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Abstract

The three'Cueing system is well‐known to Australian teachers. What is less well known is that it arose not as a result of advances in knowledge concerning reading development, but rather in response to an unfounded but passionately held belief. Despite its largely uncritical acceptance by many within the education field, it has never been shown to have utility, and in fact, it is predicated upon notions of reading development that have been demonstrated to be false. Thus, as a basis for decisions about reading instruction, it is likely to mislead teachers and hinder students’ progress.
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The threecueing system: Trojan horse?
Kerry Hempenstall
Version of record first published: 09 Dec 2009
To cite this article: Kerry Hempenstall (2003): The threecueing system: Trojan horse?, Australian Journal of Learning
Disabilities, 8:2, 15-23
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The
Three-Cueing
System:
TROJAN HORSE?
KERRY HEMPENSTALL
Abstract
The three'Cueing system is well-known to Australian teachers. What is less well known is that it arose not as a
result of advances in knowledge concerning reading development, but rather in response to an unfounded but
passionately held
belief.
Despite its largely uncritical acceptance by many within the education
field,
it has never
been shown to have utility, and in fact, it is predicated upon notions of reading development that have been
demonstrated to be false. Thus, as a basis for decisions about reading instruction, it is likely to mislead teachers
and hinder students' progress.
T
I he three-cueing system is an
I established element in most
JL preservice and inservice
teacher training courses that include
a literacy focus (Adams, 1998). It
proffers an explanation of how skilled
readers comprehend written
language, and also strong direction
concerning the role of teachers in
literacy education. It is one of those
belief systems the origin of which is
difficult to establish, and the wide-
scale and uncritical acceptance of
which is surprising to those
anticipating an empirical foundation.
There is a dearth of research support
to justify a central role for the three-
cueing system in determining what
should be included in a reading
program. In fact, in a despairing
letter, 40 respected linguists (Eagle
Forum, 1996) lamented that the
underpinnings of the three-cueing
system represented " ... an erroneous
view of how human language works,
a view that runs counter to most of
the major scientific results of more
than 100 years of linguistics and
psycholinguistics" (Eagle Forum,
1996,
8).
A fuller explanation is presented
later in the paper; however, the
three-cueing system is predicated
upon the notion that skilled reading
is dependent upon the combined use
of three information sources.
Semantic cues enable prediction of
upcoming words based upon the
meaning-stream encountered already.
Syntactic cues enable the reader to
reduce the range of possibilities in
identifying upcoming words because
of knowledge of the constraints
supplied by our grammatical system.
The grapho-phonic cues take as the
source of information in aiding word
identification the alphabetic nature
of our written language. The cues are
in decreasing order of importance,
and their use among skilled readers is
considered to be automatic.
An emphasis on the three-cueing
system is evident in these advisory
booklets provided to parents from
two Melbourne schools:
School
1
: During reading. When
your child gets stuck on a word,
follow these 4 (sic) steps.
Ask your child to:
1.
Guess what the word might be.
2.
Look at the picture to help guess
what the word might be.
3.
Go back to the start of the
sentence and re-read it, adding
the word you think might make
sense.
4.
Read to the end of the sentence
and check that the word "makes
sense".
5.
If the word makes sense then
check if it "looks right" (could it
be that word?).
If the word is still incorrect, tell
your child the word and allow
him/her to continue reading. It is
inappropriate for your child to be
directed to "sound out" words, using
individual letter sounds, as many
words cannot be identified in this
manner.
School 2: Teaching your child
reading strategies:
If
your child
has
difficulty with
a
word
Ask
your child
to
look
for
clues
in
the
pictures
Ask
your child
to
read
on or
reread
the
passage
and try to fit
in
a
word that makes
sense.
Ask
your child
to
look
at the
first
letter
to
help guess what
the
word might
be.
Perhaps
the
three-cueing system
is
ubiquitous
in
training courses
and
popular among teachers because
it
appears
to
reconcile
the
long-
standing conflict between
a
phonics-
emphasis curriculum
and a
literature-
based
curriculum.
The
apparent
reasonableness
of the
three-cueing
conception
of
skilled reading
may
reduce
the
tension
- a
spirit
of
compromise prevailing over
a
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determination to establish the reality.
When there are two apparently polar
alternatives, it is tempting to seek the
comfort of the middle ground.
Indeed, education has long been
renowned for its lack of empirical
foundation (Carnine, 1995;
Hempenstall, 1996; Marshall, 1993;
Stone, 1996). Maggs and White
(1982) wrote despairingly, "Few
professionals are more steeped in
mythology and less open to empirical
findings than are teachers" (p. 131).
Is it important that, in seeking to
achieve a balanced approach to
literacy instruction, educators have
assigned a relatively low priority to
the results of research? It might not
be problematic if there were
numerous equally effective means of
making sense of print. There would
be no cause for concern if there
weren't essential elements that every
reader must master. Many teachers
express the view that differences
among the learning styles of children
make any single approach to literacy
instruction untenable. Yet, it is now
acknowledged that tests have not
been able to determine learning styles
validly and reliably, and even if it
were possible, the demands of the
task of reading require certain skills
regardless of the natural propensity of
a student to acquire them (Graham
& Kershner, 1996; Knight, 1997;
McKenna, 1990; Snider, 1992; Stahl
& Kuhn, 1995).
