How did our reading standards get to this point?

How would you feel if someone, who you trusted to accurately teach your child how to read, told them to look at the picture, look a the first letter of the word, then guess? 

How did we get to this point? 

Well, keep reading… 

I read At a Loss for Words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids be to be poor readers and it left a marked impression on me. Despite this article being American, there are so many parallels between what is happening in America and what is happening on our own doorstep here is Australia. 

Through this article, a palatable explanation is offered about the historical context of how literacy practices in the classroom have come about. 

The article is quite a long one (30 minute read), so I have provided a summary below. Make the time to read it if you are interested in knowing how your child will be taught to read, and why this methodology has been selected. It is compelling reading. 

I wish I knew this before my eldest went to school. 

As parents, we want to and we do trust teachers with our children’s first steps into reading and literacy. 

Teachers trust their universities that they will provide them to do their job, through their content and coursework.  

Teachers trust the schools in which they work to engage in best practices and the teaching approaches they engage in are sound. 

Schools trust that the resources on market are evidence based and well constructed.  

At each turn, each stakeholder has so much faith on an ultimately broken system – a system of teaching literacy that cognitive scientists continually debunk and that evidence contradicts. 

The ‘whole language approach’, the ‘3 cueing system’, the ‘balanced literacy approach’, MSV (Meaning, Sentence Structure & Visual information)  … whatever you want to call it, has our children guessing at words, rather than decoding symbols and connecting them to sounds. 

AT A LOSS FOR WORDS: The Summary. 


For decades, schools have taught children the strategies of struggling readers, using a theory about reading that cognitive scientists have repeatedly debunked. And many teachers and parents don’t know there is anything wrong with it. 

Molly Woodworth was a kid who seemed to do well at everything: good grades, in the gifted and talented program. But she could not read very well. 

“There was no rhyme or reason to reading for me,” she said. “When a teacher would dictate a word and say, ‘Tell me how you think you can spell it,’ I sat there with my mouth open while other kids gave spellings, and I thought, ‘How do they even know where to begin?’ I was totally lost.”

Woodworth went to public school in Owosso, Michigan, in the 1990s. She says sounds and letters just didn’t make sense to her, and she doesn’t remember anyone teaching her how to read. So she came up with her own strategies to get through text.

Strategy 1: Memorise as many words as possible. “Words were like pictures to me,” she said. “I had a really good memory.”

Strategy 2: Guess the words based on context. If she came across a word she didn’t have in her visual memory bank, she’d look at the first letter and come up with a word that seemed to make sense. Reading was kind of like a game of 20 Questions: What word could this be?

Strategy 3: If all else failed, she’d skip the words she didn’t know.

Most of the time, she could get the gist of what she was reading. But getting through text took forever. “I hated reading because it was taxing,” she said. “I’d get through a chapter and my brain hurt by the end of it. I wasn’t excited to learn.”

No one knew how much she struggled, not even her parents. Her reading strategies were her “dirty little secrets.”

Woodworth, who now works in accounting, says she’s still not a very good reader and tears up when she talks about it. Reading “influences every aspect of your life,” she said. She’s determined to make sure her own kids get off to a better start than she did.

That’s why she was so alarmed to see how her oldest child, Claire, was being taught to read in school.

A couple of years ago, Woodworth was volunteering in Claire’s kindergarten classroom. The class was reading a book together and the teacher was telling the children to practice the strategies that good readers use.

The teacher said, “If you don’t know the word, just look at this picture up here,” Woodworth recalled. “There was a fox and a bear in the picture. And the word was bear, and she said, ‘Look at the first letter. It’s a “b.” Is it fox or bear?'”

Woodworth was stunned. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, those are my strategies.’ Those are the things I taught myself to look like a good reader, not the things that good readers do,” she said. “These kids were being taught my dirty little secrets.”

She went to the teacher and expressed her concerns. The teacher told her she was teaching reading the way the curriculum told her to.

For decades, reading instruction in American schools has been rooted in a flawed theory about how reading works, a theory that was debunked decades ago by cognitive scientists, yet remains deeply embedded in teaching practices and curriculum materials. As a result, the strategies that struggling readers use to get by — memorizing words, using context to guess words, skipping words they don’t know — are the strategies that many beginning readers are taught in school. This makes it harder for many kids to learn how to read, and children who don’t get off to a good start in reading find it difficult to ever master the process.

