What Does Reading Actually Mean?

Question:  what do you imagine when I ask you what chili is?  Take just a second and picture your perfect bowl of chili.  (Stick with me.  I promise it’s about literacy.)

Ask ten different people, and you’ll get ten different definitions.  For me, I like several types of beans, ground beef, a tomato base, and more  liquid than “stuff,” plus a little bit of cheese.  Others imagine a very thick “soup” that almost requires a fork, with chunks of brisket for the meat.  Still others might imagine a pork-based concoction, and others will imagine something like a white chicken chili. 

My point?  Definitions differ for everyone.  And it matters a whole lot. 

Even with seemingly simple words, like chili, we don’t all have a common definition. And without a common definition, we don’t have the same vision.


A common definition of what reading actually means is needed.
Image from Mahmud07

Imagine being all excited to have a bowl of chili on a cool, fall night, and you get a bowl of….something you’d never call chili.  You would think that the cook was wrong, and didn’t know what chili was.  And the cook would think you were wrong, and didn’t know what chili was.

You know where I’m going with this, right?

You guessed it.  As a nation, we need to figure out what reading actually means.  

When it comes to defining what reading is, we don’t all have the same idea.  In their recent work, Fact-Checking the Science of Reading, eminent literacy researchers P. David Pearson and Robert Tierney talk about this when they discuss the fact that there are vastly different reading models out there.

A person’s definition of reading depends on the model they have in mind. 

And that’s one huge part of the problem today, with so much polarity around how best to teach kids to read.  Without a common definition of what reading actually means, we can’t possibly come to a common place of best practices.  

Two Views, Two Definitions

Think about the Simple View of Reading, where D (decoding) x LC (language comprehension) = RC (reading comprehension).  Taken at face value (which, Pearson and Tierney say is exactly what Emily Hanford has done in her work), all that’s required to gain meaning from the page is the ability to decode words that the reader already has in their lexicon. 

By that narrow and overly-simplified definition, yes, one definition of reading might be simply visually taking in the words on a page, saying them correctly and knowing what those words mean.  It’s what the fascinating book, Reading in the Brain:  The New Science of How We Read by Stanislas Dehaene talks at length about.  (The book is not new, by the way–its publication date is 2010).

But take a more comprehensive (and much updated) model, like the Active View of Reading from Nell Duke and Kelly Cartwright, and we see that reading can also be defined as interacting with the text, knowing when meaning has broken down and what to do to fix it, activating background knowledge, attending to fluency, and yes, decoding–all at the same time.  All of these pieces (and a lot more) come together, which is where comprehension occurs.  Julia Lindsey, in her recent episode on the Melissa and Lori Love Reading podcast, echoes this, saying “the place we really want to get [kids] is that place of deep meaning-making.” 

Which is what makes it all so very complex.  The act of reading is not simple.  Most definitely the  teaching  of reading to real, unique, and varied children is not simple.  That’s why Louisa Moats is absolutely right when she says that “teaching reading is rocket science.”  There’s a lot to it. A lot to learn.  And it does not come from a script.  

“Children’s interest in reading must be stimulated through regular exposure to interesting books and through discussions in which students respond to many kinds of texts. For best results, the teacher must instruct most students directly, systematically, and explicitly to decipher words in print, all the while keeping in mind the ultimate purpose of reading, which is to learn, enjoy, and understand. To accommodate children’s variability, the teacher must assess children and tailor lessons to individuals. She must interpret errors, give corrective feedback, select examples to illustrate concepts, explain new ideas in several ways, and connect linguistic symbols with “real” reading and writing.  

Louisa Moats (1999), Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science

As a wife, a mother, and an instructional coach, I know that the root of almost every disagreement between humans is lack of communication.  And I contend that a whole lot of this continued “reading wars” nonsense through the decades comes down to a lack of consistent definition of what, exactly, reading actually means.  I also think we need to stop calling it just “reading,” and call it “literacy,” since reading and writing cannot and should not be separated.   It’s literacy.  

If I could wave a magic wand and solve this “reading wars” issue, I’d start with defining, once and for all, what it actually means to read. 

To get anywhere, and to end these stupid “wars”  once and for all, we need to define it the same way.  We all need to hold the same vision.  We cannot continue to have one person envision white chicken chili and another envision a tomato-based soup with ground beef.  Because, as Brene Brown is known for saying, “clear is kind, and unclear is unkind.” (Dare to Lead, 2018)

Ending the argument about what reading means requires a common definition. Image from ImLucky.

And good gracious, right now in the media, on podcasts, and in certain Facebook groups, there is a pervasive unkindness going on right now (which is why I do not allow it in my own private FB group).   But until we all get on the same page about what reading actually is, about what it really means to be literate, we’re going to continue this ridiculous cycle of back and forth. We’re going to continue to see viciousness, accusations, assumptions, and misinformation being spread like wildfire on social media. 

That said, here’s how I define reading.  

To me, reading goes far beyond just deciphering the printed words on a page.  That’s just step one.  But to consider all that goes into reading, as Duke and Cartwright share in their Active View,  means to understand what those words mean, to make sense of them, and to interpret them through one’s own experiences, culture, and values.  It means constant monitoring for sense, and knowing what to do when meaning has broken down.  So yeah, it means orchestrating M, S, and V (or as Burkins and Yates advise us to think of it in Shifting the Balance: V, S, M) with independence.  

Reading is also learning about the world and about the human condition, and deepening and refining those understandings with every new text encountered.  And as importantly, it means knowing who you are as a reader, not how you score.  

Reading is transactional, going far beyond simply decoding.
Image from Depositphotos

I believe reading is far more than just deciphering the code.  It’s far more than reading at a norm-referenced pace.  As Frederick Douglass wisely said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”   Reading is a gift.  It’s a ticket to a better life.  It was true back in Douglass’s day and it’s true to this day.  To get there, yes, the words on the page need to be deciphered.  But it most certainly doesn’t end there, and our instruction needs to balance all of what goes into teaching reading in order to get kids there.

The next time someone talks to you about phonics being the end all, be all, ask them a question instead of thinking they’re wrong.  Remember, their definition is their own bowl of chili. Instead, ask them what they think reading truly, actually means.  If their answer is to simply decipher the printed code to pronounce words correctly, then invite them into a deeper conversation.  Invite them to broaden their definition. Talk about all that Duke and Cartwright’s Active View of Reading explains about what we know about the current sciences of reading.  Help them see that reading is so much more than just saying the words on a page.  

We’ve got to come to a common definition of that proverbial bowl of chili. 

Then and only then will we see a difference being made in what it means to teach reading.

Because unless we all begin to share the same definition of what reading really is, we’re going to continue this fight.  In all that nonsensical fighting, it’s the kids–the very kids we’re all so adamantly fighting for–that will lose.  And it’s high time we stop.  

I’d love to know:  what does reading mean to you?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Could you use a partner in strengthening your literacy instruction?  I’m here for you!  Because no one can do this work alone, I’m available for virtual coaching calls.  Simply email me at [email protected] or reach out for a coaching call!  

Who, by the way is Coach from the Couch??  I’m Michelle, a 24-year veteran educator, currently a K-5 literacy coach.  I continue to learn alongside teachers in classrooms each and every day, and it’s my mission to support as many teachers just like you as I can.  

Or, consider joining my Facebook community–a safe, supportive environment (really–no blaming or shaming allowed!)  where you can ask questions, learn ideas, and share your thoughts among other literacy-loving educators! 

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