One of the most serious, and most persistent, misconceptions in the world of reading early reading instruction involves the use of context clues. Regardless of whether they are explicitly taught an incorrect interpretation of three/multi-cueing system or simply absorb its tenets in graduate school or via professional development, many teachers of beginning readers erroneously learn that children should focus primarily on beginning/ending letters and then use a variety of guess-and-check methods (e.g., picture clues, other information in the text) to make educated guesses about unfamiliar words.

If you’re not familiar with the research, a reliance on context clues has been identified as a compensatory strategy for weak decoding skills (Nicholson, 1992; Stanovich, 1986); as children become more proficient decoders, they spend less time looking at contextual information.

Louise Spear-Swerling, professor of Special Education at Southern Connecticut State University, sums the findings up as follows:

Skilled readers do not need to rely on pictures or sentence context in word identification, because they can read most words automatically, and they have the phonics skills to decode occasional unknown words rapidly. Rather, it is the unskilled readers who tend to be dependent on context to compensate for poor word identification. Furthermore, many struggling readers are disposed to guess at words rather than to look carefully at them, a tendency that may be reinforced by frequent encouragement to use context. 

In her 1998 article on the misinterpretation of the three-cueing system, Marilyn Jäger Adams furthermore makes the point that while skilled readers do in fact make use a combination of orthographic, syntactic, and semantic clues, they do so in order to construct meaning rather than to literally decode words. The misinterpretation of the graphic that has filtered down into many elementary-school classrooms is based on a confusion between “reading as extracting meaning from text” (which presumes solid decoding) and “reading as turning squiggles on a page into words.”

To be clear, using a combination of first letters and pictures, or other parts of a text, and making educated guesses based on “what would make sense” may indeed result in beginning readers coming up with correct words, or a generally accurate understanding of a particular scenario. But that’s beside the point. 

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Thinking

To have a serious discussion about what types of strategies should be taught, and when, and why, it is necessary to distinguish between short-term and long-term thinking.

In short-term thinking, the focus is on getting the child to understand the particular text in front of them, at that particular moment. Exactly how that happens is not overly important.

And after all, the purpose of reading is to understand the text (or, to put it in edu-parlance to “construct meaning”). Obviously.

Understandably, this is a very appealing viewpoint, and one that seems to make intuitive sense: learning to read can be very challenging for certain children, and if especially one is working with a slow, struggling reader, the impulse to have them glean whatever they can, however they can, is entirely understandable. Any tools they can use to figure out what’s going on are helpful, right?

In the long term… No, actually.

The problem is that the (cueing) strategies that allow a beginning reader to get the gist of simple pictures books fall very, very far short when applied to the far more challenging texts students will be expected to read only a few years later. A kindergartner or first-grader who appears to be basically on track may in fact be missing very fundamental key skills.

Moreover, the habit of guessing at unfamiliar words is not one that children naturally outgrow—once established, it is often extraordinarily difficult to break.

Combine that with persistent decoding issues, and you end up with a burgeoning middle-schooler who’s just old enough to really push back when someone tries to intervene but not quite mature enough to appreciate why it’s so important for her to learn to sound out multisyllabic words phonetically (as Richard McManus will currently attest).

All that said, the use of context clues does in fact have a place in early reading instruction. But the key piece is that context must be used to support phonetic decoding (and thus orthographic mapping), not replace it.

Practically speaking, this involves the decoding of words that are only partly phonetic, or whose exact pronunciation cannot be determined from the way they are written. 

As Tunmer (1990; see pp. 112-113) has explained, phonetic knowledge and the ability to use context combine to create a positive feedback loop in which context is used to actually strengthen phonetic understanding and facilitate orthographic mapping—the process by which words get stored in the brain as sound-syllable correspondences and made available for automatic retrieval.

Essentially, when children with a solid phonetic understanding of the English code encounter irregularly spelled/pronounced words, they may use context clues to bootstrap themselves into an understanding of how those words are pronounced. That reinforces an understanding of more complex phonetic patterns and allows challenging language to be read more easily in the future.

Some children may figure this out their own, but there is no reason that others cannot be taught this strategy explicitly.

This phenomenon also supports the finding that children with good decoding skills can often infer the pronunciations of moderately irregularly word (Groff, 1987), something that directly contradicts the notion that English is too irregular for phonetic knowledge to be effective.

What the Heck is a MOSS-kwih-toe?

I’m going to illustrate this with a personal anecdote involving one of my earliest reading-related memories.

It happened when I was in first grade, and it involved the word mosquito.

Although this word is spelled in a way that is not entirely unrelated to its pronunciation, there are a couple of notable irregularities.

  • First, the “qu” makes a “k” sound, as opposed to its usual “kw” sound.
  • Second, there’s no obvious information about which syllable should be stressed.

So when I encountered this word in print at the age of six, I initially read it as MOSS-kwih-toe.

“Huh?” I remember thinking. “What the heck is a MOSSkwitoe?”

