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The Simple View of Reading: R=DxC

Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.

Many models have been put forth to describe the essential elements involved in reading, but none has proven to be as robust and useful as what Philip Gough described as the "Simple View" of reading.  In this model, there are two general elements that are equally important to reading comprehension -- they are decoding skills and language comprehension skills.

Put differently, a person's ability to read and understand text can be predicted if you know that person's ability to decode words and that person's ability to understand spoken language.  If a child is rapid and fluent at decoding text (unfamiliar words or pseudowords for preference), AND that child has no difficulty understanding spoken language (implicit understanding of more formal language for preference), then you can safely predict that child will not have difficulty with independent reading comprehension.

Research has shown repeatedly that, in broad strokes, when there are deficits in reading comprehension, there are always deficits in either language comprehension or decoding skills, or both -- in fact, most typically both.  There are some children (although it is rare) whose reading comprehension suffers because, while they are very good at understanding spoken language, they are poor at decoding text -- these children are called true dyslexics.  There are other children (although very rare) whose reading comprehension suffers because, while they are good at decoding text, they have difficulties understanding spoken language -- these children are called hyperlexics.  Most commonly, when a child has difficulty with reading comprehension, they are having difficulty with both decoding and language comprehension -- these children are described as having garden variety reading difficulties.

It also makes sense to think of the relationship between these three variables mathematically, where reading comprehension is the product of decoding and language comprehension, or as Gough put it, R=DxC where

R = Reading comprehension
D = Decoding skills and
C = Language comprehension

Imagine that each of these variables can range in value from 0 to 1.  Somebody with perfect ability in one area would get a 1, and somebody who completely lacks ability in that area gets a 0 (with most people falling somewhere in between).  It makes sense to think of the relationship as multiplicative, then, because if you a child is lacking in either decoding skills (D) or language comprehension skills (C), then reading skills (R) comparably suffer.

Consider a child who gets a perfect score on a language comprehension assessment (a score of 1), but who performs poorly on a decoding assessment (a score of 0).  This model would predict that child would perform poorly (a score of 0) on a reading comprehension assessment.

If D=0 and C=1, then DxC = 0

And in fact, that is what is found when real children are tested.  Children who are poor at decoding isolated words are also poor at reading and understanding text, regardless of how good they are at understanding language.  Similarly, children who are poor at understanding language are poor at reading and understanding text, regardless of how good they are at decoding words.  Researchers like Ron Carver have confirmed these predictions many times over.

And the other side of the coin has also been confirmed -- children who are good at decoding isolated words (fast, fluent, and accurate) and who are good at understanding spoken language are, on the whole, quite good at reading and understanding connected text.  The predictions made by the Simple View of Reading have been confirmed many times over.

Given that the formula R=DxC accurately describes reading, the implications become immediately obvious.  First, we as educators must learn what it takes to help children to be both good decoders and good language comprehenders.  And second, we should structure our assessment around this model.

There is a framework of reading acquisition based on the Simple View that addresses the first implication -- this framework outlines the essential cognitive elements that research has shown to be important in the development of good decoding skills and good language comprehension skills.  The complete PDF version of the framework document can be download here for free, or an on-line interactive version of the framework is available at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory website.

Structuring assessment information around this framework is trivially easy -- there is an on-line reading assessment database that allows you to search for published assessments that test specific knowledge domains that are outlined in the framework.  Further, there is an overview document describing how each of these assessments is typically assessed.  There are several ways to test a child's knowledge of, for example, phoneme awareness, and this document describes the different assessment approaches that can be used to get information about a child's growth in each of these knowledge domains.

Beginning of the year Simple Informal Student Reading Survey (for grades 2-8)

By September of every school year, teachers should be able to answer this question -- how well do each of your students read?

More specifically, how many students in your class this year are having difficulties with reading?  Do their difficulties stem from problems with decoding fluency or language comprehension?  Or both?

This is the first question that I try to answer when I encounter a student struggling with reading -- is it a decoding problem or a language comprehension problem?  The Simple View of reading (R=DxC) tells us that difficulties with reading comprehension (R) stem from problems with decoding (D) or comprehension (C).  Or both.  Determining this is the first step in diagnosis, and it is the first step in planning intervention and effective instruction.

