Decoding “The Simple View of Reading” II

This is the second of three posts examining the Simple View of Reading, one of the pillars of the “science of reading” (SoR) approach to reading instruction. In the previous post I noted that the SVR makes an important point–that reading involves the child learning how print represents words in the spoken language they already know–and that people expect it to have further implications for instruction. Here I look at the contrast between what the authors of the SVR proposed and how it is being used in the SoR. In the third post I look at what later studies of the SVR showed, and consider what is gained by linking the SVR to other pillars of the SoR such as the Reading Rope (Scarborough) and the report of the National Reading Panel. I’ll end with some broader observations about the use and misuse of research in deciding educational issues.

What Is and Isn’t in the SVR

Here is how the SVR is typically presented for educators. This illustration is taken from an explainer from The Reading League, an NGO whose mission is furthering the SoR. (Click on figures to embiggen.)

Think of this picture as a snapshot of conditions that exist as children begin learning to read. They understand spoken language at a 5-6 year old level. They will be able to comprehend texts (at that level) if they learn how the written code represents words they know from talking and listening. The multiplication sign indicates that both components are necessary: reading comprehension is zero if either of the components is zero.

What are the instructional implications of this statement, beyond the important general point about the need for print instruction? To go any further we’ll need to consider a few more things: what, when, and how.

What means specifying what’s in the circles. “Word recognition” is a convenient bit of jargon but we need to say more about what it involves in order to decide what to teach and how to assess progress. The same holds for language and reading comprehension, although at the outset the main concern is reading words.

When means considering when specific types of knowledge and skills are acquired over time, a crucial issue for instruction. How much the child knows, what they need to learn, and what they are able to learn change over time. The SVR focuses on one developmental fact, that spoken language (ability to speak as well as comprehend) develops ahead of learning about print; therefore learning to read turns on gaining knowledge of print and its connection to spoken language. It doesn’t speak to how reading develops over the next several years (or language, either).

How refers to learning: how different skills and types of knowledge are learned. Learning is conspicuously missing from the “science of reading”–remember, the picture of SVR in Figure 1 is just a snapshot of the state of the child’s knowledge. It’s not a description of how they got there or how they progress. Humans have two main ways to learn: via explicit instruction and via implicit learning. Explicit instruction you know. Implicit learning is the way brains pick up on patterns in the environment, without conscious attention or awareness. We update this knowledge all the time, as we do what people do: read and talk, write a paper, drive a car, make dinner. Achieving the right balance between these two types of learning, and adjusting it as students progress, is crucial to helping them learn efficiently and effectively.

The SVR doesn’t address these what, when, and how questions. That is why it is a huge leap to go from the SVR to conclusions about instruction. 

We could stop this discussion of the SVR here. Yes, it makes an important basic point that changes how people think about learning to read once they hear about it. No, it didn’t address other issues that are closer to the classroom. Fortunately, there are other places to look for that.

In my view, stopping here is the appropriate step, but I have to address some lingering concerns:

• Many people are trying to use the SVR as a framework, filling in some of the missing information. How is that going?

• What about the 150 studies supporting the SVR? Do they address the what, when, and how questions?

• How much is gained by coupling the SVR with other studies in the canon, such as the Reading Rope or the 5 Pillars of Reading from the NRP report?

Word Recognition and Decoding

Many people have recognized the limits of the SVR and tried to extend it in various ways. Doing this makes the limitations of the SVR as a framework for instruction more apparent. Dividing things up into print knowledge, language comprehension, and reading comprehension runs into problems–even though the basic point about the need for instruction about print is valid.

Let me illustrate this by asking: “word recognition”–what is that? Yes, I know: it’s recognizing words. But to take this to the classroom we need to get more specific. It’s not a trick question, but as you’ll see, it isn’t actually that easy to answer.  

The print-related component is called “word recognition” but that isn’t right because beginning readers already know how to recognize words, from spoken language (researchers call this “auditory word recognition”). Reading builds on this existing skill. No problem, we change “word recognition” to visual word recognition (VWR). The language comprehension part on the right in Figure 1 is really “spoken language comprehension”, which includes auditory word recognition. (It also includes language production, just as the print part also includes writing, but these parts weren’t included in the simple view.)

With these clarifications we have Figure 2 (I’ve omitted the = reading comprehension part to save space):

Are we good? Well, you can’t teach “visual word recognition.” That is a label for what we want learners to be able to do. Teaching has to focus on the kinds of knowledge that are involved, mainly words and their properties, which can be taught. 

