Smoke signals in reading education

What is with the spate of articles about changes in reading instruction?

There’s been a lot of press about reading instruction lately. Is is just interpretations of puffs of smoke or is there something more important happening?

Writing in Ed Week, Sarah Schwartz reported about anticipated changes in some widely used early literacy programs that would de-emphasize teaching young children to use “multiple cues” in decoding (Schwartz, 2021). Ms. Schwartz’s article is one of several reports that examine tension between different points of view in what has often been described as “the great debate” (Chall, 1967) or “the reading wars” (Silverman, 2019).

Because I’m opposed to metaphors that refer to “fights,” “battles,” “wars,” and similar references to violence, I hope to use different language; but here I often quote the authors.

The disagreement about reading

The tension in early reading, which was aptly captured in Hanford’s series for American Public Media, is about whether early or beginning reading instruction should promote fundamental skills (letters and sounds; “phonics”) or higher-order skills (enjoying reading; getting the author’s ideas). Advocates of the latter argue that reading is, fundamentally, getting meaning from text—don’t focus on the print details as long as you believe you understand the author’s message. Advocates of the former argue that to understand an author’s argument, you must be able to covert her squiggles into language—to hear her speak.

Disagreements between these perspectives have become polemic. Advocates of one view disparge the advocates of the other view. For example, should educators promote “word calling?” Advocates of the other view argue that the their detractors are promoting guessing rather than decoding (“you’re telling kids to guess about this word”)

So, this polemic is probably an important part of the debate. Not only is the “great debate” about how to teach reading, it’s also predicated on using language that disparages advocates of alternative perspectives: “Let me characterize your argument in a disparaging way.” (I hope to avoid continuing that approach in this post.)

Recent news

Ms. Schwartz’s article connects with her previous reporting on the topic of the “three cueing” methods taught to huge percentages of children in the US as well as other articles about the topic. Among curricula adopted by US schools, the leaders (i.e., those curricula used by more schools than others) are those that recommend the three-cueing system (Schwartz, 2019).

In a nationally representative survey, the Education Week Research Center asked K-2 and special education teachers what curricula, programs, and textbooks they had used for early reading instruction in their classrooms.

The top five include three sets of core instructional materials, meant to be used in whole-class settings: The Units of Study for Teaching Reading, developed by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, and Journeys Into Reading, both by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. There are also two early interventions, which target specific skills certain students need more practice on: Reading Recovery and Fountas & Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention.

There can be little doubt that cognitively, readers have many cues or Sds, etc. when they encounter a word or words while reading. And, I’d agree that competent readers adjust their reading on the basis of multiple features of what they are reading.

What cues? Well, competent readers translate the letters of words to their spoken representations very quickly. But sometimes, particularly in the cases of homographs, the pronunciation will be ambiguous. If there is ambiguity readers can resolve it using their language knowledge (“Wait, is that the right word? Oh man, I bet that’s ‘read’ like in ‘reading,’ not ‘read’ as in ‘well-read’”), and this happens in milliseconds. From context one can deduce the pronunciate for “wind” (“Golly! Is that the one that one that rhymes with ‘kind’ or with ‘finned?’”), or “lead” (“Sheesh! Which one is this? The one about metal or the one about showing someone the way?”).

In teaching children to use the three-cuing method, teachers encourage beginning readers to approach the pronunciation of printed words by solving problems about pronunciation by considering, in order, (a) semantic cues, (b) syntactic cues, and (c) orthographic cues.

  1. Semantic cues, which are based on the meaning of the content being read, may come from both a reader’s general background knowledge and what knowledge she has gained from the current content. The rationale for treating semantic cues as most important is that reading is about getting meaning, so students should use their already highly developed understanding of their world and language, along with what they have learned so far, to develop a guess about the identity of any given word that they see.