Further, teachers observe that, for
some children, the early stages of
reading have been mastered prior to
school entry, and for others,
development is rapid and stress free,
requiring only minimal assistance.
This observation actually concerns
variations in the degree of literacy
preparedness of students, yet a
frequent conclusion is that students
therefore require different
instructional emphases rather than
simply different instructional entry
points. A further assumption may be
that there are many qualitatively
different ways of skilfully extracting
(or constructing) meaning from print.
Perhaps, they reason, one student
may benefit most by focussing on the
meaning of print rather than its
structure, and so benefit most when
exhorted to employ contextual cues.
A student may have a strong visual
memory for words, whereas another
appears more sensitive to the sounds
in words, and yet another seems to
respond to a focus on the tactile or
kinaesthetic senses.
The belief such observations may
engender is that attention to
phonemic awareness and/or phonics
with students is a forlorn attempt to
shoehorn different learners into only
one of numerous possible reading
methods - indeed one that may not
suit their personal (neurological?)
style or preference. Perhaps this
perception explains the ready
acceptance of many different
methods, including the three-cueing
system - one that offers the apparent
unification of diverse approaches.
Ultimately, however, what
constitutes the effective teaching of
reading is an empirical question, and
the decision about instructional focus
should depend not on
belief,
but
upon knowledge of the processes
underlying skilled reading, and the
means by which skilled reading is
most effectively pursued. In the USA,
the recent national and state
education bills informed by the report
of the National Reading Panel
(2000) have highlighted a
momentum shift from reading viewed
as a natural process, unique to each
child, towards reading as a difficult
skill that is developed more
effectively under some educational
conditions than others.
The ready acceptance of the
three-cueing model should not be
treated lightly because beliefs about
the reading process determine what
should and should not occur in the
beginning reading classroom. The
implications form the very core of
literacy instruction, and if the
conception of reading development is
erroneous then the activities of
teachers employing its
recommendations may inadvertently
subvert the reading progress of
students, and in particular, of those
students who do not readily progress
without appropriate assistance.
In fact, the three-cueing system is
a seriously flawed conception of the
processes involved in skilled reading,
and the practices flowing from its
misconception may have contributed
to the problems experienced by an
unacceptably large number of
students (Wren, 2001). Not only are
the practices flowing from the system
ineffective for promoting beginning
reading, they actually deflect students
away from the path to reading
facility. Sadly, many parents do not
discover until about Grade 4 that
their children have been taught
moribund reading strategies, and to
their dismay, that recovery is unlikely
(Chall, Jacobs, & Baldwin, 1990;
Lewis & Paik, 2001; Spear-Swerling
&. Sternberg, 1994).
In developing an understanding
of the rise to popularity of the three-
cueing system it is necessary to
consider the context in which it
occurred. During the past two
decades, an approach to education
with strong philosophical
underpinnings, whole language,
became the major model for
educational practice in many
countries.
The whole language movement
itself is refractory to detailed
examination, so is best examined
through its underpinnings, its
philosophical assumptions and its
visible manifestations, that is, its
instructional features. The whole
language approach had its
instructional roots in the meaning-
emphasis, whole-word model of
teaching reading. This emphasis on
whole words was a comparatively
recent shift; the phonic technique of
teaching component skills, and then
combining those skills had been the
norm until the mid-nineteenth
century (Adams, 1990). It followed a
sequence of teaching upper-case and
lower-case letter names, two-letter
and three-letter combinations, mono-
syllabic words, multi-syllabic words,
phrases, sentences, and finally,
stories. Phonics is an approach to
teaching reading that aims to
sensitise children to the relationships
of the spelling patterns of a written
language to the sound patterns of its
corresponding oral language. It is not
a single pathway, however, as
decisions need to be made regarding
the timing of its introduction, the
method of delivery, whether
explicitly or implicitly taught,
whether correspondences are
presented in isolation, or solely in the
context of literature, how many
correspondences, and which (if any)
rules are appropriate.
In 1828, Samuel Worcester
produced a primer that borrowed a
European idea of teaching children to
recognise whole words without
sounding them out.
It is not very important, perhaps,
that a child should know the
letters before it (sic) begins to
read. It may learn first to read
words by seeing them, hearing
them pronounced, and having
their meanings illustrated; and
afterward it may learn to analyse
them or name the letters of
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which they are composed.
(Crowder & Wagner, 1991, p.
204).
Support for this view came from
James Cattell in 1885 in his
assertion that whole word reading
was more economical (Davis, 1988);
and later, from the Gestaltists who
considered that the overall shape of
the word (rather than the
summation of the sound-parts)
should provide the pre-eminent clue
for young readers.
An assumption behind this
approach was that beginning readers
should be taught to read in the way
skilled readers were thought to do.
Given the belief that skilled readers
associated meaning directly onto the
whole-word image, it followed that
showing beginners how this was
achieved would save time. The
alternative view was that reading
should be viewed as a developmental
process in which the early stages of
developing the alphabetic principle
- are necessary for later skilled-
reading, even though those early
skills may be rarely needed at the
later stages. This alternative
perspective fell from favour until its
recent resurrection through the
interest in phonological processing.
A further assumption of what
became known as the whole-word
approach was that the knowledge of
letter-sounds would naturally follow
once whole-word recognition was
established (Smith, 1978). It was not
until some time later that doubt
began to be expressed about the
effects on some children of this
whole-word initial emphasis.