Trying to do this within this version of the SVR creates additional instructional puzzles. Visual and auditory word recognition share a lot of parts–for example, meaning. We don’t represent the meaning of a word once for reading and another time for speech. Word meanings develop from using spoken and written language, and from experiencing the world (perceiving and acting). This common store of information is accessed in different ways in performing different tasks (reading, spelling, hearing, talking, others). Shouldn’t science-based instruction be consistent with these basic facts?

The same issue arises for phonology: it’s used in both reading and comprehending speech (also speaking). We therefore need phonology in both circles, but people don’t have one phonological code that they use in reading and a different one for listening and talking. Same for vocabulary and morphology. Same for essentially everything, even print.

Again: Trying to make sense of the SVR at the level of detail that’s required for instruction creates paradoxes and contradictions.

Bear with me just a little longer. I know this is a slog. 

Decoding “Decoding” 

What if we put “word recognition” entirely in the language comprehension part, and limit the print component to “decoding,” meaning using knowledge of the mappings between orthography and phonology (“phonics”) to pronounce letter strings (words like must and novel/nonce words like nust)? The purpose of phonics instruction is to enable this process. Decoding starts with overt pronunciation (“sounding out”), but readers soon begin to do this without speaking, using phonology, a mental code that is based on the pronunciations and sounds of words. I’ll call this “orth→phon” for short.

Now we’ve got this:

This is the other main interpretation of the SVR, as seen in illustrations like this one (from here), but also found elsewhere:

Call this SVR.D. This graphic does not say the same thing as Figure 1 because “decoding” as described here is not the same as “visual word recognition.” The latter refers to any process by which people recognize written words.  “Decoding” refers here to something more specific, generating phonological codes from print, which only works for some words in English. Such codes can be used to pronounce letter strings aloud. They can also be used to recognize words if the phonological code matches one for a word that is known from spoken language. 

“Decoding” in this sense and “word recognition” work with different kinds of spelling patterns. Here’s a summary:

Which version of the SVR are you using? 

If you’re feeling confused about the term “decoding,” you’re not alone. I just described the traditional concept of “decoding”, which predates the SVR and has been the basis for phonics instruction in the US since the 19th century. In English, only words that obey phonics rules (sometimes called grapheme-phoneme correspondences) can be decoded. “Decodable texts” are mainly composed of words that use grapheme-phoneme correspondences/phonics rules that the reader is assumed to have been taught.  

Decoding in this sense does not work for words whose pronunciations violate the rules. These were traditionally termed “sight words,” but they are also called “heart”, “trick”, or “snap” words, with various proposals about which words should be included, how they are read, and how they should be taught. Those details don’t matter here. Under all of these proposals there are exceptions that have to be learned and recognized some other way. If there is a rule for pronouncing but, cut, and nut, it will not work for put.

Gough and his colleagues used the term “decoding” in a different way: as a synonym for “word recognition.” 

For the simple view, skilled decoding is simply efficient word recognition: the ability to rapidly derive a representation from printed input that allows access to the appropriate entry in the mental lexicon, and thus, the retrieval of semantic information at the word level.  Hoover and Gough (1990), p.130.

This is how jargon gets in the way of understanding. Gough and colleagues were referring to the processes by which words–all kinds of words–are recognized. They were agnostic about the details. Unfortunately, they chose to label this component “decoding,” which already had a different, narrower meaning. This created massive confusion that has now spread to the “science of reading.”

For example: If you look closely, Figure 4 is attributed to Gough and Tunmer (1986) and Hoover and Gough (1990). The print component is labeled “decoding”, as in these articles. However, Gough and colleagues did not use “decoding” to mean the “ability to use sound-symbol relationships to read [some] words“. In fact, they pointedly questioned the relevance of this kind of decoding to beginning or skilled reading. Thus the illustration does not accurately represent Gough et al.’s own proposal. 

Does this matter? Well, yes. The SVR is one of the main research studies on which the science of reading is based. These observations suggest that people do not agree on what it means. In Figure 4 it is being used to justify teaching children to decode in the traditional sense, which Gough and colleagues did not propose or endorse. That assumption is coming from somewhere else and requires its own justification. In other contexts, the component is taken as “word recognition” and used to sanction other methods.

Well, so what? Isn’t Figure 4 a reasonable place to start? Readers need to learn to decode (original sense) or something like it. We’ll also need to add procedures for dealing with the exception words. This can go in the print component of the SVR, sure. But where’s the payoff?  Despite all this effort to amend the SVR, we are back at Square One: how do we teach children to read words quickly and accurately given the properties of written English? So far we’ve only managed to describe the problem, not how to solve it.  

