Science As Metaphor

Jill Kerper Mora

Whenever we hear a person begin a sentence with the words… “Research says…” we must listen with great caution. This is true even more so when someone says… “The Science of Reading research says…” because the term “Science of Reading” is a metaphor. Research in how students learn to read and write is an academic discipline in the field of education that is considered to be “social science” and not a “hard science like biology or mathematics or medicine.

Let us begin this analysis with a dictionary definition of science: “The systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation, experimentation and the testing of theories against the evidence obtained.” Therefore, science is the systematic methodology for determining, to the best of our abilities as human beings, how a natural phenomenon works. The purpose of science is to increase knowledge. scientific theory is an explanation of an aspect of the natural world and universe that has been repeatedly tested and corroborated in accordance with the scientific method, using accepted protocols of observation, measurement, and evaluation of results. Where possible, theories are tested under controlled conditions in an experiment. In circumstances not amenable to experimental testing, theories are evaluated through principles of abductive reasoning. Established scientific theories have withstood rigorous scrutiny and embody scientific knowledge. As additional scientific evidence is gathered, a scientific theory may be modified and ultimately rejected if it cannot be made to fit the new findings; in such circumstances, a more accurate theory is then required. A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it. Therefore, theories can be disproven or falsified. However, to challenge or disprove a complex theorical model requires evidence and empirical data to clearly contradict or refute each component or process embedded in the theory or theoretical model.

In their book titled “Lenses on reading: An introduction to theories and models” Tracey and Morrow (2006) say this: “Theories also provide the frameworks through which various research studies can be linked both within and between fields of study. …by definition, theories provide explanations that can be used to describe a variety of phenomena. …. Research that is linked to other research makes a more substantial contribution toward extending a knowledge base. In contrast, research that is not theory-based does not offer a cohesive, meaningful explanation of what is already known about any single subject area…Researchers often turn to theories to identify variables to be investigated and the possible relationships between them. You might think of a theory as a bridge that connects the independent and dependent variables…” All forms of inquiry depend upon the existence of an interrelated set of conceptual frameworks to guide and direct research. Theories provide the philosophical grounding for research studies. (p. 7) As an example of the way in which empirical research is related to theory, see the report by Goodman and Burke (1973) on miscue analysis research, specifically, the presentation of Goodman’s theoretical model of reading.

Theory in Education Policy and Practice

In his book titled “Rethinking the Education of Multilingual Learners” (2021), Professor Jim Cummins says this: “In complex educational contexts, research findings become relevant for policy purposes only in the context of coherent theoretical models or frameworks. It is the theory rather than the individual research findings that permits the generation of predictions about programme outcomes under different conditions. Research findings themselves cannot be directly applied across contexts. However, when certain patterns are replicated across a wide range of sociolinguistic and sociopolitical contexts, the accumulation of consistent findings suggests that some stable underlying principle is at work. This principle can then be states as a theoretical proposition or hypothesis from which predictions can be derived and tested through the accumulation of additional data…. This process is in the mainstream of scientific inquiry… observing phenomena, forming hypotheses to account for the observed phenomena, testing these hypotheses against additional data, and gradually refining the hypotheses into more comprehensive theories or models that have broader explanatory and predictive power.” (p. 136)

Professor Cummins (2021) offers three criteria for evaluating the legitimacy and credibility of theoretical constructs and claims that are advanced under the rubric of the analytical processes common to all scientific inquiry:

  • Empirical adequacy—to what extent is the claim consistent with all the relevant empirical evidence?
  • Logical coherence—to what extent is the claim internally consistent and non-contradictory?
  • Consequential validity—to what extent is the claim useful in promoting effective pedagogy and policies?