A shocking number of kids in the United States can’t read very well. A third of all fourth-graders can’t read at a basic level, and most students are still not proficient readers by the time they finish high school.

When kids struggle to learn how to read, it can lead to a downward spiral in which behavior, vocabulary, knowledge and other cognitive skills are eventually affected by slow reading development. A disproportionate number of poor readers become high school dropouts and end up in the criminal justice system.

The fact that a disproven theory about how reading works is still driving the way many children are taught to read is part of the problem. School districts spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on curriculum materials that include this theory. Teachers are taught the theory in their teacher preparation programs and on the job. As long as this disproven theory remains part of American education, many kids will likely struggle to learn how to read. 

THE ORIGINS: Prof. Ken Goodman and the Three-Cueing Process

Theory teaching theory in question is called ‘three cueing’. 

It was first proposed in 1967 by an American education professor, Ken Goodman. 

He rejected idea that reading is precise process that involves exact or detailed perception of letters or words. Instead, in order to read, people make predictions about the words on the page using 3 cues: 

  • graphic cues (what do letters tell you about what the word might be)
  • syntactic cues (what kind of word could ti be – for example – noun or verb?)
  • semantic cues (what words would make sense here, based on context?) 

This proposal became the theoretical basis fora new approach to teaching reading that would take hold in our education system. 

Previously, two basic ideas existed about how to teach children to read:

  1. Reading is a visual memory process, or the ‘whole word’ approach, where readers rely on repetition, as in Dick and Jane of the 1930s. If you see the word enough, you eventually store the word in your memory. 
  2. Reading requires knowledge of the relationship between sounds and letters. Children learn to read by sounding out words, known as phonics. This system goes back to 1800s, with McGuffey readers. 

The 3 cueing system: when a child comes to a word they do not know, teacher encourages to think of a words that makes sense and will ask: does it look right? Does it sound right?  If the word checks out on this basis, the child is on the road to being a skilled reader. 

THE ORIGINS: Marie Clay and MSV (Meaning, Sentence Structure and Visual Information)

MSV (Meaning, Sentence Structure & Visual information): a cueing idea that is traced back to the 1960s from a New Zealander – the late Marie Clay, a developmental psychologist. 

MSV developed ideas independently of Goodman, but they met several times. Their theories were based on observational research. They listened to children read, note the errors, and used to identify child’s reading difficulties. 

They both believed letters were least reliable of the three cues. 

As people became better readers they no longer paid attention to all letters in words. 

Accurate word recognition was not necessarily the goal of reading. Rather, the goal was to comprehend text. 

These ideas soon became the foundation of how reading was taught in many schools. 

Goodman’s three-cueing idea underpins the ‘whole language’ approach that had taken hold. 

Clay built her idea into reading intervention programs and become one of the world’s most widely used reading intervention program. 


Through the 1970s, Stanovich, a psychologist (experimental science background) had an interest in studying learning and cognition. He wanted to understand how people read words. 

He was aware of Goodman’s work and thought he was probably right. 

In 1975, Stanovich ran an experiment where he assembled readers of various ages and abilities. He gave them work reading tasks. This was his hypothesis: that skilled readers rely more on contextual cues to recognise words than poor readers who probably weren’t as good at using context. 

They could not be more wrong. 

“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.”13

It turned out that the ability to read words in isolation quickly and accurately is the hallmark of being a skilled reader. Thus it is now one of the most consistent and well-replicated finding in all of reading research. 

But cueing is still alive in schools today. 


It’s not hard to find evidence of cueing being used today in schools. Search on internet turn out resources, such as the Eagle eye – (look at picture), Lips the Fish – (get lips ready to try first sound) or Skippy Frog – (just skipping the word altogether).

Children are not being taught to decode words in their lessons; rather, they are being taught to guess words using pictures and patterns – the hallmarks of the three cueing system. 


Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell were teachers who learned the MSV concept from Clay in the 1980s. 

