Experience the Simple View of Reading

11 Replies

Appealing to personal experience seems to play an important role in the marketing of popular early literacy teaching approaches, so perhaps a personal experience angle might be useful in building understanding of the Simple View of Reading? Let’s give it a go.

Try reading these texts

See if you can get any meaning out of this text:

Не́которые иностра́нцы ду́мают, что в Росси́и медве́ди хо́дят по у́лицам. Коне́чно, э́то непра́вда! Медве́ди живу́т в лесу́ и не лю́бят люде́й.*

If, like me, you don’t speak Russian, you’ll get nowhere. I know neither the code nor the language. Even if a Russian speaker read it aloud, I wouldn’t understand it.

In Simple View terms, my Decoding is zero, my Language Comprehension is zero, so my Reading Comprehension (zero multiplied by zero) is also zero.

What about this English sentence written in Wingdings*?

Although it’s in English, it makes no more sense to me than the Russian text. I can’t access the language I know, because I don’t know the code in which it is written. In Simple View terms , my Decoding is zero, my Language Comprehension is one (I’d understand it perfectly if I could crack the code) so my Reading Comprehension is still zero.

However, if I have this decoder with the English letter under each Wingding…

..the decoding problem is gone, and I can decode and comprehend it, though this is a slow, laborious task, as I haven’t paired the sound-symbol relationships in long-term memory to the point at which they automatically evoke each other, which would allow me to store the words in long-term memory via orthographic mapping, recognise them instantly and read the sentence fluently.

How about a sentence in Gunditjamara, an indigenous language from my home town, which is written in the same alphabet as English:

Yangi-yangi ngutjung kal-ngan ngutuk-ngat*

If Gunditjamara speakers heard me reading this sentence aloud, they’d probably understand it, but I wouldn’t. I can get the words off the page, but don’t understand the language (sadly, my generation wasn’t taught anything about our local Aboriginal languages). So here, my decoding might be close to one, but since my language comprehension is zero, my reading comprehension is still also zero.

I have a similar problem to a lesser degree with this sentence in English:

Consistency between different and independent geochemical techniques (stable carbon isotopes of algal alkenones, Zhang et al., 2013) and the boron isotopic composition of planktic foraminifera (Martínez-Botí et al., 2015) and inverse modelling techniques relating CO2 changes to ocean temperature and ice volume (Stap et al., 2016), support the assessment of AR5 (Masson-Delmotte et al., 2013) that mPWP CO2concentrations were 300–450 ppmv.

This comes from the supporting materials for the recent IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. I can say all the words, but don’t have the vocabulary or background knowledge to understand it well. In Simple View terms, my decoding is about 0.95 (I’m not entirely sure how to pronounce “alkenones”, “foraminifera”, “Martínez-Botí” or “Delmotte”),  but my comprehension is only about 0.5, so I’m only comprehending about half of the meaning. If you know any climate scientists, best to ask them about it, not me.

The Simple View of Reading says we must do two main things in order to read for meaning:

  1. Identify the words AND
  2. Understand the language.

Unless we have Developmental Language Disorder or intellectual disability, evolution has equipped us to learn how to do number 2 pretty well,  given the right environments, including of course educational environments.

Evolution has not equipped us to do number 1, so this needs to be a major focus of early reading education, or the many kids who find word identification difficult won’t nail it down (phonemic awareness, decoding/encoding and mapping words into long-term memory for instant retrieval), and thus won’t be able to read proficiently for meaning. Which is the point of reading, but (because of the way our brains and writing system work) not the starting point.

* In case you’re wondering, the Russian text above says: “Some foreigners think that in Russia, bears walk along the streets. Of course, that is not true! Bears live in forests and do not like people.” The Wingdings text says “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”. The Gunditjamara text says: “My dog is better than your dog”.


11 responses to “Experience the Simple View of Reading”

  1. Sharon Vaughan says:

    What an awesome explanation, Alison. Thank you!

  2. Vera Lavis says:

    You and your articles are inspirational. Thank you Alison

    • alison says:

      Vera, that’s very kind of you, thanks for the lovely feedback, I’m sure you’re doing lots of inspiring in your own role. All the best, Alison

  3. Christina Guy says:

    Thanks Alison – this is perfect. I ran an introductory session on Simple View yesterday with my teachers & am planning a follow up. Can I have permission to use this idea?

    • alison says:

      Hi Christina, yes, of course you can use this idea, no problem. You might also like to include a text in English with all the words containing digraphs or “long” vowels converted to wingdings, to give an experience of what it’s like to try to read for comprehension when all you know is the Basic Code. With the benefit of my 20-20 hindsight I can see that this is a gap in today’s post. Hope the session goes really well, I’m sure it will. All the best, Alison

  4. Jennifer Constantine says:


  5. Kathleen says:

    Hi Alison,
    Thank you for the amazing work that you have done and shared. Can I have permission for me to use this idea (with credit to your) to highlight the difficulties of reading. I am working with teachers in a remote setting and focusing on developing their capacity for understanding the reading process.

    • alison says:

      Hi Kathleen, of course, anything that helps teachers understand the reading process works for me. Glad you find my stuff useful enough to even ask! All the best with it, Alison

  6. Kathleen says:

    Hi Alison,
    Thank you I used it with the teachers and this really helped their understanding.
    Kind regards, Kathleen.

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