Cummins suggests that these criteria “… enable us to distinguish between evidence-free ideological claims and evidence-based, logically coherent and pedagogically useful claims” The criteria of empirical adequacy and logical coherence apply to all theoretical propositions, while the criterion of consequential validity is context specific” This is because “… isolated research findings become relevant for social policy and educational practice only when they are integrated into coherent theoretical frameworks.” (p.  191-192)

Failure to Define “Cueing” as an Instructional Strategy

An essential feature of any empirical research study is a definition of the dependent and independent variables that the study proposes to investigate. Consequently, any peer reviewers of a research study will require that the authors of the study provide a clearly articulated definition of the theoretical construct under study. Such a definition is usually based on a review of the extant research literature on the subject, which includes relating the construct to a theoretical framework. It is obvious that claims are being made about the alleged “ineffectiveness” of “cueing” and “three-cueing” without an articulation of what these terms mean, as they are used in these claims to designate an instructional strategy or approach. In fact, when we researchers refer to “cueing” we are talking about what language does, not what teachers do or what readers do. We are referencing the subsystems of language: phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax and pragmatics. All world languages can be described using these subsystems as categories of linguistic patterns and features that are used in a particular language to convey meaning. 

The research on eye movement/miscue analysis (EMMA) research investigates how the language of the text provides “cues” to the reader as to the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences in order for the reader to make meaning from the text (Flurkey, Paulson & Goodman, 2008: Flurkey & Xu, 2003). EMMA researchers use the term “cueing systems” to label the subsystems of language that readers utilize to make meaning from text. Consequently, miscues are a misreading or lack of understanding of the cues provided by the language of the text, as evidenced by the reader’s mismatch between what his/her oral rendition of the text, in contrast to what the text actually says. We need to keep in mind that in the large body of miscue analysis data, examiners did not prompt the reader when s/he stumbled or give any “corrective feedback” based on a miscue. This examiner protocol was established so that the data did not reflect any interruption or alternation of the reader’s meaning-making process. This enables the database to reflect an “instruction neutral” body of data so that the categorization of miscues is unadulterated and as close as possible to an accurate sampling of the reader’s authentic oral reading behavior.

It would surprise me that anyone who is familiar with the empirical data base of EMMA research would call it “unscientific.” Perhaps, this is because it is not research that employs experimental methodology. Out of my love for metaphors, it occurs to me that considering the systematic and thorough observation, documentation, and analysis of data on students’ oral reading behavior to be unscientific would be akin to a zoologist telling Jane Goodall that all of those days and hours of observing the behavior of gorillas (in the mist) is “unscientific” or “not evidence.” 

We must note the discrepancy in the ways EMMA researchers define “cueing” as what language does through multiple “cueing” subsystems and subprocesses as opposed to what SoR advocates are criticizing as what teachers may do when they provide feedback and guidance to students while they are reading orally with the teacher in a one-on-one setting. The lack of a clear definition of what teacher “cueing” is makes it highly dubious that such teacher behavior can be empirically demonstrated to be ineffective, especially when the definition of “ineffective” has also not been defined in the research.

See further elaboration about the EMMA research database, click here.

Failure to Identify a Theoretical Framework for “Cueing”

Here is the abstract of a study conducted by David Share (2008) that explains how a focus on English spelling-sound correspondence has called into question the relevance of reading science research to the  universal Science of Reading: 

“In this critique of current reading research and practice, the author contends that the extreme ambiguity of English spelling–sound correspondence has confined reading science to an insular, Anglocentric research agenda addressing theoretical and applied issues with limited relevance for a universal science of reading. The unique problems posed by this “outlier” orthography, the author argues, have focused disproportionate attention on oral reading accuracy at the expense of silent reading, meaning access, and fluency, and have significantly distorted theorizing with regard to many issues—including phonological awareness, early reading instruction, the architecture of stage models of reading development, the definition and remediation of reading disability, and the role of lexical–semantic and supralexical information in word recognition. The dominant theoretical paradigm in contemporary (word) reading research—the Coltheart/Baron dual-route model (see, e.g., J. Baron, 1977; M. Coltheart, 1978) and, in large measure, its connectionist rivals—arose largely in response to English spelling–sound obtuseness. The model accounts for a range of English-language findings, but it is ill-equipped to serve the interests of a universal science of reading chiefly because it overlooks a fundamental unfamiliar-to-familiar/novice-to-expert dualism applicable to all words and readers in all orthographies.”