Fountas and Pinnell wrote a book called ‘Guided Reading’. It was a best seller and widely used in schools. Their book provided an instructional approach to teaching reading. They also created a reading assessment system that uses ‘levelled books’. Many of the words in these books are words children have not been taught to decode yet. It is thought that when children get to a word they don’t know, they can use context to figure it out. 

THAT IS NOT READING: Margaret Goldberg

Margaret Goldberg – a teacher and literacy coach, remembered in her teaching experiences, how she realised what a problem 3-cued reading was because she could see that children were memorising sentence patterns and using pictures to guess. 

She was hired to assist struggling readers by teaching Fountas and Pinnell program called “Levelled Literacy Intervention” that uses levels books and cueing coaching. 

At the same time, Golderberg was also trained in a program that uses a different strategy for teaching children how to read – the “Systematic Instruction in phonological Awareness, Phonics and Sight Words” (SIPPS). 

So Goldberg chose to teach some students using the phonics program and some using the three cueing. She began to notice differences between the two groups of children…. “Not just in their abilities to read”, “but in the way they approached their reading.”

The children who were learning phonics were doing better. 

“One thing I struggle with is a lot of guilt”, believing that those students who learned the 3 cueing approach were actually harmed by the approach because they had been trained to look at the pictures, rather than read the words. 

Goldberg and a colleague recorded first-graders talking about what makes them good readers…


The whole language movement in the late 20th Century was at the height of the anti-phonics movement. Phonics was seen as tedious, time-consuming and ultimately unnecessary. 

Marilyn Adams is a cognitive and developmental psychologist who worked through the 1990s. She wrote a book, summarising research on how children lear to read. 

The big take-away from her research was that becoming a skilled reader of English required knowledge of sound-spelling correspondences. 

Another big takeaway included that many kids were not being taught this in school. 

Adams worked out the disconnect between these findings and teacher’s practices: teachers understood the three cueing system not just as the way readers constructed meaning from text, but as the way readers actually identified the words on the page. And so they thought that teaching kids to decode or sound out words was not necessary. 

Adams communicated with teachers and gathered that their intent was that children should understand and enjoy the text and from this joy of reading words on the page would just pop out at them. 

After some ground swell around research conducted into how children learn to read validated using a phonics based approach to teaching, many whole language supporters accepted the weight of the scientific evidence about the importance of phonics instructions. 

So they started to include phonics in their books and materials and renamed their approach ‘balanced literacy’. But they did not get rid of the three cueing system. 

Balanced literacy advocates will tell you their approach is a mix of phonics instructions with plenty of time for kids to read and enjoy books. 

But look more carefully at the materials. This is not really what balanced literacy is mixing. Instead, they are mixing different ideas about how kids learn to read. It’s a bit of whole word instructions with the long lists to memorise; its a bit of phonics, But mostly, its the idea that children should be taught to read using the three cueing system. 

It turns out that the three cueing may prevent kids from focusing on words in the way they need to to become skilled readers. 


Scientists concur that the hallmark of a skilled reader is the ability to instantly and accurately recognise words. When skilled at reading, you would be able to recognise the word ‘chair’ faster than processing a picture of  chair. 

But how did you learn to do that? You orthographically map the word. This means you pay attention to the details of a written word and link this to the pronunciation and meaning. 

This requires an awareness of the speech sounds and how they link with letters – in other words – you need phonics. 

This is what a good reader does when they don’t recognise print: they stop and sound the word out. If they don’t know the meaning, they use context to figure it out. 

Once exposed to words through understanding both the pronunciation and spelling, this allows children to memorise the word. The more words are stored in memory this way, the more focus can be placed on the meaning of what they’re reading. Children will eventually use less brain power to identify words and will be able to devote more brain power to comprehending what they’re doing. 

When children do not have good phonics skills, the process is different. They sample from letters because they are not good at sounding out words and they use context. So in other words, when people don’t have good phonics skills, they use the cueing system. 

When teachers teach reading using the cueing system, they are not just teaching children habits of poor readers, they are also impeding the orthographic process. The minute you ask a child to turn their attention to the first letter or ask them to look at the picture, you are drawing their attention away from the very thing that they need to interact with in order to read the word and remember the word. 

