MSV Explained [and Why It’s So Misunderstood]

Analyzing and understanding the place of MSV is often misunderstood

M, S, V. Those three little letters–and what they represent– are maybe the most misunderstood and attacked letters in the English language. In this post, I hope to clarify what they’re all about and share why they are still very, very important for understanding how to teach our readers–beginning or otherwise. I hope to help you make sense of the argument out there, and why parents and politicians who don’t understand the why behind what we do are so involved.

First, A History Lesson

Quick synopsis. In the late 1960’s, a reading expert at the time, Ken Goodman, coined the term “three cueing.” He posited that readers use meaning, structure, and visual cues to determine words as they are encountered–meaning that using the 3 cues helps predict the next word and the next, etc. At that time, researchers were just figuring out that reading is very dependent on oral language structure, so at the time, this idea made great sense.

At about the same time, Marie Clay, creator of the Reading Recovery method, extended Goodman’s theory, and brought in miscue analysis–meaning that we carefully look at a student’s errors, and do our best to determine what caused them. In doing this, teachers can find patterns in the source(s) of information that students are overly-reliant on, and what they are neglecting. Clay stressed the importance of reading as a meaning-making process, and that all three cueing systems–visual, syntactic, and meaning–should be integrated. Arriving at meaning is, of course, the goal.

What We’re Looking For

We want all readers to use all three cues, all the time: meaning, structure, and visual–to not only determine words at point of difficulty, but also to use those same cues as self-monitoring tools. We want readers to think about what they read and continuously monitor their own sense-making. This is where the powerful, commonly asked questions– “does it look right,” “does it sound right,” and “does it make sense?” come into play. Each of these questions, though, is of equal importance. One is not higher-priority than another. But readers MUST take in the print–all of the print, from left to right–in order to even be able to think whether it makes sense and sounds right.

Somehow, what has happened over time, though, is that educators have taken those three letters: M, S, and V, and given the most attention to M, and the least to V. But, as Jan Richardson points out in her book, The Next Step Forward in Running Records, M, S, V is simply an alphabetical list of those cues. It was never meant to be an order of importance thing, which has somehow been misconstrued over time.

A Better Approach

This is why I absolutely love what the authors of Shifting the Balance suggest: that instead of thinking about it as M, S, V, because that so easily becomes M, s, v; we instead think about it as VSM. I think the authors are spot on here. As readers, we need to take in the print–all the print–from left to right (V), FIRST. But–as we do this, we need to simultaneously think about structure, by considering the type of word it is, so that what is said makes syntactical sense–like we’d actually speak. And always, always, readers are thinking, “is this making sense?” And if it doesn’t, the goal is for readers to go back and fix up whatever wasn’t right. This all happens very, very quickly. It’s all with the goal of making sense of the text. This is also a key way we build new vocabulary–which debunks the idea that readers use the cues as a way to predict words. We use the cues to help us construct meaning of the words.

Using the three cues as a way to predict words is simply incorrect, but that, unfortunately, has been the message that’s been spread for decades. This deemphasis on the print can only lead to readers guessing words. By not encouraging–demanding–that readers apply their growing phonics knowledge first and foremost, and using the other two cues to ensure sense-making, we have taken away the first line of support. We might as well blindfold kids. Rather, we need to be teaching kids to apply their phonics skills across words, and teach them to constantly, simultaneously think about structural sense and meaning. But this means we have to intentionally teach phonics–and that is something that for some reason, teachers have long neglected. Teachers have been teaching imbalanced literacy for too long. It might be a time issue. I address ways to save time in your lessons here, here, and here.

Where We Went Wrong

So those cute little strategies that were sold by the millions in recent years, like “skippy the frog” and “check the picture” caused more harm than good. If we don’t teach kids the phonics they need–their key to word-solving, they have to rely on other sources of information. If a blind person can’t see, they have to rely on other senses to help them. That is, in effect, what we do to kids when we don’t teach them the phonics skills they need to figure out words.