The caveat proposed by David Share (2008) applies to the arguments against “cueing” and “three cueing” as an instructional strategy and as a form of assessment. Share explains the focus on phonemic awareness and phonemes in English decoding this way:

“The awareness of phonemes and the acquisition of alphabetic literacy does not appear to be an integral part of humans’ biological preparedness for rapid early spoken language acquisition, but, in the words of Bowey (2005), is “inextricably linked” to learning to read an alphabetic orthography (p. 168). Moreover, as an integral component of alphabetic literacy learning, phonemic awareness is closely tied to the particular orthography concerned, the nature of the units represented, and the fidelity of the spelling–sound mapping. Thus, the lack of consistency in English should exacerbate difficulties in acquiring phonemic awareness. It is now clear that the scale of this problem in English does not generalize to more regular orthographies and that the unique role of phonemic awareness in English has hindered consideration of more universal aspects of phonology that apply across orthographies. Phonemic awareness is a core component of learning to read in every possible alphabetic orthography; however, the extreme degree of nontransparency in English has exaggerated the role that phonemic awareness plays in more conventional alphabets and has overshadowed issues that have critical importance across orthographies. (p. 596). 

Empirical Adequacy of Anti-cueing Arguments

The first of Professor Cummins’ criteria for judging the legitimacy of claims based on research is this: Empirical adequacy—to what extent is the claim consistent with all the relevant empirical evidence?

Many of the objections to “three-cueing” are based on theory and research into how readers use three language subsystems: phonology (represented graphically), semantics and syntax. The notion of cueing systems is attributed to research conducted by Kenneth Goodman and Yetta Goodman, in collaboration with other psycholinguists and neuroscientists. The Goodmans with their colleague Eric Paulson (2009: 147-148) explain the theoretical foundations of their research this way: 

“All readers, regardless of proficiency, make miscues, unexpected responses to a text during oral reading as they focus on making sense of print. Miscues result from the same cues and processes as non-miscued parts of the text. Analyzing the differences and similarities of the observed and expected responses in miscue analysis provides a window on the reading process and on language processes in general. Oral reading is unique in this respect because there is a continuous comparison between the published text the reader is transacting with and the personal text the reader is constructing. Miscues also occur in speaking, listening, and writing…. In miscue analysis, readers are asked to read whole texts (stories or articles) that they have not seen before. We originally assumed that reading could be studied through the methodology of linguistics, although it soon became evident that the analysis required psycholinguistic concepts since making sense of print involves both thought and language. Additionally, it was necessary to use sociolinguistic insights to fully understand the dialect and cultural backgrounds of different readers…. It quickly became obvious in this early research that readers’ errors reflected their strengths in making sense of language as well as any weaknesses or difficulties. Their miscues showed their knowledge of language and of the content of what they were reading. The theoretical expectation that readers were actively trying to make sense of reading was easily verified in their miscues.” (p. 147-148)

If literacy researchers are to challenge the research base for miscue analysis, the expectation of the interdisciplinary research community is that they must provide a body of evidence of methodologically sound empirical research based on an articulated theoretical framework to support the notion that accurate “cueing” and mis-cueing are NOT observable and predictable processes that readers utilize for comprehending text. McGee et al. (2015: 264) found the following:

“Even when students already have at their disposal a more sophisticated strategy, they continue to use a variety of strategies, including less sophisticated strategies, in flexible ways until gradually, through trial and error, they discover which strategies are more accurate and efficient in solving particular problems. Typical action chains provide evidence that students are using five strategic actions drawing on different sources of information: monitoring graphic and contextual information, self- correcting using graphic or contextual information or a combination of both, making multiple attempts that often included use of both contextual and graphic information, coordinating and organizing use of graphic and contextual in formation, and rereading to recall or elaborate on contextual information.” (p. 264)

