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Mass Literacy

What Is the Simple View of Reading?

The Simple View of Reading is a theory that attempts to define the skills that contribute to early reading comprehension. According to the original theory, an individual's reading comprehension is the product of her decoding skill and language comprehension (Gough & Tunmer,1986). The key idea is that both the ability to decode and language comprehension are necessary for reading comprehension.

Based upon more recent advances in reading research, the decoding "side" of the equation may be referred to as fluent word reading. This term acknowledges the importance of automaticity and fluency in word reading.

fluent word reading X language comprehension = reading comprehension

Fluent word reading and language comprehension are broad categories that each break down into a range of component factors.

Many research studies have provided support for this theory by demonstrating that an elementary-age child's reading comprehension ability can be predicted by his ability to fluently and accurately read words, together with his language comprehension ability. Studies have shown that both fluent word reading and language comprehension each have a substantial impact on reading comprehension in young children; as children get older the relative importance of language contribution increases (Lonigan, Burgess, & Schatschneider, 2018).

Extending the Simple View

The Simple View is most useful for understanding the abilities that underly early reading comprehension. Studies supporting the Simple View of Reading have primarily relied on simple assessments of reading comprehension; they typically do not measure "deeper" comprehension that might include elements such as critical reading or analysis of author's craft, which matter for long-term literacy development (Snow, 2018). The Simple View is limited in its ability to describe what underlies this deeper comprehension. However, for teachers of young children, this theory offers a powerful way to understand the abilities that contribute to emerging reading comprehension.

It is important to note that all learning, including learning how to read, happens within a sociocultural context as well. A critique of the Simple View of reading is its omission of social, cultural, and motivational factors that impact learning how to read and the experience of reading. Thus, while the Simple View of Reading is well-supported by research, it should be understood as a cognitive theory of reading, not an all-encompassing model. Studies also indicate that "instructional routines that draw on students' home language, knowledge, and cultural assets support literacy development in English." (August, 2018).

Reading Development of Multilingual Learners

Research has shown that English learners can achieve word reading proficiency that matches their English monolingual peers when they receive evidence-based instruction that responds to their linguistic strengths and needs (Vargas et al., 2021). Since fluent word recognition relies in part on knowing word meanings (Perfetti & Hart, 2002), English instruction for multilingual learners will "require greater emphasis on oral language development, particularly listening comprehension, as they progress through the grades so they can attain sufficient language proficiency, which in turn will permit reading comprehension (assuming accurate and fluent word recognition skills)" (Goldenberg, 2020). Such early and ongoing oral language development will help prepare multilingual learners for the vocabulary and language comprehension demands that sharply increase beyond the early grades (O'Reilly et al., 2019). Additionally, multilingual learners need "frequent opportunities to practice and review newly learned skills and concepts in various contexts over several lessons to ensure retention" (Baker et al., 2014). While all students should receive instruction in both fluent word reading and language comprehension to secure solid reading comprehension (Verhoeven & van Leeuwe, 2012), multilingual learners benefit from more of both.

Norma Hancock
"Over time, my knowledge and ideas about literacy instruction have changed dramatically. It really was driven by students who really struggled to learn how to read. That just led me down a path of consistently questioning and pushing my own knowledge and practice to find what worked best for each child."

Norma Hancock
Reading Specialist and Doctoral Research Fellow
Speech and Language (SAiL) Literacy Lab at MGH Institute

Learn More about the Simple View of Reading

August, D. (2018). Educating English language learners: A review of the latest research. American Educator, Fall.

Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Kieffer, M. J., Linan-Thompson, S., & Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014-4012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE website.

Goldenberg, C. (2020). Reading wars, reading science, and English learners. Reading Research Quarterly, 55.

Gough, P.B. & Tunmer, W.E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.

Lonigan, C., Burgess, S., & Schatschneider, C. Examining the simple view of reading with elementary school children: still simple after all these years. Remedial and Special Education, 39(5), 317–323.

O'Reilly, T., Wang, Z., & Sabatini, J. (2019). How much knowledge is too little? When a lack of knowledge becomes a barrier to comprehension. Psychological Science, 30(9), 1344–1351.

Perfetti, C.A., & Hart, L. (2002). The lexical quality hypothesis. In L. Verhoeven, C. Elbro, & P. Reitsma (Eds.), Precursors of functional literacy (pp. 189–213). Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Proctor, C.P. & Silverman, R. (2011). Confounds in assessing the associations between biliteracy and English language proficiency. Educational Researcher. 40. 62–64.

Snow, C. (2018). Simple and not-so-simple views of reading. Remedial and Special Education, 39(5), 317–323.

Vargas, I., Hall, C., & Solari, E. (2021). Brick by brick: landmark studies on reading development, assessment, and instruction for students who are English learners. The Reading League, September/October 2021.

Vaughn, S., Mathes, P., Linan-Thompson, S., Cirino, P., Carlson, C., Pollard-Durodola, S., Cardenas-Hagan, E., & Francis, D. (2006). Effectiveness of an English intervention for first-grade English language learners at risk for reading problems. The Elementary School Journal, 107(2), 153–180.

Verhoeven, L., & van Leeuwe, J.F. (2012). The simple view of second language reading throughout the primary grades. Reading and writing, 25(8), 1805–1818.

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Last Updated: December 29, 2022

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