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: