M Is Not For Picture Clues

Written by Gen

You may be familiar with “The Reading Wars,” a global literacy teaching conversation which seemingly pits the simple view of reading against the complex view of reading.

The simple view of reading maintains that accurate decoding leads to comprehension. Therefore, in instructional models based on this theory, students are first systematically taught phonics through a series of explicit lessons beginning with the smallest word units to the largest. Teaching often includes decodable texts with controlled vocabulary and an isolated focus on phonemes.

The complex view of reading asserts that readers use decoding and other sources of information in a text in order to understand during reading. Constructing meaning while processing text is taught from the start alongside building knowledge of phonics for accurate reading. Instructional models based on this theory often use leveled texts with authentic text features and vocabulary with brief periods of carefully planned isolated phonics work in a sequence individualized to the needs of small groups of students. 

The rhetoric between these two groups is getting heated. Various terminology is used in arguments determining if one group is right or the other wrong. What makes the conversation contestable, in my opinion, is that there are several serious misconceptions regarding the complex view of reading.

Myth Busting

Myth #1: The 3-Cueing System 

The term “3-cueing system” is used to describe the “cues” of meaning, structure, and visual information that young readers are meant to use to solve a word. The problem is, the 3-cueing system is a mythMany literacy teachers are familiar with the work of Marie Clay, researcher and developer of Reading Recovery. She did not develop the 3-cueing system. You may also be familiar with the work of researchers Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, who have developed ways of teaching literacy responsively within a multi-text framework based upon the work of Marie Clay. They did not develop the 3-cueing system, either. The term “3-cueing system” may be a misunderstanding of researchers Ken and Yetta Goodman’s work around retrospective error analysis. Read below for an accurate view on what the terms “meaning,” “structure,” and “visual” are meant to be.

Myth #2: The Creation Story of MSV

Meaning, structure, and visual information are sources of information, not a cueing system. These three types of information exist inherently in text. I doubt anyone would argue that there is meaning in authentic text, or that there is language structure, or that you need to use the visual print on the page to read it. MSV was not created by Marie Clay, she observed that they were there by studying young children read real text. Knowledgeable and skilled literacy teachers record a student’s attempts at reading, as a form of assessment, and use the sources from the text, MSV, to analyze the individual child’s reading in order to determine to which sources the student is attending. This allows the teacher to develop a series of reading lessons designed to support that individual child. It is the teacher’s job to create a balance in how the student attends to all of the information in a text, which includes phonological information.

Teachers who operate under the complex theory of reading teach students to understand while they are reading right from the start- they do not wait for students to memorize phonics rules before asking them to predict, evaluate, and synthesize during reading. In order to do this, they point out information provided in the text in addition to the phonological information. The child will be asked to continuously be checking the words they are reading visually with the intended meaning of the text, while also anticipating the text structures in order to develop fluency and understanding. It is a checks and balances system for accurate reading: visual or phonological mismatches may alert the student to an error just as much as a mismatch in meaning or structure.

Clay (2016) has this to say about what children need to learn as readers, “He has to learn the letters, and the words, and their relationships to sound sequences, but he also has to build and expand the intricate interacting networks in the brain that must work together at great speed as he reads text.” In my opinion, the word also is the most significant word in that quote as it relates to the global literacy conversation. Clay did not dismiss the essential nature of learning the visual code, but rather suggests there are other equally important behaviors a reader must have.

Myth Myth #3: There’s No Systematic Phonics Instruction in Balanced Literacy

Those with a complex view of reading do teach phonics while also encouraging the child to not ignore the other sources of information that the text provides so that meaning can be made and vocabulary can be expanded. It’s even systematic, moving from the smallest to the largest phonemes over time. Here is a sampling of the reading behaviors related to solving words to teach, prompt and reinforce over time from Fountas and Pinnell’s Literacy Continuum (2017):

Text Level B:

  • Read a few words with very easy, predictable letter-sound relationships (decodable) (p. 418)

Text Level D:

  • Read words with easy spelling patterns with the support of pictures and language (VC, CVC, CVCe) (p. 431)

Text Level F:

  • Read words with easy spelling patterns with the support of pictures and language (VC, CVC, CVCe, CVV, CVVC, VCe) (p. 442)

Text Level H:

  • Use word parts to solve some two-syllable or three-syllable words (p. 454)
  • Read many compound words: e.g., into, bedroom, playground (p. 454)

Text Level J:

  • Use word parts to solve multisyllable words (p. 467)
  • Read contractions, possessives, compound words, and simple connectives (p. 467)

Please note the progression of decoding behaviors and how they grow more and more complex over the course of instruction as text levels rise and picture support decreases. Using a picture to solve a word is a brief step in a continuum of complex word solving skills that are taught during guided reading. Knowledgeable and skilled teachers systematically move away from this behavior to more sophisticated ways of word solving (phonics!).

