Decoding “The Simple View of Reading” III

This is the third (and thankfully the last) of my posts on the Simple View of Reading and its relevance to instruction.  So far I’ve pointed out that the SVR didn’t address what was in the components, how they are learned, or the role of instruction, and that attempts to extend the SVR run into other conceptual and practical problems. 

As noted previously, I will prepare and post here a tidy PDF version that combines the three posts and includes the proper footnotes and references. Soon.

What About the 150 Studies?

The Simple View articles didn’t address instructional issues, but what about the many studies based on it, said to number 150? That is an impressive number. In the “science of reading” (SoR) approach people cite this number as though it justifies their programs, products and practices.6 That is not science. One has to actually look at the research to see what is there. Otherwise it’s just applying a scientific veneer.

The reason so many studies are consistent with the Simple View is because it states something that is true–the part about the child already knowing spoken language and needing to learn how print connects to it. It doesn’t take 150 studies to establish this point; it doesn’t take even one. It just takes a clear description of the situation, because then we can ask: is this ever not true? Is it ever the case that learning to read does not depend on existing knowledge of language (usually spoken; sometimes signed)? Is it ever the case that children do not have to connect print to this knowledge? Is it possible to comprehend texts without any knowledge of print? Can texts be comprehended without any knowledge of spoken language? No. The SVR is wholly correct about these general points.7

Empirical studies based on the SVR usually focus on two further claims: Claim 1) that the two components, print and spoken language, are sufficient (all that is required) to account for reading comprehension at every level of reading skill, and Claim 2) that the two elements make independent contributions to reading comprehension. My personal assessment, based on knowledge of this research and much other relevant work, is that Claim 1 is basically correct but for a pretty completely uninteresting reason, and Claim 2 is false.

The claim that everything related to reading can be fit into the two components can be taken as correct if only because there are few restrictions on what can go into them. The SVR is therefore consistent with a wide range of findings, but at a high cost.  It’s not that the SVR is correctly predicting specific factors that affect reading. Rather, once a factor is discovered it can be plausibly assigned to one of the components because they are so loosely defined. The theory can therefore account for any pattern of results. That is why I find the “supported by 150 studies” claim unimportant. If it is true, it’s because of a flaw in theory. 

Note also that studies that are consistent with Claim 1 aren’t necessarily consistent with each other. That is, they don’t show the same things at the level below print and spoken language. That’s why there are so many studies of the SVR: people disagree about what’s in the fine print.  Moreover, what is in the components at different ages can also differ, if needed. For example, at the onset of learning to read, vocabulary knowledge should go in the spoken language component, because that is how vocabulary is initially learned and the child can’t read yet. For people who are literate, however, new words are acquired mainly through reading. Accounting for these findings requires two versions of the SVR. If new research were to show that they are wrong, well, the SVR would be compatible with that outcome as well. That is the problem.

Or consider topic knowledge. People’s knowledge of the world obviously differs. We all have our areas of expertise and ignorance. By the start of school, children’s familiarity with topics that will be needed for school varies, which affects their progress in reading and other areas. Where does topic knowledge fit in the SVR? People who have similar reading abilities can certainly differ in their knowledge of a given topic, suggesting that world knowledge is distinct from reading and language. If that is true, the Simple View will need an additional component. Yet it isn’t hard to think of how topic knowledge could plausibly be assigned to the print/word recognition and spoken language components. For example, learning about animal habitats or parts of the body involves learning new words and expressions. Children need to learn to read and understand habitat and skeleton as well as does and said. That is just adding to the word recognition component. Topic knowledge also involves understanding sentences such as  “the ocean is a habitat for many species.” That can be considered an extension of language comprehension.  Voilà: two components are sufficient.

Do these exercises strike you as interesting or important? Me neither. Rather than fussing with the SVR one might focus directly on how topic-related words and ideas are learned and stored in memory, which would inform how they can be taught, efficiently and effectively. 