Language comprehension problems are easy enough to identify -- if a student has trouble reading a passage of text, just read the passage of text out loud to the student.  If the student can understand the passage when she listens to you read it aloud, then her language comprehension skills are not preventing her from understanding the text.  She understands the material -- she just can't read it independently.  It must be a decoding problem.

Decoding is a little thornier, but not much.  Most students with decoding problems are able to correctly identify words and "attack" unfamiliar words -- they just do it very, very slowly.  Those students have problems with decoding fluency.  That's good news because fluency instruction is quite easy.  Some students, however, are not able to accurately identify words -- especially unfamiliar words they have not seen before.  Those students have more basic word identification issues.  These issues may stem from a lack of phoneme awareness or problems understanding the alphabetic principle.

To help teachers (2nd to 8th grade) to determine the reading instruction needs of each of their students, I've created a Simple Formative Reading Survey (available in PDF). Following this quick survey will help teachers to figure out what reading-related areas need more instructional support.

2006 -- Current Developments in The Simple View of Reading

Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.

Recently, there have been challenges to the Simple View of reading.  At the December, 2005 National Reading Conference in Florida, esteemed reading researchers Nell Duke and Michael Pressley hosted (along with a varied panel of experts comprised entirely of their graduate students) a discussion of the Simple View.  It was the contention of Duke and Pressley and their entire panel of students that the Simple View is "too simple" to explain the complexities of reading and learning to read.

This challenge and debate is good and healthy (albeit one-sided), as I believe every good theory should be challenged and tested through a process of scientific empirical study. The Simple View, as Duke and Pressley stated in their presentation, has been overwhelmingly accepted by the reading research community.  It is one of the most widely accepted models of the reading process, but that doesn't mean that it should not be challenged and tested.  Testing it can only make it stronger, yes?

The Simple View is powerful, I believe, for two reasons -- first it has substantial predictive validity.  Other than one reference (non-peer-reviewed) Nell Duke cited in her presentation, I am aware of no evidence that has shown any person to be a good reader while being poor at either Decoding (D) or Comprehension (C).  I know of many studies that have looked for--but failed to find--examples of "Chinese Readers" proficient with alphabetic text.  And I know of many studies that have used measures of D and C to predict Reading (R) with surprising accuracy.

The other reason the Simple View is powerful as a model is that it has very practical implications -- if a student is having difficulty reading text independently, one can say with confidence that student's difficulty either stems from difficulties with decoding, difficulties with language comprehension, or both.  There is substantial research evidence indicating this to be the case.

My advice to teachers is to be conscientious about assessing and teaching both D and C because both are important for reading success.  Duke and Pressley, in their presentation, alleged that people use the Simple View to push a "decoding only" agenda.  This is clearly not evidence contradicting the Simple View, however, because anybody who uses the Simple View to diminish the importance of teaching comprehension skills is somebody who does not understand the Simple View.  In the Simple View, both D and C are equally important.

Duke and Pressley argued that fluency is an example of a skill outside the realm of the Simple View.  I disagree.  Fluency is usually defined as rapid and automatic decoding plus expressive prosody.  Rapid and automatic decoding is a measure of D, and prosody is highly related to comprehension.  Students who are not good decoders are not able to rapidly and accurately identify text -- students who have poor comprehension are unable to read with expression and appropriate prosody.

I can say that most of the seminal research on the Simple View carried out by Philip Gough did largely use pseudoword identification tasks (accuracy) to test the Simple View, but that was only because he lacked the technology to measure fluency in the field testing children on location in schools.  In the more controlled environment of our lab at the University of Texas, we commonly measured latency responses and reading rate in examinations of the Simple View.  D is defined as rapid and accurate identification of words or pseudowords.  In fact, in oral naming latency tasks, Phil used to pride himself on having the fastest average naming latency of any subject in the study.  Phil is my reason for believing that D never really equals 1 -- even when accuracy is perfect, you can still make incremental gains in speed or fluency.

