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The Trouble With Common Word Recognition Strategies

Recently, in a facebook group for reading specialists, a post stood out. It was beautifully written to explain issues with commonly-used strategies for early readers. The post had been widely-praised and shared by educators.

I thought it was a gorgeous introduction, as well as a perfect exemplar (more on that below), and deserved to be openly-shared.

The author, Tiffany Peltier, didn’t have her own blog, so I asked if I could republish her post. She said Yes. Woot!

Tiffany spent years as a PreK, K, and 1st grade teacher; today she is working on her doctorate in Educational Psychology.

Tiffany Peltier Explains the Trouble With MSV

“As a reading specialist, have you heard of the 3-cueing system? Do you use meaning, structure (or syntax), and visual cues (MSV), among others, to help kids learn to read?

Have you seen strategies like the photo below? Do you use them with students to help them read words?


I’d like to start a discussion about what these strategies are and how it plays out when we teach reading to our students.

Back in 1967, Ken Goodman, an education professor, proposed a new theory of how children learn to read. Since then, others have used this theory to build their philosophies on, and their writings and/or programs around, such as Marie Clay, Irene Fountas and Gay Sue Pinnell, Jan Richardson, Jennifer Serravallo, and Lucy Calkins, among others.

They created the idea of using leveled texts that start with predictable books in kindergarten. These books include words that are high-frequency and are pretaught, along with new words that can be predicted based on the pictures (”The cow walked in the house. The donkey walked in the house. The horse walked in the house.”) and other words that are front-loaded by the teacher (“This is Bobby and Sophia – can you point to Sophia? Find the word “Sophia” on the page. It starts with the /s/ sound. Good!”)

While this was ensuing, researchers from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, speech/language pathology, and reading (among others), were doing studies on how kids learn to read. They completed studies that suggested the Simple View of Reading was the most robust theory of learning to read, that while skilled readers don’t rely on context to *decode* words, poor readers do, and instead, skilled readers process virtually every letter in the word in order to read. They also found from neuroscience that, in the brain, decoding the word must happen *before* the comprehension of the word.

They realized that the very strategies and leveled readers that teachers had been told by their schools to use (looking at the picture, front loading the words from the book, using context to predict words with the first sound) would actually draw kids’ attention away from what they really need in order to become skilled readers – understanding the complex relationship of the letters and sounds they represent.

Because, when you give a struggling reader a challenging word and the option of predicting based on the picture and context or struggling through decoding every sound, predicting seems much easier. They learn to try to look at the first letter(s) and guess. *Why* take the harder road?

The problem with that is their brains are then not able to store that word efficiently in their sight word bank for easy access for next time (there are two routes to reading — as shown by neuroscience — through automatic word recognition within 1/4 of a second of words stored in a sight word bank and through phonic decoding which takes longer, sounding out the word and then pronouncing it as a whole — words get stored in the automatic sight word bank after going through phonic decoding route 1-4 times in a good reader in 2nd grade).

Students don’t get the full representation of that word transferred to their sight word bank because they didn’t have to struggle through sounding it out. And using the leveled, predictable texts provided by many programs today, kids aren’t *able* to sound them out because many of the words in the book are much too hard and contain phonics patterns they haven’t yet learned (for example, in kindergarten books – c[ow], h[or]se, donk[ey], firef[igh]t[er], etc).

Please feel free to leave questions below… I’d love to hear your thoughts 😊”

Karen’s Note: You can find Tiffany on Twitter if you want to share thoughts and questions.

Additional Reading

You’ll find much more detail on the issues with these strategies in a recent documentary, At a Loss for Words. Pro tip: listen to the audio version… there is nothing quite like hearing people talk about these issues. If you’re short on time, this overview of the documentary is a good read.

I also need to insist that you watch this short “Purple Challenge” video, in which a parent (who is also a researcher) did an unforgettable experiment to show how the guessing approach was not giving her daughter reading skills. It might be the best “explainer” of this issue of all.

Here’s a great blog on the issues by kindergarten teacher Lindsay Kemeny, and another blog that unpacks the issues with MSV, featuring insights from Marilyn Jager Adams.

