In classrooms across Oklahoma and the nation, students are taught to read using a theory that has been discredited by decades of research by brain scientists.

This “three-cueing system,” first proposed in 1967, is pervasive in reading instruction and curriculum. Students are instructed to use strategies that include memorizing words, using pictures on the page to decipher a word and skipping words they don’t know.

Teaching these strategies actually makes it harder for kids to learn to read, studies show. Yet many educators and parents don’t realize there’s anything wrong with it, according to a documentary project from American Public Media’s APM Reports.

Debates over how reading should be taught have raged for decades. The three-cueing theory formed the basis for “whole language,” which took hold in the 1980s even though countless studies have favored explicit phonics instruction for all kids. Another approach used is “balanced literacy,” described as a mix of phonics instruction and whole language, but it still relies on three-cueing.

Oklahoma fourth graders scored below the national average in reading on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card. Oklahoma’s scores actually slipped in 2017 compared to 2015.

With APM’s documentary drawing new attention to the issue among parents and educators, Oklahoma Watch spoke with Melissa Ahlgrim, reading sufficiency director for the state Department of Education about reading instruction in Oklahoma. Her responses are edited for clarity and brevity.

Melissa Ahlgrim

How should schools teach students to read?

When I went to school and was trained early in my teaching career, I was trained on balanced literacy and the three-cueing system. It’s where you teach strategies to attack words and you surround kids with books and you just kind of make it more organic – which made sense to me in some ways. But as I got further into it and became a little bit more experienced as a teacher, I started noticing there are kids who aren’t getting this and I don’t have the tools to help them. When I was able to move into a district leadership position and the position I’m in now, I was learning more and more. We know through cognitive scientists how the brain learns how to read. We need to have that systemic and explicit instruction on phonological awareness and phonics.

Are Oklahoma schools using the three-cueing system?

Yes, they are using three-cueing all over the place. While we have standards districts use, we do not require a certain type of curriculum or curricular method. We are trying to push out the phonics, we strongly encourage it, but it’s not something we can require. That’s a local control issue.

Rows of books are seen in an Oklahoma elementary school. Credit: Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

Are you seeing a shift in schools now that there is more awareness?

I’m seeing more conversations. We’re not necessarily seeing an active shift yet. I’m hearing more questions from district leaders and principals and teachers. What they’re really struggling with — and it’s a fair struggle — is they’ve invested time and resources and money into these programs that they are now finding out may not be as effective. And they’re trying to figure out how to salvage that and what to replace it with.

What is the department doing to effect changes?

We’re trying to make sure teachers are really well-informed. For emergency certified teachers, they are currently undergoing a beginning LETRS (language and literacy skills) session in order to maintain emergency certification just so they can have effective practices in their toolbox about how to help kids learn to read. And we’re always available to any district to have us come out and have a conversation with them.

Q: Does there need to be a mandate or legislation?

Where our focus has really been is on having an awareness of the research that’s out there and why this is important and the resources available. Trying to change a system is like trying to stop an ocean liner. You just do not do it immediately.

Also, this is not just an Oklahoma thing. This is a national and even an international thing. Do we teach kids how to love books or do we teach them how to decode books? Really, it’s not two different goals – it’s the same goal. It’s really hard to love books if you can’t read them. And we want them to be able to read, but we want them to get those foundational skills down first.

Reach reporter Jennifer Palmer at

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