Commonly used infographics on the factors that go into reading leave out crucial information about … [+] comprehension.
How do kids learn to read? Three widely used infographics try to answer that question, but they leave out some crucial information.
The images date from at least 20 years ago, when the world of reading instruction was roiled by the “reading wars.” A movement called Whole Language claimed that the vast majority of children naturally pick up the ability to recognize words, and that focusing on meaning is what’s important. The other side, relying on scientific evidence, argued that many kids need to be explicitly taught to decipher words, or “decode,” using systematic phonics instruction.
The infographics were created by advocates of phonics. Their primary goal was to show that decoding and comprehension are separate processes, both of which are necessary for reading ability. And the images did help encourage systematic phonics instruction, at least for a while. Serious problems persist, though, and the infographics are now often used in teacher training sessions and materials to help teachers understand what effective decoding instruction looks like.
But none of them capture the complexity of reading comprehension. The risk is that educators will interpret the infographics to mean that the current approach to teaching comprehension aligns with science, and all they need to fix are problems on the decoding end. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Let’s take the infographics one by one, in chronological order.
The Simple View of Reading: This one, dating from a 1986 article by Philip Gough and William Tunmer, is more of an equation than a graphic: Decoding times Language Comprehension equals Reading Comprehension, or D x LC = RC.
Whole Language proponents were claiming that phonics advocates believed decoding was the sole component of reading ability—an argument that is sometimes heard today. Gough and Tunmer’s goal was to show that no, both things—decoding and language comprehension—were necessary.
They defined language comprehension as “the process by which, given lexical (i.e., word) information, sentences and discourses are interpreted.” In some formulations of the Simple View, it’s defined as “the ability to understand spoken language.”
The problem with those definitions is that written language is more complex than spoken language, with its own sophisticated vocabulary and syntax. Plus, writers don’t define every term they use, instead relying on readers’ background knowledge—either of the topic or of academic vocabulary in general—to fill in those gaps. But the Simple View suggests that if you just engage kids in ordinary conversation or read them simple stories, they’ll be able to understand complex written text on their own in the future.
To lay the groundwork for future comprehension, it’s crucial to read aloud complex, age-appropriate text to young children—text they couldn’t read themselves—and engage them in discussions that guide them to use the vocabulary and concepts they’ve heard. It’s also important to read a series of texts on the same general topic, to ensure the repetition that will enable kids to retain information and vocabulary.
Ideally that should be done as part of a coherent, content-rich, logically sequenced curriculum, which has students not only listening, speaking, and reading about the same topics but also writing about them. An increasing number of elementary schools are adopting that kind of curriculum, but it’s still not the norm.
The Five Pillars of Early Literacy. This infographic stems from a report issued in 2000 by the National Reading Panel (NRP), convened to settle the reading wars by evaluating scientific evidence. The 450-page report itself doesn’t identify “five pillars,” but the components that appear in the image are listed in a summary of “practical advice for teachers” written by one of the panelists, Dr. Timothy Shanahan.
The pillars, often presented as columns on a Greek temple, are:
· Phonemic awareness (the ability to hear individual sounds in words)
· Phonics
· Fluency (the ability to read aloud at an appropriate pace with expression)
· Vocabulary
· Comprehension
One basic problem with this formulation is that, as Professor Hugh Catts has pointed out, it “can give the false impression that comprehension is comparable to [the other pillars] in terms of its complexity and the way it is best taught and measured.” Beyond that, the NRP only considered experimental studies on direct instruction in comprehension skills and strategies, excluding the substantial scientific literature on the key role that background knowledge plays in comprehension.
Shanahan explained that the panel looked into comprehension instruction in response to the Simple View of Reading, which suggested that if teachers just focus on decoding and oral language development, comprehension will follow naturally. The panel did find evidence for certain kinds of comprehension “strategy” instruction—for example, asking yourself questions about what you’re reading.
The NRP report led to a multi-billion dollar federal program called Reading First, which conditioned federal funds for high-poverty schools on the adoption of programs that covered each of the five “pillars.” Publishers changed reading textbooks to align to the NRP’s findings, and states encouraged districts to adopt them. While schools of education generally resisted the idea of systematic phonics instruction, more and more began training teachers in reading comprehension skills and strategies.
But Reading First was discontinued after several years, and phonics instruction became more haphazard. Meanwhile, the focus on comprehension instruction has only intensified—and much of it looks nothing like what the NRP endorsed. The report found evidence only for consciously used strategies like self-questioning—not traditional “skills” like “finding the main idea.” And the strongest evidence was for teaching multiple strategies in combination.
But the standard approach is to have kids practice a comprehension “skill of the week,” using texts on random topics that are easy for them to read on their own. This goes on year after year, even though the studies have generally lasted only six weeks or less. That’s a waste of precious time, and it doesn’t equip kids to understand the kind of complex text they’ll be expected to read at higher grade levels.
The Reading Rope. This infographic, created by researcher Hollis Scarborough in 2001, is the most complex and comprehensive of the three. At the left, it shows two separate loose twists of strands, one labeled “Language Comprehension” and the other “Word Recognition.” The image shows these two strands weaving together to eventually create, at the right, the tightly coiled “rope” of “Skilled Reading.”
The Language Comprehension strands include vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, literacy knowledge—and background knowledge. This bundle could be interpreted as calling for a coherent knowledge-building curriculum. But given deeply entrenched assumptions about what comprehension instruction should look like, educators are likely to interpret the Rope to mean that their current approach is fine.
Teachers may understand that background knowledge is important to comprehension, but they usually haven’t been informed about the importance of building it. One common comprehension strategy is to “activate” background knowledge. For example, before reading a book about a family reunion, a teacher might ask students if they’ve ever been to one. But that only works if students already have relevant background knowledge to activate.
Another approach is to scan a text before reading it aloud to see if there are words students might not know and then define them. That might help kids understand the text at hand, but those words are unlikely to stick in their memories and help them understand texts in the future unless children hear them repeatedly, in different contexts.
Without a more explicit description of how background knowledge is built, the Rope is unlikely to convey the message that something more is needed. (There’s also a “Writing Rope” that leaves out background knowledge altogether—an odd omission, since that factor is even more crucial in writing than reading.)
The virtue of infographics is their simplicity, but it can also be a drawback. Is there a way to create an image that captures the full complexity of reading comprehension? I’m tempted to say no—that we need to redefine “reading” to mean just decoding, as Professor Alan Kamhi has suggested, leaving the development of comprehension to teachers of substantive subjects like history and science. But maybe there’s an intrepid graphic designer out there who would be willing to take on the challenge.
In the meantime, those who use these reading infographics should be aware of what they leave out and try to fill in the gaps. If the images just lead teachers to change their approach to decoding without also changing their approach to comprehension, we may end up where we’ve been before—with opponents of phonics arguing that it doesn’t work, because it enables kids to decode words but not to understand them. And the pendulum may swing back once again to a form of Whole Language.

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