Unfortunately for many at-risk
children, the consequence of the
primacy of the whole-word method
is an inability to decode unfamiliar
words (Tunmer &. Hoover, 1993), a
problem that becomes more
pronounced as the student meets a
dramatically accelerating number of
new words during the late primary
and into the secondary grades.
The whole-word model involved
introducing words through their
meaning as the words are presented
in stories. Words are to be
recognised by sight, using the cue of
their shape and length. A secondary
strategy relies on deducing meaning
from other contextual clues, such as
accompanying pictures or through
guesses based upon the meaning
derived from surrounding words
(Chall, 1967). In a whole word
approach, phonic strategies are
considered potentially harmful, and
to be employed as a last resort. Even
then, they are intended to provide
only partial cues, such as obtained by
attention to a word's first or last
letters. Systematic teaching of
phonic strategies was antithetical to
the wholistic nature of such
meaning-oriented approaches.
Because teaching should not take as
the unit of instruction anything
other than meaningful text, any
phonic skills developed by students
is likely to be self-induced and
idiosyncratic.
Goodman (1986) described
whole language as an overarching
philosophy rather than as a series of
Unfortunately
for
many
at-
risk children,
the
conse-
quence
of
the primacy
of
the whole-word method
is
an inability
to
decode
unfamiliar words (Tunmer
& Hoover, 1993),
a
problem
that becomes more pro-
nounced
as the
student
meets
a
dramatically
accelerating number
of
new words during
the
late
primary and into
the sec-
ondary grades
prescribed activities, and one not to
be simply equated with an
instructionally-based strategy such as
the whole word approach. In his
view, the teacher aims to provide a
properly supportive, rather than
directive, environment that
encourages children to allow the
natural development of literacy at
their own developmentally
appropriate pace.
There is a strong emphasis on
principles such as the benefits of a
natural learning environment
(Goodman, 1986) and of exposure
to a literate environment (Sykes,
1991 ). The proponents of the
approach also insist that reading and
writing are natural parts of the same
language process that enable the
development of speech. In this view,
learning to read and write would be
equally effortless and universal if
only the reading task were made as
natural and meaningful as was
learning to talk. Goodman (1986)
argued that it is the breaking down
of what is naturally a wholistic
process into subskills, to be learned
and synthesized, that creates a
disparity in some children's ease of
acquisition of speaking and of
reading.
Whole language offers solely a
philosophical basis for judgement
rather than the clear instructional
ramifications of the whole word
method; however, both approaches
are critical of the emphasis on the
alphabetic principle inherent in
phonics instruction.
Whole language advocates have
conceptualised reading development
as the gradual integration of three-
cueing mechanisms (semantic,
syntactic, and graphophonic). The
term integration is important
because it is made clear that the
three strategies are not intended to
be employed in isolation, but so
quickly that they appear
simultaneous. In this view, skilled
readers make continuous use of the
cues as required. They are engaged
in a continuous process of prediction
and confirmation as they construct
meaning from the text.
SEMANTIC, SYNTACTIC AND
GRAPHOPHONIC CUES
Semantic cues involve enlisting the
meaning of what has just been read
to assist with decoding words about
to be read, that is, the next
(unknown) word should make sense
in the context of the reader's
ongoing interpretation of the text
meaning. For example, in the
sentence, "The rodeo rider leaped
onto the back of his ," the
reader's integrated three-cueing
system enables him to produce a
word that maintains the sense of the
sentence. "I don't recognise this
word, but what would make sense to
me? In the context of the sentence
and my experience with the world, it
would make sense if it were horse."
Syntactic cues arise because of
the logic of our system of sentence
construction - words and their
position in a sentence are
constrained by the rules of grammar.
Word order, endings, tense,
intonation, and phrasing are each
elements of syntax. Thus, the word
chosen in the previous example must
be a noun, it couldn't be a participle
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such as horsing. "So, the word I
chose (horse) is appropriate in that it
is syntactically acceptable." In order
to show students how to make use of
this cue, teachers are likely to
encourage students to skip the word,
and read on until a clue becomes
available, derived from the structure
of the rest of the sentence. This is
usually called the read-ahead strategy.
Syntactic and semantic cues are
broadly described as context cues, as
they may be used to name a word
questioning routine in order to
become adept at reading in this
three-cueing manner. For example,
teachers may cover up key words in
sentences, prompting students to
practise making use of contextual
clues to predict the hidden words,
and they may encourage students to
seek meaning from an accompanying
picture and produce an appropriate
word. Students may have the three-
cueing sequence modelled to them
whenever they request teacher
without recourse to visual inspection.
When students self-correct their
reading errors based upon such cues,
teachers are likely to be pleased, as it
indicates to them the operation of
contextual cues.
Graphophonic
cues refer to the
correspondence between graphemes
(the symbols in print) and phonemes
(the speech sounds they represent).
In the three-cueing system, the
graphophonic cues are employed as a
backup element, to help confirm the
choice of words. "Yes, the word I
chose (horse) begins with an h so it
meets the demands of graphophonic
suitability."
According to the advocates of
this interpretation of skilled reading,
the process outlined occurs so rapidly
as to be virtually instantaneous. That
it is the integration of the three
processes that produces meaning is
indicated by the familiar overlapping
circles of the diagram above.
