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, you need to 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 the sentence’s grammatical structure, and applying background knowledge of the situation to create an interpretation of the text or utterance. 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 don’t understand the words, they won’t comprehend the text. On the other hand, students with strong verbal ability who can’t decode will not understand the text either. Skilled reading requires both components.
Hollis Scarborough developed a representation of the development of skilled reading known as the Reading Rope. Dr. Scarborough and colleagues write 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 on the prediction of future reading from K and Pre-K measures. They emphasize that reading is a multicomponent skill and that failure in one aspect can result in comprehension failure. For those of us interested in adolescent readers, this developmental perspective brings the implications of “the simple view” into sharper relief, even though Scarborough developed her model entirely independently of the simple view (personal correspondence).
To help us think more clearly about the implications of this developmental perspective, I present four figures based on Scarborough’s reading rope. These figures are suggestive only. Of course, each science text that we read taxes component skills differently. There are essential differences among the texts written in science subdomains. Still, we can make some broad generalizations about the features of texts written in each discipline. Doing so helps us understand the wide variety of challenges our secondary students have in mastering “language comprehension” and strategically integrating these skills.
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 in 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 need 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 just need to help students develop component skills. We also need to help them strategically integrate within and across reading subcomponents.
Figure 2 presents a Math Reading Rope. Math and the disciplines that rely on it use mathematical notation as a key aspect of written expression. These expressions allow mathematicians to communicate complex ideas to one another succinctly. Not surprisingly, writing in math often needs to refer to equations, visualizations, or results that are presented along with the technical write-up. 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 attention when reading like a mathematician.
Literary criticism is unruly. Literary authors and critics have no compunction about referencing historical documents, 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 try to arrive at a single solution. The production of interesting and contentious interpretations is as valued as the 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 what personal experiences they bring to the text. 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 need to model how different approaches can be equally valuable when supported with textual evidence.
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 in a different way. Not surprisingly, historians value corroboration across sources (Wineburg, 1991). They will often enumerate evidence in support of a particular perspective or stance (Schleppegrell, 2004). Yet 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). Since 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 particular primary source documents that present specific challenges because of language shifts.
The simple view of reading helps us understand that children need 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 put 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.
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, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (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
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.