What The Data Look Like

I know that this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea–no, it is very few people’s cup of tea–but looking at the results from studies inspired by the SVR will be helpful if you can tolerate it. Figure 5 shows some of the findings from an excellent study by Ho et al. (2017) that examined the SVR in the context of learning to read Chinese. (If the SVR is correct it should apply to languages and writing systems other than English and alphabets.) The figure isn’t meant to be intimidating. The authors did a good job of presenting their results and their figures are useful for illustrating what the findings of such studies are like. This material will not be on the licensure exam.

Children in grades 1-3 performed a battery of behavioral tasks related to decoding, spoken language comprehension, and reading comprehension. The authors were also interested in a task called RAN (rapid automatized naming) in which children are presented with familiar visual stimuli to name aloud as quickly as they can. The stimuli can be letters, numerals, pictured objects, or color patches. The number of stimuli named correctly in a short time (e.g., 20 sec) is recorded. RAN performance is often found to be related to reading comprehension, although it is unclear exactly exactly why. (The study that I did on this was called “See Dick RAN” and it did not settle the issue.) Ho et al.’s study examined whether reading comprehension was predicted by print knowledge and spoken language, as in the SVR, and whether the predictions were improved by adding RAN as a factor. They called the components “decoding” and “linguistic comprehension,” and I will follow their usage here. The study includes numerous data analyses; I’m using two for illustrative purposes.

Figure 5 shows statistical relations among the factors and their relation to reading comprehension. The behavioral measures were chosen with these factors in mind. The numbers are estimates of the strength of the relation between two factors. A bigger number indicates a stronger effect; the stars indicate levels of statistical significance. The results show that Decoding and Linguistic Comprehension were both related to Reading Comprehension, as in the SVR. RAN had an impact on Decoding and Linguistic Comprehension but not Reading Comprehension. That’s not consistent with the SVR, although the reason why RAN has these effects remains somewhat unclear. 

The other big finding is that the Decoding and Linguistic Comprehension factors were related to each other, not independent (that’s the arrow labeled .754**), which is also inconsistent with the SVR.

Figure 6 shows the results for a statistical model predicting Reading Comprehension from the other factors. Decoding and Linguistic Comprehension both contributed to Reading Comprehension, as in the SVR. However, Decoding also contributed to Linguistic Comprehension, again indicating that they are not independent. In this analysis, RAN was associated with Decoding but not Linguistic Comprehension.

Conclusions? Even if your eyes have glazed over from looking at these figures, you can tell that the findings are not in a form that directly relates to instruction. The results involve factors (Decoding, RAN, etc.) derived from statistical analyses of children’s performance on behavioral tasks. The tasks themselves are not suitable for teaching. For example, word reading ability might be accurately assessed for the purposes of the study using a list of 40 words, but teaching those 40 words is obviously insufficient. You can’t go from these factors and the quantitative relations between them to a curriculum with an appropriate mix of instructional activities. The data are interesting for other reasons but the connections to teaching reading are minimal.  

Do the results support the SVR? Yes and no. Decoding and Linguistic Comprehension were both related to Reading Comprehension, as in the SVR. However, adding another factor, RAN, improved the prediction of Reading Comprehension, via its effect on Decoding. Decoding and Linguistic Comprehension were related, not independent. 

How do these results relate to those from other studies? Some have yielded similar results, showing that prediction of Reading Comprehension is improved by adding another factor to the SVR, or that Decoding and Linguistic Comprehension are related rather than independent. However, the literature also includes studies that did not yield one or the other of these outcomes. Some studies found that Decoding and Linguistic Comprehension were related, but in a different way than above. It’s a messy set of findings.8

Where does all this leave the SVR? If a person’s goal is to show that Claim 1 is correct, well, go for it. The components are so loosely defined it can be done, although it might involve some uncomfortable stretching. For the Ho et al. results, for example, one could decide that the RAN task is actually another measure related to decoding. It’s not implausible but I’ll spare you the arguments. I don’t assign much importance to this exercise, but it may be of more interest to others.

