In terms of human history, reading is in its infancy because 97% of the human era does not include any print at all. The fact that it is a fairly recent development does not reduce the enormous importance of print and reading on human life today. We also know that babies are not born with brains that are primed to read in the way that they are primed to understand and use language.
Our brains are naturally prepared to organize themselves around language, but not around reading. Reading is an invention that has taken on immense significance to humanity which is why it is so important that everyone has an opportunity to learn how to do it. We must be taught to read well enough to take full advantage of all the benefits a literate life has to offer. So how do humans learn to read, and what are the best ways to teach them? We literally need to train our brains to read with ease and comprehension. It is a very complicated neurological process that could never be covered adequately in a single blog post, but I’ll try!
One thing that has helped me understand and explain how reading development takes place is something called the “Simple View of Reading.”
Developed by Gough and Turner in 1986, the Simple View of Reading model shows two groups of skills across two axes from poor to good: You will see that decoding skills are along the horizontal axis and language comprehension skills are along the vertical axis. I have added colored emoticons to each of the four quadrants. You will notice right away that only one quadrant has a happy expression. The other three quadrants have unhappy expressions. What’s going on here?
Simply put, children need to develop in both of these skill areas in order to become good readers. Kids need to have strong language comprehension skills because these will ensure they have a good understanding of what words mean when they say them, hear them, sign them, or read them. They also need good decoding skills because they need to know precisely how letters represent the sounds that make up different words. Kids who can do both, can read. That’s the green happy face in this model.
However, a child who knows what a “dog” is but cannot decode the word “dog” cannot read it. In this model, that’s the purple sad face. That child needs to be taught about how letters make sounds and work together to make a word that they already actually know. When they do learn to read the word “dog”, a neural pathway between the printed word “dog” and the concept they already know of as “dog” in their little brain is connected. Forevermore, when they see the word “dog”, they can both read it and know what it means. If you multiply that process a few thousand times you’ve got a kid who can read, i.e., a child who can both decode text and understand what it means: another green happy face!
But what about a child who knows how to decode the words they see but comes across a word they don’t know the meaning of? For example, they can technically read the word “cog” but if they have never heard anyone say or sign this word nor have any idea what it means, they cannot make sense of what they are decoding. That’s the orange sad face on the model. Someone needs to explain what the word “cog” means, while showing them a real one, or even pointing to a picture of one in action. They need to learn the concept “cog” in order to make sense of the word “cog” when they read it.
But what about a child who does not know what either a dog or a cog is and cannot sound out any letters at all. That’s the red sad face and these are the kids who need the most help. Simply put, kids need both sets of skills to learn to read successfully. They need both, not one or the other, and not one more than the other. They need both.
We want all kids in the green happy face zone and a lot of what we do in libraries helps them get there. In your work with families, you can talk to parents and caregivers about how reading happens. You can clearly explain that reading develops as the result of two major skill areas (decoding and language) that work together. Your early literacy tips can include pointing out the fact that decoding starts with learning shapes and directionality, and eventually the names of the letters of the alphabet, and the sounds they make. You can point out that language skills start with babbling and eventually words, sentences, and being able to tell their own stories. You can talk about all of these things as you guide parents and caregivers to everything you have for them in your libraries. You can integrate this knowledge into your storytimes, outreach, and your work with early childhood educators, as well as your readers’ advisory work with kids who are learning to read. I hope you find the Simple View of Reading helpful too!
Recommended & Free Resources
Do you have other reading resources to recommend? Please share in the comments!
Stay tuned for next month’s blog post about The Science of Reading!
Dr. Tess Prendergast teaches librarianship and children’s literature at The School of Information, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. She worked as a children’s librarian for 23 years and has served on many ALSC committees. Tess now facilitates the ALSC Preschool Services Discussions. You can read more about her work here and here.