• Stephen Parker

The Simple View of Reading: Still Conclusive After 36 Years

In 1986, Whole Language, a philosophy for teaching reading that rejected systematic phonics, was approaching peak popularity. The two founders of Whole Language, Ken Goodman and Frank Smith, had little patience for decoding, that is, for matching a sound with each letter (or letter group) in a word and then blending those sounds together, left to right, in order to produce a complete pronunciation. (This is also known as "sounding out" a word.)


Goodman believed that “matching letters with sounds is a flat-earth view of the world, since it rejects modern science about reading and writing and how they develop.” Smith added: “Reliance on phonics – or spelling-to-sound correspondence – is dysfunctional in fluent reading and interferes with learning to read”. Whole Language, in 1986, was almost universally accepted by the educational establishment and by reading teachers throughout the English-speaking world.


All the more surprising, therefore, that in that same year, Philip Gough and William Tunmer proposed their Simple View of Reading. Surprising because their model placed “decoding” front and center, right along with “language comprehension,” as the two independent factors necessary for a child to read with comprehension.


The original model succinctly stated:


R = C x D


where R stood for “reading comprehension,” C for “language comprehension, and D for “decoding.” To fully appreciate this model today, nearly 4 decades after it was first proposed, it’s important to know precisely how the authors understood these three variables – especially decoding.


Before doing so, however, it’s helpful to recall that between 1986 and today, researcher Linnea Ehri formulated her now widely accepted theory of “orthographic mapping.” Orthographic mapping is the connection-making process that automatically creates sight words – words that are simply recognized at a glance, with decoding no longer necessary.


The connections that need to be made, according to Ehri, are between the letters seen in a word’s spelling and the sounds (phonemes) heard in that word’s pronunciation. This is precisely what decoding (sounding out) a word accomplishes. For most students, decoding a word successfully 2-5 times creates a new sight word. (For more information on orthographic mapping, see here and here.)


Initially, decoding is slow and painstaking as the beginner labors to sound-out new words. This is not what Gough and Tunmer meant when they used the term decoding in 1986. What they meant was actually the end point, or goal, of learning to decode, that is, rapid word recognition. Such recognition is made possible because the word has become a sight word via orthographic mapping.

In view of these facts – and because two different types of comprehension are involved in the Simple View of Reading (SVR) – it will likely avoid some confusion if we take the liberty to rename the variables in the SVR this way:


RC = LC x WR


where RC stands for “reading comprehension,” LC for “language comprehension,” and WR for “word recognition.”


Recently (2018 and 2021), Tunmer and Hoover precisely defined these three variables as follows:

  • Reading comprehension (RC) is the ability to extract and construct literal and inferred meaning from linguistic discourse represented in print.

  • Language comprehension (LC) is the ability to extract and construct literal and inferred meaning from linguistic discourse represented in speech.

  • Word recognition (WR) is the ability to recognize printed words accurately and quickly to efficiently gain access to the appropriate word meanings contained in the internal mental lexicon. [1]

Note how the definitions of RC and LC differ only in the last word.

“The reason for these parallel definitions of comprehension is that the SVR holds that reading comprehension and language comprehension engage the same cognitive abilities save the different points of access, one through print and the other through speech.” [2]

Note also, the phrase “accurately and quickly” in the above definition of word recognition (WR).

“The reason decoding must be completed quickly is because if it is not, the limitations of short-term memory and overall cognitive capacity come into play.” [3]

It should be pointed out that Gough and Tunmer caused significant confusion when, in 1986, they chose the term decoding to describe “the ability to quickly recognize words in print.” That’s because, for nearly everyone else, the term decoding does not mean word recognition. (See this blog’s first paragraph for how most folks understand decoding.) Why did Gough and Tunmer originally pick the term decoding when what they clearly meant was word recognition? Here’s a recent answer from Hoover and Tunmer:

