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Why Elements in the 3-Cueing System are Ineffective

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

By Shawna Audet

teacher reading a book to a class
What is the 3-Cueing System

Why is the 3-Cueing system is an ineffective teaching method? To explain this, let me begin by defining this very popular, but ineffective, reading instructional method. When teaching using the the 3-cueing system, teachers ask students to "read" by doing the following things:

  1. Look at the pictures and guess at the unknown word

  2. skip an unknown word or substitute a word that makes sense

  3. look at the first letter of an unknown word and make a guess.

The main problem with the 3-cueing system is that it does not teach students to read; it teaches students to guess. As a reading remediation teacher, most of the students with whom I work are victims of the 3-Cueing system. I spend a lot of time helping kids abandon the strategies of poor readers (3 Cueing strategies) so that they can learn to decode with accuracy.

Teaching students to guess at a word by looking at pictures on the page is problematic for the obvious reason that it is teaching the students to guess - and guessing is not reading, It also creates another problem. Almost all of the kids with whom I work come to me with tracking issues. Their eyes dart all over the page instead of travelling in a steady line from left to right. I think that their eyes are searching the page for "clues" as their classroom teachers have taught them to do.

Another problem with the 3-Cueing method is that skipping an unknown word or substituting a word that might make sense are not strategies of good readers. Studies show that it is the poorest of readers who use these strategies (Stanovich, West, & Freeman, 1981). Good readers do not use the 3-cueing system of guessing: they decode. We want all of our students to become good readers so we need all of them to be able to decode words. Unfortunately, many students will not learn to decode unless they receive explicit, systematic instruction in decoding. Teaching students to guess instead of teaching them decode, creates a situation in which 30% of students will go on to experience reading failure. The students who fall in this 30% are put at risk of reading failure, not because of a fault in themselves - they are victims of the 3-Cueing system. The work of Dr. Sally Shaywitz shows us that in classrooms in which effective literacy instruction is present, we can expect the number of students who experience reading failure to be as low as 5%. Teachers who use the 3-Cueing Methods are creating an increased rate of reading failure in students through the use of the ineffective 3-Cueing teaching method.

Telling a student that it is fine when they substitute the word "dog" for the word "poodle" is not an effective instructional practice because something has been lost. Words in a text have meaning. The word "poodle" conjures a mental image of a certain type of dog. A greater problem is that when the student attempts to read a text that does not contain pictures, they will be stuck. Poodle is a completely decodable word; there is no need for guessing.

The 3-Cueing strategy of teaching a student to look at the first letter and guess leads to a variety of issues when students come to me for remediation. 100% of students with whom I work come to me with confusion about vowels. Where are vowels most often located? In the middle of words! When teachers who use the 3-Cueing system tell students to decode the first sound and then guess, they are teaching the student to ignore the vowels. We need to teach students to read by teaching them about the seven different syllable types because then they have a simple and reliable way to approach decoding vowels.

The 3-Cueing system is ineffective teaching method. Not only is it ineffective, it is causing harm to students because it causes a significant number of them to experience reading failure. The Ontario Human Right's Tribunal, in its "Right to Read" report says that schools need to remove the 3-cueing system from their reading systems. Some Canadian schools, followed the Right to Read report recommendations and reformed their reading systems immediately. Others, are denying the undeniable and stubbornly insisting that the 3-Cueing system works. I think that people cling to poor practices when they lack skills that are needed to change. Many of the current literacy teachers were taught to read using this 3-Cueing system, and their university teacher courses taught them to teach literacy in this way. For this reason, we need to teach literacy teachers how English works and how to teach using a structured literacy approach.

Works Cited

Government of Ontario. (2022, February). Right to read inquiry report. Right to Read inquiry report | Ontario Human Rights Commission. Retrieved May 2, 2022, from

Shaywitz, Sally E. Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2004. Print.

Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F., & Freeman, D. J. (1981). A longitudinal study of sentence context effects in second-grade children: Tests of an interactive-compensatory model. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 32, 185-199.

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