  2. Syntactic cues refer to knowledge speakers have about the structure of sentences and the sequence of words in a language (English in this case). Given that even young children usually are capable of speaking their language, they can anticipate what kind of word (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) would fit with the content that they have just read and refine their guess about the identity of the specific word they are reading.

  3. Orthographic cues are those that are contained in the letters and the sequence of those letters in words. Perhaps because they consider learning orthography too difficult for young children, advocates of three-cueing systems, whole language, and balanced literacy often consider orthographic cues the least useful for reading, and they limit instruction to having students look at the first letter (and perhaps the length of the printed word) when using orthographic cues.

The three-cueing system is a mainstay of “balanced literacy” and a view that grew out of “whole language.” Much of the basis for the three-cueing (and balanced-literacry and whole-language) approach to reading is predicated on the very widely cited works by Goodman (e.g., 1967), who called reading a “psycholinguistic guessing game,” and Smith (1973), who argued that prior knowledge, both of the world and what they had just previously read, affected readers’ word reading. Scientists studying reading, criticized these tenets of how people read and learn to read both at the time in the (Peretsky et al., 19xx) when the ideas were being popularized by Goodman and Smith and in more recent analyses (Raynor et al., 2001, 2002).

Remember homographs! Those linguistic cues tell you how to pronounce “sows” (“Oh, man. Is that the one about seeds or the one about pigs?”). But, leaving aside pronunciations by people who speak English in the way of speakers from Great Britan versus those from the United States (“aluminium,” for example), how many words in English have more than one pronunciation despite having the same spelling? It surely isn’t more than 100s out of the 10s of thousands of words that we read (or have read—teehee).

Scientific evidence

Reasonable readers of the scientific literature have known since Chall’s (1967) literature review or even Flesch’s (1955) journalistic analysis that teaching orthographic decoding (what’s often called “phonics”) leads to better outcomes (not just with reading, but also with spelling). Careful and thorough reviews such as the one by Adams (1990) revealed that learners benefitted if they mastered the fundamentals of orthography (what is routinely called the “alphabetic principle”—that the squiggles on the paper represent the sounds we say in our spoken language). Dozens of other analyses have strengthened the scientific basis for teaching early decoding systematically and explicitly.

However, echoing many teacher education programs that rejected the scientific evidence, some early childhood educators clung to the romantic notion, consistent with Goodman’s and Smith’s view, that simply engaging children in “reading” (book tubs, readers’ workshop, etc.) would allow them to develop reading skills independently. Just motivate those kids and they’ll naturally develop reading skills.

That view is probably right for the “high kids,” those who come from privileged backgrounds and would learn to read regardless of what happens in classrooms. But whole language advocates cast it the other way around. The advocates for whole language approaches argued that teaching decoding was preventing traditionally under-performing students (viz, African American students) from the “good” instruction that privileged children were getting (Goodman & Goodman, 1979). Thinking...thinking...thinking: If non- or ineffective teaching is good enough for the advantaged kids, should we give non- or un-teaching (i.e., “IT” meaning “inadequate teaching”) to those kids who don’t have advantages? Still, we shouldn’t deny high kids the opportunity to learn reading well, in part to avoid creating potential instructional casualties—students who develop reading problems because they get IT.

Teaching reading

With the Goodman-Smith view dominant, local and state education agencies bought instructional curricula (sales worth $100s of millions or more) featuring three-cuing and similar whole-language methods. My view of teaching reading contrasts with that view, and is consistent with what I think has emerged over the previous 50+ years of research (Adams, 1990; Chall, 1967; Raynor et al., 2001, 2002).

As I see it, this is the essence of the dispute about early reading instruction: Should educators encourage learners to use their considerable language skills and knowledge to guess about the identity of words or should educators efficiently teach orthographic-level decoding so learners can accurately identify virtually any word that they encounter?

It’s pretty clear to me that the evidence about effective instruction points toward starting with teaching decoding—segmentation of words, blending, phoneme-grapheme relationships, sounding out, and etc. As learners become more competent decoders, they will naturally come to use context and other cues to resolve ambiguous writing.