Comprehension is indicated by the
area shared by the three intersecting
circles.
This representation is similar to
that shown in Pearson (1976).
The instructional implication of
this assertion about skilled reading is
that beginning readers and those
struggling with the reading process
should consciously master the
self-
assistance with an unknown word. It
is also likely that they will be
discouraged from employing sounding
out as an initial strategy for
determining the pronunciation of an
unknown word. Apart from those
teacher decisions, there is little else
in the way of clearly delineated
advice to teachers to ensure such a
seemingly complex set of
orchestrated processes does occur.
In the three-cueing approach,
the three systems are not considered
to be equally useful - the
graphophonic system has even been
labelled the least helpful - even
potentially disruptive when relied
upon by readers (Weaver, 1988).
Reading should entail as little
emphasis as possible on each word's
letter construction. Rather, skilled
reading is perceived as a process of
continuous prediction of target-
words, this prediction based primarily
upon semantic and syntactic cues,
followed by confirmation that the
chosen word is consistent with the
context (and possibly the target
word's initial letters).
"In turn (the reader's) sense of
syntactic structure and meaning
makes it possible to predict the
graphic input so he is largely
selective, sampling the print to
confirm his prediction" (Goodman,
1973,
p. 9).
However, if a struggling reader
can't pronounce most of the words
on a page, there is no useful context
to interpret. Yet, the so-called
"integrated" use of the system
actually involves employing the cues
sequentially (even if rapidly), with
the graphophonic cues assigned last
place in the sequence. What advice
should a teacher give to a student
when word identification problems
arise prior to any context being
established? Even if the
graphophonic system is
recommended as a last resort, how
will the students know how to use it
productively? Further, will they be
motivated to do so, if taught that it is
largely unhelpful?
Students are disadvantaged
because proponents of whole
language have invariably been
uncomfortable with instructional
attention being devoted to within-
word structure. The responses of
whole language protagonists have
taken several forms.
One approach has been outright
rejection of word structure:
"Focus on the subsystems of
language results in useless, time-
wasting and confusing
instruction" (King Si Goodman,
1990.
p. 223).
"The rules of phonics are too
complex,... and too unreliable ...
to be useful" (Smith, 1992, p.
214).
Another approach involves
submerging phonics
"Phonic information ... is most
powerfully learned through the
process of writing" (Badger, 1984,
p.19)
A further position is that phonics
knowledge is useful, but requires no
instruction:
"Children can develop and use an
intuitive knowledge of letter-
sound correspondences [without]
any phonics instruction [or]
without deliberate instruction
from adults" (Weaver, 1980, p.
86).
"Children must develop reading
strategies by and for themselves"
(Weaver, 1988, p. 178).
Routman extends this in arguing
that phonics information only
becomes useful to an individual after
learning to read. In other words,
reading facility precedes the capacity
to learn phonic strategies (Routman
& Butler, 1988).
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He further argues that phonics
approaches emphasise accuracy to
the detriment of meaning.
"Accuracy, correctly naming or
identifying each word or word
part in a graphic sequence, is not
necessary for effective reading
since the reader can get the
meaning without accurate word
identification. ... Furthermore,
readers who strive for accuracy
are likely to be inefficient"
(Goodman, 1974, p.826).
Goodman (1976) and others argued
that phonic skills should only
develop within the context of three-
cueing systems used to extract
meaning from print. In this view, the
graphophonic system is considered a
fall-back position to be used when
semantic and syntactic systems fail
(Weaver, 1988).
"The first alternative and
preference is - to skip over the
puzzling word. The second
alternative is to guess what the
unknown word might be. And
the final and least preferred
alternative is to sound the word
out. Phonics, in other words,
comes last" (Smith, 1999, p.
153).
A decidedly unconventional
approach, involves ad hominan
attacks on protagonists of systematic
phonics instruction - accusing them
of ulterior motives:
"At a meeting of the
International Reading
Association four years ago Ken
Goodman attacked Marilyn
Adams [a phonics advocate] as a
'vampire' who threatened the
literacy of America's youth"
(Levine, 1994, p. 42).
"It is important not to confuse
the tactics of the far right with
its goals. One of its tactics is to
smear whole language. ... The
far right's love affair with
phonics is a tactic, not a goal.
They tout the benefits of
phonics, but what they are really
pushing is control of teachers,
texts,
and readers in a universe
of moral absolutes" (Edelsky,
1998,
p. 39).
In contrast to recent consensus
among empirical researchers about
the importance of teaching phonics
explicitly (Lyon, 1999; National
Literacy Strategy, 1998; National
Reading Panel, 2000), some whole
language advocates have argued that
phonics is relevant but can only be
explored implicitly in the context of
authentic literature. The concern
Vol.8
No.
2 June 2003
about the implicit model relates to
the risk it creates for students unable
to benefit from occasional exposure
to important intra-word features.
WHAT IS THE EVIDENCE
SUPPORTIVE OF THE VIEW OF
SKILLED READING INHERENT
IN THE THREE-CUEING
SYSTEM?
Goodman (1976) described skilled
reading as a "psycholinguistic
guessing game" (p.259). He sees
reading as a sophisticated guessing
game driven largely by the reader's
linguistic knowledge, and as little as
possible by the print. Smith (1975)
expressed this view succinctly. "The
art of becoming a fluent reader lies
in learning to rely less and less on
information from the eyes" (p. 50).