I knew that didn’t make sense, and I knew I wasn’t reading the word correctly, but I couldn’t fathom what it might actually be.

So I kept on plugging along, and a couple of minutes later, I suddenly had a lightbulb moment.

“Oh!” I thought. “Of course. The word is pronounced muskeetoe!”

I was really quite astonished to have figured it out. I had a huge vocabulary but was by no means an exceptional decoder. You know those kids who teach themselves to read at three? Well, I wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t even in the top reading group! But the incident made such an extraordinary impression on me that I still remember my thought process with almost total clarity more than 30 years later.

So let’s review what I did:

1) I used the specific sequence of letters and my knowledge of the sounds they made to take me as far as I could possibly go toward identifying the word.

2) Once I realized the story involved some sort of insect that flew and buzzed around during the summer, I drew the logical conclusion about the word’s pronunciation.

3) I got a lesson in the fact the “qu” can make a “k” sound in certain circumstances—an alternate phonetic pattern that helped me identify other challenging words quickly in the future (and eventually facilitated my ability to grasp French pronunciation).

4) The sound-spelling correspondence of the whole word was from then on etched into my mind in metaphorical granite (i.e., orthographically mapped).

5) I learned that even if words weren’t straightforwardly phonetic, I could combine my sound-spelling knowledge with my other skills and figure things out. That was an immensely powerful realization.

The interesting part is that technically speaking, my process was a stellar example of the three-cueing model. It involved the construction of (literal) meaning using the interplay among clues based on orthography (sequence of letters), syntax (the word had to be a noun based on its position in the sentence), and semantics (the story must have involved a tiny, buzzing insect).

The key piece, however, is that my close attention to sound-spelling correspondences underlay my ability to engage the other systems effectively. I did not look at the first letter(s) and make a semi-random guess based on context (the way I later saw many of my own, much older students do). If I had, in the absence of any solid contextual information at that point, I might have come up with something like mouse.

Rather, I paid close attention to all the letters in the word—beginning, middle, and end—in an attempt to sound it out, and only when that wasn’t enough did I move to thinking about the larger context of the story to in order to make the leap from that baffling collection of letters to certainty about a real word.

That leads me to my next point, namely that the episode was also consistent with the finding that children who learn to read phonetically are able to produce nonsense words/pronunciations—something that children who are taught via whole language do not do (Barr, 1974-5; click here for a discussion of the findings). Had I jumped to plug in a word I already knew how to read, I would have missed out on a significant learning opportunity. And even if I had managed to correctly guess mosquito, I would have missed out on an important phonetic lesson and would not have been able to carry that new knowledge forward into other words.

As Ehri points out, children who exhibit this type of phonetic non-word decoding in first grade move more quickly into the full alphabetic phase, in which “beginners become able to form connections between all of the graphemes in spellings and the phonemes in pronunciations to remember how to read words.” Indeed, by second grade, I was basically a totally fluent reader. Once things clicked, I never looked back.

About the Three-Cueing System…

Let me conclude by saying that writing (and re-writing) this piece has actually been a rather enlightening process for me, not least because it allowed me to revisit a memorable childhood experience from an adult perspective and—entirely to my surprise—be able to analyze it in light of theories with which I’ve become acquainted only relatively recently. When I first began to write about the episode, I was unaware of just how clearly it embodied key findings about how children learn to read; it was only as I began to really probe it that I realized how illustrative it actually was.

It also made me develop a more nuanced understanding of the three-cueing system, as well as a better understanding of how things went so badly awry. What I’ve described here certainly isn’t the “look at the first letter and the picture and think about what would make sense” approach, but it also isn’t quite the mature use of textual cues employed by skilled readers to, say, determine correct definitions of multi-meaning words. Instead, it’s somewhere in the middle.

It’s precisely that in-between place that makes things so tricky, and I think it points to the overwhelming importance of precise language when discussing techniques for reading instruction. Indeed, so many conversations about this topic devolve into free-for-alls simply because various parties cannot agree on what central terms mean. (E.g., for researchers, the term “sight word” refers to a word that has been orthographically mapped and can be read instantaneously, whereas for teachers it generally refers to the high-frequency words on the Dolch/Fry lists that beginning readers are expected to memorize more or less by rote.)

It’s very easy to imagine how a cautious assertion like, “In some instances, children can use context clues to help them identify unknown words” could get transformed into, “Let’s look at the first letter and the picture and ask ourselves what the word might be.” Those two statements might not seem terribly different on the surface, but in fact they’re worlds apart.

The cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has warned that inconclusive (or, I would add, poorly understood) theoretical models can easily get translated into ineffective classrooms practices, and I think the three-cueing system is the poster child for that. It’s not enough to say, for example, that skilled reading involves a complex interplay of systems; inevitably, given the history of reading instruction in the United States, that will be used to promote harmful ideas about the unimportance of phonetic decoding. When the devil is in the details, every word counts.