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K-2 Skills Cueing Systems

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    EL Education

EL Education has recently received a number of questions about the cueing systems introduced in the Reader’s Toolbox routine introduced in the EL Education K-2 Reading Foundations Skills Block curriculum.

The EL Education K-2 Reading Foundations Skills Block is a structured phonics program grounded in the Phase Theory of Dr. Linnea Ehri, which describes behaviors related to the types of letter-sound connections students are able to make as they learn to read and write. The Skills Block is one hour per day, divided into two major chunks:

  • 15–20 minutes: Whole group instruction in which students practice and apply visual cues using decodable texts.
  • 40–45 minutes: Differentiated small group instruction (including independent work time), in which students receive instruction at their specific microphase based on a decoding and spelling benchmark assessment.

The EL Education curriculum encourages students to first attend to the visual cues of a word (the actual letters and spelling patterns in the word). One hundred percent of instructional time (both whole and small differentiated group) and assessments in the first three quarters of the Kindergarten year focus on the visual cueing system in order to ensure that students are learning to “crack the code.” As our Grades K-2: Reading Foundations Skills Block Resource Manual outlines: 

What may seem counterintuitive is that research indicates that, rather than focusing students on meaning first (as many of us learned in our teacher education programs), the most efficient way for readers to solve an unknown word is to use the visual cueing system: to notice the letters or word parts in the word and decode based on knowledge of the sounds that match each letter. In fact, relying too heavily on meaning and structure, which encourage students to predict a word rather than actually decode it, may impede students’ ability to solve unknown words in more complex text if the student does not have strong foundational skills. That is why the Skills Block heavily emphasizes the visual cueing system.

In response to the questions about the meaning cueing system outlined in the Reader’s Toolbox routine, this routine is only introduced in small group differentiated time during the final quarter of Kindergarten, when:

  1. Students are starting to attempt to read texts that are not controlled for decodable words (often outside of structured phonics instructional time).
  2. Students may be able to decode words in a text but are not be able to comprehend the meaning.

The aim of the strategies introduced are to ensure students can continue to read and understand a text, rather than being prevented from moving forwards because the spelling patterns are irregular or haven’t been taught yet, resulting in frustration.

Once introduced, the Reader’s Toolbox routine is referred to once per week, during small group differentiated instruction, and therefore amounts to only 5 percent of instructional time, with the remaining 95 percent of the time spent continuing to focus on visual cueing.  As our Grades K-2: Reading Foundations Skills Block Resource Manual explains:

Although students should be taught to first attend to the visual cues of a word (the actual letters and spelling patterns in the word), the other cueing systems are necessary tools in a “reader’s toolbox” when he or she is reading a text that is not controlled for decodable words.

So, a student should be encouraged to first look at the visual cues of the word, but if they determine that it is “undecodable” (because either the spelling patterns are irregular or haven’t been taught yet), then they can attend to the meaning or syntax cues available to them to solve an unknown word.

The teaching notes in Grade K, Module 4; Cycle 19: Lesson 97 in which the Reader’s Toolbox routine is introduced clearly emphasize to teachers:

Always encourage the students to first use all of the visual cueing system they can to solve a word and only then to use the other tools in their toolbox.

The lesson directions instruct teachers to open the routine by saying the following to students to focus them on visual cueing:

When a reader comes to a word they don’t know, there are tools the reader can use to try to figure out the word. We have been learning a lot about the most important tool we have as readers: looking at the letters in a word and saying the sounds that match each letter. This is the most important tool because as we learn more and more letter sounds and spelling patterns, the more words we will be able to read quickly. 

The teacher then models only looking at the picture when he/she has identified that there are unfamiliar spelling patterns in the word. The teachers closes the routine with the following:

Notice that I first tried using our most important tool, looking at the letters. When that didn’t help enough, then I used the picture clues tool also to help me figure out the word.

The function of this cue also supports the recommendation outlined in The Use of the Context Cues in Reading, referenced in the transcript of ‘At a Loss for Words’ by Emily Hanford (reference 44):

“The use of context in comprehension refers to something quite different from the use of context in word identification… The use of context to aid comprehension should be consistently encouraged by teachers, although some contexts are more helpful than others for this purpose… Use of context to determine word meanings also must be accompanied by a program of direct instruction in vocabulary, as use of context will be insufficient for many children to acquire all the word meanings they need and is often especially inefficient for the children who need it most (i.e., weak comprehenders).”

EL Education is committed to continuing to review and revise curriculum materials in line with the latest research, and are currently reviewing the timing of the introduction of the Reader’s Toolbox routine.