The rationale for asserting that
contextual cues should have primacy
in skilled reading was based on a
flawed study by Goodman (1965).
Goodman found a 60-80%
improvement in reading accuracy
when children read words in the
context of a story rather than in a
list format. He argued on the basis of
this study that the contextual cues
provided marked assistance in word
identification. There has always been
acceptance that context aids readers'
comprehension, but despite
contention in the literature over
Goodman's finding concerning
contextual facilitation of word
recognition, his study is still regularly
cited as grounds for emphasizing
contextual strategies in the three-
cueing system.
The study was flawed in two
ways.
The design was not
counterbalanced to preclude practice
effects. That is, a list of words taken
from a story was read, and then the
story itself was read. Secondly, the
study ignored individual differences
in reading ability, so it was not
possible in the Goodman study to
determine whether good, or poor,
readers (or both categories) derived
benefit from context. Replication
studies by a number of researchers
including Nicholson (1985, 1991),
Nicholson, Lillas and Rzoska (1988),
Nicholson, Bailey and McArthur
(1991) have discredited Goodman's
argument, and found that good
readers are less reliant on context
clues than poor readers. A more
recent study by Alexander (1998)
produced similar outcomes. Results
consistent with those above were
reported in studies by Goldsmith-
AlISTRALIAN JOURNAL
OF
LEARNING DISABILITIES
Phillips (1989), Leu,
Degroff,
and
Simons, (1986), and Yoon and Goetz
(1994),
cited in Alexander (1998).
Poor readers attempt to use
context only because they lack the
decoding skills of the good readers.
As a consequence of these studies,
Nicholson (1991) argued that
encouraging reliance on contextual
cues only confuses children,
directing their attention away from
the most salient focus (word
structure), and helping entrench an
unproductive approach to decoding
unknown words.
A further problem involves the
accuracy of contextual guesses. In a
study by Gough, Alford and Holley-
Wilcox (1981), well educated,
skilled readers, when given adequate
time,
could guess correctly only one
word in four through contextual
cues.
Gough (1993) pointed out that
even this low figure was reached
only when the prose was loaded with
fairly predictable words.
Interestingly, although good readers
are more sensitive to context cues to
elicit the meaning of unfamiliar
words, they do not need to use
context to decode unknown words
(Tunmer & Hoover, 1993). They
soon learn that word structure more
reliably supplies the word's
pronunciation than does context;
unfortunately, it is poor readers who
are more likely to invest attention
on such context guesswork
(Nicholson, 1991). The error made
by whole language theorists is to
confuse the desired outcome of
reading instruction - a capacity to
grasp the meaning of a text - with
the means of achieving that end. In
order to comprehend meaning, the
student must first learn to
understand the code (Foorman,
1995).
An additional problem was
highlighted by Schatz and Baldwin
(1986).
They pointed out that low
frequency words and information-
loaded words are relatively
unpredictable in prose. That is, the
words least likely to be recognised
are those that contain most of the
information available in the
sentence. As students progress
through the school years, texts
provide less and less redundancy
from which to derive contextual
cues,
and the strategy becomes even
more moribund.
It had also been argued
(Cambourne, 1979) that the speed of
skilled reading could not be
accounted for if the reader looks at
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The three-cueing system
and its associated
assessment tool, the RMI,
are not beneficial to the
understanding of the
important elements in
reading development, and
for teachers, provide
unsound directions to
guide instruction.
every word. In his view, the
continuous flow of meaning should
be faster than word-by-word
decoding. Cambourne also asserted
that good readers used contextual
cues to predict words initially, and
then confirm the word's identity
using as few visual features as
possible.
These are empirical questions
that have been answered through
the use of eye movement studies. It
has been demonstrated that the
fluent reader recognises most words
in a few tenths of a second
(Stanovich, 1980), far faster than
complex syntactic and semantic
analyses can be performed. Eye
movement studies have not
supported the skipping/skimming
hypothesis.
These studies (see reviews in
Rayner, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky,
& Seidenberg, 2001, 2002; Rayner &
Pollatsek, 1989; Stanovich, 1986)
using sophisticated video cameras
and computers indicate that skilled
readers do process all the print - they
do not skip words, nor do they seek
only some features of words.
Thus,
the techniques of
contextual prediction that are
emphasized in whole language
classrooms, are based upon an
unsustained hypothesis about the
techniques representative of skilled
reading. It is unsurprising that
Rayner &. Pollatsek (1989), perhaps
the most notable of the researchers
using eye movement techniques,
consider that the major failing of
whole language is its lack of
recognition that graphophonic cues
are "more central or important to the
process of learning to read than are
the others" (p. 351).
More recently Pressley (1998)
summarized
"The scientific evidence is
simply overwhelming that letter-
sound cues are more important
in recognizing words than either
semantic or syntactic cues" (p.
16).
Brück (1988) reviewed research
indicating that rapid, context-free
automatic decoding characterizes
skilled reading-She too had noted
that the word recognition of skilled
readers provided them with the text
meaning even before contextual
information could be accessed. It is
prediction rather than scanning
words that is too slow and error-filled
to account for skilful reading. As
Wren (2001) notes, it is only under
conditions of insufficient
graphophonic information that
contextual strategies are employed
for word identification.
