Language at the Speed of Sight—On Cueing Systems, Phonemes, Speed Reading, and Sequences of Learning

  • 09 July, 2017

                  A few months ago, I read Mark Seidenberg’s “Language at the Speed of Sight.” Seidenberg is a psychologist who studies reading, and his book is remarkably intelligent, frank, and witty. I think there is an occasional mistake or ambiguity here and there, but overall I was mesmerized.

                  Typically, I don’t do reviews here and don’t intend to today. Instead, I have pulled several incisive quotes from the text that captured my attention (there were many more, I assure you), and I have added comments of my own. I hope you and your colleagues will read these quotes and discuss them, and, perhaps, as a result, some of you might choose to read the whole book—it’s well worth it.

                  As you can see from these quotes, Professor Seidenberg has a great deal of knowledge about reading and a sharp tongue, willing to write the truth, even if it is a truth that some may not like to hear.

                  If you are interested in this book, it is on the recommended book list on my site.

“The 3-cueing theory is the product of teachers with little knowledge of the science working with large numbers of like-minded people, under the influence of a few authorities, constructing accounts of how reading works and children gain literacy. This process yielded an amorphous theory that was compatible with existing beliefs…within the teachers’ comfort zone.” (pp. 303-304)

                  The 3-cueing systems theory is still taught to many teachers and prospective teachers, which is a shame because it is descriptive of how poor readers read rather than how good ones do. The idea that readers use phonological-orthographic, semantic, and syntactic cues to figure out words is the cornerstone of several instructional approaches, and, yet, it fails to describe how good readers actually decode words. I can certainly understand why someone might observe a proficient reader, and then try to teach others to implement those practices and processes that confer proficiency… I just can’t understand why anyone would try to make their students more like the worst readers.

 “The exact number of words per minute is far less important than the fact that this value cannot be greatly increased without seriously compromising comprehension.” P. 71 

                  Seidenberg here is talking about proficient readers—and their average reading times (acknowledging the varied difficulty of different texts, etc.). Essentially he is reminding us something that Ron Carver demonstrated pretty convincingly decades ago—speed reading is skimming and skimming lowers one’s comprehension (despite the claims of the companies that want to teach you to speed read). I paid several hundreds of dollars for speed-reading training when I was in high school. I thought these scams were behind us, but the past few years have seen their re-emergence. Save your money, we are limited in how fast we can read.

“Our knowledge of a word is therefore not very much like a dictionary entry, unless your dictionary is endowed with the capacity to experience the world and track statistics about how often and in what linguistic and nonlinguistic context the word occurs.”  p. 111

                  Vocabulary is extremely important in reading, but part of the statistical knowledge about words that children are learning is grammatical (which tells you what role that word may play in a sentence), cohesive (which links it to other words in a text), pragmatic (which tells you under what circumstances that word might be used), and it carries other knowledge along with it, too. Seidenberg points out that vocabulary knowledge is not like a dictionary entry, and I would add that effective vocabulary instruction is not like teaching dictionary entries—and, yet, most of the vocabulary instruction that I see is pretty much that.

 “For reading scientists the evidence that the phonological pathway is used in reading and especially important in beginning reading is about as close to conclusive as research on complex human behavior can get.” P. 124

                  Seidenberg notes this while complaining about educators whose practices ignore this well-proven fact. To become a reader, one has to develop these phonological paths. There are several ways to do this, but no way has been found to be more effective than explicit decoding instruction (focusing on phonemes—not on cueing systems). Again, why not teach what students need to learn rather than things with no evidence?

"Learning to treat spoken language as if it were composed of phonemes is an important step in learning to read an alphabetic system.” P. 28

                  This wise statement comes right after Seidenberg shows you how difficult it can be to separate out the phonemes (the sounds) within words. We are able to separate phonemes proficiently because of our knowledge of the visible aspects of words—the letters. Thus, it is smart to try to teach kids to perceive the separable phonemes within words, but it is also smart to make this instruction reciprocal with decoding instruction. Instead of trying to reach complete proficiency with phonemic awareness and then turning our attention to decoding, it is more sensible to work on each of them alternately—moving back and forth between them. (Something that Linnea Ehri told me a long time ago).

