Not so simple...The Simple View of Reading.

At the heart of the conflict between whole language approaches to reading and code emphasis approaches appears to be a confusion between reading comprehension and decoding instruction. This confusion was eventually addressed in ‘Simple View of Reading’ (Gough and Tumner, 1986, Hoover and Gough, 1990). This seminal research study recognised the importance of phonic decoding as a crucial element of reading. It alluded to the concept of phonics mastery as a necessary threshold for reading fluency and was central to this study’s conceptual framework.

Two hundred and fifty children were studied over seven years from kindergarten through to fourth grade. Observing that some children had highly advanced language comprehension skills but poor reading comprehension skills, they found a significant regression equation between children’s decoding skills (using a pseudo-word assessment), their oral language comprehension scores and the outcomes of reading comprehension tests. A deficit in either decoding or oral language skills, the study found, always resulted in a lower reading comprehension score. Where language skills were high, an improvement in decoding led to an equal (not partial) improvement in comprehension scores.

As an analytical tool for the focusing of reading intervention it proved invaluable. Reading comprehension could be improved by interventions addressing readers’ deficits in either decoding or language comprehension. If two of the variables were known, then the third could be accurately predicted. Hyperlexic readers (good decoding but poor language comprehension) would receive specific instruction in language whereas dyslexic readers (poor decoding but at least average language comprehension) would receive decoding interventions – NB. This is Gough and Tumner’s (1986) definition of dyslexia. Poor decoding allied to poor language comprehension identified the ‘garden variety’ poor reader.

Although valuable, the analytical element of the study was not its most significant contribution to reading instruction. By identifying decoding as an essential predictor of reading comprehension, Gough and Tumner (1986) indicated the inappropriateness of Gestalt Theory as it related to reading instruction: that the whole word was the smallest point of focus. Without the ability to decipher the sounds represented by letters and the ability to blend them to identify words, reading appeared not to be possible. A deficit in either decoding or language skills always resulted in a lower reading comprehension score. They concluded that an enhanced ability in one area could not compensate for a deficit in another area and that whole language theory, with its emphasis on comprehension and its eschewal of decoding could, therefore, not work as a framework for reading instruction.

Gough and Tumner’s (1986) research developed into the influential ‘Simple View of Reading’, further modified by Hoover and Gough (1990), which drew three clear conclusions from the study. Firstly, that the highly complex manifestation of reading comprehension can be atomised into two identifiable categories: the ability to decode text and the ability to comprehend language. Decoding relates to an ability to decipher text accurately. Language comprehension, although not specific to reading, relates to domain knowledge, reasoning, imagining and interpretation (Kamhi, 2007). Secondly, that any difficulties in reading are a result of either poor language comprehension, poor decoding skills or a deficit of both. Thirdly, that for reading to be confident and competent, facilities in both areas need to be strong; strength in one area cannot compensate for weakness in the other. Thus, a student with excellent language comprehension will achieve a reading comprehension level not exceeding their decoding level, and any improvement in their decoding will result in an improvement in their reading comprehension.

The implication for teaching and teachers was clear: if both parts of the framework were not attended to, children would not become competent readers. Thus, a systematic phonics programme delivered early in a child’s schooling and continued until mastery was preferable, allied with a concentration on language development, vocabulary building, widening content knowledge and an exposure to diverse narratives and stories (Lloyd-Jones, 2013).

The robustness of the framework is supported by numerous studies. Kendeou et al. (2009) employed factor analysis of the diverse measures of assessment undertaken independently by two separate research studies in the USA and Canada analysing both decoding and comprehension. Their conclusions supported the generality and validity of the ‘Simple view of Reading’ framework and its algorithms.

In 2008 the Institute of Education Sciences in the USA commissioned a series of large-scale studies and provided evidence of the positive role of ‘The Simple View of Reading’ (Hoover and Gough, 1990) and the efficacy of the framework (Vaughn, 2018). Further advocacy of specific phonics instruction was implicit in Lonigan et al.’s (2018) examination of 720 children in grades 3 to 5 in the USA supporting the predictive validity of the components of the ‘Simple View of Reading’ (Hoover and Gough, 1990). This predictive validity was further supported by Chiu’s (2018) analysis of pre-kindergarten children’s outcomes at grade 3 which found that listening comprehension and word recognition concepts were strongly related.

‘The Simple View of Reading’ featured in the Rose review (2005) of the primary curriculum of England and the language of its framework appears in the Primary National Curriculum of England (DfE, 2014b). It has also featured as part of inspection training for the revised Ofsted inspection framework in England (DfE, 2019c)

It is, nonetheless, not without its problems and many of these relate to the construct of language comprehension and the complexities of acquiring the domain knowledge, reasoning, imagining and interpretation (Kamhi, 2007) associated with it, as opposed to the clearer progression of decoding competency which can be acquired with a systematic approach to phonics instruction. This is aggravated by the assessment of language comprehension and reading comprehension and the inadequacies of a testing and scoring format that is suitably reliable and valid for large-scale studies (Snow, 2018).

Furthermore, as Francis et al. (2005) maintain, the framework is not designed to contrast the textual and cognitive skills that may be required by pupils to address the reading selected for the assessment task. Perhaps the greatest issue, however, lies with the false impression, suggested by displaying reading comprehension alongside decoding, that reading comprehension, like decoding, is a single concept; that it is unidimensional and not as complex as it really is (Catts, 2018). Gough, Hoover and Peterson (1996) acknowledge the issue of differing content knowledge and that it can conflate the results of the model. As a result, the great strides in decoding provision made in the last few years have not been mirrored by improvements in reading comprehension. Strategic reading instruction (Swanson et al., 2015), asserts Rasinski (2010) will only be effective when combined with adequate content knowledge.

By separating reading into two interrelated elements, ‘The Simple View of Reading’ (Gough and Tumner, 1986) implied that effective reading comprehension is dependent on decoding mastery and language comprehension. If this is the case, then reding fluency is dependent on phonics mastery and an instruction model for the teaching of phonic mastery is preferable to a model that ignores phonemes and claims that ‘Reading is learned from the whole to part and not from part to whole’ (Goodman et al., 2017:86).