“In the original SVR, decoding is the term used for the ability to recognize words in print. However, within the reading literature, this term is usually more narrowly defined as a particular way to achieve word recognition. Specifically, decoding is word recognition accomplished through alphabetic coding, which relates the letter sequences within a given word to the sound structures underlying its pronunciation thereby allowing access to the word’s location in the mental lexicon… The use of decoding rather word recognition in the original SVR proposal highlighted the importance of alphabetic coding in the development of word recognition, which had emerged as a key issue in the Great Debate (Chall, 1967) over phonics and whole language. Nonetheless, in the SVR, keep in mind that decoding is used in the broader sense of word recognition rather than the more narrow sense of alphabetic coding.” [4]
“In the original SVR formulation, the ability to recognize words in print was labeled decoding, but it is better represented by the broader term word recognition, thereby retaining neutrality about how it is achieved (e.g., indirectly through grapheme–phoneme correspondences or more directly through orthographic mapping).” [5]

[Note to reader: In what follows, I’ll consistently use the authors’ currently-preferred term, word recognition. When I do use the term decoding, I’ll be using it in the well-understood, narrower sense of translating print to speech using letter-to-sound rules, or, more colloquially, "sounding out" a word.]


Before looking at the Simple View in more detail, let’s dispense with some popular misconceptions.


Does the Simple View claim (or imply) learning to read is simple?

“The SVR does not claim that reading is simple. Both word recognition (WR) and language comprehension (LC) are highly complex, and because of that, reading is complex. The SVR simply separates the complexity of reading into two component parts.” [6]

Does the Simple View claim that language comprehension (LC) and word recognition (WR) are the only two cognitive abilities that effect reading comprehension (RC)? Not at all:

“The SVR is about the major, large grain size, proximal factors in reading – those broadly encompassing variables of closest origin that directly impact reading comprehension. It is not about the distal factors – those variables that impact reading comprehension, but which do so through their impacts on the proximal factors of word recognition (WR) and language comprehension (LC).” [7]

[Note: It’s in this sense that distal factors, such as letter/sound knowledge and ability to sound out a word, impact reading comprehension. They do so through their direct influence on the proximate factor, word recognition.]

Now let’s take a closer look at the SVR model itself: RC = LC x WR.


Based on testing, the variables LC and WR in the model are each assigned a numerical value that ranges from 0 (no skill) to 1 (“relative” perfection). Those numbers are then multiplied to determine RC (reading comprehension). There’s a lot to unpack here.


First, the scores assigned to LC and WR are relative to the child’s age and/or experience. For example, the same tests resulting in scores of LC = 0.9 and WR = 0.6 for a seven year old, would, if given to a ten year old, result in lower scores, if both children answered the test questions identically. [Reading material increases in difficulty each school year; more words are orthographically mapped each year. Therefore, improvement is expected in LC and in WR each year.]


Second, when two numbers in the range 0 to 1 are multiplied rather than added, the result will be a number smaller than either of the multipliers (e.g. 1/2 x 1/4 = 1/8). I will present some examples below that demonstrate the significance of this fact.


Third, LC and WR are independent of each other. As a skilled reader, you can easily verify this. Take any paragraph in this blog and read its words in reverse order. This is a clear example of (fast and accurate) word recognition without the involvement of language comprehension. So, in this case we have RC = LC x WR = 0 x 1 = 0. You can see then, that in using this model, it’s quite possible to have excellent word recognition, yet fail (completely) to read that text. Word recognition (WR) is a necessary but insufficient condition for reading.


Conversely, a child can have perfectly good (i.e., age-appropriate) language comprehension (LC = 1) yet have no ability to recognize words (WR = 0). Many five-year-olds are living examples of this. But knowing a language does not make one literate. In this case, RC = LC x WR = 1 x 0 = 0. If WR = 0, reading ability is 0 no matter how good language comprehension might be. Language Comprehension is also a necessary but insufficient condition for reading.


The necessary AND sufficient condition for reading to take place is that BOTH word recognition (WR) and language comprehension (LC) have values greater than 0.


