Of all the difficulties involved in tutoring SAT reading, the one that perplexed me the most was the inordinate difficulty certain students seemed to have in grasping the notion that the answers to the questions were *in the passage,* as opposed to in their head or somewhere on the other side of the room. As I wrote about in a fit of irritation many years ago, not long after I started this blog, it literally did not seem to occur to them to look back at the text, and I could not figure out how to get them to do otherwise.

That many tutoring programs treated the location of the answers as some kind of amazing secret baffled me even more. Where other than in the passage would the answer be? How was it possible that so many students seemed to struggle not just with understanding what various texts said, but with the idea that answers to reading questions were based on the specific words they contained? How could such absolutely fundamental notions of reading be so lacking that they could actually be packaged as tricks?

I was reminded of this the other day, when a friend who teaches high school mentioned the exceptional amount of difficulty she was encountering when she attempted to get her AP students to look back at their texts while answering comprehension questions. “They just have this incredible aversion to looking at it,” she said. The frustration in her voice was almost palpable.

“Yeah,” I said, “I know. I was seeing that a decade ago. Sometimes whatever you do, they just refuse.” And then something that wouldn’t have occurred to me prior to about six months ago: “Blame the three-cueing system.”

Until very recently, I assumed that the difficulty derived mainly from the fact so many English assignments revolve around personal responses to readings, or around “creative” assignments such as posters, rather than serious analytical writing. Based on my own experience, what I saw while tutoring, and some recent classroom observation, I also attributed this to the fact that English teachers were providing very little direct, in-class instruction designed to walk students through the process of textual analysis in a systematic way.

I still think those factors play a big role; however, from what I’ve learned in the past few months, I think that the roots of the problem go even deeper… all the way back to when students learn to read. In other words, to the three-cueing system.

Consider this: If children are taught that reading is a matter of looking at just the beginning of a word and then immediately looking away (at a picture, elsewhere on the page) or just flat-out guessing—and worse, if they are actively encouraged to make things up (i.e., “make meaning”) rather than taught to decode properly—then it’s reasonable to assume that many of them will not fully internalize the idea that the text says what it says because of the specific words on the page; and that those words are what they are because they are made up of particular combinations of letters ordered in particular ways and not in others. As a result, there will be no compelling reason for them to pay attention to the details of a text. Precisely what is written on the page is incidental.

This is not a concept of reading that comes about as a result of ADD, or too much technology, or not enough books at home, or… whatever. No: it’s something students explicitly learn, in school, and then continue doing over many years—in  part, I suspect, because many adults remain unaware they’re even doing it.

The problem, of course, is that these behaviors do not magically disappear as students progress through school and the pictures disappear/words get harder. As Emily Hanford points out in her recent article on the three-cueing system, students taught to read by looking at pictures or guessing often become very resistant to going word-by-word because doing so is much harder. For a child who has not established automatic sound-spelling relationships (which, for the record, is fundamentally different from memorizing sight words), focusing on each word for an extended period requires an outsized amount of effort. And the longer this goes on, the harder it gets for them to catch up—and the more resistant they will become to putting in the work to do so.

By the time students hit late elementary school and certainly by middle school, teachers may not have even heard of the three-cueing system. As a result, they may have no idea what students are actually doing when they read and consequently find themselves baffled by some of the difficulties they observe.

When the signs are too egregious to ignore, they may attribute the problem to laziness, or parental failure to provide a literacy-rich home environment, or ADD, or some sort of “executive functioning” problem, or even to the fact that some kids just get the whole reading thing more slowly than others. Perhaps if the student spends more time practicing “finding the main idea” or is simply encouraged to focus on titles more appropriate for their current level, they’ll enjoy reading more and eventually just catch themselves up naturally. No need for tutors or fancy programs. (If you follow the link, scroll down to the third question).

But if a student is already firmly accustomed to reading three-cueing style and has weak decoding skills (not to mention vocabulary and general knowledge), the chances of them spontaneously figuring everything out on their own at some magical point down the line are effectively nil.