Getting a little tired of this? Me too. And yet the same issues arise if we examine other targets of instruction such as vocabulary and morphology. The SVR again does not directly address these topics and so carries zero direct implications for instruction. If we were to expand the SVR to incorporate these types of knowledge, where would they go? Like meaning, they seem to belong to both components. Does that mean we teach each of them twice? Note that morphology presents the same challenges as phonics: “rule-governed” patterns with lots of exceptions (see, for example, the past tenses of verbs).  Syllables, too.

These are the puzzles that arose in 1980s research on learning to read. They are arising again in approaches to instruction based on this work–for example, debates about which words to treat as “heart” words or “sight words” and in how to teach phonics. The articles show Gough and colleagues struggling to describe “word recognition” and “decoding” using the concepts that were available at the time. They knew that readers needed to learn how spelling represents phonology and that at least some instruction was required in order to break the code. But instruction about what? They were skeptical of phonics rules, which seem like clumsy approximations of the complex system readers learn. Moreover, fluent reading seems very unlike applying rules to a series of letters. Having to memorize exceptions to the rules such as said and done creates an onerous burden for the learner and misses the fact that they overlap with many “rule-governed” words.  Gough and colleagues’ use of “decoding” was confusing but perhaps understandable. They were using it to refer to word recognition procedures that they correctly intuited had to exist but couldn’t quite figure out.

A solution came a few years later when McClelland and I applied new ideas about how brains learn to reading. In this account, people learn a network of mappings between spelling, sound, and meaning. These mappings reflect patterns that exist across words. Unlike rules that apply every time a pattern is encountered, the mappings vary in frequency and consistency. This knowledge can be closely approximated by simple neural networks that learn based on similarity: learning about one pattern facilitates learning other, overlapping patterns. Such networks can easily learn patterns that are hard to describe in words, for example that –ook is pronounced one way in book, cook, and look but differently in spook, which overlaps with spoon and spool, which pattern with boon and cool. The same procedures are used in reading all words; there isn’t a separate one for words that violate the rules. The network uses what it has learned from words to process letter strings it has never seen before.

Phonics rules, on this view, are a convenient fiction. They put parts of this complex web of knowledge into words. They are not accurate descriptions of what is learned, but they are useful because they make explicit instruction about the system possible. Explicit instruction has two purposes. First, it draws attention to what the child can learn: orthographic patterns that map, with varying frequency and consistency, to phonological patterns (and thence to meaning, if the pattern corresponds to a word known from speech). Learning the rules themselves is less important than getting clued into the fact that such patterns exist. The second function of explicit instruction is to get the orth-phon system off the ground quickly. With some patterns established, learning based on the similarity across patterns can proceed, with less and less reliance on a teacher for feedback as knowledge accumulates. 

This framework, which has many other bits, took a long time to fully develop. It runs counter to very strong intuitions about reading, and so took a while to gain broad acceptance among researchers. In my view, the “science of reading” is recapitulating this history. At the moment, it is focused on the Gough-era concepts and running up against the same puzzles. The good news is that there is a lot of very useful stuff to come.

Interim Summary 

The point of this excursion was to examine what happens if one takes the SVR seriously as a framework for early reading instruction. Attempts to be more specific about the print component run into theoretical and practical complications. We know that the reader needs to learn to read and understand words quickly and accurately; that this involves linking written and spoken language; and that the properties of written English make this challenging. After stepping through possible extensions of the SVR, we arrive back at Square One: how to teach children a system with productive patterns but many words that violate the main patterns in varying degrees, including most of the most common ones. (I’ve also noted that there is a possible solution just over the horizon but for now we are focused on the SVR and other classic SoR studies.)

There are still a few loose ends. First, it’s said that 150 studies support the SVR. Do these studies address the what, when, and how issues? Second, do other studies that are pillars of the SoR, such as the Reading Rope, provide details that are missing in the SVR? How far can we get with what we’ve got? We need to look. 

10 thoughts on “Decoding “The Simple View of Reading” II”

  1. In the first graphic, the term ‘simplistic’ is misused. Shouldn’t it be ‘simple’? ‘Simplistic’ means ‘oversimplified’ (reduced to such simplicity that it no longer has its full meaning.)
    Or perhaps Seidenberg’s point is that SVR used as a method is simplistic.

