TRT Podcast#58: Reaction to Fountas & Pinnell #2: Fountas and Pinnell are wrong about three-cueing
Despite the lack of evidence for three-cueing, Fountas and Pinnell aren’t budging. In this episode I respond to their recent blog post in which they claim that we must help students use multiple sources of information to solve words.
Listen to the episode here
Full episode transcript
Hello, hello, Anna Geiger here. Welcome back! We are on our second reaction to the Fountas and Pinnell blog series called "Just To Clarify," in which they react to criticisms of their work.
Fountas and Pinnell, as you recall, are leaders in literacy education in the United States. They have created a very popular reading program that's used in many schools. We consider them the founders of balanced literacy. They may try to distance themselves from that label, but the fact is it came about during their work back in the '90s.
The current situation is that with studying the science of reading and structured literacy, a lot of people are accusing them of promoting methods that do not teach reading well and that do not meet the needs of a large number of students.
Fountas and Pinnell have reacted in a series of blog posts, and today, we are touching on a big one. Question number two is, "Can you clarify what MSV analysis is and why you believe it's important?"
This is all about three-cueing. If you've followed my podcast for a long time, you know I've talked a lot about this. This is kind of the big rotten apple in balanced literacy. It's the thing that absolutely has to go!
Let's review what MSV stands for. M is meaning, S for syntax, V is for visual. So as a balanced literacy teacher, I believed that students use these three cues to help them solve words. They used the context - that's meaning, they used grammar - that's syntax, and they used phonics - that's the visual cue. And they used them all together simultaneously. Maybe sometimes they'd be using one cue more than another, but they'd be using them all together to solve words. It wasn't just about sounding it out.
In my opinion, this has to do with a misunderstanding of how reading in the brain works. Before I get to that, let's go ahead and listen to a portion of Irene's answer: "The goal for the reader is accuracy using all sources of information simultaneously, and that includes processing each letter in words from left to right. If a reader says 'pony' for 'horse' because of information from the pictures, that tells the teacher that the reader is using meaning information from the pictures, as well as the structure of the language, but is neglecting to use the visual information of the print. His response is partially correct, but the teacher needs to guide him to stop and work for accuracy."
Oh boy, there's a lot to talk about just in that little section.
So they talk about the goal for the reader is using all sources of information simultaneously. That's what I'm talking about when I think it's a misunderstanding of how reading works. We've talked about the science of reading in other episodes and we've talked about the importance of understanding that when you're reading, you are matching the phonemes to the graphemes so orthographic mapping can occur.
Orthographic mapping is reading words instantly and effortlessly after repeated exposure to the word, repeated practice sounding it out. You have to remember that we're not storing thousands and thousands of words in our brains as wholes. We're actually matching those sounds to the letters very, very, very quickly as proficient readers. But students can't learn to do that unless they actually HAVE to sound out the word.
Fountas and Pinnell and other balanced literacy advocates are telling us that there are other pathways to get to the word. We could look at the picture. We could use the picture and the first letter. We could think about what sounds right. Those are backdoor ways of getting to the word.
Maybe they'll help us understand that text itself, but they're not going to serve us for the future because those "strategies" are actually not giving students practice doing what they need to do most in these early stages of reading. They HAVE to match the phonemes to the graphemes. They have to sound it out!
We looked at pictures of the brain and how scientists have learned through fMRI that proficient readers are having all the right circuits firing in the left hemisphere. But children with dyslexia often do not have all those areas well developed, and their reading work is happening on the right side of the brain because they're needing that extra practice, building those phoneme-grapheme connections.
If we're teaching them to use context or what sounds right, we're actually having them do their reading work on the right side of the brain, which is the wrong side for learning to read. I often hear from people defending three-cueing that it comes from Marie Clay and her observations of how children read. Now I can't speak to this extensively because I have not studied Marie Clay's work, even though I have some of her books that I bought many years ago.
