How We Read- Keep it Simple

For decades, especially leading up to the 2000s, educators and researchers have debated how children should be taught to read, and how exactly the process of reading works in our brains.  The discussion 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, meaning 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 very best for our children, so it’s no wonder that differing opinions about literacy instruction have sparked debates contentious enough to be 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 35 years ago.  Their simple view of reading explains the process of reading like this: 

The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) 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 have difficulty understanding 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 need to work on decoding, language comprehension, or both.  Over the past three and a half decades, the simple view has held up, having been put to the test countless times (e.g. Catts, Hogan, & Adlof, 2005; Kendeou, Savage, & van den Broek, 2009), including in settings were children learn to read in a second language (e.g. Erdos, Genesee, Savage, & Haigh, 2010).

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 current understandings of reading difficulties (e.g. Bishop & Snowling, 2004; Adlof & Hogan, 2018).  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 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.
  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 required for word recognition, including 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, also called dyslexia.
  3. Stronger decoding and weaker language comprehension.  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. When difficulties are more or less specific to language skills, it is called developmental language disorder (DLD).  Children with this profile may become strong readers, if they have some help to further develop their language skills.  For instance, we would want to apply a good approach to vocabulary development, and help organizing ideas from more complex texts.
  4. Weaker decoding and weaker language comprehension. A combination of both factors leads to reading difficulties. Children with this profile will need a careful teaching approach that meets their needs in both areas.

Don’t put me in a box!

What is the point of these quadrants, anyway?  Not to label children and put them neatly into a box. The purpose is to understand where a child is at in his or her journey to becoming a reader, using an evidence-based model of reading development.  When we figure out what a child needs help with, we can get to work right away, using targeted interventions that will be of the most benefit.

It really does make sense.

A while back, 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 (like 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.  Many educators and researchers in the field of education at the time believed that reading came naturally to young learners, who would benefit from being immersed in a world of books, without getting bogged down in the details of word decoding.  But it turned out that whole language was based on faulty assumptions; there is no credible evidence that teaching reading more holistically— without a focus on decoding— is the way to go.  On the contrary, we have heaps of evidence to indicate that emphasis on phonics and phonemic awareness instruction in the early years of schooling results in the best outcomes (e.g. Ehri et al. 2001).  Sadly, children on the left side of the quadrant, for whom decoding is difficult even when it is explicitly taught, were particularly vulnerable to the shortcomings of the whole language approach.  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 2021 it would be case closed on whole language.  But in reality, it’s not that straightforward.  Although the term whole language is no longer in vogue in most circles, there are still vestiges of it that appear in many popular reading programs, classroom materials, 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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