Science of Reading Legislation

An Analysis of Indiana Bill No. 1558: Unconstitutional Law and Indecipherable Policy

Jill Kerper Mora
San Diego State University

Here I present an analysis of Indiana Bill No. 1558 regarding the Science of Reading. Comments on this legislation Bill No. 1558 by Indiana legislators come from listening to the Bonus 2 Episode: The Impact from Emily Hanford’s “Sold a Story” Podcast Bonus 2 Episode: The Impact on American Public Media.

In this Podcast, Indiana Senator Aaron Freeman is quoted as saying the following: Senator Freeman: You cannot require the science of reading and also leave in three cueing. In order to do this correctly, you have to adopt the science of reading, and you have to outlaw three cueing.” Please bear with me while I explain why these provisions of the Indiana legislation that are intended “to outlaw three cueing” are of great concern to experts in literacy curriculum and instruction.

Unscientific Terminology 

The provisions of Indiana Bill No. 1558 that took effect on July 1, 2023 for the academic year 2024-2025 to ban “cueing” and “three-cueing” are as follows:

SECTION 5. IC 20-26-24.5 Sec.24.5 (b) As used in this section, “three-cueing model” refers to the three-cueing model of reading that uses meaning drawn from the context, pictures, or syntax as the primary basis for teaching word recognition. (c) Beginning with the 2024-2025 school year, a superintendent, advisory committee, or governing body or the equivalent for a charter school, in adopting curriculum or supplemental materials for reading under section 24 of this chapter: B. (2) … may not adopt curriculum or supplemental materials for reading that are based on the three-cueing model.

First, the term “three-cueing model of reading” is not a term that is recognizable by literacy researcher in scientific studies of reading. The term “model” in the Science of Reading research refers to theoretical models and processes, which are elaborate and complex descriptions of empirically observed behaviors of readers and writers documented by researchers from multiple theoretical perspectives. The term “cues” means the signals that language provides through speech and written text to communicate meaning. The term “cues” is commonly and frequently used by literacy researchers to describe the linguistic information that readers use at various levels of processing in reading. These levels of processing to achieve comprehension of written text are the lexical (word) level, the semantic (meaning) level and the syntax level (word order and grammar). See for example, Marilyn Adams (1980) in her chapter titled “Failures to comprehend and levels of processing” in a volume titled “Theoretical Issues in Reading Comprehension.” (Full citation below.)

In 1965, the term “miscues” was coined by a researcher who identified himself with the psycholinguistic perspective, Professor Kenneth Goodman. The term “cues” means the signals that language provides through speech and written text to communicate meaning. Professor Goodman did not use the term to refer to what teachers do when interacting with students one-on-one while they read orally. Miscues are mismatches between the exact words of the text and what the reader said in reading orally. Therefore, “cueing” is what language does, not what teachers do. Professor Goodman never called his complex theoretical model of the reading process a “three-cueing model.” Professor Goodman and other psycholinguists over several decades compiled a vast scientific database where they categorized readers’ naturally occurring “miscues” into three categories: grapho-phonics, semantics, and syntax. These three categories of miscues based on theories about which of the language subsystems or processing levels is the probable origin of the miscue. However, there are five or six language subsystems (cue sources): phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics. Sometimes orthography (spelling) is considered a subsystem of language. Professor Goodman and miscue analysis researchers have not proposed a theoretical model of the reading process based on only three subsystems of language.

My point is this: The term “three-cueing model” used to describe an approach to literacy instruction has no basis in scientific research. The term “model” in scholarly research refers to a description of how a cluster of theories work together to describe a process, such as how students learn to read. A theoretical model cannot be directly transferred to a method or approach to literacy instruction. Consequently, the use of this term in the Indiana bill No. 1558 creates grave doubts among researchers about the legitimacy of the alleged “science of reading” on which this legislation claims to be founded. This leads to the logical question that researchers and teachers ask: Exactly what is it that this law outlaws, and why? What is wrong with readers drawing meaning from “context, pictures or syntax”? Perhaps the key word in the language of the bill is “primary” as in “primary basis for teaching word recognition…” Does primary refer to “first” as in a sequence or “most important” as in a priority? This question is important, because here we see that the term “three-cueing” may mean three different sets of cues than the ones in the scientific research on miscue analysis, which include grapho-phonics and semantics. How, then, do you claim that “cueing” is incompatible with the Science of Reading? Thus, the Indiana legislation No. 1558 bans teachers and instructional materials from using cues from levels of processing that science of reading researchers have established as essential for reading comprehension.

This brings us, inevitably, to another term that is not defined in Bill No. 1558: word recognition. Word recognition is what Marilyn Adams calls the “lexical level of processing” in meaning construction. There is considerable difference of opinion in the literacy research community about when a word is “recognized.” Is the word recognized when the reader sounds out the word accurately enough, either orally or silently to possibly stimulate a mental representation of the meaning of the word in the reader’s mental lexicon? Or is the word not “recognized” until its meaning (semantics) is fully mentally engaged? When a teacher is teaching word recognition, s/he must have answered these questions, especially when the law prohibits him/her from teaching readers to draw meaning from “context, pictures or syntax.”

Altering the labels for cueing systems in the Indiana anti-cueing bill further aggravates the problem. Since the legislation identifies the three sources of meaning as context, pictures, and syntax, the bill creates a mélange of linguistic and non-linguistic cues. The term “context” in common usage means the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed. If a term such as “context” is used in a scientific research study, the researchers must provide an exact definition of the meaning of how the term is applied in the collection and analysis of the empirical data. Consequently, in the Indiana bill, it is impossible for teachers to know what is meant when they are prohibited from teaching students how to draw meaning form the context of the written text.  According to Bowers & Bowers (2017), approximately 16-20% of words in English cannot be decoded accurately outside of the context of the sentence in which they are used. (Ex. I bow before the king. I wore a bow in my hair.)

