What can the simple view of reading teach us about disciplinary literacy?

Research & Policy
What can the simple view of reading teach us about disciplinary literacy?

The Simple View of Reading

The simple view of reading tells us that reading is the product of two processes (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). The first could be called “word recognition,” that is, the ability to apply the spelling-sound correspondence rules of English to a set of letters on the page. To read well in English, one must have developed phonological awareness, decoding ability, and some automaticity in recognizing frequent words. The second could be called “language comprehension,” which is a complex set of skills that includes accessing a semantic representation of a group of encountered words, using syntax and morphology to understand a sentence’s grammatical structure, and applying background knowledge of a situation to interpret a text. Depending on the skills and processes implied by the term, “language comprehension” can be extensive indeed.

The point is that according to the simple view of reading, reading comprehension is the product of students’ word-recognition ability and language comprehension. If students can decode well but do not understand the words, they will not comprehend the text. On the other hand, students with strong verbal ability who cannot decode will not understand the text either. Skilled reading requires both components. Importantly, while lexical and sublexical skill demands may be more or less similar across disciplinary texts, that is not the case for language comprehension skills. The prior knowledge, specialized vocabulary, and authors' assumptions of their readers vary considerably by discipline. A conceptual focus on these differences aligns with an approach to literacy called disciplinary literacy.

Disciplinary literacy and language comprehension

The phrase disciplinary literacy was adopted by education leaders in the 1990s as a way to talk about the integration of content and communication (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012). The term has since been embraced by organizations such as the International Literacy Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Governors Association.

Disciplinary literacy refers the idea that communication is most meaningful when it exists within a clear context. This means that when we are reading, analyzing, and writing texts, we are doing so in ways that are meaningful and useful to whatever topic or discourse community we happen to be a part of—whether that's a classroom or a larger community. In schools, the discipline we are in plays a big role in defining the context of our communication. Reading and writing are not skills to be practiced in isolation, but rather they are tools we use to do things—to solve problems, make meaning, and communicate with others in specific ways. Disciplinary literacy emphasizes the importance of engaging students in each content area's own discourse community so that they understand the "rules of the game". In middle school history classes that might mean helping students learn distinct reading strategies for interpreting primary and secondary sources. In science and technical subjects, that might mean helping students develop literacy strategies related to making informed inferences from data tables and charts.

Developing skilled readers

Hollis Scarborough developed a representation of the development of skilled reading known as the Reading Rope. Dr. Scarborough writes about the Reading Rope in “Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice” (Scarborough, 2001). The focus of the article is the prediction of future reading abilities based on K and Pre-K measures. The chapter emphasizes that reading is a multicomponent skill, and failure in one aspect can result in comprehension failure. For those of us interested in adolescent readers and teaching disciplinary literacy, this developmental perspective brings the implications of “the simple view” into sharper relief, even though Scarborough developed her model independently of the simple view (personal correspondence).

To help us think more clearly about the implications of this developmental perspective for disciplinary literacy, we present four figures based on Scarborough’s reading rope. These figures are only suggestive. Of course, each science text that we read taxes component skills differently. There are essential differences among texts written in different science subdomains. Still, we can make some broad generalizations about the features of texts written in each discipline and the literacy skills student need to master to read these texts proficiently. Doing so helps us understand the wide variety of challenges our middle school and high school students have in mastering “language comprehension” and strategically integrating these skills. I also hope that comparing the literacy skills needed across domains also highlights how the ways that we teach students can and should vary across disciplines.

The Many Strands of Skilled Reading in Science.
Figure 1. The Many Strands of Skilled Reading in Science

Developing component skills in and across the disciplines

Thinking about the development of component skills from a developmental perspective can help us think more clearly about disciplinary literacy skills. Figure 1 is a Science Reading Rope. Scientific knowledge is empirically based and dynamic. Scientists take the perspective of informed skepticism (Schwartz & Lederman, 2008), so it is not unusual for scientific texts to use caveats or hedges. Scientists use concise and precise language to express their findings, and science writing is loaded with technical language (Schleppegrell, 2004). In many fields, technical drawings, tables, equations, and data visualizations are regular and vital features of scientific writing. One of the goals of supporting the development of a scientific reader is to help them strategically integrate sources of information. For instance, a skilled reader may pay close attention to the data presentations and skim the author’s interpretation of those data. The simple view helps us understand that our students require word recognition and language comprehension. The rope diagram helps us understand that how we strategically integrate component comprehension skills varies in meaningful ways. We do not simply need to help students develop component skills. We should also be teaching students to strategically integrate these skills within and across reading subcomponents.

The Many Strands of Skilled Reading in Math.
Figure 2. The Many Strands of Skilled Reading in Math

Figure 2 presents a Math Reading Rope. Math and the disciplines that rely on it use mathematical notation as a critical aspect of written expression. These expressions allow mathematicians to communicate complex ideas to one another succinctly. Unsurprisingly, writing in math often refers to equations, visualizations, or results presented along with a technical explanation. The literacy knowledge required to follow or create this dual system of communication is complex (Barton & Heidema, 2002). Similarly, language structures in math are unusual, and mathematical writing uses letters in ways that break our expectations for the use of the alphabet (think “let x be the diameter”). The trajectory to skilled reading requires the increasingly strategic integration of language and numeric skills. In this case, the fluent execution and coordination of word recognition and language comprehension are complicated by the simultaneous cognitive burden of computation and the unusual use of language in writing. Again, our goal is to support skill development and help students understand where to focus their attention when reading like a mathematician. Literacy instruction is critical in math classes but extremely challenging since both literacy demands and content demands are often very high.