Rayner and Pollatsek (1989)
observed that it is only beginning
and poor readers who use partial
visual cues and predict words. This
view was echoed by Stanovich
(1986) and by Solman and
Stanovich (1992) providing a strong
list of supportive studies. This is also
the position recently endorsed in
Great Britain in the National
Literacy Strategy (National Literacy
Strategy, 1998), in the National
Reading Panel (2000) findings, and
in the extensive, large scale,
longitudinal research emanating
from the National Institute of Child
Health & Human Development.
"NICHD and substantial non-
NICHD research does not
support the claim that the use of
context is a proxy for applying
decoding strategies to unknown
or unfamiliar words. ... The
strategy of choice among well
developing good readers is to
decode letters to sound in an
increasingly complete and
accurate manner, which is
dependent upon robust
development of phonemic and
phonics skills" (Lyon, 1999,
concluding section,
ST
5).
Finally, psychometric studies have
indicated that measures of alphabetic
coding ability rather than of
semantic and syntactic ability are
the strong predictors of word
identification and comprehension
facility (Vellutino, 1991). Whole
language theorists had assumed the
converse to be true. The finding
regarding comprehension is
particularly damning to the
argument for psycholinguistic
The approach is
responsible for many
children being stranded
without adequate tools
to meet the inescapably
and increasingly
prevalent literacy
demands of education,
the workplace, and the
wider community.
guessing, with its unfailing focus on
meaning.
"Two inescapable conclusions
emerge: (a) Mastering the
alphabetic principle (that
written symbols are associated
with phonemes) is essential to
becoming proficient in the skill
of reading, and (b) methods that
teach this principle are more
effective than those that do not
(especially for children who are
at risk in some way for having
difficulty learning to read)"
(Rayner et al., 2001, Abstract,
11).
Thus the presumption that skilled
readers employ contextual cues as
the major strategy in decoding is not
supported by evidence. There is,
however, no dispute about the value
of contextual cues in assisting
readers gain meaning from text
(Stanovich, 1980). The
comprehension of a phrase, clause,
sentence or passage is dependent on
attention to its construction (syntax)
and also to the meaning of the text
surrounding it (semantics). The
critical issue here is the erroneous
assertion that the use of contextual
strategies is beneficial in the
identification of words, and that
skilled readers make use of these
strategies routinely.
DOES IT MATTER HOW THE
PROCESS IS
CONCEPTUALISED?
Yes,
it is crucial. For one reason, a
test developed expressly to assess
students' usage of the three-cueing
system is frequently employed to
ensure students are in fact using this
flawed system. The significance of
any reading errors is thus
superimposed on the reading
behaviour through the adoption of
the three-cueing system conception
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of reading. " ... the model of reading
makes the understanding of miscues
possible" (Brown, Goodman, &
Marek, 1996, p. vii).
Miscue analysis is a very popular
approach to assessing reading
progress by attempting to uncover
the strategies that children use in
their reading. Goodman and his
colleagues in the 1960's were
interested in the processes occurring
during reading, and believed that
miscues (any departure from the text
by the reader) could provide a
picture of the underlying cognitive
processes (Goodman, 1969). He used
the term miscue, rather than error,
reflecting the view that a departure
from the text is not necessarily
erroneous (Goodman, 1979).
Readers' miscues include
substitutions of the written word
with another, additions, omissions,
and alterations to the word sequence.
Consistent with this view of
skilled reading, the Reading Miscue
Inventory (RMI) and its update are
concerned largely with errors that
cause a loss of meaning - the number
of errors being less important than
their immediate impact on
comprehension (Weaver, 1988).
There are differences in the
acceptability of various miscues.
Good miscues maintain meaning and
are viewed as an indication that the
student is using meaning to drive the
reading process, and hence, is on the
"correct" path. Bad miscues are those
that alter meaning. Whether the
word the student reads corresponds
to the written word may not be
important in this conception
(Goodman, 1974).
A teacher using the RMI will
examine the nature of the errors the
student has made in chosen passages.
Consider this text The man rode his
horse to town, and a reader's response,
substituting pony for
horse:
Child # 1:The man rode his
pony to town.
Asking the specified nine questions
reveals that the miscue (compared
with the target word) has
grammatical similarity, syntactic
acceptability, semantic acceptability,
does not change meaning, and the
miscue does not involve dialect
variation, an intonation shift,
graphic similarity, sound similarity, or
self-correction. Such an error is
considered an acceptable miscue.
Reading pony for
horse
is indicative
of the student using contextual cues
appropriately and a signal for
satisfaction about reading progress.
The teacher would be content with
this error, as meaning has been more
or less preserved.
"Often substitutions of words
like a for the, by for at, in for into,
do not cause a change in
meaning. ... substitutions like
daddy for father, James for Jimmy
... are generally produced by
proficient readers and are not
reading problems" (Goodman &
Burke, 1972, pp. 101-102).
According to the whole language
conception of skilled reading,
students must make many miscues
during the progressive integration of
the three-cueing systems in order for
reading to develop. It is argued that
these errors are not necessarily a
cause for intervention but a positive
The student's dawning
understanding of the pre-
eminence of a word's
graphemic structure
encourages close visual
inspection of words, a
strategy that accelerates
the progressive internali-
sation of unfamiliar
spelling patterns, that is, it
leads ultimately to whole-
word recognition.
sign of a reader prepared to take
risks.
