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5 Problems with Using MSV (aka The Three-Cueing System)

The three-cueing system or the multi-cueing system is also known as MSV. MSV stands for Meaning, Syntax and Visual cues, thus the three-cueing system. You may ask, “What is the problem with MSV?” For years a popular reading program (with ties to a renowned university) have been touting the strategy of MSV. I’ll admit it, I was a huge proponent of this strategy until I learned better. As Maya Angelou once said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” This is a judgement free zone so let’s take a look at why using MSV creates more problems than it solves.

The three-cueing method directs teachers to prompt students who aren’t able to read a word to first think about what would make sense (Meaning). If the student guesses incorrectly, then the student is prompted to think of a word that sounds right (Syntax). If the student guesses incorrectly again, then the student is prompted to look at the first few letters (Visual) and say a word that matches those letters. In each case, the student relies on guessing to think of a word that fits the text.

Problem 1 – The Three-cueing Strategy Is Not Efficient

The first problem with using MSV is that it requires the student to use the inefficient guess and check method. It is inefficient because only a small percentage of words guessed are guessed correctly. I attended a workshop given by Louisa Moats and if memory serves, the percentage was only about 14%. Think about this, would you board a plane if you knew it only had a 14% chance of landing successfully and safely? Then why would teachers use a method that only has about a 14% success rate?

Problem 2 – Three-cueing Weakens the Correct Sound to Print Neuronal Pathways in the Brain

As sounds are mapped onto the brain and connected to print, a pathway is formed. Imagine you head into the woods to look for the word dog. Let’s say you look for the word dog 15 times and let’s say that each time you found the word dog on your first try. At the end of 15 attempts, you will have formed a well-trodden path to the word dog.

Now imagine that you head into the woods to find the word dog but each attempt leads you to a different word and only occasionally to the word dog. Your first attempt leads you to the word bog. The next, to the word dig. The next, to the word dug, and so on. After 15 tries, not only will you have NOT formed a well-trodden path to the word dog, you will have created several faint pathways to other words.

That is what happens to the neuronal pathways in the brain when students guess at a word. Solid pathways that lead to the correct word are not are formed, leaving the student to guess each time the word dog is encountered. You’ve seen these weak neuronal pathways in action when a child reads the word correctly on one page, but reads that same word incorrectly on a subsequent page.

Problem 3 – Three-cueing Limits, Rather than Expands, Vocabulary

If the word is unfamiliar to the student (not in their speaking or listening vocabulary), their only choice is to insert a word they do know. For instance, when reading a nonfiction text about bats, the student might come across the word membrane used to describe a thin skin that stretches between finger bones. Membrane may not be a word with which a typical 2nd or 3rd grader is familiar. So, they may insert the word with which they are familiar; member. Because it is a nonfiction text, students won’t have any way to check if that word makes sense or sounds right. They will likely assume that the word member is another word for thin skin.

If, on the other hand, the student has been taught the closed syllable pattern then the syllable mem can be decoded. If the student knows the v-e pattern, then brane can be decoded. And if the student is able to apply syllabication rules, then membrane can be read correctly. Not only has the student read the word correctly, a new vocabulary term has been acquired.

Teaching the six syllable types leads to effective, efficient word solving
Syllabication is an important step in efficient decoding.

Problem 4 – Three-cueing Causes Disfluent Reading

The nature of the multi-cueing system requires that students go through a series of steps to solve for unknown words. Each step takes time and takes the reader’s eyes away from the sentence. Let’s look at the same example from Problem 3 using the three cueing system.

Meaning – First the reader looks at the picture for clues and think of a word that makes sense. If the student is unfamiliar with the word membrane, looking at the picture won’t help the reader solve that word.

Syntax – Think of a word that sounds right. If membrane is not in the student’s working vocabulary, it will be hard for the student to determine if member sounds right or not. They simply don’t have enough background knowledge to determine whether or not member fits in the sentence.

Visual – Does the word look right? Often students are taught to use the first three letters or to look through the word to check. Membrane and member both start with the first three letters and they both contain an r. “It’s close enough for government work,” as a friend of mine used to say.

Having gone through each of the three-cueing steps, the student is no closer to solving the word correctly. Their eyes have darted back and forth from the picture to the sentence and time is ticking.

Problem 5 – Guessing is a Hard Habit to Break

One of the biggest problems with the multi-cueing strategy is that once that habit is formed, it is doubly difficult to undo. Now, not only do students have to learn the code behind the word, they have to unlearn the guess and check strategy. So, why not teach the code in the first place?

Problem Solved – Reading is a Code-based System so Teach the Code

Click on the heading above to read our post about the effectiveness of explicit, sequential cumulative word study.

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