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Decoding the 3-Cueing System: New Research Unveils Its True Significance

I have been in the education field for many years and served in various literacy capacities such as Reading Recovery, Literacy Coach, Curriculum Developer and Consultant. My belief is that as educators, it is important to remain objective, informed and educated in new research developments that are effective to refine our practices, always striving for best instruction. However, we cannot always believe everything we read and the debate over utilizing the three-cueing system as a providing a great disservice to our students is one that I stand to challenge.  Could there be a misunderstanding as to what it means? Perhaps this is causing the stir and maybe we are really speaking the same language but not realizing it? 

The cueing system is aligned with how our brains “crack the code” and interpret print, written language. Our brains utilize different centers to make meaning, use language structures to makes sense and visual aspects of print or phonemes/phonics to interpret words. Often, the cueing system is criticized for neglecting to use phonics and in addition for encouraging the use of context clues. This is an incorrect statement because we do advocate the use phonics, and just as important, teach students to use context clues.

This is the three-cueing system:

  • Visual/phonics cue: Do the letters match the words the child says?  Does it look right?

  • Language cue/syntax: Does it sound right and is it consistent with grammar and word order?

  • Meaning cue: Does this make sense? Does the child produce a word that fits with the meaning of the text?

“It is a mystery why some reject the obvious contribution that two cues in addition to phonics contribute to reading texts. Perhaps some see that the learning to read process as learning individual words in isolation, but this is not how children learn to read.” (Hammond, D. 2024).  Sources of information must be integrated, many opportunities provided to practice reading words and learning new vocabulary in conjunction with phonics and contextual information as a best classroom practice is tantamount to a student’s reading progress.

Also important to realize, is that as children mature and encounter multi-syllabic words, there is limited utility in just teaching common generalizations and rules of phonics. There are many words that do not follow basic phonetic principles. These are the exceptions to the rules as our language is composed of many words from other languages with various spelling permutations. (Clymer, 1963). This is why the integration of the three cueing system makes sense. My hope is that teachers will continue to use research-based instruction and best methods that provide the greatest opportunities for our students to learn and enjoy reading.


Hammond, D. (2024). Reading Legislation: An Alarming Development: Our Perspectives on Key Issues.

Johnston, F. R.  (2001). The utility of phonic generalizations: Let’s Take another Look at Clymer’s conclusions. The Reading Teacher. 55; 132-143.


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