What is the 3-Cueing Approach, and Why Is It Getting Banned?

reading Feb 24, 2023

Significant educational shifts are happening as states move toward aligning instruction to the science of reading. Many are implementing laws and policies related to evidence-based reading instruction to bring change to classrooms. Since 2013, 29 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or implemented new policies related to reading instruction. Recently in Texas, legislation put forth House Bill 2162, which proposed banning the use of 3-cueing in reading instruction. While Texas is not the first state to do so, it most likely won't be the last. What does this mean for teaching reading, and does it matter?

Why the Shift?

The current state of reading scores nationwide has raised questions about reading instruction and set a wave of change in motion. Emily Hanford's article Hard Words and others, podcasts, and those in the education field that have for decades called for change are starting to see more educators and parents reach out in hopes of understanding better the research and how it impacts reading instruction. The National Reading Panel was published in 2000 and outlaid the necessary elements for reading instruction. However, this knowledge and implementation only made its way into some of the curriculums used in our classrooms, and many of the ineffective methods and models remained in the curriculums. One of these is the three-cueing model.

What is the 3-Cueing Model? 

The three-cueing model is an approach based on the psycholinguistic theories of Ken Goodman & Frank Smith, first published in the 1960s. This model emphasizes that skilled reading should include using meaning and sentence structure cues to read new words. Students are taught and encouraged that meaning should be the first focus and given cues with prompts such as " What makes sense?" and "Can you think of another word that would work in this sentence?" which focuses on language and meaning. The use of phonics knowledge is then used as a last prompt, "Look at the first letter" and perhaps "Sound it out".

While we know, based on neuroscience, that this is not how we learn to read, this three-cueing model has been, and continues to be, a large part of balanced literacy reading instruction.

The three-cueing model relies on the following cues:

  1. Semantic (word meaning and sentence context)
  2. Syntax (grammatical structure)
  3. Graphophonic (letters and sounds)

The three-cueing model has been used in balanced literacy education for decades and falls under the belief that students read words first by analyzing meaning instead of reading the letters on the page. In contrast, attention to letters and sounds is the last and least reliable of the cues to aid in reading words. 

Why Does This Matter?

The belief that when reading, we rely on language or pictures to decipher a word is problematic because, as noted by researchers, reading is accomplished with letter-by-letter processing of the word (Raynor, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky, & Seidenberg, 2001). 

Research has shown that we do not have a single location in the brain designated for reading. Instead, the brain relies on a network of systems, each meant for different things (language, vision, cognition), but together create a whole new circuitry so that we may read. To automate this circuitry, we need to provide appropriate amounts of practice and correct repetition of skills to connect speech to print. The brain needs to make new neural pathways to convert our oral language to the written system of our language. This happens when we explicitly and systematically teach students the connection between the sounds in our language and the letters representing those sounds as we provide ample practice to apply their learning. Linking sounds to print should be the heavy lifting for beginning readers. There is no guessing involved in decoding a word.  

The practice of linking sounds to print should be the heavy lifting for beginning readers. - Casey Harrison

Encouraging readers to use pictures or meaning cues to help them read a word is not how our brain learns to read. When we teach children to first look at meaning and pictures as a strategy to read words, it takes their eyes away from the text and goes against what scientists and researchers have learned about how the brain learns to read.

We do not bypass the phonological processor even in words that are somewhat irregular in our English print system. - Louisa Moats

As fluent readers, we may need to know that our brain does not skip over words or read print as whole words. Eye-movement studies have shown that proficient readers do not skip words, use context to process words, or bypass phonics applications in establishing word recognition.

Despite this information, a 2019 survey showed that 75% of elementary teachers used the three-cueing model when teaching reading in K-2 classrooms. Why? Most educators are trained to teach this (myself included when I was in the classroom) in the school system. And while I haven’t used the three-cueing model in almost two decades, I remember when this was part of every general education professional development I attended.

In addition, popular curriculums and assessments used in schools reinforce the idea that meaning first is the strategy for teaching students to read. We know there is a better way to teach students. While shifts are happening, until educators and parents understand how to best support students and move past these ineffective strategies, it will continue to be a struggle for most students to achieve high levels of reading proficiency. Once these poor reading habits are established, they are difficult to break. I continue to have students come to the center who rely heavily on this habit of looking at pictures or the beginning sound and saying a word they think makes sense. Poor readers do this - and it is a hard habit to break once established as a "reading strategy."

What Do We Do Instead? 

All readers must build a new reading circuit. Students must be proficient in sound-letter associations to help them develop the skills needed for accurate and fluent reading. This includes letter-sound knowledge and spelling patterns. When students read or spell words based on the sound symbols explicitly taught, they engage in the orthographic mapping process, which is essential for reading and writing. This is done over time with a systematic scope and sequence that builds in difficulty. Understanding the relationship of the sounds in our language to the letter or letter representations helps students unlock the reading code. 

Implications for Instruction

  • Connect sounds to letters from the start. This instruction helps students link the sound that they hear with the letter representation for that sound. Over time, we increase our knowledge of phoneme-grapheme correspondence, moving from the most common letter representation to the least common. 
  • Have a clear scope and sequence. We want to understand that for our instructional practices, having a scope and sequence that introduces students to sounds first and then links or connects the spelling is key for the orthographic mapping process. We are beginning the mapping process when we explicitly teach the sound in connection to the letter representation and provide opportunities for children to work with these connections. 
  • Keep your eyes on the print! This is something I tell my students often, especially as they are beginning to read or if they are trying to break the habit of looking to pictures or guessing to read the words on the page. 
  • Keep kids from guessing at words. Explicitly teach decoding strategies focusing on sound-symbol relationships (phonics) and spelling applications. 
  • Use scaffolds when needed. Read more about decoding on the blog "Stuck on Decoding: 5 Ways to Scaffold Instruction" here.

One question that I am often asked is “But what about picture clues?” If we think about how the brain unlocks the reading code, or our written system, then we can shift how we use pictures to aid comprehension. Picture clues can be used for aiding in meaning - but NOT for the reading of the words. We can look at the pictures after reading the words, but NOT as a strategy to figure out what a word is. Encouraging readers to use pictures to help them read a word is not how our brain learns to read. 

*This post is speaking to the decoding/word recognition strands of learning to read. Both word recognition and linguistic comprehension are necessary to achieve the goal of reading. The use of pictures within the language strands is important - but here, when speaking to HOW children learn to read the words on the page, our focus should be on speech-to-print associations and decoding abilities to achieve automatic and accurate word recognition.

We all want our students to find success and to be literate. This means making shifts in how we teach beginning readers so that they are provided with the foundational skills and knowledge to properly decode and read the words on the page. As states are making changes in legislation and policies, I hope that it includes proper support and training for our wonderful educators so that they can feel confident in applying these changes to their instructional approaches. 

Always learning, 


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