Simple, but not easy: What we forget about how reading comprehension develops

Simple, but not easy: What we forget about how reading comprehension develops - TLG-IMG-12192017As young kids amaze us all by developing reading fluency (remember this blog?), they typically move toward greater and greater comprehension of what they read. That’s good: reading with comprehension is, after all, the point of learning to read fluently.

But not all kids have enough of what they need to get to reading comprehension. Some kids have strong phonics and word recognition skills, but still fail to comprehend. Others show solid, insightful comprehension when you read TO them, but fall down in comprehending what they read on their own.

What gives?  This sounds complicated.

Actually, it’s helpful to focus on how simple it is. An important model for reading comprehension is one asserted by Gough & Tunmer (1986). Their model, the Simple View of Reading, is described by a simple formula:

RC = D x LC

This is “simple” because it only has two moving parts, the D and the LC. Just as a simple lever only has two parts, handle and fulcrum, the development of reading comprehension can be modeled as being, at its core, simple.

Decoding (D) is the ability to turn printed words into the right word sounds, more and more automatically. Phonics instruction aims toward increasing decoding proficiency.

Language Comprehension (LC) is the ability to understand spoken words in sentences. When we speak with easier words and less complex structures to very small kids, we are reaching toward their less proficient language comprehension.

In this model, D and LC are multiplied together, not added. That’s important because it means this: when one is weak, you can’t just compensate with a heavier dose of the other.

You can think of each of the factors as working like a percentage, ranging from 0 (no proficiency at all) to 1 (100%, perfect proficiency). Imagine that Decoding is at full power, and Language Comprehension is only at half power. That’s 1 times 0.5, which gives us a pretty poor value for Reading Comprehension. Even a student who can read every single word accurately can have poor comprehension. The product, Reading Comprehension, will be at or below the level of the lower factor.

2017 Teachers of the Year - Leading from the Classroom - PodcastsThat’s important: whichever of the two proficiencies is weakest, that is the one that most limits Reading Comprehension. How are we doing at finding and targeting the weak factor, student by student?

In the U.S., we have often done a poor job of adequately supporting both D and LC. In too many schools, we have tested and watched for progress in Decoding skills alone. We have often gone so far as to assume that every student with low Reading Comprehension must need help developing their Decoding.  But as Valencia and Buly (2004) have so clearly shown, struggling readers’ needs vary. Some “automatic word callers,” kids who are able to read with accuracy and even solid rate, still lack the language comprehension needed to get good at reading comprehension. (In future blogs, we’ll unpack “language comprehension” a bit, to point toward the kinds of skills that can be assessed and explicitly supported in instruction.)

So: what a relief to know that Reading Comprehension is simple, am I right? The key here is to remember that simple does not mean easy. Just having a simple lever doesn’t mean you can lift an elephant later this afternoon, easy peasy.

But with well-considered preparation – think instructional savvy and individualization—we can apply our exertion to better points of leverage. While simple is not easy, keeping the Simple View of Reading in mind might help us optimize for that all-important product, Reading Comprehension.