Let’s not forget that guided reading is only one type of instruction that is meant to occur within a much larger teaching framework which should include (Fountas & Pinnell, 2017):

  • shared reading & writing
  • interactive reading & writing
  • guided reading & writing
  • independent reading & writing
  • and… phonics & word study!

Each of these areas requires specific planning and teaching. Students are not meant to be left to their own devices to guess at words.

Myth #4: Using Meaning is Guessing from Pictures and Students Solve Words With Context Clues. 

The “M” from MSV has somehow become synonymous with looking at pictures and guessing. I suppose it’s another case of not fully understanding a theory before putting it into practice. The “M” from MSV stands for meaning, but the meaning is so much deeper than the pictures.

Here is the language for a few reading behaviors from Fountas and Pinnell’s Continuum (2017) that speaks to the use of context:

Text Level H:

  • Expand understanding of the meaning of words by connection with the pictures and/or understanding the context (p. 455)
  • Use details in illustrations to understand new vocabulary (p. 455)

You can see from the language used here, that the use of context is meant to receive the message of what has been read, not to solve the word.

Within the complex view of reading, decoding and processing text for understanding are taught simultaneously because authentic text does not exist without meaning, structure and visual information. In the beginning, young readers do use information from pictures because they are new to this! They don’t know how to make sense of the squiggles on the page yet, but they do understand pictures. We have known for a long time that effective instruction builds new knowledge by connecting it to what is already known. Over the course of a little time, these young readers are taught to understand the little squiggles and they are taught to pay more and more specific attention to the print and spelling patterns. Patterned texts with one sentence on a page are reserved for the very beginning stages of reading to establish one-to-one pointing and directional understandings, such as left-to-right and return sweep. Once these things are secure, children should be moving into text without pattern and greater demands for searching visual information.

We don’t want to wait to teach children to think while they read until they have mastered all phonics skills. Just like anything in life, children learn to read at various rates. Children who are slower to acquire knowledge of phonics will be significantly delayed in their ability to comprehend if we do. I’d like to make it clear that I am referring to teaching children to comprehend while they are reading, not listening to, a text. Processing written text and listening comprehension are different skills. Listening to text is part of a multi-text framework, according to Fountas and Pinnell (2017).


So, why is the complex theory of literacy instruction so misunderstood? In my opinion, there are several reasons:

Reason 1: Not everyone gets a deep enough understanding of the theory behind what they do before they do it. This is how we get things like cute animal mnemonics for reading strategies. These cute animal rhymes for how to solve a word are not from researchers. I can tell because they are oversimplifying observable reading behaviors that skilled teachers use to analyze student reading and use to develop lessons, not strategies that are to be taught. Knowledgeable and skilled teachers do not ask a child to look at a picture and guess a word. But these are things that are observed in classrooms and become the face of a movement. Flawed execution is not indicative of a flawed theory.

Reason 2: Districts are under pressure for higher test scores and teachers are overwhelmed in time and emotional energy. Therefore they seek quick and easy methods to relay information to children. This is how we get scripted reading programs that remove teacher autonomy and diminish reading to a series of memorized sounds and words. Researcher, Dr. Richard Allington (2002) calls this “teacher-stupidification.” He says, “Who would benefit from a teacher-stupidification consensus? The most obvious potential beneficiaries are those who provide educational products or services for profit (p. 33).” It makes sense that companies, because they are corporations and not literacy specialists, would be inclined to adopt the simple theory of reading given the measurable nature of it’s components. This is not necessarily true for all companies, so consider programs and resources wisely. The responsibility falls on the consumer to analyze the research behind the product. Allington (2002) asserts that it is teacher expertise alone that impacts successful literacy teaching. “Inexpert teachers are less successful than expert teachers at teaching children to read even when packaged curriculum products are available (p. 29).” He maintains that districts must consider where they put their funding, “Far too many schools (and school districts) either have failed to buy (that is, hire) teachers with the expertise needed to offer effective reading lessons, or are ignoring the expertise of their instructional staff (p. 30).”

Final Thoughts

As an educator, you have to decide if you believe in a simple or complex view of reading. Either way, please understand that teaching phonics, decoding, and spelling are essential pieces of both. While you are developing your philosophy of literacy, you will hear about the “science of reading,” and so I will leave you with the thoughts of linguist and researcher Frank Smith regarding neuroscience and reading instruction. Smith (2003) contends that brain research can tell us merely about what the brain does and not why it does. We can see what the brain does when a child reads, but there is no way to know how the neurological or chemical processes produce the reading. He says, “[Neuroscientists] will draw diagrams of the inside of the brain with arrows and little boxes labeled <input> <output> <phonemic processing> <memory> and even <understanding>. But they can’t explain what goes on in those boxes, or the ‘information’ assumed to pass along the routes indicated by the arrows (p. 8).”