Teachers should expect and
even be pleased with meaning-
preserving errors. Additionally, they
are exhorted to avoid corrective
feedback regarding errors as it is
risky, likely to jeopardise the
student's willingness for risk-taking.
" ... if these resulting miscues
preserve the essential meaning of the
text, or if they fail to fit with the
following context but are
subsequently corrected by the reader,
then the teacher has little or no
reason for concern" (Weaver, 1988,
p.
325).
Suppose another student reads
house for horse:
Child #2: The man rode his
house to town.
Asking the same nine questions
reveals that the miscue (compared
with the target word) has graphic
similarity, some degree of sound
similarity, grammatical similarity,
syntactic acceptability, and the
miscue does not involve dialect
variation, an intonation shift.
Further, it does not include
self-
correction, is not a semantically
acceptable change, and the miscue
creates meaning change. This
response is considered an
unacceptable miscuè because it
changes the meaning.
"Proficient readers resort to an
intensive graphophonic analysis
of a word only when the use of
the syntactic and semantic
systems does not yield enough
information to support selective
use of the graphophonic system"
(Goodman, Watson, &. Burke,
1987,
p.26).
Despite the closer graphemic
similarity of the response house to the
target word, children who make
errors based on graphemic similarity,
such as house for horse, are considered
problematic and over-reliant on
phonic cues. Whole language
theorists argue that good readers'
miscues display less graphophonemic
similarity to target words than do
those of poor readers (Weaver,
1988),
and readers-in-training should
do likewise.
Thus,
the remedy the teacher
chooses for Child ^2 is to encourage
increased reliance on context and
less attention to letter patterns.
However, according to the research-
based consensus, this directive is
more likely to result in poorer
reading than in better reading.
Adams (1991) argued that to
improve this child's reading, the
teacher should provide instruction
that evokes close inspection of the
letters and their position in the
word, the opposite of that
recommended in the RMI.
Importantly, Adams found that good
readers' miscues displayed more
graphophonemic similarity to target
words than did those of struggling
readers.
In fact, most nascent readers'
miscues shift over time, from early
errors based upon contextual
similarity to those based upon
graphemic similarity; and this shift is
now recognised as functional and a
characteristic of progress. The
student's dawning understanding of
the pre-eminence of a word's
graphemic structure encourages close
visual inspection of words, a strategy
Vol.8 No. 2 June 2003
AUSTRALIAN
JOURNAL OF LEARNING DISABILITIES
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that accelerates the progressive
internalisation of unfamiliar spelling
patterns, that is, it leads ultimately
to whole-word recognition. That
some teachers may unwittingly
subvert this process, with well-
meaning but unhelpful advice to
beginning or struggling readers, is an
unfortunate outcome.
"Scaffolding errors - when an
error shares some or most of the
sounds of the target word (e.g.,
'bark' misread as 'bank') is a
strong predictor of reading
success. Errors that retain
meaning but not initial and final
phonemes ("people" for "crowd")
were not correlated with
accurate word reading ability"
(Savage, Stuart, & Hill, 2001,
p.ll).
Thus,
according to current
knowledge, the house response is a
preferable error to the pony
substitution. It may be a sign that
the student is in the process of
acquiring the alphabetic principle;
however, corrective feedback should
be provided, as house is an erroneous
response. Through the error
correction, the student's attention is
directed toward the letters in the
written word and the sound usually
made by the /or/ combination. The
response recommended to teachers
through the RMI, that of directing
the student's attention away from
the letters in the word towards
context cues, provides an alarmingly
unstable and counter-productive rule
for students.
Child #1 is arguably in greater
need of instruction that directs his
attention to the letters in the words.
Child #1 might equally have
substituted
bicycle
for
horse.
The
substitution makes sense but is far
from that which the author
intended. The child whose primary
decoding strategy is driven by
semantic and syntactic similarity
may be unaware that
bicycle
bears no
graphemic similarity to
horse.
The
instructional message to the student
is that, despite the student's errors
being directly attributable to the
inappropriate method of guessing,
the strategy is the nevertheless the
correct one. The student is thereby
encouraged to continue using a
strategy that is unhelpful, and is
dissuaded from attending to the
major cue that would improve his
reading - the word's structure.
According to current evidence,
regardless of the type of miscue,
students who make errors need to
Page
22
focus on the letters in the word to
improve their decoding.
THE
RMI ALSO ENCOURAGES
OTHER
COUNTERPRODUCTIVE
INSTRUCTIONAL
STRATEGIES
Within
the
Reading Miscue
Inventory,
a
student's self-correction
of errors
is
considered significant,
and they
are
recorded
for
analysis.
Self-corrections
are
errors that
are
corrected without another's
intervention, usually because
the
word uttered does
not fit in the
context
of the
sentence. Within
the
whole language framework,
self-
corrections
are a
clear
and
pleasing
sign that meaning
and
syntactic cues
are being integrated into
the
reader's
strategies. Clay (1969) asserted that
good readers self-corrected errors
at a
higher rate than
did
poor readers.
She considered high rates were
indicative
of
good text-cue
integration, which
in
turn
was a
measure
of
reading progress.