But you can see right away, there's a problem, right? If she's making an observation, it's sort of a guess because you don't know what's actually happening inside their brains. Through research and, like I said, fMRI and other things, scientists have learned that students read by matching phonemes to graphemes. That is what they're doing. That is what successful readers do. These things that we're teaching in balanced literacy, which include using context or pictures, are actually reinforcing the habits of poor readers.
Now, back when I was a three-cueing advocate, I did not want to hear this and I did not accept it. And we'll talk more about that next week when we answer their question about guessing. But I want to read some other reactions to you, some other perspectives about three-cueing. Let's talk about where it came from. I think that's really important.
This is a blog post from the National Institute for Direct Instruction, I will link to it in the show notes. Here's what they say: "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, in fact, is predicated upon notions of reading development that have been demonstrated to be false."
Now, someone first brought this to my attention a long time ago, I'm a little embarrassed to say it. I think it was around 2015 in my blog post comments, and I was like, "What?" She was saying to me that three-cueing is not backed by research, but I just learned about it a few years ago in graduate school so I didn't believe her. But I went back and forth with her a little bit and finally I said, "I'm sorry, I can't continue this debate in my comment section." And I just didn't believe her because I wasn't hearing this from other people.
It was about four or five years later where the science of reading really became more prominent as a result of Emily Hanford's article that I felt forced to study it myself. It was really hard, REALLY hard, to give up three-cueing because that basically turned how I taught reading on its head. I have a whole episode about what's wrong with three-cueing that you can find linked to in the show notes.
I also want to share what Lindsay at The Learning Spark had to say. She wrote a blog post all about her pet peeves about teaching reading, and her pet peeve number two was those resistant to give up three-cueing. I want to read to you the paragraph from her website:
"I have always tried to be careful with how I bring this up, because people get so upset and defensive when confronted with the fact that there is no research to support these reading strategies and, even worse, they are doing harm to students. But my patience is wearing thin on this topic. Just when I think that the tide is turning and that the majority of educators now realize the problems surrounding three-cueing, I hear an edu-celebrity tell teachers on Facebook to simply “tweak” the strategies instead of get rid of them or a reader emails me asking me to take down this post stating that it’s only my opinion and that three-cueing works. This particular reader told me not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but three-cueing is exactly what needs to be thrown out."
I could not agree with that more. You'll definitely want to check out her whole blog post, which again will be linked in the show notes.
I want to also talk about how embracing three-cueing denies the Simple View of Reading, which has been backed by research and it's been around for about forty years. It is a model of how reading works. If you picture a multiplication problem, we've got decoding times language comprehension equals reading comprehension. So, in other words, for reading comprehension to occur, you must be decoding the words and understanding them.
With the early leveled books that are what they use to teach reading to beginning readers in the Fountas and Pinnell system, kids must use three-cueing to solve the words because they don't have the phonics knowledge to sound it out. If you are "reading" a word by using context, or picture cues, or the picture and one letter, you're not decoding.
So if you're not really decoding, you get a zero for that part of the multiplication problem, times a one because you do understand the text, but you still get a zero. Reading comprehension is not occurring because you're not really reading!
But I did not believe this as a balanced literacy teacher and I'm sure Fountas and Pinnell don't believe it. They think that having kids use context and pictures to solve the words in those early books IS reading, that it's a natural stage of development for these early readers. But I'm here to tell you, it's not. It's not really reading.
Here's a great quote from Mark Seidenberg on his website and I'm going to link to this in the show notes as well. Here's part of his reaction to the article: "The best cue to a word is the word itself. That's the great thing about alphabetic writing, the spelling of a word tells you what the word is. B-O-O-K is the word book, pronounced 'book,' rhymes with 'took' and 'look,' similar in meaning to 'text' and 'magazine.'
"The spelling is far more informative than strategies such as look at the picture, take a running start, skip the word and go back at the end and other ways to 'solve words'. Readers who have gained the ability to recognize words quickly and accurately from the written code do not need the Fountas and Pinnell strategies. The proof is that they can do this for words in isolation, with no context and no strategic options. This ability carries over to reading words in sentences, where skilled readers recognize with little dependence on context."