Duke and Pressley raised the issue of Rapid Automatic Naming or RAN, but as yet, there are no studies in that vein that contradict the Simple View.  In Naming Latency tasks, Phil was usually able to identify rare words in about 400 milliseconds, and pseudowords in about 500 milliseconds.  I have always been a slow reader, slow in RAN tasks -- my NL times were in the 500 millisecond range with real words, and 600 milliseconds with pseudowords.  For most tasks, Phil and I both have adequate resources and skills to perform equally well, but when pushed to our limits, I am sure that Phil is a better reader than I am.  I suspect differences, such as can be detected, have roots in different RAN performance.  Those differences in RAN affect our decoding speed.  Our differences in decoding speed give rise to differences in reading volume. (In addition to informational reading, Phil reads between 100 and 125 books a year for pleasure.)  Our differences in reading volume (and our differences in age) have lead to substantial lexical and background knowledge differences.  Over years, milliseconds add up.

(Quick Phil story:  In Phil's house is a pedestal.  On that pedestal is a well-used unabridged dictionary.  When I was in graduate school working with Phil, Phil sometimes hosted parties for graduate students at his house.  At these parties my fellow students and I would flip through the dictionary looking for and calling out words that Phil might not know.  In 8 years that I worked with Phil, I never once found a word he didn't already know.  His vocabulary was enormous because his reading volume was enormous.  And his decoding latency was rapid because his reading volume was enormous.)

Duke and Pressley stated in their presentation that the Simple View is not a developmental view -- I strongly disagree with them on this point.  Some years ago, I developed a cognitive framework of reading development around the Simple View (http://www.sedl.org/reading/framework).  In that framework, I emphasized the developmental elements that are important in reading acquisition that seem to be less important for skilled readers.  In developing that framework, I started asking the question, if D and C are so important, what is involved in developing both D and C?  Or more to the point, if a child is having difficulty with either D or C, what should that child's teacher focus on in addressing those difficulties?  The exercise of developing a cognitive framework of reading around the Simple View lead to interesting insights.  For example, phoneme awareness is not important for language comprehension.  This was news to a lot of teachers I worked with who saw PA as a "language skill."  And semantics and syntax are not very useful for decoding -- hard news for 3-Cueing Systems believers, and very important information for teachers trying to teach students to use semantic and syntactic cues to "guess" at words.

Duke and Pressley argued that the act of skimming, text-search and navigation, and hypertext were skills beyond the scope of the Simple View.  I would find this more convincing if they were able to show evidence that there are students who are accomplished at those tasks without having also developed proficiency as readers.  People who are good at the so called "new literacies" (surfing the web, skimming informational text, navigating hyper-text pages, etc.) are already accomplished readers in a traditional sense.  Students who demonstrate proficient skills rapidly skimming around web pages despite having poor general reading comprehension skills are worthy of further study if any such student exists, but I do not believe there is any evidence that they do.  I would be quite surprised to find an individual who is unable to read and comprehend normal, grade-appropriate passages of text, but can none-the-less skim and navigate text with celerity and proficiency.

Duke and Pressley represented the Simple View as a one-way causal model -- with construction of D and C leading to R.  This also reveals a poor understanding of the Simple View.  In fact, the Simple View has always been represented as a two-way model with R reinforcing D and C.  Granted, for every student, the process needs to start somewhere, and in the beginning, children usually need instruction in D and C to help them with R.  But very quickly, instruction and practice with R starts reinforcing D and C. So it follows that teaching reading comprehension skills will help with language comprehension skills, and vice versa.

In their presentation, Duke and Pressley kept uttering a sentiment that is quite telling -- they kept saying words to the effect of, "That just doesn't seem right."  That may well be -- but research discussions take place in the arena of evidence, and as yet, no compelling evidence has been provided that is at all contrary to the Simple View.  In its simplicity and elegance is power -- power of prediction, power of explanation, and above all, power to inform instruction.

The theory of evolution may not sit well with some people's feelings, and some people may have a hard time with the notion that the earth is round and that it revolves around the sun (and not vice versa).  And that is precisely why we do research -- because feelings can be so very misleading.

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Last Updated 12-11-2006