The Active View of Reading: Moving Beyond the Simple View

The Active View of Reading: Moving Beyond the Simple View


What is the Simple View of Reading?

The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) is a theory about the reading process that is widely held as a foundational principle in many instructional schools of thought. It forms the basis for many curricular resources, especially those that emphasize decoding and the use of decodable texts. The Simple View of Reading, or SVR, posits that reading is a formula consisting of two distinct processes: word recognition (decoding) and language comprehension. In other words, for a reader to successfully comprehend a text, the reader must be able to decode the words, and also must be able to understand the meaning of the words. 

The SVR also suggests that decoding and language comprehension are sequential processes. The implication is that the first thing a reader must do is decode the words, and the second thing is aim to comprehend the words, and these processes occur more or less in isolation. The SVR also suggests that when readers have difficulty, that difficulty stems from either a decoding weakness, a comprehension weakness, or a weakness in both areas. 

The Latest Research and The Active View of Reading

While there is value in the SVR, including its simplicity and clarity, newer research suggests limitations to it. In their article “The Science of Reading Progresses: Communicating Advances Beyond the Simple View of Reading,” researchers Nell Duke and Kelly B. Cartwright present advancements in the field of reading research. They describe a new way of thinking about the reading process that they call “The Active View of Reading,” which includes ways that the SVR should be re-analyzed and expanded upon.

The authors point to multiple studies that identify students with reading difficulties that fall outside the scope of those defined by the SVR, including those who are decoding and who exhibit listening comprehension at grade-appropriate levels, yet who nonetheless struggle with reading comprehension. The SVR does not account for the vast variances in readers’ knowledge base and cultural experiences that have a bearing on their understanding. Duke and Cartwright point out that knowledge extends beyond simply knowing the meaning of individual words; it also includes understanding larger concepts and experiences. Some reading difficulties can be context-dependent, meaning that when a text assumes a certain knowledge base that the reader does not have, the reader will struggle to comprehend that text, even if the reader does not have difficulty comprehending other texts at similar levels.

Along with suggesting that decoding and comprehension are separate, the SVR suggests that these two processes do not necessarily influence each other. However, Duke and Cartwright point to research that shows the limitations of this assertion. Vocabulary knowledge is one sub-category of reading development that helps illustrate the overlap between the two skills. When a reader knows the meaning of a word, the reader can monitor if that word makes sense in its context after decoding the word. Further, there are words such as heteronyms that require readers to have an understanding of the word’s meaning in order to decode them. Duke and Cartwright give the example of the word wind–its meaning and pronunciation are different depending on if it’s referring to the weather or to cranking up a clock. 

Another reading skill that illustrates the overlap between decoding and comprehension is fluency. In the SVR, fluency is considered to be related to decoding, the idea being that when a reader has good word recognition, the reader can read smoothly and quickly. However, an important element of fluency is prosody–reading with the expression and phrasing that allows for making meaning, and also shows that the reader understands the text. A good example of prosody in reading is one given by the author and researcher Lester Laminack. Consider the phrase, ‘The old man the boat.” Read without prosody, this seems like a sentence fragment. However, read in such a way that it is clear that man is a verb, the phrase becomes a sentence, indicating that “The old” is the subject, a group of older people, and this group is guiding (manning) the boat. 

Another limitation of the SVR is that it does not take into account the role of self-regulation in reading. Duke and Cartwright point to a large body of research that suggests that skilled readers take an active role in their own reading and that this active role has a significant effect on comprehension. Skilled readers do things like check themselves for understanding, choose strategies to draw upon, and maintain focus and motivation. Skilled readers also draw on more complex cognitive processes not accounted for in the SVR, such as working memory, or the ability to maintain an understanding of the whole of a text while decoding at the same time. 

The Takeaway

The Active View of Reading, then, takes all of these new findings into account, including potential causes of reading difficulty within and beyond decoding and comprehension, the overlap between decoding and comprehension, and the importance of self-regulation and strategy use. 

Practitioners should assess their core and supplemental reading resources for ways they address the complex reading processes not accounted for in the SVR. One big watch-out: while the SVR does not necessarily imply that decoding and comprehension should be taught in isolation, some curricular resources that adhere to the SVR suggest doing so, because of the SVR’s implication that these are separate processes. Any curricular resource that suggests teaching decoding in isolation of comprehension should be scrutinized and likely supplemented with curricular resources that do emphasize comprehension, and that specifically support the application of phonics learning to comprehending texts. 

Also, when determining appropriate interventions, practitioners should determine potential causes of reading difficulty that may fall outside the scope of the SVR, such as a limited knowledge base, a weakness in a skill such as vocabulary or fluency that affects both decoding and comprehension, or a lack of self-regulation, including strategy use and motivation.

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