I've got to tell you, the light bulb went off for me when I taught my youngest to read. I've talked about this, how I taught my oldest five kids to read at home before they started school using a mostly balanced literacy approach, and I used phonics too, but most of the reading they did was in leveled books.
And then I switched to teaching my youngest and I realized I can't do both. Now that I am understanding structured literacy and the science of reading, I can't have him learn to read with leveled books and decodable books because it's confusing. With the decodable books, I'm teaching him to sound out the words. But in the leveled books I'm saying, "Oh, you can't sound that out yet, so use the picture or use what would make sense."
And you know what, having him sound out the words in those decodable books was so much more efficient. We were just reading, we weren't playing this kind of game to try to figure out what the word could be.
And then, what is this about when Irene Fountas says that kids are partially right if they substitute "pony" for "horse?" How is that partially right?! That's not right at all. That proves that they're not looking at the letters. Because any child who has even a basic understanding of letters and sounds would know that the word "horse" cannot be "pony." The first letter doesn't even match.
Fountas is telling us that if students read "pony" for "horse," that's a clue to the teacher to help them to stop and work for accuracy. Actually, it's a clue to the teacher to help the student learn to sound out words. And if we're giving them books full of words they can't sound out yet, guess what? They're going to not sound out! They're going to realize that that is way harder than these other things they're learning to try, which is using the picture and using context.
Unfortunately, you'll find a lot of students who have learned to read with three-cueing will often open a page and look right at the picture versus looking at the words which is where their eyes should start. Now, are these pictures useful? Absolutely. They're great for helping you check meaning and get more information. But they're not where you should start. The words are where you should start.
I know this podcast is running long so I want to conclude by reacting to the last sentence of the blog post from Fountas and Pinnell in which Fountas writes, "The development of the child's ability to use all sources of information will take time and skillful teaching. It is impossible to boil down this process to something as simplistic as 'don't think, just sound it out.'"
Okay, that's not fair. Because that is not what science of reading advocates are saying. They are not saying that we want kids just to sound out words and not think about it at all. That's just not true. If you think about the Simple View of Reading, you can see it's about decoding AND language comprehension.
For reading comprehension to occur, we know they have to understand those words at the same time. But we also understand that learning to sound out words and then becoming fluent at this is a process. We can't rush the process by giving them books in which they can "read the words using context, pictures, and patterns." We have to give them the hard work of sounding out words and the rest will come. It will come!
As you can guess, there's a whole lot more I can say about this, but we have eight more episodes. So we'll get into more of that next week.
Thanks so much for listening and be sure to check out the show notes at themeasuredmom.com/episode58. Talk to you next week!
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- Fountas & Pinnell’s series: Just to Clarify
- Emily Hanford’s response: Influential authors Fountas and Pinnell stand behind disproven reading theory
- Mark Seidenberg’s response: Clarity about Fountas and Pinnell
- The Three-Cueing System in Reading: Will it Ever Go Away? (from the National Institute for Direct Instruction)
- The Learning Spark: What are Your Pet Peeves about Reading?
- Podcast episode: What’s wrong with three-cueing?
- Podcast episode: How the brain learns to read
Thank you for a great podcast. When I attended college to become a reading teacher, I was taught Reading Recovery/F and P in one class and Orton Gillingham in another. Then when I became a 4th grade teacher working with learning disabled kids I saw that the kids could not use the ” three cueing system” and other “guess strategies.” The books they were supposed to be reading for class had no pictures – they were chapter books. They couldn’t use the other strategies such as read on and use context clues because they could not “read” the other words either. It was then that I used what I had learned in my Orton Gillingham class. The students began to read. Not guess. They learned to decode. And as they were learning decoding skills, we worked on comprehension. And I read TO them so they WERE learning about dinosaurs etc. F and P has never worked with any of my learning disabled students. And the teachers I worked with did not use the cueing mistakes to guide their instruction due to several factors (not enough time in school day with all the other things that needed to get done; their own lack of understanding the English language system and how to teach reading, etc.). As an independent reading specialist, I am so glad that I can use the materials that I know will bring my students success.