This lack of clear definition in the provisions of No. 1558 is also a problem with the banning of “pictures.” Written words are pictures because they are made up of letters of the alphabet invented as pictographs, invented as cues to stimulate mental representations of sounds. The alphabet itself is a cueing system. Nor can words be decoded or encoded correctly without recourse to syntax. (Ex. I road my bike to school. I walked along the rode.)

Indiana’s Science of Reading Legislation: Unconstitutional Law and Indecipherable Policy

I am the daughter of two attorneys. I know that my parents would find this law to be at risk of being declared unconstitutional because it is “void for vagueness.” A law outlawing certain behaviors must clearly define what behaviors a person must not engage in so as to avoid running afoul of the law. What is it that teachers are not supposed to teach students about how to make meaning of text so that they conform to Indiana’s ban on the “three-cueing model of reading.” According to Emily Hanford’s interviewee in her Bonus 2 Episode of “Sold a Story” “… these cueing bans are probably good because the goal is to finally get rid of the idea that kids don’t need to learn how to sound out written words because they have other strategies they can use instead.” The phrases “instead of” and “rather than” are often used in attacks on “cueing” to promote the idea that this prohibited “three-cueing model” has substituted “context” and “pictures” for grapho-phonics and semantics. This false dichotomy is an attempt to avoid teachers’ questions about the outlawing of assessments and instructional strategies they find to be valuable in teaching students how to read.

However, it gets even worse for Indiana literacy educators. Not only does Bill No. 1558 mandate literacy teaching aligned in the science of reading in Section 1 and then ban the adoption of materials that are based on the “three-cueing model” in Section 2. In a policy document from the Indiana Department of Education titled “Indiana’s Priorities for Early Literacy, they are told this on page 27:

Structured Literacy (SL) is a scientifically-based approach to literacy instruction that is aligned with the Science of Reading and the body of research on effective instructional practices for all learners (International Dyslexia Association, 2019b; Spear-Swerling, 2019). Educators who use a Structured Literacy approach teach all components of language (the content), including phonology, sound-symbol relationships, orthography, morphology, syntax, and semantics (International Dyslexia Association, 2019b). (p. 27)

So, which is it? Is teaching students about syntax (one of the three cueing systems) banned or is it a priority for early literacy in Indiana? Does “structured literacy” include teaching syntax, which is, according to Bill No. 1556 and Indiana Senator Aaron Freeman, not compatible with the science of reading, or is it not? How are educators supposed to reconcile these conflicting mandates? If we were to eradicate the terms “cue” and “cueing” from all literacy education research, reading programs, and instructional materials, or even totally from the English language, the reality of the signaling function of the subsystems of language remains unaffected. This is because “cueing” is the way language works to convey meaning and teachers must teach students how to discern and utilize these cueing systems of language in order to read and write. Therefore, misguided policymakers may ban teachers from using “cueing” as an instructional practice, but they cannot ban language from cueing meaning through its multiple cueing subsystems.

In the “Sold a Story” Bonus 2 Podcast Episode, Emily Hanford asks whether or not the people she interviewed think that legislation banning “three-cueing” is a good idea. One interviewee referred to an episode of Sold a Story in which he was distressed to learn about “… a large Texas school district removing books by the literal truckload because they were used in a discredited reading methodology… This means that “cueing” is described by some as “a discredited reading methodology” that books associated with the non-existent “three-cueing model” are being banned. This is the real-life impact of legislation that bans school districts from making decisions about literacy curriculum at the local level and bans on teachers’ instructional interactions with students in their classrooms.

We literacy educators and researchers must ask the question: Based on what expertise does Indiana Senator Aaron Freeman make assertions about what the alignment with the Science of Reading includes or does not include? Are Senator Freeman and his colleagues in the Indiana legislature really qualified to decide what methods, approaches, and instructional strategies qualify as “scientifically-research-based” or “evidence-based” so as to permit or ban teachers from using certain approaches to instruction? Elected officials cannot possibly be familiar with the entire range of scientific research on how students with different demographics and learning characteristics learn to read and write. Nor can all literacy researchers be knowledgeable about research from multiple academic disciplines, such as the research on how curriculum and instruction for multilingual learners that parallels or differs from instruction for fluent native speakers of English. These legislators are in over their heads with trying to shape curriculum and instruction through bans on programs, materials, and classroom practices. Consequently, they are listening to a group of people who claim to be proposing measures to control public education policies based on “science” without having a knowledge base to recognize that they are the ones who are being sold a story.

In the “Sold a Story” Bonus 2 Podcast Episode, Emily Hanford asks whether or not the people she interviewed think that legislation banning “three-cueing” is a good idea. Hanford didn’t interview me, but I’ll give her my opinion anyway. The answer is NO.

Click here for an article from EdWeek about opposition to Science of Reading legislation, including bans on “cueing” in several states.


Adams, M. J. (1980). Failures to comprehend and levels of processing. In R. J. Spiro, B. C. Bruce, & W. F. Brewer (Eds.), Theoretical issues in reading comprehension (pp. 11-32). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bowers, J. S., & Bowers, P. N. (2017). Beyond phonics: The case for teaching children the logic of the English spelling system. Educational Psychologist, 52(2), 124-141.

Goodman, K. S. (1965). A linguistic study of cues and miscues in reading. Elementary English, 42(6), 639-643.

Smith, F. (1999). Unspeakable acts, unnatural practices: Flaws and fallacies in “scientific” reading instruction. Heinemann.