The Four Cueing Systems

The four cueing systems, Grapho-phonemic, Syntactic, Semantic and Pragmatic, are used in language development and are important for communication. We use all four systems simultaneously as we speak, listen, read, and write.

Grapho-phonemic: (knowing about print)

Grapho-phonemic cues are related to the sounds we hear (both individual letters and letter combinations), the letters of the alphabet and the conventions of print. This cueing system is used extensively by students in the primary as they learn to read and write. However, because there are 26 letters and 44 sounds, with many different ways to spell some of those sounds, English language cannot be taught solely through the use of phonics. Consider the many possibilities for spelling the long e sound: read, meet, we, people, concrete. And there are many exceptions to phonics rules as well. Sometimes the patterns do not work. Consider the words: great and head. Beginning writers and struggling writers rely on the phonological system to create invented spellings. Proficient readers and writers draw on their prior experiences with text and the other cueing systems, as well as the phonological system, as their reading and writing develops.

Strategic supports for developing the grapho-phonemic system:

  • Ask: Does that look right? What word would you expect to see?
  • Point out letters during shared reading and help students to make the connection between what they see and what they hear.
  • For primary students, use individual whiteboards or magnetic letters so that students can practice writing letters and words.

Syntactic: (knowing about language)

The syntactic system provides information about the form and the structure of the language, including whether or not the text sounds correct when pronounced. Syntactic cues involve identifying the function of the word (noun, verb, adjective, adverb). They rely on the basic knowledge of how the English language works, and basic language patterns associated with it.

The syntactic system is usually in place when children begin school. From being immersed in language, children begin to recognize that phrases and sentences are usually ordered in certain ways. This notion of ordering is the development of syntax. When errors are made in syntax, it is usually due to an overgeneralization of rules (e.g., “I goed to get ice cream.”) Rather than correcting the child directly, the teacher or parent clarifies, reinforces and even extends the proper syntax (e.g., “Yes, went to get ice cream. We went after your sister’s soccer game, didn’t we?”)

The syntactic system is also concerned with word parts that change the meaning of a word, called morphemes. Adding the suffix “less” or the prefix “un” changes the meaning of a word, just as adding “ing” or an “s” to the end of a word changes its meaning or tense.
Students learning English as a second language are used to different word order patterns, where descriptors often come after the word they are describing. Literally translated from Spanish or French, a sentence might read, “This is my bike blue.”

Strategic supports for developing the syntactic system:

  • Ask: Can we say it that way? Does that sound right?
  • Engage students in many opportunities to explore oral language. Scaffold tricky sentences and sentence patterns.

Semantic: (knowing about words and the world)

The key component of the semantic system is vocabulary. A reader must be able to attach meaning to words and have some prior knowledge to use as a context for understanding the word. They must be able to relate the newly learned word to prior knowledge through personal associations with text and the structure of text

The semantic system is developed from the beginning through early interactions with adults. At first, this usually involves labeling (e.g. This is a tree.) The labeling becomes more sophisticated as more detail is added (e.g., It is a maple tree. Its leaves are turning colours. Some trees lose their leaves in the winter and some greens don’t.) The child learns that there is a set of “tree attributes” and that within the category “tree”, there are subsets of “tree” (e.g. deciduous, coniferous). The development of this system and the development of the important concepts that relate to the system are largely accomplished as children begin to explore language independently. As children talk about what they’ve done and play out their experiences, they are making personal associations between their experiences and language. This is critical to success in later literacy practices such as reading comprehension and writing.

Strategic supports for developing the semantic system:

  • Ask: Does that make sense?
  • Scaffold new learning, activate prior knowledge, talk to students about the purposes and functions of literacy.
  • Support students in what they can do and push them a little further to do more.
  • Use a word wall.

Pragmatic (knowing about purposes or functions of reading)

The pragmatic system provides information about the purposes and needs the reader has while reading; it governs what the reader considers important and needs to understand. The pragmatic system has received little formal recognition in many programs and is the one cueing system that is sometimes absent in reading methods textbooks.

By the time children start attending school, they may have developed a tacit understanding of some of the pragmatics of a particular situation, (e.g., turn-taking in conversation). However, depending upon students’ various situational experiences, socialization into school and even into each new classroom may need to happen through explicit guidance. In the case of turn-taking, teachers may have to introduce students to a variety of strategies to help them work in groups effectively so that all students have an opportunity to contribute. Different discourse patterns exist within every subgroup or community. For example, the Discourse in a staff meeting at an elementary school is different than the Discourse of a group of parents at a hockey game (Gee, 1996). Teachers need to be sensitive to their students’ culture, and they must observe closely to help point out pertinent pragmatic features when necessary.

Strategic supports for developing the pragmatic system:

  • Ask: What is the purpose and function of this literacy event? How should your use of language vary given the context?
  • Talk to students about the purposes and functions of language.
  • Engage them in activities that help them to understand that how we say something, when we say it, and who we say it to, and often more important than what we say.