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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 57 back to contents
Marilyn Jager Adams on the 'Three-Cuing System'Geraldine Carter

Geraldine Carter comments on a chapter with the above title by Marilyn Jager Adams which appeared in a book called Literacy for All, edited by Jean Osborn and Fran Lehr and published in 1998 by the Guilford Press. The whole chapter can be found at What Adams has to say is particularly relevant in view of the debate about the National Literacy Strategy’s ‘searchlights’.

There is little doubt that the pivotal role given by the NLS to the ambitious four-cueing ‘searchlights’ model for early reading played a crucial part in persuading educationalists to accept phonics. Phonics for many in the Education Establishment represents a functional skill-and-drill apparatus, an interloper imposing a crude technical primitivism on their sophisticated and sensitive reading-for-meaning construct. The Reading Reform Foundation’s explanations of how and why a Searchlights strategy is a hydra-like obstacle confusing many beginner readers, have fallen on deaf ears. In addition, the NLS model has detracted from the necessary focus on phonics for beginner readers, many of whom have been denied the kind of overlearning necessary to absorb the written language code. The NLS has made some adjustments, but has failed to remove its damaging four-cue ‘searchlight’ instruction. NLS officials say that this construct ‘lies at the heart of the NLS’ and that it is based on the sound research foundations of the American educator Marilyn Jager Adams.

However, Marilyn Jager Adams’s essay ‘The Three-Cueing System’ dynamites this whole argument. In a fascinating investigation of the genesis of the ‘three-cue’ schema and its subsequent misinterpretation, the author examines in the context of the American scene how and why the original model has been corrupted. Unfortunately it is this rogue model that has seduced the NLS and which the DfES has cascaded down to well over 20,000 schools.

For RRF members – synthetic-phonics researchers, practitioners and programme makers – the essay is a vindication of their trenchant criticism of this, the most pernicious aspect of all NLS instruction. If Jim Rose fails to grasp the nettle, the long tail of reading failure will continue.

Near the start of her essay, Adams quotes Stanovich (1993): ‘To the extent that children do read, they generally do learn new words, new meanings, new linguistic structures, and new modes of thought through reading’, adding that ‘the wisdom of the popular dictum, that reading is best learned through reading, follows directly’. Next follows a caution: ‘Where children find reading too difficult, they very often will not do it’. She adds, ‘Well into the middle grades, children’s ability to understand text that is read aloud to them significantly exceeds their ability to understand the same text when reading on their own (Curtis, 1980). The bulk of this difference is traced to their difficulties in reading the words. Moreover poorly-developed word recognition skills are the most pervasive and debilitating source of reading difficulty (Adams, 1990; Perfetti, 1985; Share & Stanovich, 1995).’

Educationists might do well to ponder her statement: ‘Words, as it turns out, are the raw data of text. It is the words of a text that evoke the starter set of concepts and relationships from which its meaning must be built. Research has shown that for skilful readers, and regardless of the difficulty of the text, the basic dynamic of reading is line by line, left-to-right, and word by word. It is because skilful readers are able to recognize words so quickly that they can take in text at rates of approximately five words per second or nearly a full type-written page per minute. It is because their capacity for word recognition is so overlearned and effortless that it proceeds almost automatically, feeding rather than competing with comprehension processes.’ And she emphatically notes: ‘Most surprising of all, research teaches us that what enables this remarkably swift and efficient capacity to recognize words is the skilful readers’ deep and ready knowledge of the words’ spellings and spelling-speech correspondences.’

In an audacious rejection of synthetic-phonics practice, the NLS/DfES has continued thus far to draw everyone into the web of its searchlights reading-for-meaning instruction as the primary tool for beginning readers. And so the hapless child must continue to use a range of context clues, picture clues, beginning letter clues, shape-of-word clues, ‘sight’ reading knowledge, inference, and decoding skills.

The Significance of the Three-Cueing System

In a fascinating exploration of the origin of three-cueing schema and its subsequent interpretation, Adams exposes the misconceptions that grew, fungus-like and unchallenged. She became convinced that the three-cueing system was not represented in ‘mainstream academic repertoire’.