The Ideal:

Reading Comprehension = Language Comprehension


The ideal situation is one where a student attains, as quickly and efficiently as possible, a (relative) word recognition score of 1. In such a case, RC = LC x WR = LC x 1 = LC, or simply: RC = LC. In other words, once a child can quickly and accurately recognize the (age-appropriate) words on a page, her reading comprehension (RC) will be every bit as good (or bad) as her current language comprehension (LC). For her, it will be as though the text on the page were being spoken by someone else.


As WR approaches the value of 1, the finite task of “learning to read” evolves into the life-long task of “reading to learn.” Assuming ongoing progress, her reading comprehension (RC) and her language comprehension (LC) will now increase in near unison (RC = LC). Reading about a new subject will improve her language skill just as conversation about a new subject will improve her reading skill. A lifetime of learning via both reading and discussion lies ahead, as “sounding out words” gives way to “automatic word recognition.”

Hoover and Tunmer express it this way:

“The SVR holds that if one component reaches perfection (even relatively depending on the structure of the assessments), the level of reading comprehension will be determined solely by the level of skill in the other component. The typical finding, that over time, listening comprehension, rather than word recognition, holds the stronger relationship with reading comprehension likely reflects word recognition skill tending to reach ceiling (at least with the respect to the materials used in its assessment) while language comprehension (through its dependence on knowledge of the world, for example) continues to grow. [8]
“The contributions of word recognition and language comprehension vary with grade level, with word recognition generally making stronger contributions in the earlier grades and language comprehension in the later grades.” [9]

But many children never come close to attaining this ideal. Here’s the problem:

“By defining reading as the product rather than the sum of its two component capacities, the SVR claims that both LC and WR are necessary, neither sufficient, for reading success. In advancing reading, skill in one component can not compensate for any limitations in the other.” [10]

In other words: “Providing instructional support on linguistic comprehension (LC) for children weak in word recognition (WR) will not improve reading comprehension (RC)” [and vice-versa.] [11]


According to the Simple View, reading ability can result only from some combination of word recognition and language comprehension. But reading disability can result in three different ways: from weakness in recognizing words (WR), from weakness in comprehending language (LC), or from weakness in both.


Let’s take a look at each of these disabilities in turn.


Less Than Ideal: Dyslexia


There are many children in school – and countless adults in our communities – whose language comprehension skills (LC) are fully (or nearly) appropriate for their age (so, for example, 0.9 < LC < 1), but whose word recognition skills are poor to non-existent (0 < WR < 0.2). These individuals might know a couple hundred consciously-memorized sight words, but they don’t have the ability to sound out and decode unfamiliar words. Thus, they have little ability to automatically create new sight words through orthographic mapping. Their reading is slow and labored. As a result, their ability to engage with the text is severely constrained – as are their educational and vocational prospects.


For this large population of poor readers, the Simple View yields something like this: RC = LC x WR = 0.90 x 0.20 = 0.18. Their reading comprehension (18%) will be poor indeed. Gough and Tunmer call this condition “dyslexia.” Dyslexics can’t read because they can’t decode, resulting in too few words recognized, quickly and efficiently, as sight words.

“We take no position on whether there are one or more ultimate causes of dyslexia. But we suggest that there is a common denominator in every case of dyslexia… an inability to decode. This is not to say that we claim to have identified the ultimate cause of dyslexia; for this, one would have to push the question one step back and ask why they cannot decode.” [12]

Gough and Tunmer concede that the ultimate cause of dyslexia might well be genetic and neurological, but they leave open the possibility that dyslexia could also result simply because the individual has never been taught, properly, how to decode.


Less Than Ideal: Poor Language Comprehension


Reading disability can occur the other way as well. A child can have relatively good word recognition skills (for example WR = 0.9) but poor language comprehension skills (LC = 0.3). This might be the case if the child comes from a disadvantaged background, or if the child has a developmental disorder that compromises LC, or if English is a second language. For him: RC = LC x WR = 0.30 x 0.90 = 0.27. Again, we have a child who can barely read.


And, of course, there are some children who are deficient in both word recognition and language comprehension. Here, too, the Simple View would yield the expected result: RC = LC x WR = 0.20 x 0.30 = 0.06, a child who understands only 6% of what she reads. Such a child would need support with both word recognition and language comprehension in order to make progress.

