The Science of Reading

Simpson Street Free Press is invested in and applies the science of reading with our students. We have for decades.

It is true, however, that debates about reading instruction continue. Teachers and reading specialists continually discuss—and dispute—what methods of reading instruction are truly most effective, and ultimately, what method should be used in our schools.

Today, in our country, reading levels continue to decrease; only two-thirds of fourth graders can read at grade level, which leads to high school seniors still unable to meet proficiency. The numbers in Wisconsin are among the worst in the country. And reading results in Madison are at crisis level.

Many experts believe this is a result of the instructional methods that teachers nationwide are instructed in and taught to use. These instructional methods, called the “three-cueing” system, teach students compensation strategies that struggling readers come to depend on after falling behind without having learned to read. All students in three-cueing classrooms are being taught this way, and as reading researcher David Kilpatrick has noted, “[t]he three-cueing system is the way poor readers read.”

History of the Three-Cueing System

Education professor Ken Goodman proposed his three-cueing theory at the American Educational Research Association meeting in New York City in 1967. Goodman’s proposal explained how he believed children learned to read. He claimed that reading words was just like remembering a picture of what a whole word looked like and using three cues about the word to guess what word would be appropriate in the sentence. Goodman called them graphic, syntactic, and semantic cues. They are all pieces of information one can use to glean what the word in question could be.

Graphic cues correspond with what the letters in a word are; syntactic cues are the parts of speech a specific word would qualify as; semantic cues suggest the possible meaning of a word established by the context and information around the word. The cues are simply a basis on which readers can guess what a word could be. This theory instructs teachers to tell students to guess a word and then ask, “Does is look right? Does it make sense?” Based on the answer, better understanding of the word should ensue.

Another researcher in the 1960s, named Marie Clay, also came to an equivalent conclusion in her dissertation on the process of learning how to read. The New Zealand developmental psychologist came up with similar, yet separate, terms to outline her theories. Clay’s three cues are called “MSV,” or meaning, sentence structure, and visual information. Although their observational research was independent of one another, Clay and Goodman had several discussions about their findings. They both figured that of the three cues, the graphic cues, or visual information, from a word are the least helpful in aiding a child’s understanding of that word, as well as being the least effective method for comprehending that word in the future.

“In efficient word perception, the reader relies mostly on the sentence and its meaning and some selected features of the forms of words,” claimed Clay.

The system of guessing the meaning of words and getting them “right enough” caught on quickly in American schools. In the 1980s, three-cueing, or the “whole language” technique became the primary way that children were taught to read in the country, including our own Madison Metropolitan School District . However, extensive research proves that this method is, in fact, ineffective.

Whole Language Put to the Test

In 1975, Keith Stanovich set out to put the whole language theory to the test. At the time, Stanovich was at the University of Michigan completing his doctorate in psychology, and after hearing of Goodman’s work, he decided to investigate further. He and his research partner hypothesized that good readers were more likely to use context to comprehend words, which agreed with Goodman’s claims. Their results led to a much different conclusion.

“To our surprise, all of our research results pointed in the opposite direction,” Stanovich said. “It was the poorer readers, not the more skilled readers, who were more reliant on context to facilitate word recognition.”

In contrast with Goodman and Clay’s theories, Stanovich’s research and other studies have proven that the more an individual can quickly isolate a specific word and its letters, the more skilled that reader becomes. The approach to reading instruction backed by this research, the phonics approach, is based on the fact that each word is the meaning produced by a sequence of specific letters and the sounds those letters make when put together. Recognition of these phonetic patterns leads to reading proficiency, much more than guessing based on context does. Despite such discoveries supporting phonics, many school districts view phonics as unnecessarily detail-oriented and difficult. Due to these negative views, public instruction in schools continues to rely on the whole language approach and resists the science of reading.

What often helps maintain the status quo in teaching approaches is that teachers are still being trained in outdated and disproven methods. A multitude of classroom resources, posters, and curricula have been created based on Goodman’s theory and such resources are provided to teachers. One such influential program for reading based on the MSV technique was created by two teachers, Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, in the 1980s. Their program, which earned their publishing company about $500 million by 2018, is called Fountas and Pinnell Literacy. It includes their book detailing MSV instruction, “Guided Reading,” along with their own method for assessing children’s reading capabilities.

This method entails students using a variety of different reading resources, such as the Fountas and Pinnell original “leveled books,” which introduce increasingly complex and challenging words that are paired with pictures, consequently prompting students to guess such new words without truly developing the ability to read them.

As a result, children taught using Fountas and Pinnell, or similar methods, move up through the elementary and middle school grades still lacking the ability to sound out or read new words. Many teachers were never taught the science behind reading and how to use the science of reading during their education training. Many classroom teachers, however, have since learned about the detrimental effects of the whole language approach and have discovered the crucial skills obtained through applying the science of reading. This leads many of today’s teachers to question the credibility of “whole language” and its use in their schools.

“One of the things I struggle with is a lot of guilt,” said Margaret Goldberg from the Oakland Unified School District, where she teaches and is a literacy coach. “I did lasting damage to these kids. It was so hard to ever get them to stop looking at a picture to guess what a word would be. It was so hard to ever get them to slow down or sound a word out because they had had this experience of knowing that you predict what you read before you read it.”

