A couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference on the science of reading held by John Gabrieli’s lab at MIT. It was, if nothing else, an eye-opening experience—not always in good ways, but certainly in ways that laid bare the problems involved in implementing broad changes to how reading is taught in the United States.
At the reception after the conference, I happened to be introduced to Nancy Duggan, one of the founders of the Massachusetts chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, an organization that advocates for screening and support for dyslexic students. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned one of the stranger reading problems I’d seen among my students—namely, that they had trouble making their eyes follow a line of text from left to right. Instead, their gaze seemed to dart randomly around the page. “Oh,” Nancy said promptly, “that’s the three-cueing system. Kids are supposed to look at just the beginning of the word and then look at the pictures for context clues.”
I was vaguely familiar with the term, but I had never made the connection between it and the reading difficulties I had witnessed in teenagers. I also confess that I did not know that children were actually taught to read in quite this bizarre a manner, or that the three-cueing system had anything to do with it.
Of course I knew that students were encouraged to look at the pictures or at other parts of the text for clues, but I had somehow always imagined that they were instructed to do these things if they could not figure out what a word meant—naively, I assumed that the initial focus was still on all the letters in the word, and that students were taught to look elsewhere afterward. It literally did not occur to me that children could be told to look at just the first letter or two in a word, and then be directed to immediately look somewhere else, before they had even demonstrated any difficulty making the connection between the letters and the word as a whole. That was too far outside the realm of my experience. It was just too illogical. And, quite frankly, too dumb. Who in their right mind would teach someone to read that way?