    1. I think you want to take this up with the people at the Reading League who wrote the text. Rather than labeling the uses of the SVR in education as simplistic, I am trying to explain what was in the original proposal, what’s in the subsequent research it inspired, and how it is being used in the Science of Reading approach.

  2. I’m confused about the timeline. My understanding is that Gough and Tunmer originally used the term ‘decoding’ which Hoover and Gough later amended to ‘word recognition’ precisely because they were being descriptive about the need to recognize words rather than prescriptive as to how those words are recognized, whether through a traditional decoding process or otherwise. In Figure 1 you refer to the Reading League’s use of the term ‘word recognition’, and in Figure 4 you refer to the SVR “being used to justify teaching children to decode in the traditional sense, which Gough and colleagues did not propose or endorse.” I think the mistake you’re making–and maybe this will be clarified in the third part–is to assume that there is a monolithic SoR movement, a point that is reflected when you state: “Here I look at the contrast between what the authors of the SVR proposed and how it is being used in the SoR.” I can assure you that we are a splintered lot, and there are many of us who believe we are following the science of reading when teaching word recognition but are not teaching traditional phonics through rules as you describe. Your emphasis on the ‘what, when, how’ goes to the heart of the matter: the science of reading vs. the science of teaching reading. I look forward to part III.

    1. I think I have the timeline correct. This passage is from Gough & Tunmer (1986):

      To consider [the question of the connection between decoding skill and reading ability], we must first say what we mean by decoding, for we find that the term means different things to different people: Some equate it with “sounding out,” others with (context-free) word recognition. Our position is closer to the latter, for we believe that sounding out is (at most) only a primitive form of decoding (we doubt even this; see Gough & Hillinger, 1980), and we believe that the skilled decoder is exactly the reader who can read isolated words quickly, accurately, and silently. Yet we are reluctant to equate decoding with word recognition, for the term decoding surely connotes, if not denotes, the use of letter-sound correspondence rules. We have argued (Gough, Juel, & Roper-Schneider, 1983) that beginning readers do not use such rules, and we must concede that expert readers may not always do so (Gough, 1984). But we firmly believe that word recognition skill (in an alphabetic orthography) is fundamentally dependent upon knowledge of letter-sound correspondence rules, or what we have called the orthographic cipher (Gough & Hillinger, 1980).

      As I said, they seem to be describing mechanisms for reading words that hadn’t been invented yet; thus the standard terms don’t fit very well.

  3. Before I reread this piece (you’re getting in the weeds, and I’ll need to change into my gardening shoes), I’m wondering whether you’ve read the May/June 2020 Reading League issue about the SVR, which includes these articles as well as an interview with Wes Hoover. Thanks for doing this series!

    Simple But Not Simplistic: The Simple
    View of Reading Unpacked and
    by Young-Suk Grace Kim ………………………………………………..15
    The Simple View of Reading: A Useful
    Way to Think About Reading and
    Learning to Read
    by Wesley A. Hoover and William E. Tunmer ……….35
    The Simple View of Reading: A
    Scientific Framework for Effective
    by Robert Savage ……………………………………………………………..41

      1. I’m concerned about the interchangeability of the terms listening comprehension, language comprehension, and linguistic comprehension in the varioius articles featured in that issue. There was a long exchange with Kenn Apel (A Different View on the Simple View of Reading. Remedial and Special Education, 2021) on SPELLTalk a year ago where Kenn referred to this section of his article:

        “The important message, then, is that there are different lines of research, one attempting to assess language and/or listening comprehension abilities as guided by the SVR model and the other directly measuring various metalinguistic skills. These two research lines are using similar tasks and reporting similar significant contributions to reading comprehension. The difference is what the contributing skills are labeled. Contrary to what is proposed, the majority of the tasks used to assess the linguistic comprehension component of the SVR framework are measuring individuals’ metalinguistic skills. . . Importantly, the language form and content in those types of tasks differ notably from spoken language (e.g., Apel & Apel, 2011). As an example, the vocabulary of written text is much more unique and sophisticated compared with the vocabulary of spoken language (e.g., Ece Demir-Lira et al., 2019; Montag et al., 2015). Syntactic structures used in written texts are more complex (e.g., more embedded clauses) than those used in spoken language (e.g., Montag, 2019; Montag & MacDonald, 2015).”

