Three Cueing System

In reading education, various models and theories explain how individuals learn to read and comprehend text. Among these, the 3-cueing model has recently become a topic of much discussion. States have begun to ban its use in reading instruction, preferring approaches approved by the Science of Reading. This blog post aims to clarify the discussion and guide educators on best practices for teaching reading.

Understanding the Science of Reading and the 3-Cueing System

The 3-cueing approach posits that readers use three main types of cues to “guess” when they come across unfamiliar words while reading: semantic (meaning), syntactic (sentence grammar), and graphophonic (letters and sounds) cues. This approach was developed by Ken Goodman and Frank Smith in the 1960s. 

The authors captured the attention of academics such as Fountas & Pinnell and Calkins with the article “Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game.”  Goodman’s article proposes: “Skill in reading involves not greater precision, but more accurate guessing” (Goodman, 1967). For example, the 3-cueing approach posits that readers could use illustrations within the context of the text to guess an unfamiliar word. 

Three Cueing System

The 3-cueing approach soon became part of many reading programs. When EdWeek surveyed K-2 and special education teachers in 2019, about 75% of the respondents stated that they used the 3-cueing approach to teach students how to read (Schwartz, 2020). Since that time, the approach has come under fire. Educators and politicians alike noted that despite the popularity of the 3-cueing approach, the psycholinguistic model did not counteract dismal reading proficiency scores on state and national levels. 

NPR (2023) reported that NAEP reading scores dropped four points in reading and that “the declines in reading were more pronounced for lower performing students, but dropped across all percentiles.” This drop, in addition to the impact of COVID on student performance, begged for new evidence-based approaches. Enter the Science of Reading.

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The Science of Reading Approach

The Science of Reading provides a wealth of evidence-based approaches that highlight the importance of phonics, phonemic awareness, and decoding skills in reading instruction. These approaches are grounded in decades of cognitive science research that proposes that reading proficiently requires word recognition/decoding and language comprehension. Crucial for developing fluent reading skills is 1) being able to identify and manipulate letter sounds in spoken words (phonemic awareness) and 2) understanding the relationship between sounds, letters, and groups of letters (phonics). 

Three Cueing System

Science of Reading best practices dictate that instruction should start with and emphasize what the evidence demonstrates is best for developing successful readers. The prioritization of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction teaches readers to recognize the systematic and predictable relationships between letters and sounds, enabling them to decode words. Decoding, or the ability to apply knowledge of letter-sound relationships to accurately read and pronounce written words, is fundamental for reading fluency and comprehension.

“Good readers don’t try to guess words with a minimum of orthographic information but look at all the letters when they are reading (Rayner & Pollatsek, 1986). Good readers are the ones who figure out how to use those orthographic-phonemic cues to read (Lonigan, et al., 2018)” (Shanahan, 2019).

Why Is the 3-Cueing System Being Banned?

Since 2021, 11 states have banned the use of 3-cueing in reading instruction, considering it an ineffective approach to early reading proficiency because it uses the behaviors of struggling readers to teach reading. Shanahan pointed out in 2022: “Studies have shown that students who recognize words by looking at the pictures or trying to use context to guess the word tend to be the poorest readers” (Stanovich, West, & Freeman, 1981; Shanahan, 2021).

To date, the states that have banned 3-cueing include:

  • Arkansas, 2021
  • Louisiana, 2022
  • Florida, 2023
  • Indiana, 2023
  • North Carolina, 2023
  • Ohio, 2023
  • South Carolina, 2023
  • Texas, 2023
  • West Virginia, 2023
  • Wisconsin, 2023
  • Alabama, 2024

Can These Early Reading Strategies Co-Exist?

While states may continue to ban 3-cueing from early reading instruction, there are still successful programs like Reading Recovery that use the 3-cueing system. Even Tim Shanahan (2021) begrudgingly writes, “There are successful instructional schemes that use 3-cueing systems (think Reading Recovery), though the value of that part of their approach has never been tested independently so we can’t tell if it contributes anything to learning.” 

From Dr. Billy Molasso, the Executive Director of Reading Recovery: “It is important to note that three-cueing is not a method of literacy instruction at all, but rather an acknowledgment of some of the sources of information the brain uses to solve unknown words by using phonics in addition to context and syntax” (Reading Recovery, 2023).

A proponent of Reading Recovery points out, “3-cueing can still be seen as a complementary strategy rather than a primary method of reading instruction” (Schwartz, 2019).  However, Science of Reading advocates argue that in practice, complementary can easily become primary; then, this approach, which is not aligned with best practices, can end up being implemented to the detriment of student outcomes. To ensure national reading proficiency levels, they point to the primacy of phonemic awareness and phonics as the most effective strategies for early and struggling readers.


In states where 3-cueing is banned or no longer considered an effective approach to early reading, approaches recommended by Science of Reading advocates will impact schools of education, professional development, and reading program selection. Proponents of the Science of Reading view the movement not as a one-size-fits-all strategy but as a wealth of approaches backed by decades-long evidence of best practices in reading instruction.

Three Cueing System
The Science of Reading Defining Guide (2022) offers this definition: “The science of reading is a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing. …. The science of reading has culminated in a preponderance of evidence to inform how proficient reading and writing develop; why some have difficulty; and how we can most effectively assess and teach and, therefore, improve student outcomes through prevention of and intervention for reading difficulty.”

Evidence-based reading methods recommended by Science of Reading proponents provide a framework for understanding how early readers become proficient. These approaches ensure that students are prepared to tackle the complexities of reading with confidence and skill. 

My final comment comes from my personal perspective as a precision diagnostic assessment developer at Let’s Go Learn.  I first learned of the 3-cueing system in 2000 as a non-educator jumping into education.  It was interesting as a model of how the brain works to make meaning from text.  But in practice, the assessment we developed was based on the best practices identified by Dr. McCallum of the UC Berkeley School of Education. He was a pragmatist.  In practice, phonics and phonemic awareness were of the utmost importance, and our key questions related to these areas. We asked, where exactly are students in the scope and sequence of phonics mastery? What is their ability to manipulate sounds? We wanted to gather all the information we needed to understand why a student might be struggling and what to do next. Our assumption was not to assume.  If a student was struggling, they might be an outlier, so our approach was to treat each student as an individual and proceed with a genuine individualized learning path based on multiple measures of reading sub-test data. This is the same model that special education teachers follow: develop an individualized education program for each student. 


Carrillo, S. (2023). U.S. reading and math scores drop to lowest level in decades. NPR. Retrieved from


Greene, T.  (2024). From policy to action: Why 8 states banned three-cueing from K-3 reading instruction. ExcelinEdinAction. Retrieved from

Harrison, C. (2023). What is the 3-cueing approach, and why is it getting banned? The Dyslexia Classroom. Retrieved from,cues%20to%20read%20new%20words

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Retrieved from

The Reading League. (2023). Science of reading: Defining guide. Retrieved from

Reading Recovery. (2023). Press release. Retrieved from

Schwartz, R. (2019). The three cueing systems in beginning reading instruction: Good idea or hoax? Reading Recovery. Retrieved from

Schwartz, S. (2020). Is this the end of “three-cueing”? Edweek. Retrieved from

Shanahan, T. (2019). Is it a good idea to teach the three cueing systems in reading? Shanahan on Literacy. Retrieved from

Shanahan, T. (2021). 3P versus 3-cueing: Why recommend one and shun the other? Shanahan on Literacy. Retrieved from