“Children who struggle when reading texts aloud do not become good readers if left to read silently; their dysfluency merely becomes inaudible. Reading aloud and silent comprehension are causally connected…”  p. 130

                  If you know that, then it should not be surprising that effective fluency instruction typically involves kids in reading texts aloud multiple times, and that such practice improves reading comprehension. Oral reading is an important dimension of reading instruction and things like round robin reading and Popcorn Reading do not provide sufficient practice (and just working on silent reading does not provide appropriate practice).

“Learning to read is a complex problem because multiple overlapping subskills develop at the same time.” pp. 104-105

                  I still find people who believe that young children would best learn to read if we focused on one skill at a time… teach phonemic awareness and once it is accomplished focus on phonics and then when kids can decode sufficiently start working on oral reading fluency, the accomplishment of which should open the way for vocabulary work, and eventually we’d get to reading comprehension. Just as babies/toddlers who are learning language must deal with the phonology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics systems of language simultaneously, it is important that children get support and experience with all of these parallel tracks of reading skills. That means that even when kids are learning their phonics, they are working on comprehension, and so on.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Jul 10, 2017 01:24 AM

I've read the book, so thanks for reminding me of these very important points!

Timothy Shanahan
Jul 10, 2017 01:36 AM

It is a terrific read, Ken. Going through it looking for these reminded me of how much fun it was to read. I could have added a lot of quotes to this list.

Debbie Hepplewhite
Jul 10, 2017 07:15 PM

Thank you for the review, Tim. I've added it to the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction here:

Jul 10, 2017 08:51 PM

What EXACTLY is wrong with the 3 curing systems? I'm baffled!

Jul 10, 2017 08:52 PM

ETA: What exactly is wrong with the 3 CUEING systems? I'm baffled! That is exactly what I have been taught.
Please explain.

Harriett Janetos
Jul 10, 2017 10:11 PM

Language at the Speed of Sight really is an excellent book and explains exactly what is wrong with the 3-cueing system. Thanks for publicizing it.

Here's a short explanation by Marilyn Adams of the main problem with the 3-cueing system. By Marilyn Jager Adams. Visiting Scholar, Harvard University Graduate School of Education. From Adams, M. J. (1998)

First, the three-cueing schematic is sometimes presented as rationale for subordinating the value of the graphophonemic information to syntax and semantics and, by extension, for minimizing and even eschewing attention to the teaching, learning, and use of the graphophonemic system. This interpretation directly contradicts the logical import of the Venn diagram which, by virtue of its structure, asserts that productive reading depends on the inter-working of all three systems. More importantly in the context of instructional guidance for teachers and school districts, such marginalization of the role of spelling to speech correspondences is alarmingly discrepant with what research has taught us about the knowledge and processes involved in learning to read.

Jul 10, 2017 10:15 PM

ETA: What exactly is wrong with the 3 CUEING systems? I'm baffled! That is exactly what I have been taught.
Please explain.

Deb Glaser
Jul 11, 2017 05:08 AM

Loved the book. Thanks for pulling out some of the salient points and discussing them for us. We all need to be open to these very real findings and bring attention to them when instructing our students.

Faith Borkowsky
Jul 11, 2017 01:46 PM

This is an excellent book! Unfortunately, most school districts will not follow the research. Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy and Leveled Literacy Intervention will continue to be used, even for children with severe reading difficulties. Thank you, Tim Shanahan. ~Faith Borkowsky

Harriett Janetos
Jul 11, 2017 04:44 PM

Unfortunately, Faith is absolutely right. Seidenberg's eloquent indictment of our profession and its disconnect with scientific research will fall on deaf district ears if my district is one to judge by. Seidenberg's discussion of the 3-cueing system and other pet theories of how reading works reveals that the educational emperor is not wearing any clothes. Fountas and Pinnell might be naked, but they are laughing all the way to the bank. Tim, you've got more sway than most of us, so keep up the good fight. Thanks!