It is far more important to recognize that Claim 2, that the print and spoken language components are independent, is strongly contradicted not only by studies such as Ho et al.’s but from much other research unconnected to the SVR. Since about 1980 research on human cognition, language, and learning has emphasized interactions between different types of knowledge. That refers to ways in which different types of knowledge influence each other, in learning and in performing tasks such as reading. “Interactive” is the opposite of independent. Interactivity is seen at every level of reading and language.9

Unfortunately the idea that the two components are independent has taken hold in the SoR. Web sites and PD materials usually describe the two components as “interdependent;” however, there is also a lot of emphasis on how they differ. Learning to read requires instruction whereas learning a first language does not, it is said. This view can mainly be traced to Gough and Hillinger’s (1980) description of learning a first language as “natural,” whereas learning to read is “unnatural,” because it involves an artifact of recent invention, writing. Reading therefore requires instruction, whereas learning a first language does not. This view is represented by illustrations such as this one:

Educators may well realize that the two components are “interdependent” in some sense but in practice this line of reasoning has contributed to highly questionable approaches in which the two are taught separately. It has also led to an overemphasis on explicit instruction, a critical issue that I will take up in my next post. It is true that reading requires some explicit instruction. It does not follow that everything that underlies reading skill has to be explicitly taught because otherwise it will not be learned.

To summarize, once we take a glimpse under the hood we discover that the way the SVR divides things only makes sense at a very broad level. Gough and colleagues left aside many details in order to make one very basic point: that learning to read involves learning how print relates to spoken language. Teaching children to read requires getting more specific about what needs to be learned, when, and how. The SVR isn’t a good starting point for doing this.  Many findings are consistent with the SVR but that fact is irrelevant. What matters is whether such studies bear on specific proposals about teaching reading, all of which venture beyond the limits of the SVR.

The SVR + The Reading Rope = ?

Finally, let’s consider the relationship between the SVR and Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope (RR; from Scarborough, 2001), which are often paired. Scarborough called the RR “an illustration of the many strands that are woven together in skilled reading.” It’s a brilliant drawing and like the SVR it makes an important point–two, actually. One is that word recognition and language comprehension consist of parts. The figure provides additional detail about the makeup of the two components  (although, surprisingly, Scarborough did not mention the SVR). For example, the word recognition component in the RR includes decoding, sight word recognition, and phonology. The second point is that the parts, which are different types of knowledge, develop over time and become tightly interwoven in skilled reading. 

Both points are useful. As I have been arguing, it is necessary to unpack “language comprehension” and “word recognition” in order to decide what to teach. The RR also incorporates the fact that reading skill develops. Whereas the SVR is a snapshot of the child’s knowledge at the onset of reading instruction, the RR conveys that the parts develop and work together. 

Like the SVR, the RR is a credible place to start. Also like the SVR it isn’t an adequate basis for deciding what to teach, when, or how. Let’s leave aside questions about the particular components that Scarborough specified. Let’s leave aside questions about what “woven together” means. The fundamental question for education is how such knowledge is acquired, in particular the roles of instruction and other literacy-related activities. Scarborough captures the important idea that reading develops, but not how it is learned. The RR is still a recipe without the amounts or steps. The same concern arises for other lists of the components of reading of which there are quite a few. It’s useful to try to specify the knowledge and skills that underlie reading. Then we can look at how they are learned.

Scarborough herself has said much more about these issues. For example, in the article that included the RR drawing, she wrote:

It is customary to consider separately the strands involved in recognizing individual printed words from those involved in comprehending the meaning of the string of words that have been identified, even though those two processes operate (and develop) interactively rather than independently. 

Twenty years later, this observation is still correct. Both parts of it: that print and language are treated as distinct in many corners of education (see above), and that they develop interactively, from a very young age. 