This view
of the
significance
of
self-correction
was
questioned
by
Share (1990),
and
Thompson
(1981,
cited
in
Share, 1990). They found
that self-correction rates
had
been
confounded with text difficulty.
When text difficulty
was
controlled
in reading level-matched designs,
the
rates
of
self-correction became
similar among good
and
poor readers.
That
is,
when text
is
made difficult
for
any
readers, they
are
more likely
to make errors
and
thereby increase
their rate
of
self-correction.
So, an
increased rate
of
self-correction
is
better interpreted
as an
indicator
of
excessive text difficulty rather than
as reflective
of
reading progress. This
interpretation based
on
difficulty
levels also raises concerns about
unreliability
in the
assessment
of
self-correction rates.
The
conclusion
that there
is no
direct support
for
self-correction
as a
marker
or
determinant
of
reading progress
makes
the
activity
of
recording such
ratings
for
students
of
questionable
value.
The
RMI was
designed
to
provide
a
"window
on the
reading
process"
(Goodman,
1973, p. 5).
However,
the
analogy with
a
window
is
a
misleading
one as it
implies
a
direct
and
transparent medium.
The
picture
of
reading obtained through
the
RMI
involves
an
interpretation
of that which
is
viewed through this
window. What
is
actually displayed
by
a
student
is
overt behaviour
AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL
OF
LEARNING DISABIUTIES
(spoken
or
written words)
- the
subsequent analysis
of
miscues
involves making inferences about
unobservable processes based upon
assumptions about
the
reading
process.
With this instrument,
the
picture
is
coloured
by a
discredited
conception
of
reading. Additionally,
the instrument
has
other weaknesses
described
by
Hempenstall (1999).
The Reading Miscue Inventory
has
had
considerable influence
in
instructional texts
and in
classrooms
(Allington, 1984),
and
remains
influential among Whole Language
theorists
and
teachers (Weaver,
1988).
A
revised version
- RMI:
Alternative Procedures (Goodman,
Watson,
&.
Burke,
1987)
offers four
analysis options
of
varying
complexity
for
classroom
use. The
rationale
is
unchanged
" ... it is
best
to avoid
the
common sense notion
that what
the
reader
was
supposed
to
have read
was
printed
in the
text"
(Goodman
et al., 1987,
p.60),
and
the Alternative Procedures
are
subject
to the
same criticisms
as
earlier versions. Although
the RMI
has been
a
very popular test, many
teachers
(for
example,
in
Reading
Recovery) have been trained
to use
an informal procedure
of
maintaining "running records" (Clay,
1985) with their students,
a
procedure that provides similar
information
on
types
of
errors
and
self-correction rates,
and
that
is
based
on a
similarly flawed
conception
of
reading.
The three-cueing system
and its
associated assessment tool,
the RMI,
are
not
beneficial
to the
understanding
of the
important
elements
in
reading development,
and
for
teachers, provide unsound
directions
to
guide instruction.
The
approach
is
responsible
for
many
children being stranded without
adequate tools
to
meet
the
inescapably
and
increasingly
prevalent literacy demands
of
education,
the
workplace,
and the
wider community.
REFERENCES
Adams,
M. J. (
1990).
Beginning to read: Thinking &
learning
about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Ptess.
Adams,
M. J.
(1991).
Beginning to read: A critique by
literacy
professionals and a response by Matylin Jager
Adams.
The Reading Teacher, 44,
370-395.
Adams,
M. J.
(1998).
The three-cueing system. In F.
Lehr
and J. Osborn
(Eds.),
Literacy for all: Issues in
teaching
and learning. New York: Guilford
Press.
Alexander,
J. C. (
1998).
Reading skill and context
facilitation:
A classic study revisited. The Journal of
Educational
Research, 9,
314-318.
Allington,
R. L.
(1984).
Content coverage & contextual
reading
in reading
groups.
Journal of Reading
Behaviour,
16,
85-96.
Badger,
L.
(1984).
Providing experiences for reading
development.
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(Unit 5, pp. 19-25). South Australia: Education
Department of South Australia.
Brown, J., Goodman, K. S., & Marek, A. M. (1996).
Studies in miscue analysis: Annotated bibliography.
Newark, DE: IRA.
Bruck, M. ( 1938), The word recognition and spelling of
dyslexic children. Reading Research Quarterly. 23,
51-69.
Cambourne, B, (1979). How important is theory to the
rending teacher? Australian Journal of Reading, 2, 78-
90.
Carnine, D. (1995). Trustworthiness, useability, and
accessibility of educational research. Journal of
Behavioral Education, 5, 251-258.
Chall, J. S. (1967). The great debate. New York:
McGraw Hill.
Chall. J. S., Jacobs, V. A., & Baldwin, L. E (1990). The
reading crisis: Why poor children fall behind.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Clay, M. M. (1969). Reading errors and self-correction
behaviour. British Journal of Educational Psychology,
39,
47-56.
Clay, M. M. (1985) The early defection of reading
difficulties (3rd ed.). Auckland, NZ: Heinemann.
Crowder, R., & Wagner, R. (1992). "The psychology of
reading: An introduction. New York: Oxford
University Press.
Davis, A. (1988). A historical perspective. In J. Estill
Alexander (Ed.), Teaching reading (3rd ed., p. 532-
553).
USA: Scott, Foresman &. Co.
Eagle Forum. (1996, March). Reading experts blast