No Room in Ed for the Psycholinguistic Guessing Game

The 3 cueing system is a model used widely in Australian schools to teach reading. It was made famous by Dame Marie Clay and her Reading Recovery program. This approach was the one favoured by my initial teacher education and is still the one favoured by most of the profession.
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I was once one in favour too. Why wouldn’t I be? My whole education at the beginning of my career was in favour of the 3 cueing system, I did not know any better. That was until I left to teach in the UK, where The Simple View of Reading is favoured. My journey to changing my mind was a long one and had a lot to do with the overwhelming evidence for approaches that largely contradict the 3 cueing model and its overarching philosophy – namely, synthetic phonics.

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Last Term, I attended a conference for kindergarten teachers run by a very influential organisation in education. Over 300 kindergarten teachers were in attendance to take part in a variety of workshops on the day, one of which was titled Sparking Joy in Reading.

“Sparking joy” probably should have been my first warning. Whole Language is built on the idea of engagement in the reading process – raising children who fall in love with books. But in my rush of enthusiasm, I never stopped to read between the lines.

The presenter went into an introductory mode, stamping her authority on the situation by narrating her long and successful career before opening with the line “reading’s not just about phonics”. Second warning. No one actually believes reading is just about phonics, that’s largely just rhetoric from whole language detractors of evidence-based phonics approaches.

At this point the well-known Venn diagram of intersecting cues meeting to make ‘meaning’ flashed on the overhead PowerPoint. The next couple of minutes were quite bizarre. Any reasonable presenter may present some supporting evidence for their advocacy of the model they promote, but what she actually leveraged as evidence was very strange indeed. She presented a tree on screen with a bunch of squiggles there to accompany it. We were meant to decipher what the text meant, supposedly just how kids do as they learn to read. Here is an example I created that resembles the slide:

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Through a series of guesses, you can reasonably predict the sentence to be ‘The bird flies to the nest.’ This then was meant to prove that reading isn’t just about phonics. Rather, students call on a range of cues to make meaning.

The activity above is known as the psycholinguistic guessing game. According to Goodman, readers sample from text to formulate hypotheses which readers confirm or disconfirm with subsequent text. Goodman believed reading was a series of guesses and that it is poor readers who pay attention to letter-sound correspondences:

“Accuracy, correctly naming or identifying each word or word part in a sequence, is not necessary for effective reading since the reader can get the meaning without accurate word identification. Furthermore, readers who strive for accuracy are likely to be inefficient”. (Goodman, 1974)

This theory has been overwhelmingly crushed by the science of reading for some 30 years. His theory totally ignores the importance of letter-sound correspondences and that it is, in fact, poor readers who rely on context to read words, not the other way around. This simple fact was confirmed by Charles Perfetti who built on Guy Van Orden and his Van Orden Effect. Seidenberg summarises Perfetti’s finding better than I ever could:

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Highly influential conferences where presenters STILL promote the psycholinguistic guessing game and its related theories despite the overwhelming evidence against them is a complete scandal and should not be allowed to happen. Yet here I was, sitting in a room full of teachers nodding their heads at the convincing and impassioned presentation of the psycholinguistic guessing game. In that moment, I desperately wanted to speak out and challenge such a clear breach of the evidence, but I did not. Why? Because the culture of education is not one of evidence, but ideology – an ideology so perverse that I felt too uncomfortable to confront it.

I did not stand up and voice my opinion on the day, so why now? The reason is two-fold. One, like every other teacher, I care deeply about the children we teach. Even more so considering one in five will fail to read, a statistic inflated due to poor approaches like the 3 cueing system. Secondly, I care deeply about the profession. As I have gotten to know the world of education, the lack of professionalism – the lack of evidence-based practice – has increasingly come to concern me. This, in my opinion, needs to change if we are going to keep any of the dwindling respect in the profession alive. Evidence must triumph over ideology.

It is important for those in favour of evidence to speak up and seriously question practices that are opposed it, both for the students and the profession. 

Goodman (1974) Effective Teachers of Reading Know Language and Children

Seidenberg (2017) Language at the Speed of Sight



3 thoughts on “No Room in Ed for the Psycholinguistic Guessing Game”

  1. As you know, John, I’ve added your great post to the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction with a personal commentary here:

    I hope your readers will visit the IFERI site as there they will find a wealth of research information and commentary about developments in the reading debate around the world.

    Policy shapers, academics, practitioners and parents have come together to do their utmost to move this debate along so that the training the teaching profession receives – and the teaching the children receive – is not merely left to CHANCE. This is totally unacceptable in the field of foundational literacy because the wealth of research and leading edge practice is described in abundance to show what is possible.

    A starting point to looking at the bigger international picture of teaching effectiveness is for England’s Year One Phonics Screening Check (or close equivalent) to be adopted internationally wherever the English language is taught for reading. And that is just a start…

    Teachers, and others, need to know what we can really achieve with evidence-informed reading instruction, so that all teachers become well-equipped and all children are well taught.


  2. Hi John, just discovered your blog, delighted that you are making noise in this area and questioning the status quo. I love this article by Dr Kelli Sandman-Hurley (link below) and I think all primary teachers need to read it as it clearly explains the limitations of some of the ‘whole word’ reading strategies that have become popular through programs such as RR.

    Keep up the great work.


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