I think it’s fabulous that you received training in both, Saundra, so you could understand both sides and make a thoughtful analysis/decision about which approach would be best. I’m thrilled to hear that as you taught your students to decode, you simultaneously worked on a comprehension. That’s definitely a win-win approach!
I am a Reading Recovery teacher and although I use PM books not Fountas and Pinnell, I totally believe in using the ” 3 cuing system” as you call it. I do not think children who struggle, can use sounding out as a way to learn to read. They need to be thinking about meaning and syntax and visual info to become readers and to be able to understand what they read.
Thank you for your comment, Heather! What would you recommend for these students when they are in third grade and get to a word they can’t solve with context or meaning – for example, a science word they’ve never seen before? How would you help them read the word?
I use “the science of reading” (without the term) to teach young ones to read. I was previously a 5th-grade teacher during a transitional time where I was taught to use Whole Language (including phonics) in college, but the standards movement was just starting up. I did not hear the terms “Balanced Literacy” or “3-cueing” until recently, but I remember hearing about the 3 cues once I was in the field. I don’t think they should be thrown out for older kids who have already been taught using the science of reading. In our complicated language, they will continue to come upon strange letter combinations from other languages and new words that have become so widely used they are allowed into the dictionary. These words do not usually follow any of the standard phonics that they were taught. So, they can take a stab at it. Consonants are often the same, but French words will throw you off even there. Completely stumped? Take the parts of the word you sounded out, think about the context, think about the part of speech, and look at the picture (if there is one). Sometimes they can figure out a difficult word like “chandelier” by adding those steps. I do emphasize sounding out above and beyond the “3 cueing,” but I think it has some use to teach older kids (3rd grade and up if they are overall good readers) another “trick” if a difficult word comes up. Do you think this is harmful or is there something better I could be doing? I do also explain the foreign language phonics, to the extent I know them.
You could be referring to set for variability, which is a good thing. It’s when kids attempt to decode a word, but don’t end up with a real word, and then they adjust the word based on how a word should actually be pronounced (and context helps them with this). Does that sound like what you mean?
Anna, thank you for your post and continued research into this topic. Jennifer Serravallo is one professional in this field whom I highly regard and respect. As a researcher and practitioner, she uses the leading scientific research in addition to her work in the field to guide her thinking and practice. Based on the new research, she recently modified and added new strategies to her Reading Strategies book that focus on this very issue with printwork. While not discounting the three-cueing system altogether, she instead shifted the focus to visual first, followed by meaning and syntax. You can find her explanation for revising her chapter here: https://blog.heinemann.com/serravallo-reading-with-accuracy. Burkins and Yates also recommend this V-MS shift in instruction in their book, Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom.
Thank you for sharing that info, Mary! I have pretty much all of Jennifer Serravallo’s books, so I did receive the update to Reading Strategies. I appreciate that she is studying the research and not refusing to budge, as it appears F & P are doing. I also have read and appreciate Shifting the Balance. I agree that kids should look at the print first and make their best attempt at the word by sounding it out. Syntax and context can help them self-correct.
Thank you – this was short and to the point. Well done. I’d add a small point that there is plenty of thinking going on when students are ‘sounding out’ and to diminish that process alone shows an incomplete understanding of how reading actually occurs. English is not an easy language to decode, after breaking the 26 lettered code that represents 44 sounds, with 5 vowel symbols that represent 18 sounds, readers have plenty of work to do to achieve accuracy and automaticity as they build their reading skills. Blending sounds into words and vice versa is in itself a skill that isn’t naturally obvious for all learners and the assumption that it is simple and not amazing isn’t helpful. Thank you for this series, I look forward to hearing more.
Great point, Justine! So often in the balanced literacy professional reading that I have done, “sounding it out” is presented as a low-level skill. Thanks so much for pointing out that this isn’t the case!
