How We Read- Keep it Simple

For decades, especially leading up to the 2000s, educators and researchers have debated how exactly the process of reading works in our brains, and how children should be taught to read.  The debate has been at times intense and impassioned, which is understandable given what is at stake.  After all, we live in the age of information where reading is really not optional, and those who don’t read well are significantly disadvantaged.  Statistics Canada reported in 2012 a 70% higher household income for adults with “level 4-5” reading skills (able to integrate information from multiple dense texts, using reasoning and inferencing) compared to those with “level 1” reading skills (able to locate single pieces of information from short texts with basic vocabulary).  We all want the best for our children, so it’s no wonder that differing opinions about literacy instruction sparked debates so feisty that they were dubbed The Reading Wars.

Fortunately, there is a way to move beyond the debate, and it involves looking to what scientific research can tell us about literacy development and what kind of instruction leads to the best outcomes.  Overwhelmingly, the research supports what Gough and Tunmer proposed almost 35 years ago.  Their simple view of reading explains the process of reading like this: 

It is indeed a simple framework, but the implications were complex because it proposed that two separate processes are required to achieve the ultimate goal of reading comprehension.  Basically, to read, you have to be good at two things:

  1. Decoding– figuring out the words on the page
  2. Language comprehension– understanding what the words mean  

Because reading comprehension is the product (not the sum!) of the two, if you have trouble with either one, you will struggle to understand the words on the page.  For short: D x LC = RC. When someone is experiencing reading difficulties, the very first thing we need to do is figure out is whether it’s because they have trouble with decoding, with language comprehension, or with both.

The simple view of reading has been put to the test over and over, and it consistently holds true that reading comprehension ability is basically the product of decoding ability and listening comprehension, for example this study from 2009, and this more recent one from 2018.

Putting the Simple View to work:

If we plot the two processes of reading against each other (D x LC), we get a model that shows four possible scenarios of reading ability.  Although it differs somewhat from what Gough and Tunmer originally proposed, the model below is based on what is best supported by current research.  A clear understanding of this model is crucial; it will help us understand the problem and figure out the right solutions.   

Breaking down the quadrants:
  1. Stronger decoding and stronger language comprehension– these children still need to be taught how to read, but their literacy skills should develop typically, with relative ease. They are advantaged when early reading instruction is approached systematically, but even if instruction is not totally systematic, they will still be able to learn to read well.
  2. Weaker decoding and stronger language comprehension– children with this profile will require structured instruction in order to become proficient readers. Teaching must focus on foundational skills of phonemic awareness and phonics. If good attempts have been made to teach decoding, a person who continues to struggle significantly in this area may have Specific Learning Disorder (SLD) in reading, the DSM-5 term for dyslexia.
  3. Stronger decoding and weaker language comprehension– difficulty with language comprehension can indicate a language disorder.  Some people with average (or better) non-verbal skills have difficulty with oral language; when difficulties are more or less specific to language, it is called Developmental Language Disorder (DLD).  This can lead to a subtler type of reading problem where a person may be able to figure out the words on the page, but have trouble getting at their meaning. Children with this profile can become strong readers, as long as they have some help to develop their language skills further. For example, a good approach to vocabulary development, and help mapping/organizing ideas in more complex texts.
  4. Weaker decoding and weaker language comprehension– a combination of both factors leads to reading difficulties. Children with this profile can absolutely learn to read well, using a careful approach that meets their needs.

Don’t put me in a box!

The point of the four quadrants is not to “label” children and put them neatly into a box. The purpose is to understand where a child is at in his/her journey to becoming a strong reader, using the evidence-based model of reading development. When we accurately figure out which areas a child needs help with, we can get right to work, using targeted interventions that will be the most beneficial to the child.

It really does make sense.

A few months ago, I was telling a friend all about the virtues of the simple view of reading (I’m fun at parties).  Her first reaction was a blank stare, and then something along the lines of, “That is simple, why on earth is this a big deal?”  So, if you were thinking that the equation D x LC = RC is a no-brainer, you’re not alone.  However, the simple view doesn’t actually claim that reading is simple, just that D x LC is a simple way to explain the big-picture processes, both of which are deeply complex. Furthermore, we need to consider the context from which the simple view arose in 1986.  Although the 1980s were awesome for a lot of things (for example, slouch socks and Cyndi Lauper), it was a tough time to be a reading researcher and likely even tougher to be a teacher of reading, because the “reading wars” were in full swing.  There were a lot of people who flat-out rejected the idea that decoding words was a process to be distinguished from other language skills, preferring to view reading as a holistic process, even for novice readers.

The belief in a holistic approach affected the way in which reading was taught to many children in the 1980s and 90s, as an approach called whole language became very popular.  But it turned out that whole language was based on faulty assumptions; there is no credible evidence that teaching reading more holistically— that is, without special focus on decoding— is the way to go.  On the contrary, we have heaps of research to indicate that emphasis on phonics and phonemic awareness instruction in the early years of schooling results in the best outcomes, for example Ehri et al. 2001.  Particularly vulnerable to the short-comings of the whole language approach were children on the left side of the quadrant, for whom decoding is difficult even when it is explicitly taught.  Being a child with dyslexia in most 1980s or 90s classrooms would have been extremely difficult.

Given all of this knowledge, you might assume that in 2020 it’s case closed on whole language.  But in reality, it’s not that simple.  Although the term “whole language” is no longer in vogue, there are still remnants of it that appear in many popular reading programs and teacher trainings.  But the history of whole language is a whole other topic for a whole other day.  Until then, we’ll go with what the research confirms about reading: keep it simple with D x LC = RC.

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