The validity of any model of reading depends on that model being falsifiable:

“The idea that reading has two central parts, word recognition and language comprehension, has been around for a very long time, at least since Huey (1908). But thinking about reading as the product of these two parts, and only these two, was the insight Phil Gough brought to the field. His proposal had the elegance of simplicity that made a complex phenomenon easier to understand as a whole. And while it was powerful and had the ring of truth, it possessed an even more critical property – it was falsifiable.” [13]

To counter the Simple View, one would only need to show:


1) There are students with good word recognition and good language comprehension, but who nonetheless can’t read.


OR


2) There are students who have one ability but not the other, and yet can still read with skill and understanding.

“In over 30 years, we have yet to see any set of high-quality, replicated studies revealing successful reading comprehension coupled with unsuccessful word recognition or language comprehension, or unsuccessful reading comprehension coupled with both successful word recognition and language comprehension.” [14]
“Given the current state of our knowledge of reading, a model of the processes underlying reading accomplishment must allow for the two distinct capacities of word recognition (WR) and language comprehension (LC). If it does not, then it will be inconsistent with our understanding of what is arguably the most substantial body of evidence we have about reading: that the combined abilities to understand a language and quickly and accurately identify its printed words accounts almost completely for the ability to read that language. This conclusion is supported in some 150 studies… Based on what we currently know, the SVR, through the weight of the evidence supporting it, is a valid account of reading ability that must be accommodated in models of how that ability is achieved.” [15]

Implications for Reading Instruction


In 1986, Gough and Tunmer were circumspect about the instructional implications of their model of reading. They were, after all, trying to publish their model during the height of the Whole Language fiasco.

“The question of the role of decoding in reading and that of its place in reading instruction are surely related, but they are distinct questions. We are here concerned only with the first, the question of the connection between decoding skill and reading ability.” [16]

More recently, however, Hoover and Tunmer have been willing to discuss the instructional implications of the Simple View:

“While the SVR holds that skills are needed in two components for reading success, it is silent on the instructional protocols to build those skills. Nonetheless, thinking about typical development in reading can be instructive. In the case of typical beginning readers, what is needed to raise their reading comprehension (RC) to the level of their language comprehension (LC) is skill in word recognition (WR). A typical kindergartener has a highly but not fully developed capacity for language comprehension, and is capable of understanding extended discourses. Typically these children have almost no ability to recognize printed words. For such children, their reading comprehension is limited by their word recognition skills—they can comprehend much more through their language comprehension processes when these are accessed through speech than when access through print is required. In short, for these children their limited word recognition skills will not allow their relatively greater language comprehension skills to be fully engaged.” [17]

The limiting factor on reading comprehension for most children in the initial two years of instruction is not language comprehension, it’s their inability to quickly recognize the words on the page. This can only be remedied by explicit and skilled instruction involving the distal factors that directly impact word recognition, that is, letter-sound correspondences, decoding, and the phonemic awareness skill of blending. As children begin to master these distal factors, the orthographic mapping that enables automatic sight word creation gets underway.

“As these children improve their word recognition skills, in the later grades they become able to efficiently recognize all the words on the pages they are to read. At this point, these children are able to understand through print anything they can understand through speech – for them, language comprehension has now become the limiting factor on reading comprehension. It is important for educators to keep these relationships in mind as they think about supporting the reading development of their students.” [18]

Renowned reading researchers, David Share and Linnea Ehri, have repeatedly highlighted the centrality of decoding in learning how to read – Share through his “Self-Teaching Hypothesis” and Ehri through her research on Orthographic Mapping. No methodology for teaching reading takes decoding (and the subsequent word recognition that decoding enables) more seriously than does Synthetic Phonics.