Emily Hanford’s Sold a Story podcast is based entirely on a straw man argument and an ad hominem attack against a highly respected educator and researcher, Marie Clay. Clay was the founder of the most successful intervention program for struggling readers in the history of education: Reading Recovery. Hanford distorts Marie Clay’s theory to suit her agenda, which is to create a scapegoat for low reading achievement test scores and discredit a legitimate and valuable knowledge base for effective literacy instruction. Hanford’s attack on what she calls the “three-cueing approach” is a straw man argument, because the term “three cueing” comes from the terms linguists use to describe the subsystems of language. The notion of cueing systems comes from linguistics, where subsystems of language are distinguished according to their role in meaning making from oral language and written text. Three language subsystems are identified in multiple bodies of research as sources of cues to comprehension of words, phrases, and sentences in reading: grapho-phonics (letter-sound associations; spelling), semantics (meaning of words and phrases) and syntax (word order and grammar). 

Clearly, graphophonics cues are the basis for orthographic mapping, the technical term for decoding. But what happens when there is no meaning for the word in the reader’s mental lexicon? Or what does the teacher do when the reader does not understand the word because spelling alone does not provide a cue to its meaning within the sentence? A significant percentage of English words have the same spelling but multiple meanings. Does the teacher simply let the reader wander into a linguistic cul-de-sac without providing any guidance for figuring out the meaning of an unfamiliar word? It is puzzling for proponents of interventions for students who are identified with dyslexia, a neurobiological condition that manifests as a deficit in phonological processing abilities, to be denied instruction in ways to derive meaning from text using language subsystem other than phonology (Kovelman, et al., 2021). Bowers and Bowers (2017) make this observation: 

“Given the logical and meaningful structure of English spellings and given that dyslexia is often associated with a selective phonological deficit, a promising compensatory approach to instruction would target the semantic and logical skills of struggling readers that are left untapped by phonics.” (p. 127)

Journalists and other critics of “three-cueing” fail to articulate a theoretical framework or to reference specific research studies to support their condemnation of its effectiveness as a practice in reading instruction. Consequently, such claims lack empirical adequacy to support the argument that teachers should reject “cueing” as a tool in their toolkit of instructional strategies. Literacy educators must reject the Sold a Story podcast arguments since they have no basis in science.

Lack of Logical Coherence of Arguments Against “Cueing” 

The second criteria that Professor Cummins proposes for examination of the legitimacy of theoretical constructs and claims is this: Logical coherence—to what extent is the claim internally consistent and non-contradictory?

Claims against “cueing” that have led to its being banned from classrooms in three states are based on the hypothesis that it is an ineffective or potentially harmful strategy for beginning readers because the use of context cues detracts from their use of phonics for sounding out and recognizing words. See the arguments cited by Sarah Schwartz in Education Week of May 10, 2023.  Many literacy researchers express support for research based on the Simple View of Reading (Hoover & Gough, 1990). However, some of the same researchers who advocate for the view of reading as involving the orchestration of decoding and comprehension are among those who sound “warnings” against “cueing.” See for example, Duke & Cartwright, 2021. The claim that “cueing” is detrimental to emergent readers’ learning of phonics, which is the grapho-phonics cueing system, contradicts the fundamental principles of this body of literacy research based on the Simple View of Reading. This principle states that instruction that enhances decoding also enhances comprehension, and vice versa. Consequently, researchers who claim that decoding and comprehension are in competition with each other are not making an argument that is logically consistent with a theoretical and empirical perspective on effective reading instruction. 