        I was wondering whether you think the interchangeability of these three terms is problematic. In Simple But Not Simplistic: The Simple View of Reading Unpacked and Expanded in that same special issue of The Reading League Journal,Young-Suk Grace Kim refers to an initial listening comprehension assessment with follow-up assessments to discern where students have gaps (background knowledge or language and cognitive skills such as vocabulary, grammatical knowledge, or higher order cognitive skills such as making inferences, understanding multiple perspectives, or monitoring one’s comprehension). And Wesley Hoover explains in his interview that language comprehension involves “the ability to extract and construct literal and inferred meaning from linguistic discourse represented in speech.”

        What makes most sense to me as a reading specialist in my school setting is an understanding that the term ‘language comprehension’ is broad enough to refer to both linguistic and metalinguistic skills and so settling on the term ‘language comprehension’ (rather than listening or linguistic) captures this breadth. Although it could well be that researchers are primarily assessing metalinguistic skills when determining language comprehension, my English learners who quickly develop decoding skills but haven’t mastered English yet falter when it comes to comprehending basic vocabulary in their new language–so applying metalinguistic skills is a non-starter for them because they have failed to comprehend on the linguistic level.

        It seems to me that if the term ‘language comprehension’ can reasonably encompass both linguistic and metalinguistic skills, then I think the SVR serves its purpose and remains intact and instructive. While this acknowledgement of the complexity of written discourse compared to speech clarifies the metalinguistic components that determine its complexity, it also clarifies for me that the SVR does in fact reflect–but not reveal–this complex range of skills, and it’s up to us to choose our assessments wisely to “discern where students have gaps”, as Kim advises.

        You have a lot to cover in your final piece, but I’m hoping you’ll address what you think we should call the second factor in the equation. Or whether you even think it matters. A rose . . . etc.

        1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment. The third section covers some additional ground but it’s not going to cover everything, so do not hold your breath. I think it’s important to have a clear idea of what is meant when using terms like “decoding,” “word recognition,” and, yes, “language comprehension” and “linguistic comprehension.” Otherwise the terms are just jargon. If you look at how “decoding” and “word recognition” are used, you find it isn’t consistent, in the research literature as well as in education. If you try to clarify what the terms mean, you realize there are problems that the terms are masking. I don’t think the labels matter as much as a clear specification of the learner’s task: recognizing and understanding words given the properties of written English, which include being systematic rather than arbitrary, resulting in patterns that hold across words, but also allowing exceptions of various sorts. Given these properties, and other considerations such as the need to keep the learner engaged and limits on the amount of time available for instruction and practice, what’s the best approach to instruction? Traditionally, it has been some combination of phonics instruction plus memorizing the words that don’t follow the rules (“sight” words etc.). Traditionally, there has been little agreement about what the rules are and which words to treat as special. Maybe the persistence of this lack of agreement is telling us the system isn’t actually rule-governed. I’ve written a lot about this and will return to it soon. I think that a breakthrough happened because researchers tried to get very specific about what “decoding” and “word recognition” involve. The puzzles and contradictions that arose eventually led to a different approach.

          Expressions such as “linguistic comprehension” and “language comprehension” can be used in specialized senses, but that is not helpful unless the distinctions between them are clear and the usage is widely accepted, which hasn’t happened for these terms. There is an important distinction between using knowledge (e.g., of language) automatically, without conscious awareness, and having an explicit, conscious, verbal conception of that knowledge (“meta-knowledge”). I pointed this out at the beginning of my book: we are almost completely unaware of the mental and neural events that underlie skilled behaviors such as reading–we are only aware of the result, comprehending a text. For example, people use syntactic knowledge in comprehending texts without having explicit knowledge about it. You have to study syntax to gain such meta-knowledge. Most of language (including orthography, phonology, and morphology) is like this: using it doesn’t require having meta-knowledge about it.

          There is considerable confusion about this in reading education, in my opinion, where there is a lot of emphasis on children gaining explicit knowledge (e.g., of the pronunciations of vowels and other letter patterns, types of syllables and morphemes, facts such as “monosyllabic words can’t end in v,” etc.). The goal is for the child to read, not to know about reading or linguistics. I think this meta level of understanding is useful for teachers, much less so for beginning readers. I will go into this in detail soon. This is where the SoR has gone far off course, in my view, which will be important to adjust, which can be done.

          One more thing: we really do want to avoid getting lost in the terminological weeds. What did the authors of the SVR really mean? Is “decoding” the same as “phonics”? Who gets to define “mapping”? Etc. Such questions are way too Talmudic for me. Say what you mean in the plainest language you can (I know: it’s a challenge and sometimes complexity can’t be completely avoided). Then we’ll know whether a specialized term will be useful–and it will be clear what it means.

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