Phonics and Orthographic Mapping

Three-cueing and MSV hinder students and distract students from the scientifically proven way that people recognize words—orthographic mapping. As David Kilpatrick, State University of New York College at Cortland psychology professor, researched, such mapping is created in the brains of readers when they learn to relate the order of the letters in a word with its pronunciation and thus its meaning. This relationship is phonics. By paying attention to the letters and the sounds they make, readers using phonics skills are able to connect the words they read on the page, learn how to say the words, and understand what they mean.

Such links are then stored in the brain for future reference, suggesting that the more words a reader comes across and successfully reads, the larger their memorized vocabulary becomes. Along with a greater word bank, the reader simultaneously acquires a growing ease for understanding new words and phrases. Teaching kids to pay attention to cues instead of letters ultimately sabotages their ability to critically think as learners and develop their reading skills.

“The minute you ask them just to pay attention to the first letter or look at the picture, look at the context, you’re drawing their attention away from the very thing that they need to interact with in order for them to read the word [and] remember the word,” Kilpatrick states.

Following the 1999 National Reading Panel, awareness of the importance of phonics grew and an urgency to improve school systems nationwide arose. Resulting from the increased attention to phonics research, many advocates of whole language instruction decided to compromise. After a Congress-led national panel convention that ultimately backed the scientific evidence in 2000, a seemingly new teaching style was formed. “Balanced literacy” claimed to combine instruction of phonics with three-cueing. In practice, however, so-called balanced literacy curricula continues to primarily promote the MSV techniques and a “whole language” approach to reading.

“There’re different ways of figuring out the word, but only one of them is reading. And what we know about reading is skilled readers, beginning readers who go on to be skilled readers, use letters and sounds to figure out words,” said Steve Dykstra of the Wisconsin Reading Coalition in an interview with Amanda Quintana and News 3 Now .

When given both options—sounding out or guessing—students with more innate skill usually recognize the positive attributes of phonics, overlook the three-cueing methods, and develop strong reading skills despite the flawed teaching style. On the other hand, students who are less proficient often choose to use the three cues because it seems easier in the beginning. However, as time goes on, their reliance on contextual cues often causes stunted reading development. As pictures leave their books and they face more complex words, such children lack the crucial phonics skills that would help them decipher their texts. Hence, when students who have fallen behind in reading finally reach middle and high school, they are left even farther behind and labeled as incompetent and often seen as a lost cause.

Literacy and the Achievement Gap

Despite the defective literacy methods embedded in many school systems, some families are able to overcome the lack of helpful instruction. These are the families that can afford to hire private reading tutors or other out-of-school time supports for their children. While these children manage to become proficient and perform well on assessments, such extracurricular opportunities and luxuries are not available to students from all financial backgrounds. Students from lower-income families cannot afford to pay for outside tutors and programs when they fall behind.

And that reality often results in persistent achievement gaps. Research demonstrates these gaps in opportunity and achievement can lead to behavior issues, lower expectations, and racial disparities. Madison, one of the last holdouts of the “whole language” approach and well-known for persistent racial achievement gaps, is an example of this all too familiar script.

Such inequality in instructional possibilities remains an example of how achievement gaps happen and how they are perpetuated. Under former superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, Madison schools focused on raising graduation rates, not on examining the science of reading. While reading scores went down, graduation rates went up.

Today, Wisconsin has fallen to rank 34th in the country for fourth grade reading scores by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and has the largest gap between the scores of white and black students among all the states. Madison’s reading scores for its students of color are among the worst in our state. Proficiency in reading and writing is the basis for all continuing education. Therefore, leveling the playing field for all students, applying the most effective teaching methods, and using high-impact out-of-school time programs will support our schools and the dedicated teachers who work in those schools.

Most Americans agree that all students deserve the education they need to reach their full potential. Wisconsin law and the United States Constitution guarantee equal access to quality education. The law is clear: that guarantee cannot be abridged based on race or economic background.

[Sources: Emily Hanford ; APM Reports; Education Next; Channel 3000; Isthmus; The Washington Post ]

Wow! Leila this is a very interesting topic seems like there’s a lot of different variables to this issue. More people need to be informed on this topic. – Brandon , MADISON (2020-01-23 16:45)
This article got me very riled up. There is a huge, cancerous issue in our schools. Thank you so much for writing this important article, Leila. Getting the word out is the first step of action. – Kadjata , Madison East High School (2020-01-23 17:14)
I found this article very interesting. I learned a lot of history and science about reading, and it made me realize a lot of things! Thank you! I can't wait to see your next article! – Yoanna , La Follette High School (2020-01-23 17:25)
This is a really good discussion of the issue. Thanks! – Judith FitzGerald (2020-07-02 10:32)
Leila, this is a excellent and thought provoking article and I hope you'll continue to keep your readers up to date. You may not know that Pleasant Frautschi developed a nationally successful, phonics based program, Super Kids, and offered it - free - to any elementary school in Madison that wanted to use it. She was turned down. Kaleem Caire will use her program in his One City Schools. It will be interesting to see the results. Jane – jane coleman , monona (2021-11-01 18:10)