What about the war?

As for the reading wars? Well, to hell with that controversy. See Barshay (2020) for some good analysis. Pitching reading instruction as a only incorporating either phonics or language is probably providing a false dilemma. Of course children need phonics instruction, and in the early grades this instruction should be systematic and explicit. But phonics is not sufficient to create readers. Children need instruction in how to use features of what they are reading (e.g., context) to resolve comprehension of passages, including those sneaky few instances where they encounter homographs.

I’m glad that authors of widely adopted commercial programs are agreeing that their materials should have more phonics (see the SET editorial of 11 September ). Now the question should be, “how systematic and explicit” that phonics instruction will be. Embedded phonics or discovery phonics doesn’t made the grade. I think that Carnine et al. (2017) provided the most thorough and clear (dare I say balanced?) description of what matters in teaching reading systematically and explicitly.

What’s systematic and explicit?

Systematic instruction is predicated on a big-picture view of a subject, topic, or skill. It presents instruction in such a way that lower-level knowledge and skills fit together in a logical way. It teaches lower-level skills such as grapheme-phoneme relationships in a way that will work for mastering subsequent intermediate- and higher-level skills. For example, with regard to grapheme-phoneme relationships, it makes systematic sense to start with relatively few letter-sound combinations, especially the most useful for forming words so that students can actually read sentences composed of those words. Systematic instruction also moves from easier to more difficult tasks with sufficient practice that mastery is ensured.

Explicit instruction could also be called “student-friendly instruction.” It makes clear to learners what they should do under certain circumstances so that they can be winners. Teachers don’t simply explain what’s important, but they tell the learners what to do (“this letter makes the sound sss”), then they have the learner perform the response (“What’s the sound for this letter [pointing to *s* students answer /sss/]? Yes, /sss/. That’s right”), and they provide? distributed practice for the students (“Hey, what sound [pointing to *s*; students answer /sss/]? /Sss/, that’s right. And what sound for this letter [pointing to *m*; students answer /mmm/]? /Mmm/ is correct!”). They use subtle forms of scaffolding such as using sounds that can be held (e.g., /m/, /r/, /s/, and so forth; as opposed to plosives such as /c/, /d/, /t/ and so forth) during the early stages of blending and sounding out instruction, making it easier to slide from sound to sound. They avoid using patterns that promote mistaken learning of the alphabetic principle (e.g., eccessive rhyming, as in “Tan man can fan Dan!”). They provide dozens or scores of opportunities for kids getting it (whether “it” is a letter-sound or a sounding out procedures) right.

As the foregoing mini-scripts illustrate, teachers use praise (and lots of it) in explicit instruction. But, what if one or more learners make a mistake in responding? Well, that’s not an opportunity to ignore the mistake nor to “come down hard” on the learners. It’s an opportunity say to oneself, “Oh! They haven’t gotten it yet. This is my opportunity to teach!”) and tell them how to get it right and give them another opportunity to get it right.

This is not a complete catalog of explicit and systematic instructional practices. It’s just an illustration. I’ll explain more in a separate post. Stay tuned!

Reading the entire Carnine et al. (2017) book will help people understand systematic and explicit instruction in reading. Also, Blachman and Murry (2012) provided a very good introduction to teaching decoding. It is not only quite clear and accessible, but it is available for free. And, they described systematic and explicit means for promoting early decoding. UT Austin has provided a lot of good resources, one of which addresses explicit instruction (The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, 2021). Readers can also consult the IRIS (n.d.) module on systematic and explicit instruction for more info. Although it’s about math, you can make the transliteration, and it does have some video. Last, but definitely not least, peruse the Resources Hub provided by the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Learning; it links to on-line materials aimed at helping teachers employ practices that are consisten with substantial evidence about effective reading practices.


How do educators and parents who want to see evidence-based instruction help alter the course of instruction? That’s a very big question.

