Beyond the Simple View: Reading’s True Complexity

Lately, you’ve likely been hearing the term SVR (Simple View of Reading).   It’s a theory that’s been around for a very long time.  Reading researchers Gough and Tunmer came up with this very simple mathematical equation way back in 1986 to help explain how reading comprehension occurs…and how it breaks down.  It’s commonly shown as D x LC = RC:  as in the product of two separate pieces, decoding and linguistic (language) comprehension, taken together, will lead to reading comprehension.  Meaning, if readers can decode the words and they know what the words mean, comprehension results.  And just like every multiplication problem, if one of those factors–either decoding or language comprehension is lacking, comprehension cannot occur.  

On a basic level, this makes a lot of sense.  

This model supports the idea that reading is comprehension, not just word pronunciation.  It  says that if readers can’t pronounce many of the words they’re reading, comprehension will suffer.  And if they don’t have those words in their mental word bank, they don’t have meaning, so of course comprehension will suffer.

But is the flip side true?  If readers can accurately and fluently pronounce the words, and they have heard the words before, can we ensure comprehension?  

Well, yes.  And no.  There’s actually a lot beyond the simple view.  

It’s far more complex than that.  

Reading is complex

First, it’s important to understand that the SVR is really meant to explain early literacy.  Simple texts, simple view. If we think about the kinds of texts these early readers encounter,  it works, and it works very well.  These beginning texts are usually on very familiar topics with common, familiar vocabulary, simple words, and simple sentence structures.   

That’s why the SVR works…until it doesn’t.  We need to go beyond the Simple View because reading goes beyond simple texts.  Which Hoover and Tumner (Tumner, remember, is one of the guys who came up with SVR all those years ago) admit in a 2018 journal article in the following statements:

“There may be other constructs important to reading comprehension beyond decoding and linguistic comprehension.”  
“There is much more to understand about reading than what is represented in the SVR.”

 Hoover,  W.A.,  &  Tunmer,  W.E.  (2018).  The  simple  view  of  reading:  Three assessments of its adequacy. Remedial and Special Education, 39(5),  304– 312. 

The authors further say that “SVR does not claim that reading is simple. Both word recognition and language comprehension are highly complex, and because of that, reading is complex.”

They are absolutely right.  Reading is extremely complex.  We MUST go beyond the Simple View!

What happens when readers are ready to graduate from simple texts, concepts, structures, and vocabulary?  And what about differing cultural experiences?  Different–or lack of–background knowledge?  Here we can think back to the often-referenced “Baseball study.” 

In that study, a group of kids who knew a lot about baseball and groups of kids who didn’t know a lot about it read the same baseball passage and then took a comprehension assessment.  There was a mix of struggling and proficient readers.  Without question, the kids that knew about baseball already scored higher than those that did not.  So even struggling readers did well on the assessment because of their background knowledge–even beating out proficient readers who lacked this background knowledge. 

And what about words that are spelled the same but mean different things?  A child might know the word “wind,” only as weather, but what if they have never heard iit as what you do to a watch to make it run? Similarly, what if the word is “park,” and a child knows it as the familiar place they go to play, but the context for the word actually means to stop, which they might never have heard before.  In these instances, SVR would fail them.  

What about very complex sentences, where understanding what, exactly, pronouns are referencing?  In that case, it wouldn’t matter that the child could easily decode the words and that the words were all familiar.  Comprehension would still break down.  

And…what about students who know the words, and can decode them just fine, but totally lose focus?  Comprehension definitely won’t take place in this case.  


Or when kids read a book that requires understanding of a large concept, like a time in history.  Think about a book that might be set during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, where the main character is Black and a woman, and does something seemingly small but is actually HUGE?  I’m thinking of the picture book Pies from Nowhere here.  In order to deeply understand that book’s messages, a reader would have to understand that era to fully grasp how brave and heroic Georgia Gilmore’s act of baking and selling pies really was.

And…this point, made by Anna Cockerill, who is currently Executive Content Developer at Benchmark Education.  She shares an often quoted line from longtime literacy supporter and educator Lester Laminack.  It’s a perfect example of what happens when incorrect prosody causes lack of comprehension:

“Consider the phrase, ‘The old man the boat.” Read without prosody, this seems like a sentence fragment. However, read in such a way that it is clear that man is a verb, the phrase becomes a sentence, indicating that “The old” is the subject, a group of older people, and this group is guiding (manning) the boat.” 

SVR just does not support older students, who are reading much more complex texts. Reading is not simple.  Researcher Catherine Snow compared three large studies that tested the validity of the SVR theory.  In her article, Simple and Not-So-Simple Views of Reading, she found that “the [SVR] theory held true for our earliest readers reading simple texts and assessed on basic comprehension.  But that changed completely with readers at about third grade.” 

She further elaborated, saying that “reader skills in academic language, in perspective taking, and in argumentation are additional important predictors of comprehension when readers are confronted with 21st century literacy tasks, which require analysis, synthesis, and critique, not just literal inferences and summaries.” 

There’s even more to the picture.  The Simple View is almost 40 years old at this point.  Science has most certainly continued to evolve.  And it has–tremendously.  Much has been discovered about reading’s true complexity.  

Which is why I much prefer to think about what it truly means to be a reader in terms of the Active View of Reading, Duke and Cartwight’s 2021 update of the overly simplistic Simple View.  

In it, they bring in two much-needed aspects to the comprehension picture that go beyond the Simple View:  self-regulation skills, like focus, engagement, and motivation (I know…if you’re reading this, you’re thinking “duh!”), as well as kids’ use of strategies, fluency, and meaning flexibility.  It’s a much more complete picture of what it really takes to be a reader.

It’s a needed evolution of the simple view, and it definitely won’t be the last.  

Nell Duke herself says that she hopes this newest iteration will be further refined as we learn more.  You can hear her wonderful conversation about the Active View on the Melissa and Lori Love Literacy Podcast, or read the full article explaining it.  Better yet, both!  And share them far and wide!

Because, as Duke points out, reading is just not that simple.  And the more we know better, the more we can do better.  

My fellow educator, what are your thoughts on this?  Do you agree?  Disagree?  I’d love to connect!  DM me on Instagram, or better yet, join my  private FB group to share your thinking!

Related Posts:  Teach the Reader, Not Just Reading, The Real Question We Should Be Asking, Want Students to Succeed?  Build Background Knowledge, What’s the Best Way to Teach Vocabulary?, Will Robotic Mandates End Responsive Teaching?

Related Resources:  Tips for Reading Engagement [Free webinar]

Add A Comment