She also said:

It is now abundantly clear that reading acquisition is a process that begins very early in the preschool period, such that children arrive at school having acquired vastly differing degrees of knowledge and skill pertaining to literacy. 

Twenty years later, this observation is also correct, the issue having been extensively investigated in different languages, cultures, and economic strata. The current focus on how to teach reading in school has overshadowed the enormous impact of early experience with language and the world. Many children struggle with reading for reasons other than how they are taught.

Scarborough has made numerous other contributions that extend well beyond what she could illustrate in a drawing. That work is at least as important as the Reading Rope.


Classic ideas such as the SVR and the RR are fine places for the “science of reading” to start and poor places to stop. If you don’t know about this work it’s new to you. If you do know about it, you’ll respect the fact that the studies don’t address basic questions about instruction or learning, and thus are consistent with many different approaches, including poor ones. I encourage people to embrace this work for what it offers–some important general insights about reading–and move on.

Rather than components of reading such as print and language we need an account of what, when, and how. We need a developmental perspective that considers the relationships between different types of knowledge, how the information is learned, and how learning changes as knowledge grows. Such questions have been the focus of reading research for a long time. Bringing more of this research into the “science of reading” is a reasonable goal and essential if it is to succeed.

Footnotes (continued from earlier posts)

  1. See, for example, Figure 1 from my first post.
  2. The exceptions are things like learning to read in a second language without knowing how it is spoken, or reading aloud in a transparent (highly consistent) writing system such as Finnish without knowing the meanings of the words.  Neither is relevant to people learning English.
  3. A few representative studies that assessed whether the SVR requires another component or if components are independent

answer no: Adlof et al., 2006, Braze et al., 2016; answer yes: Francis et al., 2018, Oullette & Beers, 2010, Ho et al., 2017.

Yes and no: Protopapas et al., 2013; Tunmer & Chapman, 2012. 

It’s complicated: Wagner et al., 2015

Overview: Catts, 2018

  1. The landmark article in this area was Rumelhart, 1977. See also Lesgold & Perfetti (1971, reprinted 2017).


Adlof, S. M., Catts, H. W., & Little, T. D. (2006). Should the simple view of reading include a fluency component? Reading and Writing, 19, 933-958.

Braze, D., Katz, L., Magnuson, J. S., Mencl, W. E., Tabor, W., Van Dyke, J. A., … & Shankweiler, D. P. (2016). Vocabulary does not complicate the simple view of reading. Reading and Writing, 29, 435-451.

Catts, H. W. (2018). The simple view of reading: Advancements and false impressions. Remedial and Special Education, 39(5), 317-323.

Francis, D. J., Kulesz, P. A., & Benoit, J. S. (2018). Extending the simple view of reading to account for variation within readers and across texts: The complete view of reading (CVR i). Remedial and Special education, 39, 274-288.

Ho, C. S. H., Zheng, M., McBride, C., Hsu, L. S. J., Waye, M. M., & Kwok, J. C. Y. (2017). Examining an extended simple view of reading in Chinese: The role of naming efficiency for reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 51, 293-302.

Lesgold, A. M., & Perfetti, C. A. (Eds.). (1971, 2017). Interactive processes in reading (Vol. 6). Routledge.

Ouellette, G., & Beers, A. (2010). A not-so-simple view of reading: How oral vocabulary and visual-word recognition complicate the story. Reading and Writing, 23, 189-208.

Protopapas, A., Mouzaki, A., Sideridis, G. D., Kotsolakou, A., & Simos, P. G. (2013). The role of vocabulary in the context of the simple view of reading. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 29, 168–202.

Rumelhart, D. E. (1977). Toward an interactive model of reading. In Attention and performance VI (pp. 573-603). Routledge.

Seidenberg, M. S. (1992). Dyslexia in a computational model of word recognition in reading. In P. B. Gough, L. C. Ehri, & R. Treiman (Eds.), Reading Acquisition (pp. 243–273). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

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