This is basically a disaster in slow motion.

Even leaving aside the most severely affected, there are still many, many students who superficially give the appearance of being on solid footing but who, on close inspection, have eyes that bounce around the page; who frequently skip words or even full lines; and whose immediate inclination when they encounter an unfamiliar term is to guess or just plug in a word they know. Kids for whom reading this way is so automatic that they are unaware there is any other way to do it.

If they continue to read (or, just as likely, not read) this way and get good grades in spite of it, then why on earth would they suddenly start paying close attention to the exact words on the page? The concept doesn’t even compute, really. And the problem is only compounded if they get the message in English class that “analyzing” is a matter of grabbing random quotes (“using evidence”) and free-associating about them; or relating them to their own lives; or pontificating about Very Big Ideas that go way, way beyond the scope of the text. Hence the blank looks and bullheaded refusal to look at the page when asked what the text says about something or other.

In this context, it is not difficult to see how the idea that passages say exactly what they say and not something else, that answers to questions are BASED ON THE SPECIFIC WORDS IN THE PASSAGE, and that it is necessary to LOOK AT THE PASSAGE to know what those words are, could be passed off as revolutionary concepts.

It is also not difficult to see how all this could contribute to the disdain for high-level vocabulary. In addition to general old-fashioned knee-jerk American anti-intellectualism, some of this attitude is likely also due to the specific difficulty of reading long, complex words with lots of syllables when one’s decoding skills are at best so-so, and when one’s default option is to just guess when anything that looks remotely “weird.” (When people mock the vocabulary on the old SAT, they almost inevitably trot out polysyllabic monstrosities like grandiloquent, even though some of the hardest words were only one or two syllables.) If a student has slid by their entire academic career that way, the sudden insistence on precise reading could be downright infuriating. Is it at all surprising that many students would conclude that the whole exercise was stupid and pointless, and that besides, what sort of freak would go around using big words like that anyway? (An attitude encouraged, it should be pointed out, by many tutors.)

How many millions of kids answered vocabulary questions wrong because they could not read the sentences carefully enough, or persistently substituted terms because they did not notice vowel changes in similar-looking words (e.g., “desperate” for “disparate”)? This was something I saw over and over in my weaker students, the ones who could not crack 600 on the old SAT reading section regardless of how much tutoring they received. The vocab section exposed reading problems created by the three-cueing system and then never remediated, in a very clear way. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of strong reading is the ability to decode complex words in isolation; you can’t even address meaning if you don’t know what a word is. In contrast, the new exam’s exclusive focus on context is precisely aligned with the fantasy that students should be able to figure out hard words naturally, as long as they are presented in “rich” and “authentic” texts.

I also suspect that the introduction of paired “evidence” questions was designed in part to combat students’ tendency to ignore the text in front of them—although from what I’ve seen, nothing would deter weaker readers from ignoring the text for the first question of the set and then lighting on random words in the lines referenced for the second. I find it both pathetic and disturbing that the College Board could actually spin this most utterly basic of understandings—knowing that a text literally means what it means because of the words on the page—as something complex and high-level, and that pretty much everyone would simply go along with it. It speaks to a system so mired in delusion that it’s almost too much to contemplate.

At any rate, I wish I had learned years ago what I now know about the three-cueing system; it would have profoundly affected the way I worked with struggling students. I would, for example, have spent far more time having them practice reading linearly across the page, making sure to get each word, before we even seriously looked at the test. I would likely have incorporated some advanced phonics designed to get them more attuned to vowels and internal syllables, and stop them from guessing, and to help them notice differences between similar-looking words.

Given the number of years some of my students had been reading this way, I doubt that I could have repaired all the damage, but at least I could have tried. At least I would have known what to look for, and why I was seeing some of the things I saw, and I could have taken steps to address the problem at its root.

So if you’re a tutor or a parent of a student who struggles with reading, please know that the problems I’ve outlined here are a “thing”—they’re not just random, individual tendencies. They might have been explicitly learned, and perhaps with enough effort, they can be unlearned as well.