Learning styles are a curious phenomenon for those of us interested in the education debate. Learning styles theories suggest that each student has a preferred style of learning; taxonomies vary, but a popular one distinguished between visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners. It implies that kinaesthetic students benefit from learning through physical activity whereas visual learners learn best by seeing pictures and so on. There is evidence that students will express a preference when given a learning styles survey but there is negligible evidence that being taught accordingly leads to greater learning. Dan Willingham logically argues that this is because it is far more important to match a teaching approach to the content.
Many teachers who are active on social media would now agree that learning styles are something of a myth, whatever their stance on other teaching practices. So, the debate about constructivism might remain open, for instance, but it has largely been resolved on this particular front. It does not mean, of course, that there are no schools or consultants who still promote the idea. It is frightening how these practices still survive.
However, I would now like to ask, ‘What’s next?’ I don’t mean chronologically; I am not looking for the new fad to arrive after learning styles. Instead, I am looking for a practice that has similar features to learning styles theories in that it has been conjured into being by theorists, is widely utilised without much debate, has flawed logic and has virtually no empirical evidence to back it up.
A good candidate is 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 is worth noting that the three-cuing system is also known as ‘multi-cuing’ or ‘searchlights’.
The basic idea is that children need to read ‘real’ books as opposed to carefully sequenced readers that systematically introduce new words. Accordingly, they will need a way to decode words in these books that they have never seen before. One approach would be to use phonics. However, good phonics programs are structured and so a child might not yet have been introduced to all of the letter-sound correspondences needed to read all the words in one of these ‘real’ books.
Proponents of three-cuing suggest that phonics has a small, if any, part to play in this process. When a child gets to an unfamiliar word, she should try and work out what that word might be from the context or perhaps from a related picture. Phonics may be used in a limited way to analyse the first sound in the word and use this to narrow the options.
It seems to be based on notions of how expert readers read. For instance, in the sentence, ‘David was asked to wind the handle,’ context is used to decide how to pronounce ‘wind’ which can be pronounced two different ways with different meanings.
Crucially, however, this decision is made after decoding. A skilled reader has already honed it down to just two narrow options using a phonics approach before applying the context. A skilled reader is not going to substitute ‘wind’ for ‘turn’ just because it also makes sense in this context.
Similarly, imagine that a sentence read, ‘the knight placed his sword back into its scabbard’. A skilled reader who has never before met the word ‘scabbard’ will be able to sound-it-out with ease using knowledge of phonics. The context may then help this reader to learn the new word. In fact, this is one way that reading enables us to gain new knowledge (although I am not suggesting that vocabulary is usually built by single exposures like this). Yet this is the reverse of the process proposed in the three-cuing system.
And so the whole idea of the three-cuing system is quite illogical.
Instead, children should be taught by a systematic synthetic phonics programme that gradually introduces letter-sound correspondences. The requirement for ‘real’ books is essentially an ideological position which should be abandoned where it does not support effective ways of learning reading. Children should be given appropriately sequenced books whilst having classic children’s books read aloud to them. This can be fun and engaging and does not risk the frustration that attends reading failure. In a short space of time, they will learn enough to fully decode ‘real’ books for themselves using phonic.
In his review of three-cuing in the UK (known as searchlights) Jim Rose found little evidence to support this practice and suggested ways in which it might even be harmful in the long term. Children who use these strategies can become reliant upon them, may practice phonics less and may have reading difficulties that go unnoticed. Indeed, this idea has now been removed from the UK framework. Yet it is likely that many teachers are still using it.
The theoretical basis for three-cuing is in Reading Recovery. Reading Recovery also provides the evidence for these strategies and this evidence seems compelling at first glance. Reading Recovery makes use of three-cuing and studies often demonstrate large effects in its favour.
However, with Reading Recovery, it is not clear what is generating the effect. Typically, the intervention is compared with students receiving no intervention at all. So we can’t be sure that it is the three-cuing strategies that generate the effect. It is possible, and I would suggest highly likely, that any effect derives from having up-to-twelve one-to-one half-hour sessions with a adult who takes an interest in the child’s reading.
So three-cuing is a creation of theorists, is widely used, is illogical and lacks evidence. It’s the new learning styles.