If you are a teacher of literacy, please read a variety of research that is both in and out of line with your current thinking. Analyze it carefully. If you can provide a rationale for your methods of teaching that is steeped in theory and supported by research and your students are learning to read, then sleep well at night, my friends.

Allington, R.L. (2002). Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Clay, M.M. (2016). Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals. Auckland, NZ: Scholastic.
Fountas, I.C. & Pinnell, G.S. (2017). Guided Reading: Responsive Teaching Across the Grades. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Smith, F. (2003). Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices: Flaws and Fallacies in “Scientific” Reading Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

8 thoughts on “M Is Not For Picture Clues

    1. Mel

      I would say to sleep well if your kids are all reading fluently and well. If not, you need to consider that there is likely a better way to teach reading, and ethically you should seek out more research to guide you. If half your kids can’t decode, the problem is not the kids (or their parents.)


    2. Sarah brown

      Im sorry, but you are mistaken in your characterization of the simple view of reading. The simple view of reading divides the pre-requisites for skilled reading into two groups: word recognition, and language comprehension. Word recognition skills are taught with explicit systematic phonics based instruction including phonological awareness, phoneme graphemes correspondence, building to orthographic mapping. No one ever has argued that language comprehension skills should not be developed concurrently. Language comprehension consists of knowledge, vocabulary, syntax and semantics, verbal reasoning, and literacy (genre) knowledge. These comprehension skills are developed through read alouds and oral language exposure. There is much evidence that many students are currently not being provided with effective phonics instruction, and under the veil of “balanced literacy” are being taught to guess, and not learning how to decode words.


      1. Thank you for your comment. This article speaks to the importance of teaching students to draw strategically upon comprehension and understanding while the students are learning to process text. We are talking about teaching decoding and constructing meaning simultaneously, while you are referring to teaching decoding and comprehension concurrently. In our opinion, meaning cannot be constructed at a deep enough level in a decodable reader. As for balanced literacy, I will refer you back to the post, “Flawed execution is not indicative of a flawed theory.” Flawed execution can be found on both sides of the fence. The article concludes by encouraging teachers to gain knowledge about what and how they teach, not necessarily to change their minds. We are all in this together.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Mo

    I think you are confused about “the Simple View of Reading.” It is actually more complex than you describe. It also does not state that accurate decoding alone leads to comprehension. When people refer to The Simple View, they are referencing Gough and Tumner’s work circa 1986 and a specific formula (Decoding Xs Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension.)


  2. Beth Klein

    I understand your distinction between teaching decoding/constructing meaning (from MSV) simultaneously, versus teaching decoding/teaching language comprehension in separate lessons (per SVR). I agree that lessons involving reading comprehension should start before all grapheme-phoneme associations are known. But it’s equally important to teach background knowledge and vocabulary through oral language and listening comprehension, as this will strengthen reading comprehension.

    I agree with your point “effective instruction builds new knowledge by connecting it to what is already known.” However, while you’re referring to pictures as prior knowledge, isn’t oral language the best possible source of prior knowledge to build upon?

    Since most school districts continue to use BL curricula, I think it’s reasonable to say this is the way most kids are currently taught. When we see the low percent of reading/ELA proficiency on both national and state accountability tests, can we agree these scores are concerning and something in instruction needs to change? I understand what you’re saying about flawed execution not reflecting flawed theory. Instruction needs to be carried out with fidelity to be effective. But has learning to read through attending to MSV text features been proven to be effective when carried out with fidelity? The research doesn’t support this at all.

    I think key words in your response are “in our opinion” and “theory”. Does evidence and scientific rigor matter, and does a great preponderance of evidence matter? Thx for considering these points if open to them.


  3. Heather

    Decodable readers are not meant to be used for deep meaning, they are meant to practice specific Decoding skills. We don’t give medical students a book on surgery so that they can simultaneously learn about medicine and how to perform surgery. Their skills are scaffolded and practiced individually . Just like reading skills need to be practiced and mastery using decidable texts .


  4. Dian Prestwich

    It’s unfortunate that your blog begins with a flawed interpretation of the simple view of reading. If you are going to put this information out there, it’s important to do your research first, which interestingly enough, you encourage your readers to do. Also interesting that you are screening comments and choosing what to allow yet you encourage teachers to read from both sides and do their own decision-making.


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