Literacy instruction and assessment in Ontario public schools

The Ontario language curriculum and the three-cueing system

The current Ontario Grade 1 Language Curriculum (2006, p. 40) specifies how a student should learn to read unfamiliar words (see Figure 1).

This is known as the “Three-Cueing System”, which primarily promotes guessing words based on semantic (meaning) and syntax (sentence structure). The third approach (‘graphophonic’) is the last choice, where the student is encouraged to ‘sound out’ the word based on the letter-sounds (however, often the student is told to focus only on the first letter of the word).

In 1967, K.S. Goodman, one of the founders of the 'whole language' approach, called reading a 'psycholinguistic reading game". He wrote, "Efficient reading does not result from precise perception and identification of all elements, but from skill in selecting the fewest, most productive cues necessary to produce guesses which are right the first time".  This approach is NOT supported by reading research.

Figure 1   Ontario Grade 1 Curriculum - Three Cueing System

Recent critiques of the Three-Cueing system have been published by Dr. Kilpatrick (2015), Dr. Hempenstall (2017), S. Schwarz (2019) and Dr. Seidenberg (2017).  Also, a recent podcast by Emily Hanford (2019), "At a Loss for Words", provides an excellent summary of the history of the Three-Cueing system and how it is not supported by the science of reading.

Dr. Kilpatrick (2015) describes the research that has shown that skilled readers identify unfamiliar words with a high degree of accuracy by 'sounding them out' and that guessing by context is a very unsuccessful way to read unfamiliar words. In fact, guessing strategies (for word identification) are used more by weak readers than skilled readers.  Context is certainly a useful strategy for identifying the meaning of a word (once the word has been read correctly), but it is not a helpful skill for word identification.

Dr. Seidenberg gives this example:

“The use of semantic cues is illustrated using an example such as “The children are playing ___ in the park.”  The child is having difficulty reading the word in a normal text where the blank is in the example. The child uses syntactic cues to determine that the word must be a preposition and is then encouraged to think of ones that make sense in this context. Graphophonic cue scan then be used to home in on the correct word.  This is the psycholinguistic guessing game, still treating reading as the act of predicting missing words, with the child given additional explicit strategies…  A child who is stuck on whether the word is IN rather than AT, AROUND, NEAR, or ON needs help with a severe decoding problem, not strategies to get around it. In reading normal texts, the most specific “cue to meaning” is the word itself.” (p. 301-302)

Dr. Kilpatrick (2015) concludes the

three cueing systems model is inconsistent with research on the nature of reading… The evidence suggests the three cueing systems approach is not effective with weak and at-risk readers, and it may actually be counterproductive with such students (Tunmer et al., 2002).”

The Most Popular Reading Programs Aren't Backed by Science. By Sarah Schwartz. Dec 3, 2019.

Is it a Good Idea to Teach the Three Cueing Systems in Reading? By Dr. Timothy Shanahan, April 2019

Don’t get me wrong, cueing systems exist, but their value in reading instruction is a magnificent work of the imagination.”

The Use of Context Cues in Reading by Dr. Louise Spear-Swerling

“Confusion stems from the popularity in education of theoretical models of reading that do not reflect scientific evidence about how children learn to read. Another source of confusion is the failure to distinguish the use of context cues in word identification from the use of context in comprehension …. If children are taught systematic phonics in one part of the reading program but are encouraged to use context to guess at words when reading passages, they may not apply their phonics skills consistently.  Thus, the phonics component of the reading program may be undermined”. 

The Three cueing system  by FIVE From FIVE Alliance (

“The three cueing systems approach is common in early reading instruction in Australia but it is not in keeping with evidence on how children learn to read”.

 The Three-Cueing Model: Down for the Count and The three-cueing system: Trojan horse? by Dr. Kerry Hempenstall

“Despite its largely uncritical acceptance by many within the education field, it has never been shown to have utility, and in fact, it is predicated upon notions of reading development that have been demonstrated to be false. Thus, as a basis for decisions about reading instruction, it is likely to mislead teachers and hinder students' progress.” 

The Three Cueing System - Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams presents a summary of the history of the development and lack of research behind the three-cueing system.

… poorly developed word recognition skills are the most pervasive and debilitating source of reading difficultyIn 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. At the same time, it is the underlying cause of not insignificant distrust and ill-will between teachers, teacher educators, and researchers. Yet, while teachers widely believe that the lore of the three-cueing system is based on the best of current research, researchers are barely aware of its existence, nature, or influence.”

Ten Myths of Reading Instruction by Dr. Sebastian Wren 2002 (Myth 5)

Research has shown that good readers depend very heavily upon the visual information contained in the word-for-word identification (what is commonly called the graphemic information or orthographic information). The semantic and syntactic information are critical for comprehension of passages of text, but they do not play an important role in decoding or identifying words. Good readers make virtually no mistakes as they read because they have developed extremely effective and efficient word identification skills that do not depend upon semantics, context, or syntax. For good readers, word identification is fast, fluent, and automatic—it must be so that their attention can be fully focused on using semantics and syntax to comprehend the text.”

 Reading and the Three Cueing Systems by Dr. Sebastian Wren

A skilled reader makes use of the grapho-phonemic information provided by the text to decode each word (which is done rapidly and automatically). As the text is decoded, the reader uses semantic and syntactic information to comprehend the decoded text.

In this model, semantics and syntax are definitely essential elements in reading comprehension, but they do not play a significant role in decoding individual words. Semantics and syntax are essential elements of language comprehension and are therefore they are essential to reading comprehension. However, a prerequisite to mature reading comprehension is fluid and automatic decoding skills.