I won’t go into details here, but this is exactly how readers orthographically map sounds and patterns–and thereby strengthen their ability to learn and apply those word patterns to new words. And why a healthy mix of decodable books for early readers is so critical. (Please note–I want to be clear I am NOT advocating for ONLY decodable books for early readers. I am a firm believer in both decodable and leveled–and this changes over time). They NEED multiple exposures to phonics principles they’re learning in order to create the brain synapses needed to know them. A diet of only predictable books, where the words are primarily made up of words the child is not equipped to decode, are not going to support a budding reader as successfully. Nor is a diet of only decodable books going to to support a budding reader successfully.

Here’s one of my best examples of this. Last year, one of our students, who lives in a city apartment, was reading a predictable book for guided reading. He came to the word “garage.” This student was also an English language learner. So, he’d never heard the word “garage,” and had never seen one. When the teacher prompted him to “think what makes sense,” he had absolutely no idea. After she then prompted him to “check the picture,” it still made no sense. He was SOL. But had she prompted him to use his growing phonics knowledge to decode the word, he would likely have figured out “gar,” and he at least might have said “age.” Garage with a long /a/ sound is a lot closer to the word than nothing at all. Then he could have used the picture to figure out the context–that that word is a word which means a place to park a car that’s part of the house. And he would have authentically expanded his vocabulary. By using these two unhelpful prompts at that moment, the teacher did not equip the child to make sense of the text. Prompting “think what makes sense” isn’t always helpful.

When teachers ask kids to take their eyes off left to right directionality across the text by saying things like “skip and go on,” “check the picture,” and “find a part you know,” we are only reinforcing the bad habit of NOT looking left to right through a word. This is something that gets to be more and more problematic as students move up in text level. I’ve seen this time and again in my former role as a reading interventionist, especially with second grade and up and the multisyllabic words they encounter.

Cue the Politicians

This is why parents are so loudly voicing their concern now. They’re seeing their kids struggle to read, because too often, teachers have not provided a critical tool: phonics instruction. And they are right about that….but because they don’t know what they don’t know, they don’t understand the important place of authentic texts, and they don’t understand the nuanced work that building comprehension entails. Non-educators don’t understand what a whole reader needs. They see a need, they shout from the rooftops and shell out money, and the politicians who answer to them find what they think is a quick fix. It’s a very, very political and dollar-driven movement.

This is why our education pendulum is so far to the other side right now. I’ve now seen this swing 4 times in my career. And each time, children pay the price. Big time.

Let’s Rebalance

Here’s the deal. By definition, “balanced literacy” means there is a balance of phonics and meaning work taught. We have to teach students how to read–and provide them all the tools they need–which absolutely must include systematic phonics. But it also includes more authentic reading work, especially in comprehension. Both of these prongs work together to help develop strong readers who integrate sources of information–those three cues–to arrive at meaning. I don’t know when or why teachers let phonics instruction slip, but in doing so for decades, we’re seeing now why that’s so detrimental for readers. Readers need both. Never one over the other. Balance. Again, hence the name, balanced literacy instruction.

Why We Still Need to Analyze MSV

So. Back to MSV analysis. It IS important to do this. We have to determine what a child is overly relying on that caused the errors, and what they are not using. M, S, and V–or V, S, M–should be used simultaneously, always. Each of these cues are tools the reader needs in their toolbelt to continuously take in and make sense of text. If there’s something being neglected, we need to teach into it.

Because this is just a small part of reading. We also need to help children become fluent, in its many aspects. We need to help children find their own identity as a reader (which is why we also need to stop labeling them as a level). We need to help them grow to love and appreciate reading, because it’s a gift and a life necessity. And most importantly, we need to teach children how to think critically and analytically–skills they will need the rest of their lives.

But we’ll never get them there if they are blindfolded.

Related Posts: Lesson Planning Tips That Help You Do More, Better–in Less Time, Mastering the MINI lesson, Getting to Know Your Readers and Writers to Save Time Later, Why You Need to Do Shared and Interactive Writing

Want some help thinking through your lessons for big-bang-for-your-buck teaching? Check out my site to see how I can help! Contact me to set up a coaching call, so we can think it through together!

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