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Florida Learning Disabilities Research Center


Child Reading

Children’s Reading Development and the Simple View of Reading

By: Mia Daucourt

There is no doubt about it—reading is an important skill. We hear it from teachers, TV programs, and sometimes even our nosy neighbors, reading is vital for academic and life success, but what are the most important skills children need to be successful in reading? One of the most common reading frameworks in the educational research field is called “The Simple View of Reading (SVR)”. SVR describes reading as the product of a combination of decoding and language comprehension skills. Decoding skills, which can also be thought of as our word recognition skills, capture our ability to use the alphabet to understand how written letters and words look and sound. Language comprehension includes our vocabulary knowledge and captures our ability to extract meaning from the words we hear.

A recent study by Quinn and Wagner (2018) empirically tested the SVR framework in order to figure out whether decoding and language comprehension did, indeed, both contribute to reading ability, and whether more complex cognitive skills, like background knowledge, inference and reasoning ability, and working memory, should also be added to the framework. Background knowledge is what we know about a given subject or topic, and it includes facts, terms, and concepts. Being familiar with a subject area may help children better understand a passage on a new, yet related, topic because it provides a frame of reference, so children can situate a passage in a familiar mental context. Inference and reasoning ability is our ability to use the information provided, in conjunction with what we already know (aka, our background knowledge) to make informed assumptions and draw conclusions when information is limited, or implied, but not directly stated. You can probably see why these skills would be important in a reading comprehension task because passages often involve questions about things that are not explicitly stated. Finally, working memory is our ability to temporarily hold new information in our heads and monitor whether its relevant to our present needs. This skill would be important in order for children to hold onto the information they just read in a passage and to help them decide which information is relevant versus irrelevant in order to answer comprehension questions. These skills may be important only at more complex levels of reading difficulty or they may also support younger children’s simpler reading demands. Accordingly, Quinn and Wagner (2018) also tested whether the relations among these reading-related skills was different for younger versus older children.

To answer these questions, the researchers used an innovative statistical technique, called meta-analytic structural equation modeling, or “Meta-SEM”. The name may seem complicated, but put simply, Meta-SEM is a statistical method for combining the results of as many studies on a given topic as possible in order to test relationships (for example, the relations among decoding, language comprehension, and reading comprehension) with as much statistical power as possible. The main idea is that by compiling a whole lot of information, Meta-SEM allows for research questions to be answered with bigger samples that are more likely to represent the overall population.

The results of Quinn & Wagner’s (2018) study showed that the Simple View of Reading is a useful framework. Overall, reading comprehension requires children to apply their knowledge of the alphabet and word meanings to identify and understand the letters and words they see and hear. In fact, decoding and language comprehension abilities explained approximately 61% of younger children’s (who were an average of 9 years old), and 53% of older children’s (who were an average of 17 years old), reading comprehension scores, however, some differences were revealed that showed that the relations among these reading skills change over time. Specifically, younger children do not yet need their more complex cognitive abilities to read, as “reading” is still mostly sounding out words and using language skills with simple texts. When children get older, texts are more complex, and more cognitively advanced skills, like reasoning and inference and working memory abilities, are needed to read.

Quinn & Wagner’s (2018) study provided us with some important take-aways. We found out that we can rest assured that the Simple View of Reading is a valid framework for explaining more than half of children’s reading comprehension abilities. As a consequence, elementary education should continue to focus on developing children’s decoding and language comprehension skills. We also found out that older children’s more complex reading demands create the need for some more cognitively- advanced skills. Accordingly, these skills, such as reasoning and inference ability and working memory ability, should be supported in the classroom as children progress in their academic careers. Finally, we also found support for MetaSEM as a useful statistical technique that draws on the power of many studies to answer important research questions. Future studies should use MetaSEM to draw conclusions about academic skill domains in order to have access to more representative samples.

Quinn, J.M., & Wagner, R.K. (2018). Using meta-analytic structural equation modeling to study developmental changes in relations between language and literacy. Child Development, 1-14.