It is important to note that an aspect of the controversy surrounding “cueing” is the way in which particular researchers define the term “context.” For example, Duke (2020) references a study by Landi et al., (2006) that specifies “discourse context” in her argument where she describes a process of using context in meaning-making at points of challenge for young readers. Landi et al. (2006) make a distinction between word recognition and word retention in discourse context versus words in isolation, such as from lists of words. Despite the citation to discourse context, Duke (2020) proposes a series of “key prompts for word identification” (Figure 1, p. 28) recommends decoding by “…Determining the pronunciation of written words by either (a) connecting letters to sounds (technically, graphemes to phonemes) and then blending or manipulating the sounds to say the word, or (b) having done so in the past, thus now recognizing the word automatically from memory.” This is, of course, a reader’s use of the grapho-phonics cueing system, but the author fails to mention that merely deriving the pronunciation of a word does not guarantee that the reader knows its meaning. For deriving meaning, Duke suggests this process: “Determining the meaning of an unfamiliar word from past experience with the word or from context, resources, or the word’s meaningful parts (morphemes).” Here, Duke is recommending the use of the language subsystem of semantics, which she refers to as “context” and the language subsystem of morphology, which means extracting meaning from sublexical elements of words to determine their meaning (semantics). As for the subsystem of syntax, which is manifest at the phrase or sentence levels, Duke recommends “Paying attention to whether what is read makes sense and sounds right and, if it doesn’t, doing something, such as rereading, to fix the situation…” and “…Determining the basic meaning of sentences as well as constructing an elaborated model of the meaning of the larger text, both written and graphical.” 

It is difficult for a fellow researcher like me to understand Duke’s alleged concerns about “cueing” and “three-cueing” when she herself recommends prompts for readers who are “stuck” that address the language subsystems. These subsystems of language are defined as cueing systems in theoretical models in psycholinguistic literacy research. Apparently, Professor Duke believes that “prompting” readers to enhance their comprehension of text is recommended, but using “context” rather than phonics for cueing is a no-no. 

Other researchers also employ different definitions and theoretical constructs to describe and explain readers’ utilization of “context.” MacDonald et al. (1994) refer readers’ use of “contextual information” for the purpose of “ambiguity resolution” in words within a sentence as a feature of “language processing.” This focus of research more closely approximates the definition of context as language as applied in research in second language reading.  

Contextual information is relevant to the extent that it provides information that facilitates resolving the different types of ambiguities in the lexicon. Principal factors include properties of the ambiguous word (e.g., the relative frequencies of meanings) and the extent to which the context provides information relevant to distinguishing between the alternatives… The theory we have proposed incorporates the familiar idea that contexts provide information that facilitates ambiguity resolution. The important question for this approach has always been whether there can be a general theory of contextual information in language processing. We have proposed that part of the function of context is to provide information that is relevant to resolving ambiguities over the different levels of lexical representation that we have analyzed. (p. 682)

I am reminded of a country and western song about looking for something in all the wrong places. The research on using the subsystems of language as cues for linguistic comprehension is found in the research on second language acquisition and second language reading in studies on language and literacy learning of multilingual learners. The construct that researchers investigate in these academic disciplines is termed “lexical inferencing.” 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. In these fields of research, lexical inferencing is treated in the research literature as a valuable and practical skill/ strategy enhances both metalinguistic and metacognitive to support comprehension. Lexical inferencing strategies are transferable from L1 reading to L2 reading for bilingual readers. See the compilation of relevant research studies in Haastrup (2009).

Consequential Validity of Legislative Bans on “Cueing”

The third criteria for assessing the legitimacy of theoretical constructs and claims is this: Consequential validity—to what extent is the claim useful in promoting effective pedagogy and policies?

An important research construct to be considered in assessing the consequential validity of claims based on a particular theoretical framework and body of research studies is population validity. According to Moore and Klinger (2014) population validity requires that researchers adequately describe the sample population of their investigation, including the accessible and target populations, and to disaggregate their findings based on demographic characteristics. When population validity issues are not addressed, researchers cannot generalize findings to other populations of students, and it becomes unclear what intervention strategies work, especially with English language learner student populations. Leaps in generalizations cannot be made until the researcher has gained a thorough knowledge of the demographic characteristics of both the experimentally accessible population and the target population. Consequently, findings from studies that do not disaggregate data and statistics for English learners cannot automatically be considered to have consequential validity for multilingual learners. 

