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Understanding MSV: The Types of Information Available to Readers

Published On: December 13th, 2022 | Categories: Latest News |

By The North American Trainers Group

The letters MSV stand for meaning, structure, and visual, and recent discussions of early reading instruction refer to them as the ‘three cueing systems.’  Too often the descriptions of MSV are incorrect. Specifically, MSV is not using context, such as pictures and syntax, to guess words as an alternative to using the letters and words on the page.   This incorrect definition is not based on the theory and science of reading that researchers and reading specialists recognize, and while it is often linked to one instructional approach, this connection reflects limited understanding.

MSV relates to information sources available to all readers irrespective of the method of instruction or the type of text read (e.g., decodable or authentic).  Written language offers the reader multiple sources of information in print to support reading for meaning.  Three of these sources are syntax, semantics, and grapho-phonic information.  A fourth is the system of sounds (phonology).  Effective reading involves the use and integration of all information sources available to the reader; no one information source takes priority over another.


The Syntactic System: Using Grammar

The goal of all spoken and written messages is communication, the sharing of meaning.  At the core of communicating is in-the-head grammar.  This grammar entails the rules, or rule system, that govern acceptable sentence construction, rules that are acquired over time by children engaged in meaningful exchanges with proficient speakers, most importantly their families.  A child’s acquisition of this grammar, which continues for many years, is well underway in all five- and six-year-old children. They communicate using the grammar shared by all speakers of their language.

The rule system governing the ways words can be strung together to make meaningful phrases and sentences is referred to as syntax.  For example, the order of words in a declarative sentence is the subject (a noun) before a verb.  The S in MSV refers to the syntax, or structure of our language.  The knowledge of the structure of their language is a strength young learners bring to the challenges of their language arts instruction upon entry to school.  But the main event is meaning, and thus, the importance of the semantic system of language.


The Semantic System: Using Meaning

Semantics refers to the meaning of a word, phrase, sentence, or passage.  The semantic language system, or meaning system, is the personal understanding/knowledge the learner relies on to make sense of messages.  Each child’s semantic system is unique as it results from the individual’s opportunities to learn and thus acquire the schema, including the vocabulary, that is learned through such experiences.  M in MSV stands for Meaning, and it signifies the child’s understanding of and attention to the message being conveyed in a text.

The beginning, first-grade reader already has both syntactic and semantic language systems to support his earliest reading efforts.  Importantly, these systems contribute to both literacy processing and comprehension.  He also controls the sounds of his language as indicated by his production of oral language.  The new challenge is to learn how sounds are represented in print, or how messages are conveyed by written symbols, an additional system.  This is the grapho-phonic system referred to as the visual system because it involves the perceptual information, the letters, and words, processed visually.


The Visual System: Using Letters and Sounds

Reading is a visual task.  The child must learn to direct his eyes to scan words in serial order, left to right, letter by letter.  Acquisition of the visual system involves developing proficient use of phonics and multiple-word analysis strategies to decode unknown words with speed and accuracy.   This new learning entails both visual perception and the acquisition of a large set of items (e.g., letters, letter-sound associations, letter clusters, word-parts, syllables, and words).  Visual information is represented by the letter V.

For the beginning reader, each language knowledge source (meaning, structure, visual information) is limited, and proficient development results from ongoing instruction in both reading and writing contexts.  Over time, semantic and syntactic information sources continue to grow, and important new learning must involve “more and more receptiveness to visual perception .  .  .  which must eventually dominate the process” (Clay, 1982, p. 28).  Thus, Reading Recovery teachers provide instruction to develop the reader’s facility with visual information (word analysis skills and phonics) daily.

All proficient readers use MSV, the information sources, to read text with meaning. Engagement of these language systems is not guessing.  Even in programs that begin reading instruction with a singular focus on visual information (i.e., phonics and word analysis), young readers engage all language information sources to read and comprehend.



Clarity of terms is of paramount importance to our specialized field of literacy acquisition.  Many of our specialized terms reflect concepts established through scientific study and used with consistency over time.  Theoretically based concepts are what is expected in all discussions of  the ‘science of reading.’  Alternatives lead to misjudgments, inappropriate assumptions, and unfortunate conclusions.

Clay, M. M. (1982).  Observing young readers: Selected papers.  Exeter, NH: Heinemann.



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