Jul 11, 2017 07:34 PM

Rather than trying to get inside the brains of natural readers to determine how they read and then try to force that procedure on to those who struggle to learn to read and spell, why not just teach to the strengths of dyslexic students? Phonological knowledge is the most unstable and abstract of the concepts. If you take a meaning first approach and include morphology, etymology, and phonology ( considering phonology last) it gives a framework to hang the phonology on. We spell and read meaning. We spell morphemes using graphemes. Phonemes are created when we speak our language. We all pronounce words differently but we all spell them the same way.

Anna Gill
Jul 11, 2017 10:11 PM

Are you interested in looking at my work? LiP FiT™ Learn to Read where reading, writing, listening and speaking is used in one learning pathway to create fluency in language. Revolutionary***

Anna Gill
Jul 11, 2017 10:14 PM

Are you interested in looking at my work? LiP FiT™ Learn to Read where reading, writing, listening and speaking are used in one learning pathway to create fluency in language. Revolutionary******

Maria Murray
Jul 11, 2017 11:07 PM

It is indeed an amazing book. We are delighted that he will be our keynote speaker at The Reading League's annual conference this October 27! We did a book study and we are ready! We all need to band together and repeat over and over again that the 3 cueing system is debunked. I highly recommend David Kilpatrick's book "Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties." It's engaging and insightful, for a great review from Louisa Moats in the IDA Perspectives because of this, and brings to bear the reasons why the 3 cueing systems remain so popular, and what highly effective instruction consists of. Lucky us in the Reading community! Two amazing books in the span of about a year!

Harriett Janetos
Jul 11, 2017 11:14 PM

I agree that the Kilpatrick book is must reading.

Timothy Shanahan
Jul 12, 2017 03:18 AM


What is wrong with it is that it is a theory that supposedly describes how readers read words, but when tested out against real data on kids reading words we find that it describes how poor readers read... so if you teach kids to try to use semantic and syntactic information to recognize words you are doing harm. Good readers who read words proficiently do not use context to read words (they do use such info to figure out word meanings, but not to read the words themselves).


Skot Caldwell
Jul 12, 2017 12:02 PM

Hello! I don't think English would be acurately described as an "alphabetic system." It is graphomorphemic. Thus, learning phonology exclusive of morphology and etymology must be significantly less effective. Does this author mention these other areas of English orthography?

Harriett Janetos
Jul 12, 2017 06:49 PM

I think historian Daniel Boorstin sums up the current state of reading instruction when he says that "the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge."

Pam Kastner
Jul 13, 2017 02:56 AM

Another excellent source for debunking the three-cueing system is this article by Kerry Hempenstaall - The three-cueing system in reading: Will it ever go away? First published Nov 28 2012 Check it out at:

Jo-Anne Gross
Jul 14, 2017 01:30 PM

What about those publishers,they`ll disseminate the junk all day long.That`s just wrong!
I loved Mark`s book-refreshing candor.

Kilpatrick is the God of explaining orthographic processing!

Stephanie Ruston
Jul 14, 2017 10:50 PM

Skot, Seidenberg does much more than just mention these other areas of orthography. He says morphemes are one of the building blocks of words, and he insists that "An introductory course in linguistics should be a permanent requirement for teaching children."

What are your thoughts on those ideas?

"Educators need to know how language works," says this author. "Basic introductory courses in linguistics cover concepts I’ve mentioned repeatedly: morphology, phonology, syntax, and semantics...This is essential, foundational stuff for teaching."

