them on unequal footing. If making a connection is crucial to understanding the learning objective, then we must provide that opportunity for all.

Finally, as students' brains develop, supporting learning through the lens of executive function skills considers more than the student's cognitive ability to access the content. Organization, time management, working memory, and self-control are just some areas that, as educators, we need to bring to the forefront of our teaching practice to guide and support the cognitive load of our learners. Using direct and explicit teaching strategies helps overall organization, direction, and clarity, whereas the three-cueing system serves as an open laissez-faire approach in comparison.

Building Reading Skills Equitably

In response to the OHRC Right to Read report, the Ministry of Education created an incredible tool to get the conversation going in the spring of 2022. The Effective Early Reading Instruction: A Guide for Teachers outlined the following powerful statements:

…Learning to read does not happen naturally. The ability to read is not innate. Reading is a process involving specific skills that need to be taught and learned. As these skills develop, the brain forms new connections known as neural pathways. These neural pathways for reading are built through systematic and explicit instruction and strengthened through repeated practice.

Developing a skilled reader comes with a systematic approach to reading skills. A language program rooted in the Science of Reading must include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. These skills are taught explicitly, directly, and scaffolded so students build on skills acquired. If we want our students to know something, we need to teach it to them.

We are at a pivotal and exciting moment in education! We are now collectively questioning content and material to ensure what we bring to our classrooms truly reflects evidence-based practice. Systematic, direct, and explicit instruction replaces the guessing games of reading from the three-cueing system. Our levelled texts are being replaced with decodable books, so students see themselves as a reader while learning the code.

Our teaching instruction is truly scaffolded, driven by screening tools and widely intended to ensure students are getting exactly what they need when they need it. In 2023, I plan to leave the questioning and guessing games to Shakespeare, as I ensure I am directly and explicitly meeting my learners where they are through screening tools and evidence-based programming supported by our new Ontario language curriculum.

About the Author:

Lisa Cheaney-HoganLisa Cheaney-Hogan is a special education educator who focuses on literacy, equity, and inclusion. She is on a mission to amplify the voices of those not heard. Lisa has a Masters of Education (M.Ed.) from the University of Toronto, is an Empower Trained Educator and is dedicated to sharing her evidence-based, data-driven, Science of Reading knowledge with others. She has worked in Tier 1, 2, and 3 learning environments, specializing in Special Education, has worked in contained classroom settings and is a certified principal. Lisa has worked both provincially and in the classroom to ensure pedagogy and policy are intertwined for student and educator success. As a recently published author of, 'The Reading Seed', ensuring students see themselves in print, is a priority for her.


MultiLit Pty Ltd. (2023, June 12). Effective, evidence-based reading resources. Five from Five. https://fivefromfive.com.au/

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2022). Right to read inquiry report. Right to Read inquiry report | Ontario Human Rights Commission. Retrieved July 26, 2023, from https://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/right-to-read-inquiry-report#:~:text=The%20Right%20to%20Read%20inquiry,to%20teach%20them%20to%20read.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2022). Effective early reading instruction: a guide for teachers. Effective early reading instruction: A guide for teachers. https://www.dcp.edu.gov.on.ca/en/guide-effective-early-reading/considerations