SoR Media Campaign

The Media Portrayal of the Science of Reading

Jill Kerper Mora
San Diego State University

This webpage is a description of the media campaign that framed arguments for legislation in multiple states that mandates literacy instruction based on the Science of Reading research. The purpose of this analysis is to explain how several reporters sought to persuade the public that a lack of adherence to a body of education research is to blame for low levels of literacy achievement in public schools. An article in a supplemental edition of the Reading Research Quarterly (MacPhee, Handsfield & Paugh, 2020) titled “Conflict or Conversation? Media portrayals of the Science of Reading” provides an analysis of the media uses strategic metaphorical framing to politicize the teaching of reading. Emily Hanford of APR Reports is one of the journalists’ writing that these reading researchers reviewed to illustrate how the media use discourse intended to perpetuate conflict over conversation. Hanford has authored eight articles between 2017 and 2020 portraying the Reading Wars as a public policy crisis in education. Hanford’s reports carry titles like “Hard to Read” and “Sold a Story” and “Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?”  MacPhee et al., (2021) express their concerns about media portrayals of the science of reading with this statement: “The media have asserted a direct connection between basic research and instructional practice that, without sufficient translational research that attends to a variety of instructional contexts and student populations, may perpetuate inequities.” (p. S145).  

Remember that the title of American Public Media’s reporter Emily Hanford’s podcast series about the Science of Reading is “Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong.” When I listened to Hanford’s podcast, the question I asked myself is this: How does a journalist get the teaching of reading so wrong, all the while claiming that highly respected literacy pioneers are wrong? How can a journalist who obviously knows so little about academic research consider herself qualified to critique literacy researchers?

Journalistic reporting on the Science of Reading is responsible for much of the controversy surrounding this issue of “cueing” and “three-cueing” because journalists like Emily Hanford have mischaracterized the origins of whole language and the meaning of the term “cueing” in the scientific research. To begin with, in the many podcasts, and articles “cueing” is referred to as an idea (a bad idea), a theory, a model, a method, an approach, a strategy, a practice and a system. Emily Hanford attributes this “bad idea” to New Zealand literacy educator Marie Clay. In the EdWeek article of October 2019, the EdWeek reporters Schwartz and Sparks attribute “three-cueing” to Professors Ken and Yetta Goodman. Schwartz and Sparks (2023) say this:

Many early reading classrooms teach students strategies to identify a word by guessing with the help of context cues. Ken and Yetta Goodman of the University of Arizona developed a “three-cueing system,” based on analysis of common errors (or “miscues”) when students read aloud.” 

The problem is that each one of these terms has a very distinct meaning when used in a research study. One aspect of the standards required for judging the construct validity and reliability of published research studies is that the terms for research variables be clearly defined for the purposes of empirical data analysis. There is a difference in research between a theory and a theoretical model. There is a difference in research between a method of instruction and an approach to instruction. There is a difference between an instructional approach and an instructional strategy. This is not a trivial matter since it is causing huge problems when it comes to legislation intended to ban “cueing” without even defining what it is and is not.

In fact, neither Marie Clay nor Ken and Yetta Goodman “developed” a cueing system or any related methods, approaches, strategies, etc. The term “cueing systems” comes from linguistics and psycholinguist research from the 1950’s and 1960’s. The term refers to the subsystems of language: phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics. In his vast body of empirical research on children’s oral reading performance, Ken Goodman identified both cues and “miscues” as hypothetically originating from three of these subsystems. The categories of miscues that he identified did not include morphology. This is because a reader’s use of morphological cues cannot be identified apart from semantics and syntax. as they work to convey meaning within words, not apart from words, what we researchers term the lexical (word) level versus the sublexical (within word) levels.  

The reality is that the database of hundreds of cases of miscue analysis that Ken and Yetta Goodman produced for research purposes is entirely instructionally neutral. This is because when a reader is reading orally and is constructing meaning from the written text by applying his/her knowledge of language, no researcher or anyone else can tell how s/he learned either the language or the process of decoding that the reader employs. What Ken Goodman developed from his research is a complex and nuanced step-by-step theoretical model that describes and explains the process of making meaning from text. Goodman’s theoretical model is NOT a three-cueing system model! Goodman named his model the Transactional Sociopsycholinguistic Model of Reading. For journalists to call Professor Goodman’s theoretical model by another name does not do it, or him justice.  

As for the “guessing” aspect of Goodman’s theoretical model, this is what is known in the literacy research literature as “linguistic prediction” and “lexical inferencing” and “word solving strategies” and various other technical terms. Emily Hanford has not quoted Ken Goodman himself on what he meant by a “psycholinguistic guessing game”, which is a metaphor he used to describe linguistic prediction and lexical inferencing, etc. There are thousands of studies published in peer-reviewed articles about these research constructs, clearly defined and framed within a linguistic, psycholinguistic, and neurolinguistic framework and research history.  