Maybe you could consider reading those books by Marie Clay instead of the writings of a journalist named Emily Hanford who has no educational degree or classroom experience. Clay’s Reading Recovery has earned a Strong rating from Evidence for ESSA and a positive rating from the What Works Clearinghouse. Evidence for ESSA found no research to support LETRS, a program advocated by Hanson. A report from the WWC describes how LETRS improved teachers’ knowledge but had no effect on their students’ reading (https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/Docs/QuickReview/pdr_rev0309.pdf).
I feel sorry for children who don’t get to read stories about elephants and dinosaurs and birthdays because they can’t sound out those words yet.
Hi Kathy! I actually discounted Emily Hanford’s article for a year or two because of exactly what you wrote – “no educational degree or classroom experience.” Multiple blog readers directed me to it, and I didn’t take it seriously. It wasn’t until I really studied the research surrounding reading that I began to realize that she had quoted all the relevant resources. I know exactly how you feel about feeling sorry for kids who can’t read interesting stories because they can’t sound out the words, but in all honesty, using the picture and context to “read” a word isn’t really reading. I’m happy to share more resources with you if you’d like. In the meantime, I’d love to see evidence of Clay’s research. I do have her books (which I bought years ago), but my understanding is that her research is based on observation. I’m happy to read her research if it exists, provided it is more than case studies. Links to articles are welcome! In the meantime, I would encourage you to read Margaret Goldberg’s writings on her site, the Right to Read Project. She is a former balanced literacy teacher and comes at it with a gentle approach, as I hope that I have done.
Not all research is quantitative; that’s why doctoral candidates in reading typically have to take a course in qualitative assessment. Clay’s findings are based on years of systematic observation, not just random case studies. In An Observation Survey she describes standardized observation techniques that create reliability and validity in assessment. Chapter 6 of Reading Recovery: A Guidebook for Teachers in Training has enough data to keep any statistician happy. Although this data is “old,” studies reviewed by the Institute for Educational Sciences (What Works Clearinghouse) continue to show similar findings.
There is more than one way to read a word. If the reader comes across a word that follows the rules of a foreign language, he has to rely on cues other than decoding. If I were to try to read the manual from the nuclear power plant near me, I could probably read most of the words using my proficient decoding skills–but I would just be saying the words because they would be meaningless to me. That’s not reading. Sounding those words out wouldn’t help me read–but it would get me a great score on a decoding assessment, which would make me look like a good reader.
To answer the question you posed to Heather: a struggling 3rd grader is not going to be able to decode a multisyllable word in a science textbook. That reader is likely to be back in an earlier stage of reading development, probably still working on single-syllable words. That’s why we directly teach Tier 3 words. It’s also why authors of informational texts and textbooks directed at transitional readers typically include maps, diagrams, charts, photos, etc. When was the last time you saw an informational book without these aids? Should we take them away so that we can force kids to sound out the words?
What I’m confused about is when you would give this struggling reader the tools to identify a longer word.
I agree with what you wrote earlier in the comment – decoding words by themselves is NOT reading. That’s why the Simple View of Reading shows us that word identification AND language comprehension must both be present for true reading comprehension to occur. Though I know it can feel like it, the science of reading isn’t just about phonics.
I don’t quite understand your reference to text features. They’re useful for giving information, not to help kids identify words.
Also, I’m struck by this … “force kids to sound out the words” … what’s wrong with that, exactly?
I would give the struggling reader the tools to figure out a longer word when he is in the stage of spelling development that supports this. Bear and Templeton’s model of developmental spelling tells us that children aren’t ready to decode multisyllable words until they can successfully decode single-syllable words. (Decoding and encoding are flip sides of the same coin.) If a child can’t successfully decode a word such as “cat,” he isn’t going to be successful with a longer word such as “catastrophe.” Trying to force him to do this is only going to result in frustration.
Let’s say that we’re reading about an okapi. If the child decodes this word independently, he’ll probably say it with a short a. He used his decoding skills–it’s a closed syllable. Instead, I’ll do what Fountas and Pinnell recommend to do in a book introduction. I’ll show him the picture of the okapi, ask him what sound he hears at the beginning and what letter makes that sound, have him find the word on the page, and RUN HIS FINGER UNDER IT. That’s the part that often gets left out of discussions about figuring out words. We don’t have the child guess based on a picture and first letter; we have him use the visual cues to check. We use the same strategy if he reads the word incorrectly: Run your finger under the word. Does it look right? Try again.
