Knowledge of Cueing Systems

What happens when a skilled reader reads? Effective readers draw on three main cueing systems for predicting meaning in text. They integrate and cross-check their knowledge of the world around them, their knowledge of the structures of spoken language, their knowledge of sound-symbol relationships, and their ability to see visual similarities and patterns in words.


The 3 Cueing Systems

One of the most popular and widely referenced models for word recognition is the Three Cueing Systems model, which includes: the semantic system (What does language mean?); the syntactic system (How are words put together?); and the phonological system (How is meaning communicated through sounds?) (Pinnell & Fountas, 1998). As teachers develop understandings about these three systems, they are better able to support students working to become literate. The use of pragmatic cues refers to readers' understanding of how text structure works and their purpose for reading. To expand students' knowledge of written language in its various uses, the teacher needs to:

graphic of cueing system (3 intersecting circles, each represents semantic, snytactic, graphophonic cues that lead to meaning


Semantic System (What does language mean?)

The semantic system focuses on meaning. Much of the study within this system focuses on the meaning of words. When we listen to others speak, our brains sort what we hear into meaningful units. Similarly, when we speak, we produce meaningful units of speech with the aim that others will understand us. Most commonly, we would think these meaningful units are the words (the lexicon) of the language. 

Actually, the smallest unit of meaning is called a morpheme. Free morphemes and bound morphemes are the building blocks of vocabulary. Free morphemes can stand-alone as words (e.g., base words and root words), and bound morphemes must be attached to other morphemes to make a word (e.g., prefixes and suffixes). Knowledge about the meaning of words means more than just learning the meaning of individual words. Meaning includes understanding categories of words. Some of the categories that add depth of meaning are parts of speech (i.e., nouns, verbs, and adjectives), compound words, synonyms and antonyms, homonyms, idioms, and words with multiple-meanings.

The study of meaning in language extends beyond the word level. The semantic system includes the study of words, phrases, sentences, discourse and whole text (Harris & Hodges, 1995). As we learn language, first orally, then applied to reading and writing, we are internalizing an entire rule-governed system that allows us to understand and generate unique expressions of language.


Syntactic System (How are words put together?)

The syntactic system encompasses the rules and principles speakers of a language use to produce and understand language. The speakers of a language do not need to be able to identify the rules overtly or explain them. As speakers of a language gain proficiency in the language, they demonstrate knowledge of the rules through their ability to communicate. Syntax is the study of how sentences are formed and of the rules and principles that enable sentence formation. As children gain the ability to communicate in phrases and sentences, they develop syntactic awareness. Syntactic awareness is developed for both oral and written language. It is the awareness that enables a speaker to determine whether the spoken or written communication sounds correct according to internalized usage criteria associated with the rules and principles of the syntax.


Graphophonic or Phonological System (How is meaning communicated through sounds?)

The phonological system refers to the sounds of the language. Phonological awareness refers to the ability to identify, think about, and manipulate sounds without using text. Children learn to talk without being consciously aware of individual phonemes (category of speech sound; smallest unit of speech sound). Phonemic awareness -- the ability to identify, think about, and manipulate individual sounds in words -- is critically important as children move into the emergent reading and writing stage of literacy development. Children with developing phonemic awareness begin to understand the concept of word and that words are made up of sequences of sounds. They become aware that words can have similar beginning, middle and/or ending sounds, and they gain the ability to identify and manipulate sounds within words. As children develop their phonemic awareness, they ready themselves for literacy development in connecting sounds to written symbols (graphemes). [The phonological system is explained in great detail in Lesson 5.]

Marilyn Yager Adams (1998) presented an argument about the overuse of the three-cueing systems. According to Adams (1998), "the three-cueing schematic is sometimes presented as rationale for subordinating the value of the graphophonernic information to syntax and semantics and, by extension, for minimizing and even eschewing attention to the teaching, learning, and use of the graphophonernic system."

Adams (1998) stated that many educators "had been operating on the belief that the semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic cues were straightforward and familiar to children, and, because of this, were wholly available for use in finessing the graphophonernic system, which was complicated and unfamiliar. It had never occurred to them that there was much to teach or learn about the semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic cues involved in skillful reading. What I was saying must have been totally disorienting to these people."

Adams (1998) stated that the message teachers have received is that they should minimize attention to phonics lest it compete with comprehension. She concluded with "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." For the complete argument on the overuse of the three-cueing systems, see this site.

Read This

Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction by Donald Bear, Marcia Invernizzi, Shane Templeton, and Francine Johnston (2000) helps teachers address the needs of all readers and spellers by setting out a clear way to find each student's developmental level, then providing the best methods for teaching to that level.

Chapter 1 PDF [PDF: 30 pages / 428k] provides an introduction to the importance of word study. Word study teaches students to examine words to discover the regularities, patterns, and rules of English orthography needed to read and spell, while increasing specific knowledge of words. As you read this chapter and review the developmental levels chart PDF [PDF: 2 pages / 88k] , you will see why it is critical to differentiate instruction for students as they move through the developmental levels of word knowledge.

The complete text goes on to fully describe each developmental stage, as well as the most appropriate word study teaching methods for each stage. Also included are picture sorts, word sorts, word lists, and game boards for use in each of the different stages.

To purchase a complete copy of Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction, or for information on other Merrill literacy texts that can support you in the classroom, please visit Merrill Education's online bookstore.

For more information, please contact Merrill Marketing.


Watch the All About Sounds video on the Florida Center for Reading Research website. Provided by a speech and language pathologist, this video presentation reviews the correct pronunciation of consonants and vowels in standard English. Click on Screening and Progress Monitoring (DIBELS) to see the Sounds of Standard English video.
More videos: rhyming syllables counting sentence segmentation


Try This

Want to have some fun? Try this Cloze activity and review the structure of language while you’re at it!


Page 3 of 11 click here to go forward one page click here to go back one page

FORPD Homepage |
Copyright © 2011 by the Florida Department of Education,
University of Central Florida and State College of Florida. All rights reserved.