A Straw Man Argument

In this critique, I demonstrate how Hanford and other journalists use straw man arguments to attack literacy research that is the knowledge base for biliteracy instruction and effective teaching practices for enhancing literacy learning of multilingual learners. In this critique, I analyze Hanford’s “Sold a Story” podcast episodes using the three criteria for evaluating the legitimacy of the theoretical framework of claims made in the name of science and scientific research using Professor Jim Cummins’ three criteria. I also point out Hanford’s logical fallacies and fallacious argumentation, which include straw man arguments, ad hominem arguments, post hoc fallacies and others. Critical analysis based on the structure of logical argumentation reveals the many fallacies in Hanford’s portrayal of literacy research and instructional practices. 

First, I offer a definition of a straw man argument: “The straw man fallacy avoids the opponent’s actual argument and instead argues against an inaccurate caricature of it. A straw man argument is constructed by presenting an opposing position as a warped, extreme version of itself. By doing this, the arguer attempts to make their opponent look ridiculous and/or make their own position seem like the only rational option. A straw man argument is constructed by presenting an opposing position as a warped, extreme version of itself.”

Emily Hanford of American Public Media has declared that teachers are teaching reading the wrong way because they are following “a disproven theory” of how students learn to read. Here are quotations from Emily Hanford’s Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong podcast that frame her argument against “three-cueing.”

“Teaching kids to read this way has become known as “three cueing.” It’s not a term Marie Clay used, as far as I know. But three cueing is based on her theory of how people read. An influential academic in the United States came up with the same basic theory at about the same time. The cueing theory provided justification for not teaching children how to sound out words…because the theory was that good readers don’t have to know how to do that. They have other ways to figure out what the words say. This made sense to Sandra Iversen. She says she was kind of lost trying to teach kids to read. And then Marie Clay showed her a way.”
It is very important to note that Hanford admits that “three cueing” is not a term Marie Clay used. Consequently, how does Hanford claim to know that “three cueing” as Hanford herself defines it, is based on a theory attributable to Marie Clay and an unnamed “influential academic” in the US? This question points us in the direction of several very problematic aspects of Hanford’s arguments against “three cueing” as an instructional strategy. In addition, it is important in debunking Hanford’s straw man argument to note the tricky wording of her framing of Marie Clay’s alleged theory. In her podcast series, Hanford calls “cueing” and “three-cueing” using different terms: An idea, a theory, a model, an approach, a method or methodology, a strategy and a practice. This is a problem because each of these words have different meanings, and with the sole exception of “idea” these terms have different meanings in common parlance than they do in reading research studies.

In a Viewpoint article that appeared in The Reading Teacher, Goldberg and Goldenberg (2022) characterize Hanford’s argument against Marie Clay this way: “Meaning, syntax, and context can, and should be used to confirm whether a word has been read correctly. But teaching students to “orchestrate” “”cues” from meaning and structure rather than to decode words is ineffective and even risky.” (p. 622) I challenge my colleagues Goldberg and Goldenberg to produce a direct quotation from any of Marie Clay’s prolific writings and research where she recommends that the semantic and syntactic cueing systems be used rather than the grapho-phonic cueing system for making meaning from text. After all, isn’t this exactly the opposite of what it means to “orchestrate” the multiple cueing systems of language to construct meaning from written text, which is language? It is unscientific and unethical for journalists and our fellow researchers to mischaracterize a colleague’s theoretical framework that is foundational to his/her complete corpus of research and programmatic implementation to further a dubious ideological agenda. 

Who is Marie Clay? Guru or Villain?

The first question that is raised here is this: Who is Marie Clay and why is she the target of Emily Hanford’s attack?  To begin with, Hanford misrepresents the body of theory that is the framework for Dr. Clay’s research and curriculum design. 

With the greatest respect and admiration for Marie Clay (1926-2007) from the University of Auckland, I want to let her speak with her own words. Marie Clay was President of the International Reading Association when she wrote the Foreword to the fourth edition of Theoretical models and processes of reading (Ruddell, Rapp Ruddell & Singer 1994). In this Foreword she stated this:

“I dislike the unfortunate tendency to make gurus or villains out of those who question today’s received wisdom. History shows that what is known is continually overtaken by what is newly discovered. “… reading involves integrating a complex network of interactive processes, which can be studied using the lenses of different disciplines and explored through a range of theoretical models within each discipline. Different stories told by researchers from different disciplines can confuse practitioners and make them form opposing allegiances. This prejudices the integrity of the education of children, and it fragments the audience who will seriously consider the theory. The question often becomes “Whose side am I on?” instead of “What particular discourse connects with my current understanding and expands it so that I can understand more?

New Zealand literacy educator Marie Clay’s theoretical model and research base is applied through the intervention program known as Reading Recovery (Clay, 1979). Marie Clay was concerned with the development and maintenance of professional connections between literacy research “pioneers and contemporaries.” I speculate that these journalists have chosen Marie Clay and Reading Recovery as the target of their attack on reading instruction because as a researcher, Clay is associated with a perspective called constructivism. Constructivism is the theoretical and empirical base for the Whole Language approach. Consequently, Marie Clay’s work is based on a theory of how people read using the entirety of the language of text, which is successful in the reader’s efforts to comprehend continuous text when all of the cues that language provides are “orchestrated” in the reader’s meaning-making process.