For example, Noguerón-Liu (2020: S315) explains the value of miscue analysis for literacy and biliteracy instruction for multilingual learners to address the consequential validity of literacy research based on miscue analysis and eye movement data bases: 

“One of the strengths in the research on miscue analysis by Y.M. Goodman, Watson, and Burke (2005) was a call to consider “the linguistic knowledge of bilingual speakers when responding to the questions concerning syntactic and semantic acceptability” (p. 81), because students are developing proficiency in their second language, and their miscues may reflect the approximations in their knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary… Because miscue analysis is a qualitative categorization of errors, it can provide teachers with nuanced insights on both the language and (bi)literacy development of students. …emergent bilinguals need to rely on context to make sense of a new vocabulary word wound), (e.g., the different meanings of the word so providing further guidance and attention to syntax or context may help extend the students’ language knowledge in a lesson, in addition to asking them to sound it out. Finally, examples of studies adapting the cueing system model for bilingual students provided insights on the ways these adaptations can make visible the full linguistic repertoires of students and involve families in the assessment process.” (p. S315)

Bowers and Bowers (2017) describe how English spelling is explained by phonology, morphology and etymology, or the origin of words such as words from Greek or Latin. There are a greater number of irregular or exceptional words in English that are considered to be irregular or exceptional. The irregularities occur because many words do not have a phoneme-to-grapheme correspondence that allows the reader to produce a correct pronunciation of the decoded word. Non-phonetically spelled words generate mispronunciations of monosyllabic words approximately 16% of the time. In other words, 84% of single-syllable words in English cannot be decoded phonetically. English stress patterns are also a source of decoding miscues because 90% of English words are pronounced with first syllable stress. There are also words that are spelled the same but are stressed on different syllables depending on their meaning and function as a part of speech. Examples are words like conflict (noun) vs. conflict (verb), content (noun) vs. content (adjective), and perfect (adjective) vs. perfect (verb). However, English does not signal stress patterns orthographically. Therefore, the correct pronunciation of these words is context dependent. Due to these features of English orthography, perfect performance in phonetic decoding of English text can actually lead to many errors when the reader attempts letter-by-letter decoding.

In a supplemental edition of the Reading Research Quarterly on the Science of Reading research, Noguerón-Liu (2020) states the following regarding the applicability of miscue analysis to literacy and biliteracy instruction for multilingual learners: 

In this section, I caution against the implications of discrediting the three-cueing systems and a related assessment tool (miscue analysis using the semantic, graphophonic, and syntactic categories), by explaining how language-related theories, including translanguaging, can help expand miscue analytic approaches. For emergent bilinguals, an oral reading assessment is not just a literacy test; it is a language test, and its validity is compromised if the linguistic and bilingualism factors shaping the performance are not accounted for. Because miscue analysis is a qualitative categorization of errors, it can provide teachers with nuanced insights on both the language and (bi)literacy development of students. (P. S312-S313)

The controversy that has been generated and magnified by a small group of literacy researchers and journalists around “cueing” and “three-cueing” is detrimental to literacy learning opportunities for all students, but most especially, for multilingual learners. 

Speaking of Metaphors…

Let us pause for just a moment and think about another “three-cueing system” that is part of our everyday life: The traffic light. It has three cues (red, yellow and green) that light up to cue us to take certain actions while driving on public roads and streets. We all have agreed upon the meaning of these cues. Therefore, they are conventions that we have invented to signal us necessary and important information to make driving safer and more efficient. If an intelligent alien landed from outer space was observing our behavior, it probably wouldn’t take him long to figure out what these cues mean because we respond to them according to the meaning the traffic light intends to convey. The alien could probably make an educated guess as to the cues’ meaning after observing human behavior for just a while. Would anyone suggest that we only pay attention to one of the three cues on the traffic light when we drive? If so, someone is bound to get into big trouble! So my suggestion is that we give a red light to the so-called reading scientists who object to three-cueing in language and literacy instruction. 


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