Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

First published Nov 28 2012, updated 29/10/2017

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The three-cueing system is well-known to most teachers. What is less well known is that it arose not as a result of advances in knowledge concerning reading development, but rather in response to an unfounded but passionately held belief. 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 3-cueing approach is a microcosm of the culture of education. It didn’t develop because teachers lack integrity, commitment, motivation or intelligence. It developed because they were poorly trained and advised. They didn’t know the relevant science or had been convinced it was irrelevant. Lacking this foundation, no such group could have discovered how reading works and how children learn.” (Seidenberg, 2017, p.304)


In the Primary National Strategy (2006a), the three cueing model (known in England as the Searchlight model) was finally and explicitly discredited. Instead, the Strategy acknowledged the value of addressing decoding and comprehension separately in the initial stage of reading instruction. 

… attention should be focused on decoding words rather than the use of unreliable strategies such as looking at the illustrations, rereading the sentence, saying the first sound or guessing what might ‘fit’. Although these strategies might result in intelligent guesses, none of them is sufficiently reliable and they can hinder the acquisition and application of phonic knowledge and skills, prolonging the word recognition process and lessening children’s overall understanding. Children who routinely adopt alternative cues for reading unknown words, instead of learning to decode them, later find themselves stranded when texts become more demanding and meanings less predictable. The best route for children to become fluent and independent readers lies in securing phonics as the prime approach to decoding unfamiliar words" (Primary National Strategy, 2006b, p.9).

Primary National Strategy (2006b). Phonics and early reading: An overview for headteachers, literacy leaders and teachers in schools, and managers and practitioners in Early Years settings. UK: Department of Education and Skills. Retrieved from http://studylib.net/doc/8836766/phonics-and-early-reading--an-overview 


“Phonic work is best understood as a body of knowledge and skills about how the alphabet works, rather than one of a range of optional 'methods' or 'strategies' for teaching children how to read. For example, phonic programmes should not encourage children to guess words from non-phonic clues such as pictures before applying phonic knowledge and skills.” (p.2)

Department for Education (2010). Phonics teaching materials: Core criteria and the self-assessment process. Retrieved from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/298420/phonics_core_criteria_and_the_self-assessment_process.pdf


“As recommended by the Rose review, all teachers in England are now expected to teach synthetic phonics as the first and main strategy for reading. The approach replaces the searchlights multi-cueing model advocated by the 1998 National Literacy Strategy. … The review found much convincing evidence to show that 'synthetic' phonics was the form of systematic phonic work that offered the vast majority of beginners the best route to becoming skilled readers and made a convincing case for the inadequacy of the existing 'searchlights' model for beginner readers.” (p.2)

The General Teaching Council for England. (2007). Research for teachers: Teaching phonics effectively.  Retrieved from http://www.ntrp.org.uk/sites/all/documents/Teaching%20phonics%20effectively.pdf


 Ridding the system of this blight may not be as easy as the edict above implies. The three-cueing system is an established element in most preservice and inservice teacher training courses that include a literacy focus (Adams, 1998). It proffers an explanation (however misguided) of how skilled readers comprehend written language, and also provides a strong direction concerning the role of teachers in literacy education. It is one of those belief systems the origin of which is difficult to establish, and the wide-scale and uncritical acceptance of which is surprising to those anticipating an empirical foundation. There is a dearth of research support to justify a central role for the three-cueing system in determining what should be included in a reading program. In fact, in a despairing letter some years ago, 40 respected linguists (Eagle Forum, 1996) lamented that the underpinnings of the three-cueing system represented “ … an erroneous view of how human language works, a view that runs counter to most of the major scientific results of more than 100 years of linguistics and psycholinguistics” (Eagle Forum, 1996, p.8).


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