Here's more on this topic:

Jul 19, 2017 02:32 PM


I loved this book! Thank you for highlighting important points. Might you consider a comment and summary paragraph on the connectionist framework of learning to read as well

Stephen Slates
Aug 08, 2017 02:18 AM

Not sure if you've seen this by Dr. Andy Johnson:

I'd like to know your response to his thinking related to the cueing systems.

Harriett Janetos
Aug 08, 2017 06:11 PM

I've just watched the video. I believe you'll find that there may be "thinking" behind the three-cueing system, but there just isn't solid research to support this "thinking".

Sep 14, 2017 06:02 PM

According to Dr. David Kilpatrick (2015), the three cueing systems model, based on the psycholinguistic
guessing game theory of reading, does not address the needs of struggling readers. It may actually be
counterproductive with such students. It simply reinforces the kinds of habits that naturally occur among
children who struggle in reading. Both Reading Recovery and Leveled Literacy Intervention use the three
cueing systems model. Based on Kilpatrick, weak readers, not skilled readers rely heavily on context and phonics is more efficient for decoding for meaning. For more information, see

Holly Hart
Sep 15, 2017 07:51 PM

Mary, trying to use "cues" to figure out what a word is -- an actual word with its particular meaning -- is like playing charades. In charades you can use all kinds of visual clues to suggest to someone what a particular word or phrase or person's name is, but many mistakes will likely be made before the person guesses the correct word or phrase, and they only end up knowing that they have guessed the correct word or phrase because the person providing the clues says "you've got it!" A reader cannot rely on having someone there to confirm that they have accurately identified a particular word. There can be many words that would "make sense" in a particular sentence in a particular text -- that are consistent with all of the cues -- but that have very different or even diametrically opposed meanings. Having said that, the larger point is that there are no empirical studies that show that students taught cue strategies for decoding words succeed in becoming fluent readers by virtue of such strategies, whereas there are many excellent empirical studies that show the efficacy of teaching students word attack strategies that include explicit phonemic awareness.

Holly Hart
Sep 15, 2017 08:33 PM

Shawna, how do I use morphology and etymology to teach a NEW reader how to read simple, common words without first teaching that letters stand for sounds? Yes, we can tell new readers that some letters stand for more than one sound, and some letters together stand for a particular sound rather than representing a sound individually in certain words. Some letters stand for only one sound, which is why Orton-Gillingham and other phonics methods tend to teach those letters first, such as m, f, b, in commonly used words that young students would be the most familiar with. And why only words with "p" are studied before words with "ph" are tackled. And why letters standing for vowels are first taught in words where they are pronounced as short vowels. The initial problem with dyslexic students is that it is difficult for them to learn to recognize that a particular squiggle of lines is a particular letter that they should associate with any particular sound. They can see CAT written in book after book with pictures of cats, and when asked what word that is written on the board, they may not be able to vocalize it in the absence of a picture. So how can you teach students how to read words like cat, bat, flat, rat, dog, hog, log, fog, etc. using morphology? Or etymology? How does it help a student to know what PIE word any of those Anglo-Saxon or Germanic words was derived from? Or how those words may appear to compound words or as bases of other words like dogged? If they cannot read dog, they certainly cannot read dogged or flattened or foggy, and knowing that those words are related will in no way help them to read the base words. They are nouns, so the grammar is an easy lesson, but knowing that they are nouns and discussing their typical placement in a sentence does not in any way help a student to be able to read the letters on the page or on the board. I love etymology and linguistics, and I love to discuss these with students. But don't they first have to be able to read the majority of common words that in fact conform to the most common spelling patterns? And once they are fluent with those, they will be better able to understand when they are taught about "ph" making the same sound as "f" in words of Greek origin most often encountered in technical or scientific texts. But let's start with how to pronounce "f" as it is pronounced in almost all words. Then we are ready to note the sound of "f" in "of", which we do early in teaching only because "of" is such a common word that children need to be able to read to make sense of even simple texts, and need to be able to write to create even simple texts.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Language at the Speed of Sight—On Cueing Systems, Phonemes, Speed Reading, and Sequences of Learning


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.