Look at the Forest not the Trees:
Abysmal Literacy Curriculum Failure
Ontario will ‘revamp’ its approach to literacy after a scathing report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission revealed that 26% of all Grade 3 students and 19% of all Grade 6 students fall short of meeting provincial standards. Shockingly this data was gathered pre-pandemic (2018-2019), which begs the question how disastrous literacy levels are after two years of interrupted schooling.
What does the report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission reveal about the state of literacy in our schools?
The state of literacy in Ontario schools is dismal. Not only are 1/4 of 3rd Graders and 1/5 of 6th Graders failing to meet reading standards, but over half (53%) of special education students did not meet the standards . Furthermore, students are not being effectively screened for reading difficulties and teachers are not using ‘evidence-based’ approaches to instruction. However, the report points a clear finger at the “three-cueing system” as one of the main culprits as to why students are failing to learn to read (see news article here; see full report here).
What is the ‘three-cueing’ system that is at the core of this literacy failure?
The Province of Ontario has pulled the plug on the ‘three-cueing’ system, which instructs students to guess and predict words using clues from context and prior knowledge. Using context and prior knowledge are helpful practices, but not as the initial step before even trying to decode the word. This is where a Erica Meltzer justifiably asks: Who in their right mind would teach someone to read in that way? In The Three-Cueing System and Its Misuses (or: The Biggest Problem in Reading Instruction You’ve Never Heard of), she makes clear how some very basic ideas of using phonics, context, and syntax as a joined system have become warped into a backward pretzel logic where ‘children are taught that reading means ignoring letters that are actually on the page’. The info graphic was originally intended to illustrate how this interlocking system can help students make meaning out of a text, but has instead been misinterpreted by educators and teachers who propagated the idea that this is how text should be decoded. In other words, students are taught to use the text to figure out the meaning of the words. Wow.
Look at the forest not the trees?
Not only are students being taught using a profoundly misunderstood method, but parents are encouraged to follow this approach to support their struggling readers at home, turning to phonics only if absolutely needed. One researcher who stands at the forefront of promoting the ‘three-cueing’ system, is whole language educator Regie Routman, who came to the conclusion that phonics comes after a student has learned to read effectively. She came to this ‘insight’ by noting that strong readers have a firm grasp of phonics stating the following: “It has become crystal clear to me – and it has taken about ten years to come to this understanding – that children learn phonics best after they can already read. I am convinced that the reason our good readers are good at phonics is that in their being able to read they can intuitively make sense of phonics”. Really? Maybe it took ten years to ignore the strikingly obvious: these readers are strong because of phonics! Literacy research demonstrates clearly, and unambiguously, that “becoming a good reader depends on understanding and using spellings and spelling-sound correspondences, and, conversely, that poorly developed knowledge or facility with spellings and spelling-sound correspondence is the most pervasive cause of reading delay or disability” (Rack, Snowling, & Olsen, 1992; Stanovich, 1986).
Research has shown that the approach of guessing unknown printed words with multiple unreliable activities (e.g. looking at pictures, word shape, first letter etc. ) are indeed damaging to the development of reading. The emphasis on the ‘three-cueing’ system dilutes and distracts from effective phonics instruction:
If the intended message of the three-cueing system was originally that teachers should take care not to overemphasize phonics to the neglect of comprehension, its received message has broadly become that teachers should minimize attention to phonics lest it compete with comprehension. If the original premise of the three-cueing system was that the reason for reading the words is to understand the text, it has since been oddly converted such that, in effect, the reason for understanding the text is in order to figure out the words. How did this happen?Marilyn Jäger Adams: The Three Cueing System (the origins – and the tragedy described in the summary)
Do parents have any idea that this is going on?
Throughout the ‘three-cueing system’ reign, which was introduced in Ontario in 2006, parents and teachers were viewed as a major reason for students’ over-reliance on graphophonic cues. “Let’s all work together to avoid the phrase, ‘sound it out’!” was a reproducible letter published by Routman to help steer parents away from helping their children with phonics instruction. Fortunately this bizarre entreaty, along with his son’s insistence that he was ‘not to sound words out’, triggered alarm bells for MIT linguistics professor David Pesetsky. He ultimately was able to confirm that this ‘phonics-last’ approach was indeed reflected in his state’s literacy framework and took decisive action.
The result was the famous letter from 40 linguists and psycholinguists to the Massachusetts Secretary of Education. The focus of the linguists’ protest is the document’s promotion of the view that “the decoding of written words plays a relatively minor role in reading compared to strategies such as contextual guessing. This treats the alphabetic nature of our writing system as little more than an accident, when in fact it is the most important property of written English.” They conclude: We are concerned that the Commonwealth, through its powers to set standards for schools, should presume to legislate an erroneous view of how human language works, a view that runs counter to most of the major scientific results of more than 100 years of linguistics and psycholinguistics. We are even more concerned that uninformed thinking about language should lie at the heart of a “standards” document for Massachusetts schools. This letter, which included highly renowned signatories, was responsible for the retraction and rewriting of the state’s language arts framework to acknowledge the importance of phonics instruction in literacy development.
In Ontario, the Human Rights Commission Report was the instrument of change. The province now states mutely that it will end the ‘three-cueing system’ and will overhaul the language curriculum with a ‘focus on phonics’ and other instrumental support for students.
What can parents do to help their child read?
This Human Rights Commission Report should act as a resounding wake-up call to all parents who have been relying on the school system to teach their child how to read. It is a dismal failure for many. There are gaping inconsistencies in identifying children with reading difficulties and a lack of evidence-based reading assessments. The report recommends screening students twice a year for potential reading problems. Twice a year? As a parent I find that sorely lacking.
Whether you are a homeschooler or not, teaching your child how to read is fundamental and one of the most essential gifts your can provide your child.
- Read to your child – see here for suggestions on what books to read
- Read with your child – see here for suggestions on what to read.
- Use books, not tablets, when reading. Children learn better and encode words more deeply when holding a tangible book.
- Any parent can teach their child to read. It is doable and there are countless, excellent resources to that make your task easy. Start here:
This is a scripted open-and-go program and was developed for busy parents, teachers, and tutors who want to teach reading in the most effective way possible. We have used All About Spelling“>All About Spelling for all our children and have found it to be superbly effective. A veteran homeschool mother put me on to this program after years of trying different methods.
- Research-based multisensory instruction with lightly scripted lessons that give results with only 20 minutes a day
- Proven, mastery-based program that covers phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension ensuring no gaps in learning
- 20 Best Tips“>20 Best Tips for Teaching Reading and Spelling – free e-book
Or give this classic a try:
Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy LessonsTeachYourChild100Lessons“> -We used this classic (which has sold over 1 million copies) to teach all three of our children to read. If you would like to start this with a younger child, you can divide the lessons into even shorter chunks of 10-min each. Keep in mind your child’s readiness for learning; it is better to offer a very brief lesson with a feeling of success and satisfaction, rather than pushing through and ending in frustration.
Disclaimer: Yes, I am an affiliate – but have used the program for years, and can vouch for countless families I have met over the years who have loved it too!
Adams, M. J. (1998). “The Three-Cueing System.” In F. Lehr and J. Osborn (Eds.), Literacy For All Issues In Teaching And Learning, pp. 73-99. New York Guilford Press.