Lexical Inferencing

The purpose of this webpage is to explain a case where the Science of Reading (SoR) Movement is using false arguments and misrepresentations of legitimate and valid research from multilingualism and second language acquisition research to bolster their case for the “science of reading.” Several journalists, most notably, Emily Hanford of American Public Media have made a frontal attack on an approach or strategy they call the “three-cueing approach.” The argument against the “three cueing approach” is a straw man argument intended to discredit ways of teaching and assessing reading and writing that they claim do not fall under the umbrella of “science.”

Proponents of SoR have basically invented an “approach” in an attempt to discredit Ken Goodman, Frank Smith and Whole Language, the entire miscue analysis research base. Efforts to discredit a research base and basically get it banned through legislation and policy initiatives are highly prejudicial and counterproductive. There is a vast body of research in second language acquisition and second language reading research on what is termed “lexical inferencing” that addresses how L2 learners use context (in both listening and reading) to make meaning, build vocabulary, etc. The research points out that L1 readers who are reading in their L2 have an advantage because they have already developed the metacognitive strategies for meaning-making that they can apply to both word form and semantics in comprehending unfamiliar words.

Theoretical Framework for Lexical Inferencing

Teachers of literacy to biliteracy learners and second language learners must recognize how the question of “cueing” in word recognition and comprehension is termed and discussed in the research from the perspective of second language acquisition (SLA), second language reading, and biliteracy teaching/learning. The term in these fields of research is “lexical inferencing” and it is treated in the research literature as a valuable and practical skill/ strategy that is both metalinguistic and metacognitive that enhances comprehension and is transferable from L1 reading to L2 reading for bilingual readers (Haastrup, 2009; Nagy, 1993: Ke, et al., 2023).  According to the Ke and colleagues (2023) in their meta-analysis of research on metalinguistic awareness in second language reading development, lexical inferencing is the skill that links phonological awareness, morphological awareness and vocabulary knowledge (semantics) in the process of reading comprehension.  Haastrup (2009: 5) describes lexical inferencing this way:

“Effective inferencing ability will enhance not only their reading fluency but will also support their academic learning. While a reader’s primary purpose in attempting to comprehend a given word meaning is to aid in understanding the larger text, successful identification of a previously unknown word meaning may also lead to retention of new knowledge about that word. The process of reading comprehension and of lexical inferencing is in many ways similar for readers in their L1 and an L2; however, studies comparing L1 and L2 reading or lexical inferencing consistently show a marked advantage for L1 readers. This native speaker advantage appears to relate to L1 readers’ more efficient language processing skills in the text language as well as to their richer and more established linguistic, especially lexical and cultural knowledge. Such knowledge and abilities are reflected in measures of reading proficiency and vocabulary knowledge in the text language. The persistence of such an advantage even when L2 readers have very high levels of proficiency suggests that subtle L1-related factors may continue to influence L2 users’ performance over many years.” (p. 5)

The theoretical framework for the metalinguistic approach describes the contribution of each of four salient language subsystems to reading comprehension: phonology, morphology, semantics and syntax. For example, Nagy et al. (2014:3) present this finding from their review of the research literature on lexical inferencing:

“The contribution of morphological knowledge to reading comprehension has been found to be significant when other variables have been controlled for (e.g., Jeon, 2011; Nagy et al., 2006; Roman, Kirby, Parrila, Wade-Woolley, & Deacon, 2009). Though the amount of unique variance accounted for by morphological knowledge is sometimes small, this is in part due to the high correlations between morphological knowledge and other predictors of comprehension; the unique variance accounted for may underestimate its relevance for instructional practice.”

Lexical Inferencing’s Contribution to Multilingual Learners Research 

What is defined as the Science of Reading encompasses many fields of research and research methodologies that contribute to educators’ knowledge base for the selection and implementation of approaches to literacy instruction. The key to effective literacy instruction for multilingual learners is for teachers to formulate a coherent, evidence-based theoretical orientation toward literacy and biliteracy instruction. We dual language educators must be aware of the negative impact of any initiatives to discredit methods, approaches and strategies that have a solid empirical base in the multidisciplinary research in psycholinguistics, second language acquisition, second language reading and sociolinguistics. These language-focused methods and approaches are utilized to support language learning as foundational to literacy learning.

Click here to learn more about the straw man attack against legitimate L2 strategies from proponents of the science of reading.


Haastrup, K. (2009). Research on the lexical inferencing process and its outcomes. In M. B. Wesche & T. S. Paribakht (Eds.), Lexical inferencing in a first and second language: Cross-linguistic dimensions (pp. 3-30). Multilingual Matters.

Ke, S. E., Zhang, D., & Koda, K. (2023). Metalinguistic awareness in second language reading development. Cambridge University Press.

Nagy, W. E., Carlisle, J. F., & Goodwin, A. P. (2014). Morphological knowledge and literacy acquisition. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 47(1), 3-12.

Nassaji, H. (2003). L2 vocabulary learning from context: Strategies, knowledge sources, and their relationship with success in L2 lexical inferencing. TESOL Quarterly, 37(4), 645-670.

Raudszus, H., & Segers, E. V., Ludo. (2021). Use of morphological and contextual cues in children’s lexical inferencing in L1 and L2. Reading & Writing, 34, 1513-1538. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-021-10122-z