The Many Strands of Skilled Reading in Literature.
Figure 3. The Many Strands of Skilled Reading in Literature

Literary criticism is unruly. Literary authors and literary critics have no compunction about referencing historical accounts, informational texts, linguists, philosophers, and even obscure cartographers in their goal of providing erudite interpretations for their readers. However, some commonalities generally apply to the work of reading literature. For instance, one common understanding is that the work of literary criticism assumes that texts can be interpreted in many ways (Scholes, 1985). Unlike mathematicians and scientists, literary scholars do not attempt to arrive at a single solution. The production of interesting and contentious interpretations is as valued as arriving at a consensual conclusion. Another assumption is that close engagement with the text can reveal insights that are not immediately evident. Different readers will have different experiences with texts depending on what they attend to and their personal experiences. In this way, the reading of literature should be a deeply personal experience. For instance, my reading of a text may focus on a particular metaphoric trope, while you may be interested in the arc of the plot. These decisions can represent an intentional and uneven emphasis across language comprehension subskills. We must model how different approaches can be equally valuable when supported with textual evidence.


The Many Strands of Skilled Reading in History.
Figure 4. The Many Strands of Skilled Reading in History

A historian aims to construct a coherent account of the past via references to multiple texts, artifacts, and documents, each of which may present the events differently and requires readers to navigate multiple perspectives in constructing knowledge. Unsurprisingly, historians value corroboration across sources (Wineburg, 1991). They will often enumerate evidence in support of a particular perspective or stance (Schleppegrell, 2004). However, although the historian’s appraisals are subjective, they do not invoke personal pronouns or markers of epistemic belief. “This is the great paradox of history writing. Although historians are assuming an evaluative stance toward the content they are studying, disciplinary conventions demand that historians articulate their subjective take on events in objective terms” (Galloway et al., 2013, p.25). Because skilled historical reading rests on relevant background knowledge, one of our challenges is how to scaffold the reading of particular texts so that students can integrate other component skills required to read like a historian. Similarly, we may need to strongly scaffold specific primary source documents that present particular challenges because of language shifts.

Intermediate literacy and disciplinary literacy strategies

Literacy development is foundational to a student's educational experience, but students are often asked to read for different reasons in each content area. There are general strategies that can be applied across all subjects, as well as those that are more specialized. General reading strategies like predicting, monitoring, and summarizing are needed by all students and are powerful because they can be applied across content area classes. These strategies allow students to actively engage with the text they're reading and build a more complete understanding of the information they're taking in.

These strategies can be further supported by other disciplinary-specific literacy skills such as reading tables and charts, interpreting historical artifacts, reading equations, or interpreting chemical formulae. These disciplinary literacy skills are critical for reading in some areas, but not necessarily in others—for example, it would not be useful for a student to learn how to read an equation when studying history or English literature.

While it is important to support students' development of general reading strategies, it is also critical to teach them how to focus their attention on aspects of text that are specific to their current subject matter. Our students are consent faced with conflicting evidence in the news and online about important issues. In order for them to navigate these sources they need specific critical disciplinary literacy skills that they only develop in our content area classes.


The simple view of reading helps us understand that children require decoding skills and language comprehension to become skilled readers. Scarborough’s classic rope graphic emphasizes that there are subcomponent skills and that skilled reading requires the strategic integration of these skills. In this article, I hope I've demonstrated that texts in different disciplines tend to place differential demands on students. As teachers, we need to support discipline-specific reading skills in our domains and help our students understand which skills to emphasize strategically. Doing so requires that teachers reflect on what reading is like in their content area and make strategic use of strategies to support students based on the challenges they face. We believe that this work is best done with the support of job-embedded collaborative professional development.

Acknowledgments: This post is based in part on the chapter I co-authored with Elizabeth Moje and Emily Galloway in the book Adolescent Literacy in the Era of the Common Core. I was particularly influenced by the insights of Dr. Galloway. This post has also benefited from discussion with members of the Ohio Adolescent Literacy Network, especially Rachel Daniels. I am also grateful for feedback from Hollis Scarborough who corrected serious problems with an earlier version of this post.  Of course, I take full responsibility for those errors and misunderstandings that remain.

Learn more: No matter where you are in your schools journey toward literacy, we're here to help. Our model, which combines face-to-face and online instruction, is tailored to the needs of your school and staff. We work hard to ensure that our professional learning builds the leadership capacity of your local team to ensure sustainability beyond our involvement. Get in touch.

Related post: Constrained and unconstrained skill development: Why it matters for secondary students


Barton, M. L., & Heidema, C. (2002). Teaching reading in mathematics: A supplement to Teaching reading in the content areas: If not me, then who? McREL.

Galloway, E. P., Lawrence, J. L., & Moje, E. B. (2013). BC5. Research in disciplinary literacy: Challenges and instructional opportunities in teaching disciplinary texts. In J. Ippolito, J. L. Lawrence, & C. Zaller (Eds.), Adolescent literacy in the era of the common core: From research into practice. Harvard Educational Press.

Gough, Philip B., & William E. Tunmer (1986). “Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability.” Remedial and Special Education: RASE, 7(1), 6–10. https://doi.org/10.1177/074193258600700104

Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis) abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. Handbook of Early Literacy Research, 1, 97–110.

Schleppegrell, M. J. (2004). The language of schooling: A functional linguistics approach. Erlbaum.

Scholes, R. E. (1985). Textual power: Literary theory and the teaching of English. Yale University Press.

Schwartz, R., & Lederman, N. (2008). What scientists say: Scientists’ views of nature of science and relation to science context. International Journal of Science Education, 30(6), 727–771. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500690701225801

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2012). What Is Disciplinary Literacy and Why Does It Matter? Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 7. https://doi.org/10.1097/TLD.0b013e318244557a

Wineburg, S. S. (1991). Historical problem solving: A study of the cognitive processes used in the evaluation of documentary and pictorial evidence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(1), 73–87.

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