One question that often comes up: are picture books bad in all circumstances? When is it OK to encourage kids to consider context, such as pictures? Timothy Shanahan penned an excellent blog to answer this FAQ, explaining why context cues are problematic for word recognition, but perfectly sensible for comprehension work.

You can also search #EduTwitter. In social media, educators have discussed the same themes: that the MSV approach interferes with – or even “negates” – the phonics lessons. And it teaches kids bad habit of looking away from words, which reading specialists need to un-teach in order to help kids successfully decode.

Let’s Discuss the Awesomeness of Tiffany’s Post

I love Tiffany’s post so hard. It’s clear and accessible. It assumes no prior knowledge on the part of the reader (other than having seen or used these strategies), so it’s a perfect on-ramp to the conversation about reading instruction issues. We also get a layman’s intro to the concept of orthographic mapping… a complex concept that everyone ought to know.

Also, it’s not judgy! The tone is perfect for helping a reader reflect on his or her practice.

I asked Tiffany whether anything in particular inspired her to write this post. Her response:

“As I was completing my Masters and teaching 1st grade, I first learned of the enormous gap between what researchers know about reading development and instruction and what actually happens in schools. How could we have such a large body of research on how to teach reading effectively; yet, teachers and district leaders not understand these fundamental principles? How could this body of research have existed for decades; yet, outdated methods still rule the majority of popular curricula materials in teachers’ hands? Why doesn’t it seem like anyone is doing anything about this atrocity that affects kids’ futures?

I had wished that I had this knowledge my first year of teaching. I remember, as the year was coming to an end, feeling like I’d failed two of the little ones in my classroom. They were about to leave first grade but were clearly not ready for second grade level texts. I stayed after school a few days a week with them to do what I thought at the time was the best–I had them read leveled books to me. I knew how to do a running record. I didn’t know how to assess their foundational skills. I didn’t know how to pinpoint the phonics patterns in which they needed instruction. And I definitely didn’t understand the importance of phonemic awareness, even though I know now they lacked this underlying skill that had prevented them from spelling words like “hand” and “spot.”

Now, my mission is to close this gap in any way I can. It’s the main reason I’m pursuing my doctorate. I know that teachers want this information. They went to school to learn, use their own time to go to trainings, scour the internet for ideas. Closing the research to practice gap is something that teachers deserve and kids desperately need. I hoped by joining Facebook groups and meeting teachers where they are, I can play a small part in bridging the divide by passing on what I’ve learned.”

Tiffany’s post isn’t the only post by an educator that has inspired me lately. Mark Anderson wrote a superb blog, Learning How Kids Learn to Read, which gives a masterful introduction to reading research. He even includes PD materials, right down to print-ables!

We can all take lessons from Tiffany and Mark on how best to introduce teachers to research – in style and tone.

Today, many teachers are just joining the national conversation about reading instruction, and they deserve our warmest welcome and our clearest on-ramps.

With Gratitude

Thank You to Tiffany for letting me share her words!

She also shared this beautiful image of her family. I thought about using it as the blog header image, but it’s too beautiful to meme. Instead, I’ll close with it, so we can all reflect on the loveliness of the educators who sneak in time after the kids are in bed to share their insights in the social airwaves. ❤️

Keep sharing, y’all.


Published inK–12 EducationLiteracy


  1. Scott Geisler Scott Geisler

    Wow, just wow. I feel honored to be in your respective company, Tiffany and Karen. So well done. Thank you.

    • karenvaites karenvaites

      Thanks for making my day with the kind words!

  2. Cheryl Maddox Cheryl Maddox

    The V in MSV does not refer to the pictures. The VA refers to the visual information in text, a.k.a. letters and sounds. There is a huge misconception around this. As a Reading Recovery teacher for eight years I can attest that at a level C text asking children to look at the picture, make predictions, and guess using the first letter Will not create success for the student. Teaching students how words work, using letters and sounds, moving across words and parts or what creates success for students. Successful Reading Recovery teachers know this. Unfortunately this does not seem to be something that is advocated in Units of Study. It is training teachers to leave out a very important piece in teaching children how to read.

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