Adams’s preoccupation is not with the schematic per se but with interpretations ‘so broadly attached’ to it. And here she gets to the root of the problem: ‘First, the three-cueing schematic is sometimes presented as rationale for subordinating the value of the graphophonemic information to syntax and semantics and, by extension, for mini­mizing and even eschewing attention to the teaching, learning, and use of the grapho­phonemic system’. She goes on to note that ‘more importantly in the context of in­structional guidance for teachers and school districts, such marginalization of the role of spelling-to-speech correspondences is alarmingly discrepant with what research has taught us about the knowledge and processes involved in learning to read’.

While the NLS team protests that phonics instruction plays an increasingly important part in its developing programme, any sensitive teacher is aware that a failing child is likely to choose guessing as the number one option. And it is that very confidence, squeezed out of him by mal-instruction that is likely to leave him confused and demoralised. The confidence initially instilled in him by mal-instruction is quickly squeezed out of him as he finds that it is misplaced and is left confused and demoralised, unable to handle the multi-cueing searchlight options.

The Demise of the Graphophonemic System

Adams considers Don Holdaway to be the most likely source of the view that readers get only a small amount of information from letters and that this need entail ‘no necessary phonic involvement’ (his words in a 1979 book). She reproduces an exercise designed by him to demonstrate this, but as she points out, ‘the knowledge and processes he leads us to use…are not remotely available to the beginning reader’. Regie Routman, a prominent USA author, acknowledges Holdaway’s influence. She includes a three-cueing diagram in books published in 1988 and 1994, and expresses her conviction that ‘children learn phonics best after they can already read’. In her 1994 book, she writes, ‘While phonics is integral to the reading process, it is subordinate to semantics and syntax.’ In the same book, she provides a reproducible letter to parents on ‘Ways to help your child with reading at home’ in which, as Adams says, ‘Phonics truly seems the last resort’. Adams concludes that whatever the source of the three-cueing idea, ‘this attitude about the disruptiveness of phonics and its instruction is one that is very broadly held in the field’.

In 1998, the very same year that the Adams critique was published, England saw the introduction of the NLS. Perhaps the ‘demise’ process is a little more subtle in the UK than in the USA. In collecting ‘renditions’ of the three-cueing system in the USA, Adams came across several ‘boldly headed with the admonition: “Let’s all work together to avoid the phrase, ‘sound it out!”’ In the UK, the NLS policy seems to be to allow phonics teaching as long as it is enmeshed with searchlights and provided that synthetic phonics is never implemented with a proper understanding of how it works. In the conclusion of this section Adams states categorically: ‘Poorly developed knowledge or facility with spellings and spelling-sound correspondences is the most pervasive cause of reading delay or disability (Rack et al. 1992, Stanovich, 1986). Research further demonstrates that, with the exception of no more than 1-3% of children, reading disability can be prevented through well-designed, early instruction (Vellutino et al.1996)’. Should the backlash against synthetic phonics prove effective, we will be stuck with a figure approaching 20%.

The Diminution of the Other Cueing System

Adams here focuses on the approach to instruction on text cues. ‘Given that the principal argument for the de-emphasis of phonics instruction has been that children are in greater need of developing their sensitivity to the syntactic, semantic and pragmatic cues of text, one might expect an attendant surge in the amount and rigour of instruction on the latter. Yet, quite the opposite has happened.’ Although comprehension is held to be all-important, comprehension strategies are not actually being taught. Anyone concerned with the teaching of literacy to older children would do well to study Adams’s arguments about the importance of extending children’s knowledge of ‘the semantic, syntactic and pragmatic cues involved in skilful reading’, but, again, these do not impinge on beginning reading instruction. They do, however, shed light on the all-pervasive and illogical approach to literacy running through our approach to reading instruction like letters seared through seaside rock.


In Adams’s damning words: ‘If the intended message of the three-cueing system was originally that teachers should take care not to overemphasize phonics to the neglect of comprehension, its received message has broadly become that teachers should minimize attention to phonics lest it compete with comprehension. If the original premise of the system was that the reason for reading the words is to understand the text, it has since been oddly converted such that, in effect, the reason for understanding the text is in order to figure out the words. How did this happen?’

And, finally: ‘The simplifications and distortions that the three-cueing system has suffered are uncharacteristic of the fate of written information. My hypothesis is, instead, that the three-cueing system principally has proliferated through in-service sessions, workshops, and conferences, and that it is through that process that its interpretation has been changed and its heritage forgotten...the sobering revelation of this story is the profound breach in information and communication that separates the teaching and research communities. In the world of practice, the widespread subscription to the belief system that the three-cueing diagram has come to represent has wreaked disaster on students and hardship on teachers…’.




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