Are there teachers who encourage students to guess at words? Yes. Are there teachers who give kids stacks of phonics worksheets to complete? Yes. Neither of these is Best Practices and they should be addressed. But they don’t make Balanced Literacy or the Science of Reading wrong.
Just to be clear, I was teaching phonics back when the Whole Language advocates said not to. I believe that students need systematic, explicit phonics instruction. I just don’t believe it’s the answer to all reading problems.
You wrote: I would give the struggling reader the tools to figure out a longer word when he is in the stage of spelling development that supports this.
Yes, exactly! So why would you include these words in the child’s reading material when s/he doesn’t have the tools to read it yet?
Then again, I know that sometimes (even in decodable books) there are story words that kids can’t sound out yet. I don’t have a problem with that as long as, like you said, we are addressing it in advance. But I would just want to make sure this is for just a few words. So often, with leveled books, kids cannot sound out MOST of the words. And that’s where the problem lies; they aren’t getting nearly enough practice using their phonics skills and are often taught to use other methods to get at the word.
Thank you for the discussion, Kathy! I am going to sign off on this one, but while we are not quite on the same page – I don’t think we’re too far apart!
You make it sound like teachers who find the three cueing systems helpful don’t ever use a sound-it-out strategy. I taught with the Reading Recovery program for several years (first grade daily one-on-one intervention) and we had definite daily and weekly evidence that students using Marie Clay’s model succeeded in reading. Before I learned about the 3 cueing systems, I didn’t ever think about evaluating students’ errors. It really helped me listen to the types of mistakes students were making and direct my teaching to remedy it. It would be a shame if students only strategy is to “sound-it-out.” When this happens, doesn’t research say this slows students comprehension because they are so focused on sounding out words that they can’t focus on the meaning? I recall this from my own first grade experience back in the early 60s. Phonics was the main emphasis and I DID learn to read well orally and fast, but my comprehension was poor . . . which followed me throughout much of my school career. I believe there is room for all of these strategies. I will not give up on my F & P resources!!
Hi Cindy! I didn’t meant to imply that, and I’m sorry if it sounded that way. I do have to say, though, that in my reading as a balanced literacy teacher I was encouraged to use “sound it out” as only a last resort. I absolutely believe that some kids can succeed with balanced literacy, but often that success goes away when they start reading more challenging books and the cues are no longer helpful. That said, a good percentage of kids DO realize that sounding out words is the easier path to reading, and the other cues fade away. (The problem is that for another good percentage, sounding it out is too difficult and they hold on to context and picture clues, which eventually becomes guessing – esp. as they run into multi-syllable words).
You’re right on the money when you note that some kids can decode well using phonics but have poor comprehension. These must both be the focus, but when teachers use poor quality decodable books with stilted language, it’s hard for comprehension to result.
I still have my F & P books as well, and I would never say to pitch them. But I think we need to think long and hard about the foundation of their philosophy.
Ann, Can you guide me to a good list of decodable books?
Also, is there any difference in the position you would take in teaching a Primary 1 6 yr old who is learning English as a 2nd or foreign language?
Here are my favorite decodable books: https://www.themeasuredmom.com/where-to-find-decodable-books-for-short-a/
I do not have experience teaching English language learners, so I can’t offer much in that area. But I would say that learning the structure of the English language and how to decode words are important for everyone – as are attention to comprehension and fluency.
I good resource for learning about reading with second language learners is Colorin Colorado – put out by the same people who do Reading Rockets. It contains a section titled Teaching ELLs where you can find current information about literacy instruction.
I apologize – I should have clarified that Colorin Colorado is a website – https://www.colorincolorado.org/
Thank you SO much, Sarah! I’m so glad to have this link to send people to!
letter-sound correspondence (can be different in other languages)
vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary (so student understands the decoded word)