Here's Gough and Tunmer :

“If decoding plays a central role in the reading process, then it seems sensible to give it a comparable place in instruction… It might well be that direct instruction in Synthetic Phonics is the fastest route to skilled reading.” [19]

Hoover and Tunmer also point to the situation in England where the SVR was the basis of the Rose Report and its recommendation to move that country from the “Searchlights” model (essentially Balanced Literacy) to a Synthetic Phonics approach:

“In England the SVR was adopted in the government’s Rose (2006) report as the model for understanding reading. The report served as the basis for revising the national curricular advice given to all of England’s schools on teaching reading. As one example, prior to the Rose report, teaching the relationships between a word’s letters and its phonological properties was done incidentally, with more explicit instructional focus placed on using other cues for guessing a word’s identity (e.g., semantic context). But given the role of efficient word recognition as emphasized in the SVR, and the importance of alphabetic coding in achieving it, the curricular advice was modified to teach these relationships explicitly to children to advance their word recognition skills. As an aside, in the United States, cognitive models of reading, including the SVR, have not been widely used to inform reading instruction.” [20]

No one is suggesting that phonics – and only phonics – should be taught in the initial 2 years of instruction. Even during those 2 years, LC and WR can progress in unison. Every day, a Synthetic Phonics class can be split (roughly) in half – the first part devoted to explicit teaching of letter-sound relationships and decoding, the second part to the reading of classic children’s literature. The reading, however, should done by the teacher for the whole class, and it should allow plenty of time for discussion about what was just read. In this manner, both word recognition (WR) and language comprehension (LC) improve daily, for every child, during the two years required to complete Synthetic Phonics.


There is but one approach to initial reading instruction that fully aligns with the Simple View. That approach is Synthetic Phonics.


Stephen Parker

Boston, December 2021


Parents and Reading Teachers - To download my FREE books on using Synthetic Phonics to teach reading, click here and pick the book that's right for you.


Original Sources:


[1] Hoover, W. A. & Tunmer, W. E. (2018). The Simple View of Reading: Three Assessments of Its Adequacy. Remedial and Special Education, Vol. 39(5), p304.


[2] Hoover & Tunmer (2018), “The Simple View of Reading: Three Assessments of Its Adequacy,” p304.


[3] Hoover & Tunmer (2018), “The Simple View of Reading: Three Assessments of Its Adequacy,” p304.


[4] Hoover & Tunmer (2018), “The Simple View of Reading: Three Assessments of Its Adequacy,” p305.


[5] Hoover, W. A. & Tunmer, W. E. (2021). The Primacy of Science in Communicating Advances in the Science of Reading. Reading Research Quarterly, p2.


[6] Hoover & Tunmer (2018), “The Simple View of Reading: Three Assessments of Its Adequacy,” p306.


[7] Hoover & Tunmer (2021), “The Primacy of Science in Communicating Advances in the Science of Reading,” p3.


[8] Hoover & Tunmer (2018), “The Simple View of Reading: Three Assessments of Its Adequacy,” p308.


[9] Hoover & Tunmer (2018), “The Simple View of Reading: Three Assessments of Its Adequacy,” p311.


[10] Hoover & Tunmer (2021), “The Primacy of Science in Communicating Advances in the Science of Reading,” p2.


[11] Hoover & Tunmer (2018), “The Simple View of Reading: Three Assessments of Its Adequacy,” p310.


[12] Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, Reading and Reading Disability. Remedial and Special Education, Vol. 7(1), p8.


[13] Hoover & Tunmer (2018), “The Simple View of Reading: Three Assessments of Its Adequacy,” p311.


[14] Hoover & Tunmer (2021), “The Primacy of Science in Communicating Advances in the Science of Reading,” p6.


[15] Hoover & Tunmer (2021), “The Primacy of Science in Communicating Advances in the Science of Reading,” p3.


[16] Gough & Tunmer (1986), “Decoding, Reading and Reading Disability,” p6.


[17] Hoover & Tunmer (2018), “The Simple View of Reading: Three Assessments of Its Adequacy,” p307.


[18] Hoover & Tunmer (2018), “The Simple View of Reading: Three Assessments of Its Adequacy,” p306.


[19] Gough & Tunmer (1986), “Decoding, Reading and Reading Disability,” p6.


[20] Hoover & Tunmer (2018), “The Simple View of Reading: Three Assessments of Its Adequacy,” p307.








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