One important part of the big answer for the big question especially is for teachers. For teachers who may not be familiar with systematic and explicit instruction, please understand that it probably is not your fault that you’re uninformed. Way too many teacher education programs have faculty members who are stuck in discovery and anti-phonics modes. My strongest recommendation (and I make $0.00 from this) for teachers is to get the Carnine et al. (2017) book.

Read the Carnine et al. (2017) book. Don’t study it. First, just read it. Compare their recommendations to what your local education agency recommends. Then figure out how to move your instruction in the direction of systematic and explicit teaching of the alphabetic principle (and the other aspects of reading that the book also addresses). For specific examples of systematic and explicit teaching routines, you will be able to go back to Carnine et al., as they provide examples of many different lessons. (By the way, their book is not limited to K-3 reading; as just noted, it has content applicable to way higher grade levels.)

Another important part of the answer would be that parents and educators together should lobby their school administrators and local school boards—the people who sanctify local education agencies’ purchasing decisions—to go for curricula that are consistent with the scientific evidence about promoting reading competence for young children.

  • If an LEA is using a curriculum that does not explicitly and systematically teach the alphabetic principle, call for a curriculum review and raise hell.

  • If an LEA is advocating “implicit” or “discovery” phonics, tell them, “Hey, thanks for coming to church; let me help you find a seat among the systematic-explicit team!”

  • If an LEA is considering purchasing one of two or a few reading curricula, and one is based on three-cuing and one is based on systematic, explicit instruction during the earliest grades on mapping the printed sound system onto students’ language sound stream, go for the latter.

My biggest big-picture recommendation is to skip the contentious talk and get on with teaching kids effectively.


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. MIT Press.

Barshay, J. (2020, March 30). Four things you need to know about the new reading wars. The Hechinger Report.

Blachman, B., & Murry, M. S. (2012). Tutorial #7: Decoding instruction.

Carnine, D. W., Silbert, J., Kame’enui, E. J., Slocum, T. A., & Travers, P. A. (2017). Direct instruction reading (6th ed.). Pearson Prentice Hall.

Chall, J. S. (1967). Learning to read: The great debate: An inquiry into the science, art, and ideology of old and new methods of teaching children to read, 1910-1965. McGraw-Hill.

Flesch, R. (1955). Why Johnny can’t read—and what you can do about it. Harper.

Goodman, K. S. (1967). Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game. Journal of the Reading Specialist, 4, 126-135.

Goodman, K. S., & Goodman., Y. M. (1979). Learning to read is natural. In L. B. Resnick & P. A. Weaver (Eds.), Theory and practice of early reading (vol. 1; 137-153). Erlbuam.

IRIS. (n.d.). What evidence-based mathematics practices can teachers employ? Page 4: explicit, systematic instruction. Vanderbilt University.

Rayner, K., Foorman, B. R., Perfetti, C. A., Pesetsky, D., & Seidenberg, M. S. (2001). How psychological science informs the teaching of reading. Psychological Science in the Public interest, 2(2), 31-74.

Rayner, K., Foorman, B. R., Perfetti, C. A., Pesetsky, D., & Seidenberg, M. S. (2002). How should reading be taught? Scientific American, 286(3), 84-91.

Schwartz, S. (2021, October 13). Popular literacy materials get ‘science of reading’ overhaul. But will teaching change? Education Week.

Schwartz, S. (2019, December 3). The most popular reading programs aren’t backed by science. Education Week.

Schwartz, S. (2020, December 3). Is this the end of ‘three cueing’? Education Week.

Silverman, R. (2019). Reading wars with Rebecca Silverman [podcast]. Stanford University Schools’s In.

Smith, F. (1973). Psycholinguistics and reading. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Smith, F. (1976). Learning to read by reading. Language Arts, 53(3), 297-299, 322.

The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk. (2021). 10 key policies and practices for explicit instruction.