The cueing strategies are faster and easier to learn at first. Children who find phonics hard bypass sounding words out if they have other options at their disposal. The problem with this is when they get to grade 3 and higher, when their books become more challenging and begin to have more words, longer words and fewer pictures, they get stuck. Their bank of words is limited; reading is slow and laborious and they don’t like reading and so they don’t read if they don’t have to. While their peers who mastered decoding earlier on are reading and teaching themselves new words every day, the kids who clung to the cueing approach are falling further and further behind. 

These ingrained reading habits can follow children into high school. 


Many teachers don’t see any problem with cueing and saw right away that ‘picture power’ was designed to teach kids the cueing system. The attitudes included “what’s wrong with looking at the picture? After all, one of the cues is to look at the first letters and whats wrong with teaching children lot of different strategies to figure out unknown words?

Using cueing and phonics just does not work. One negates the other. 

Teachers have stated they did not really know anything about how children learn to read when they started teaching in the classroom. Cueing was applied because they did not know what else to do. Teachers did not question these practices. 

Many teachers are not taught what they need to know about the structure of the English language to be able to teach phonics well. 

Cueing holds on because it seems to work for some children, but researchers estimate there is a percentage of children – perhaps around 40%, who learn to read no matter how they’re taught. 

Children who learn to read with cueing are succeeding in spite of the instruction, not because of it.  

‘MY SCIENCE IS DIFFERENT’: Interview with Prof. Ken Goodman

What did these authors, such as Goodman, Fountas & Pinnell and others make of the cognitive science research?

Ken Goodman agreed to an interview. He is 91 years old, but still working and just finished a new edition of one of his books. 

When asked what he thought of cognitive science research, he said scientists focus too much on word recognition. He still does not believe word recognition is necessary for reading comprehension. 

“Word recognition is a preoccupation. I don’t teach word recognition. I teach people to make sense of language. And learning the words is incidental to that.”

He raised the example of a child approaching the word ‘horse’ and says ‘pony’ instead. His argument is that a child will still understand the meaning of the story because horse and pony are the same concept. 

When he was pressed on this matter, that firstly, pony is not the same thing as a horse and secondly, don’t you want to ensure the child is learning to read and understands that /p/o/n/y/ says pony and is different to horse?, he dismissed the question. “The purpose is not to learn words,” he said. “The purpose is to make sense.”

Goodman also disliked the distinction between skilled and unskilled readers because it is judgmental. 

He also said dyslexia does not exist, despite lots of evidence that it does. 

He also said three cueing theory is based upon years of observational research. In his view, it is perfectly valid, drawn from a different kind of evidence than what scientists collect in their labs. “My science is different,” Goodman said. 

Veteran principal says more prep students may need to repeat next year.

There is no time like the present to invest your resources into developing your child’s skillsets for school.

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Reading wars rage again as Australian Government pushes to introduce phonics test.

The ever-present “synthetic phonics versus whole language” debate has fired up again, as the federal government push towards introducing a phonics test in schools.

I cannot think of a more relevant time in our recent history where early years literacy and the approach we take to teaching our children was so critical.

Many kinder children have missed out on formative school readiness preparation due to COVID. Further, preppies will have also missed out on developing their understanding of what is expected of them as learners in the classroom.

We need to be certain that our approach to teaching basic reading skills is water-tight. Our approach must be evidence-based. We must ensure our teaching methodologies are direct, clear and effective because we do not have the luxury to be complacent with our current cohort of children entering prep, or for any cohort of children, for that matter…

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Spelling Tips…

Do you have trouble helping your child with spelling? It can be challenging as a parent when you want to support your child as best you can, but you just don’t know where to begin.

The easiest path forward, of course, is to give them the answer! However, this is not the best choice.

Try some of these simple, fail-safe strategies next time:

  • you say and get your child to say the word in question;
  • count each of the sound on your spelling fingers;
  • draw out the correct number of sounds in dashes – just like hangman;
  • connect the letter/s (grapheme) with the sound identified.

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ABC Reading Eggs Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be…

The ever popular ABC’s Reading Eggs has recently come under fire because of their claims that they teach children how to read. Whilst their engaging, colourful, interactive interface is inviting, the content and literacy outcomes has been called into question.

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