Hoodwinked by flapdoodle

Last week, I wrote a post about the way that reading is taught in Australian schools. As part of that post, I referred to a report written on behalf of the Australian government. This report reviews the evidence on the teaching of reading and endorses the use of phonics. In simple terms, children should be taught how to ‘sound-out’ words (although there is some subtlety around how to do this). At no point does the report mention the ‘three cuing system’, ‘multi-cuing’ or ‘searchlights’.

These terms are used interchangeably to describe a set of strategies that children may use when they approach an unfamiliar word. These strategies act as an alternative to sounding-out. Children might be encouraged to guess what a word might be from a picture or from the context. “Carly put the can in the…” might, for instance, elicit guesses of “cupboard” if there was a picture next to the text that showed a girl placing a can in a cupboard. This is then considered to be ‘reading’ the word.

It seems that this set of strategies originated in a intervention programme called “Reading Recovery” that is targeted at struggling readers. The originator of this programme, Marie Clay, thought that this was how skilled readers decoded words. Reading Recovery (RR) has changed a little in recent years. A number of national reports have been published that demonstrate the importance of phonics and so RR now incorporates a phonics component. However, the three cuing system remains.

In fact, it has been so influential that the three cuing system – under the name of ‘searchlights’ – was incorporated into the National Literacy Strategy in the U.K. Teachers were required to use it in their reading instruction. Searchlights has now been removed from the current version, due to a lack of supporting evidence. The 2006 U.K. Rose Review looked at the evidence around the teaching of reading and included an entire appendix on the searchlights model and why it should be adandoned:

“The searchlights model was founded on a view of what constitutes a ‘skilled reader’ and the processes which support a child moving to such a position. Obviously, that a child should become a skilled reader is an indisputable expectation of all those involved in teaching reading to beginners. However, the searchlights model does not best reflect how a beginner reader progresses to become a skilled reader. 

This is because skilled readers do not rely upon strategies to read words, as they have already developed the skill of word recognition.They may use knowledge of context and grammar, which are conceived within the searchlights model, to assist their understanding of the text but, crucially, they would still be able to decode the words if all contextual and grammatical prompts were removed. Therefore, a model of reading which encourages switching between various searchlight strategies, particularly when phonic work is regarded as only one such strategy, all of equal worth, risks paying insufficient attention to the critical skills of word recognition which must first be secured by beginner readers… 

…if beginner readers, for example, are encouraged to infer from pictures the word they have to decode this may lead to their not realising that they need to focus on the printed word. They may, therefore, not use their developing phonic knowledge. It may also lead to diluting the focused phonics teaching that is necessary for securing accurate word reading.Thus, where beginner readers are taught habitually to infer the word they need from pictures they are far less likely to apply their developing phonic knowledge and skills to print. During the course of the review, several examples were seen of beginners being encouraged to infer from pictures the word they did not immediately recognise from the text. This was often done well before they had sufficient time to decode the word and, if necessary, check, adjust and retry after their first attempt.”

And so the use of the three cuing system certainly does not represent good practice in the teaching of reading.

The Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) is a body with the task of setting standards for teachers in Australia. They illustrate each of these standards with examples, often in the form of videos. I have criticised some of these illustrations before on Twitter: a video and a lesson plan both referred to the widely debunked theory of learning styles. Those illustrations have now been taken down. However, I have not worked my way through all of these illustrations… yet. I suspect I will continue to find more worrying examples because AITSL seem to have a weakness for being fooled into promoting dodgy ideas.

I recently found an illustration that is meant to exemplify the highest level of performance possible under the AITSL standards. It shows a teacher talking to parents about how to help their children with reading. Sounding-out is portrayed as old-fashioned and the three cuing model is demonstrated at some length. The teacher is not totally against phonics but it is clear that he sees the use of phonics as a last resort to be utilised only after three cuing strategies have failed. See for yourself:

http://www.aitsl.edu.au/australian-professional-standards-for-teachers/illustrations-of-practice/detail?id=IOP00111

Most extraordinary.

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10 Comments on “Hoodwinked by flapdoodle”

  1. KenS says:

    Why, why, why is this still a debate? Stanislas Dehaene, author of “Reading in the Brain,” is definite in the need to teach phonics, and by that he clearly means the phoneme to letter(s) correspondence. People who still doubt the need to teach phonics (and by that I mean what I think is referred to as synthetic phonics), or who teach cuing need to watch this:

  2. Muslims around the world learn to read the Quran. Arabic isn’t a language spoken by all Muslims. When I learnt to read the Quran I did it phonetically. There are no pictures in the text which could give me a clue. Neither could I guess a word by reading the rest of the sentence as I didn’t know what the rest of the words meant.

  3. nic says:

    The reason this all persists is because adult/expert readers do read whole words and use inference to speed up reading. Like many fanciful teaching approaches, multicueing assumes kids can imitate experts to become experts.

    • MaggieD says:

      The reason this persists is that people completely ignore the fact that the word has to be processed before it can be consciously recognised. No theoretical processing models that I have seen have ever left out the identification/recognition of individual letters, whether sequentially or simultaneously. Dehaene isn’t saying much that is new, it’s just backed up by brain scan evidence.

      All this ‘we read by whole words’ stuff is a mantra trotted out by people who haven’t put much/any thought into how the brain processes the marks on the page before we are conscious of the word. (I’m not accusing you, nic, of trotting out mantras – your comment is ambiguous enough to entirely conceal your ‘position’; in the debate!)

      • nic says:

        OK, so adults ‘consciously recognise whole words after uncouncious processing’. You can see why most see this as reading whole words.

        My position is strongly for phonics but more interested that this debate exists.

  4. MaggieD says:

    I can certainly see why people see this as reading ‘whole words’ but, as you know, the debate is about how we get to the position of being able to apparently read words as ‘wholes’.

    Interestingly, if you go back to Huey (Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading 1907) you’ll find that he recommends ‘whole word’ teaching basically as being more interesting than boring old phonics but he says that phonics undoubtedly works well. So no entrenched position there, just a choice offered. (You will also find that most of the ‘anti-phonics’ arguments are right there in Huey, they’ve just been recycled over the intervening century). It seems to have been in the mid 20th century that things started to get vicious and positions firmly entrenched. I still can’t work out ‘why’ the teaching of reading arouses such passion when teachers seem to happily embrace change (however unevidenced) in most other areas.

  5. Can you imagine a child reading the great title to this blog post, relying solely on any such cueing system? Or the canonical Lewis Caroll poem Jabberwocky …

  6. […] use a phonics-based approach for some time now and yet they still resist, persisting with practices such as the three cuing system. There is a party line where teachers who use less effective analytic phonics approaches or phonics […]

  7. […] good candidate in the three-cuing system for reading. I have mentioned this before but I would like to examine the practice in a little more detail with learning styles in mind. It […]


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