“The Cue to Reading” Series (Article 2): Cueing Into a Problem / The Most Important Cueing System in Reading

What Is The Most Important Cueing System In Reading?

When I ask this question in training sessions (typically for highly experienced teachers), the response from 90% of them is, “Visual!” Then, I open my PowerPoint and display this message:

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdgnieg. It is the phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid! Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in what order the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig, huh???

Some people do not even notice the dozens of spelling errors in this message right away. When they do, they are shocked at how well they can read this paragraph. If our brains relied as much on the visual cueing system as we typically think, we would have to labor through each word to “reinterpret” it in our minds. Instead, most people can read this almost effortlessly.

This passage actually went viral through email several years ago, so I do not know who wrote it. However, the readability is about SO MUCH MORE than the “first and last letters being in place.” When they reference the “phenomenal power of the human brain,” they are referencing the other two cueing systems. While reading this paragraph, the grammatical and contextual cueing systems are actively helping us anticipate words, making reading much more efficient than if we were strictly relying on visual cues.

This example also explains why we, as adult and highly proficient readers, make “mistakes” when we read simple text. Our brains use the grammatical or contextual cueing systems to anticipate words before our eyes ever see them. Once our eyes see the words, we occasionally find that a word was different than we expected, or written in a different order. Hence, the mistake. For example, while reading to my son tonight, I read this sentence out loud: “As he said it so crossly that she knew there was not the least use in staying another minute.”

I wasn’t expecting to reach the end of that sentence as quickly as I did. I was waiting for something to explain what happened “As he said it so crossly…” I was confused when I saw the period at the end of that sentence instead of a comma. I reread the sentence and discovered it went like this: “And he said it so crossly that she knew there was not the least use in staying another minute.”

Much better! (This is an example of the grammatical cueing system at work.)

The Visual Cueing System Is Only 1/3 Of the reading Equation!

Traditional instruction focuses primarily on teaching phonics. Over the last decade or two, the “whole language” movement brought more comprehension strategies to the classroom and ignored phonics. Then, “balanced literacy” entered the picture that taught both phonics and comprehension. However, even in a balanced literacy classroom, the assessment process is aligned with a linear view of reading; one that assumes the process of learning to read begins with decoding and ends with comprehension. It is as if learning to read is as straightforward as walking a tight-rope…from one narrow end, straight to another.

Cueing Into a Problem

Over the last several years, I’ve read to my son nearly every night and his reading comprehension has always been strong. As he started bringing home “leveled readers” from school, I noticed he would labor through fairly simple words. It was evident that reading was painful for him and, quite frankly, he sounded like a train-wreck! Amazingly, however, he would finish the book and could answer every question I asked about the content. There were times when I was wrong about certain facts and he would challenge me, turning straight to the exact page of the book to prove I was mistaken. His comprehension was quite remarkable!

One day, in preparation for parent-teacher conferences, I did a formal reading assessment on Mark. I determined that his fluency (verbal accuracy while reading out loud) on a specific passage for his grade- level was 82%. This is very low! To give you an idea of how to interpret this score, here is a widely accepted break-down of fluency rates:

  • 95-100% is considered a proficient, independent reading level.
  • 90-95% is considered an instructional reading level. This is the level teachers will chose to help developing readers grow and progress, however it is expected that students will need comprehension support from their teacher.
  • 89% or less = Too difficult! Reading with this level of fluency is expected to be too frustrating, even with assistance from a teacher.

With a fluency score of only 82%, conventional wisdom would say that Mark should not have understood anything he read in this passage. In fact, the test instructions say to immediately stop the assessment if the fluency rate is less than 90% and start another, lower level, passage. But, I proceeded with the comprehension portion of the assessment.

Mark scored 100% on the comprehension test!

This is completely backwards to anything anyone would expect…unless you understand the power of the other two cueing systems!

When you understand that the visual cueing system is truly only 1/3 of the equation, your mind becomes open to other possibilities. I knew Mark had a strong vocabulary and strong comprehension skills. While he was stumbling through words at a painfully slow rate, he was still catching some words and simultaneously weaving them together to make meaning out of his reading. It was actually quite impressive!

The Parent-Teacher Conferance

We met with Mark’s reading teachers in March of 1st-grade and they informed me that he had not grown one reading level since September. “He can sound out words, but he cannot comprehend,” they said. I had a visceral reaction to their assessment of his reading abilities! After six months of working with my son in very small groups, they clearly did not know him.

The problem was, his reading fluency did not allow him to move up to higher levels, so he was stuck reading low-level books that use very short words in highly unnatural short sentences. These books provided very few context cues. Since he could not read higher levels with a fluency rate of at least 95%, this low level was considered the best of his ability.

The Wide Open Secret

As I mentioned last week, the cueing systems are not a big secret, yet they are widely ignored, misunderstood, or simply underutilized. Had my son’s teachers been equipped to a do a “miscue analysis,” they would have likely drawn a completely different conclusion of his reading abilities.

Next week, I will provide specific details about a miscue analysis: what it is, how it works, and why it is so powerful. (I know…I promised that for this week, but this article was growing too long!)

-Susan Kruger


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