This is how Marie Clay (1991: 6) defines reading: “A message-getting, problem-solving activity, which increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced. My definition states that within the directional constraints of the printer’s code, language and visual perception responses are purposefully directed by the reader in some integrated way to the problem of extracting meaning for cues in a text, in sequence, so that the reader brings a maximum of understanding to the author’s message.” So, according to Clay, readers use an orchestrated mixture of linguistic and non-linguistic sources of information about text in decoding and comprehending text, which is language represented symbolically through print. Clearly, Marie Clay uses the term “cues” to describe what how language conveys meaning, not to describe what teachers do in literacy instruction. 

Clay (1989: 275) also explains reading instruction this way:

Thus the route to awareness lies within the learner and the actions taken by the learner. It does not depend upon the teacher’s words or the terminology of instruction. Because children act, they come to know they are acting and what they are acting on. They need support and opportunity to become increasingly independent. As they read, they create occasions for noticing more things about print. This discrimination of new features may be facilitated or retarded by the teacher.

What’s Wrong with Guessing?

In another episode of her podcast, Emily Hanford identifies what she believes to be the real culprit behind the three-cueing systems: Guessing. According to Hanford’s interpretation of theories on how students learn to read and write, guessing is the enemy of decoding because it distracts the emergent reader from paying attention to letter-sound associations. 

“So when a child comes to a word she doesn’t know, her teacher should tell her to look at all the letters in the word and decode it, based on what that child has been taught about how letters and combinations of letters represent speech sounds. There should be no guessing, no “getting the gist of it.” (Hanford, 2019, p. 4)

We must wonder, what is Emily Hanford’s problem with emergent readers’ guessing as they are learning to read? The verb “to guess” means to make a judgment or belief without sufficient evidence or certainty. Guessing goes by many different names: Hypothesize, approximate, predict, infer, postulate, estimate, calculate, speculate, gauge, determine, resolve ambiguity, etc. In fact, neuroscience researchers, as well as psycholinguists and researchers from other academic disciplines use a number of terms to describe “guessing” as a cognitive and linguistic phenomenon involved in comprehension. The most notable term for the theoretical construct among current neuroscience researchers for several decades is “linguistic prediction” (Heilbron, et al., 2022; Kuperberg & Jaeger, 2016; Kroczek & Gunter, 2017; Mazoyer, et al., 1993; Ryskin et al., 2020). Linguistic prediction is something that both novice and skilled mature readers use when extracting meaning from text.

Click here for a link to a bibliography of research on linguistic prediction and processability theory in language and literacy comprehension. This neuroscience research affirms the foundational theory of the extensive body of research on signal systems of language and miscue analysis. See also Goodman, Fries & Strauss (2016) book, “Reading–The Grand Illusion.” 

Teachers of multilingual learners use students’ guesses or approximations in their oral and written language production as a valuable source of information about their levels of competence and language proficiency for purposes of designing lessons that address their second-language learners’ zone of proximal development. Mistaken guesses are called miscues when in oral reading a reader’s oral output shows a mismatch between what the text actually says and what the reader says. Miscues are analyzed to inform teachers about a students’ utilization and comprehension of texts in the psycholinguistic and cognitive research in literacy development. Consequently, we must ask, why does Emily Hanford report a strong objection to guessing among certain unidentified proponents of the Science of Reading when among linguists, psycholinguists and neuroscientists who study reading in the brain have no problem with this linguistic and cognitive phenomenon? 

We also have the anti-cueing campaign being waged by Sarah Schwartz of Education Week writes an article titled Is This the End of “Three Cueing“?

“Cueing has, for decades now, been a staple of early reading instruction. The strategy—which is also known as three-cueing, or MSV—involves prompting students to draw on context and sentence structure, along with letters, to identify words. But it isn’t the most effective way for beginning readers to learn how to decode printed text. 

According to Schwartz,, … Research has shown that encouraging kids to check the picture when they come to a tricky word, or to hypothesize what word would work in the sentence, can take their focus away from the word itself—lowering the chances that they’ll use their understanding of letter sounds to read through the word part-by-part, and be able to recognize it more quickly the next time they see it.”

Of course, Schwartz does not cite the research of any particular researchers who make this claim. Consequently, we scientific literacy researchers have no way to check out the empirical data and research methodologies that our colleagues might have used to arrive at this dubious conclusion, which is actually a statement of the pedagogical implications of someone’s data. 


Clay, M. (1989). Concepts about print in English and other languages. The Reading Teacher, 42(4), 268-272.

Goldberg, M., & Goldenberg, C. (2022). Lessons learned: Reading Wars, Reading First, and a way forward. The Reading Teacher, 75(5), 621-630.

Goodman, K. S. (1971). Decoding–From code to what? Journal of Reading, 14(7), 455-462.

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

Goodman, K., Fries, P. H., & Strauss, S. L. (2016). Reading‒The grand illusion: How and why people make sense of print. Routledge.