Language is a complex system for creating meaning through socially shared conventions (Halliday, 1978). English, like other languages, involves four cueing systems:

  • The phonological, or sound, system
  • The syntactic, or structural, system
  • The semantic, or meaning, system
  • The pragmatic, or social and cultural use, system

Together, these systems make communication possible; children and adults use all four systems simultaneously as they read, write, listen, and talk. The priority people place on various cueing systems can vary; however, the phonological system is especially important for beginning readers and writers as they apply phonics skills to decode and spell words. Information about the four cueing systems is summarized in the table below.

System Terms Applications

Phonological System

The sound system of English with approximately 44 sounds and more than 500 ways to spell them

  • Phoneme (the smallest unit of sound)
  • Grapheme (the written representation of a phoneme using one or more letters)
  • Phonological awareness (knowledge about the sound structure of words, at the phoneme, onset-rime, and syllable levels)
  • Phonemic awareness (the ability to orally manipulate phonemes in words)
  • Phonics (instruction about phoneme-grapheme correspondences and spelling rules)
  • Pronouncing words
  • Detecting regional and other dialects
  • Decoding words when reading
  • Using invented spelling
  • Reading and writing alliterations and onomatopoeia
  • Noticing rhyming words
  • Dividing words into syllables

Syntactic System

The structural system of English that governs how words are combined into sentences

  • Syntax (the structure or grammar of a sentence)
  • Morpheme (the smallest meaningful unit of language)
  • Free morpheme (a morpheme that can stand alone as a word)
  • Bound morpheme (a morpheme that must be attached to a free morpheme)
  • Adding inflectional endings to words
  • Combining words to form compound words
  • Adding prefixes and suffixes to root words
  • Using capitalization and punctuation to indicate beginnings and ends of sentences
  • Writing simple, compound, and complex sentences
  • Combining sentences

Semantic System

The meaning system of English that focuses on vocabulary

  • Semantics (meaning)
  • Synonyms (words that mean the same or nearly the same thing)
  • Antonyms (opposites)
  • Homonyms (words that sound alike but are spelled differently)
  • Learning the meanings of words
  • Discovering that many words have multiple meanings
  • Using context clues to figure out an unfamiliar word
  • Studying synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms
  • Using a dictionary and a thesaurus

Pragmatic System

The system of English that varies language according to social and cultural uses

  • Function (the purpose for which a person uses language)
  • Standard English (the form of English used in textbooks and by television newscasters)
  • Nonstandard English (other forms of English)
  • Varying language to fit specific purposes
  • Reading and writing dialogue in dialects
  • Comparing standard and nonstandard forms of English