How well does dyslexia fit into the Simple View of Reading?

How well does dyslexia fit into the Simple View of Reading?

Does dyslexia fit the simple view of reading? The simple answer is yes. Dyslexia fits within the simple view of reading and emerged as one of four reading profiles outlined by the simple view. And as a result, it has been widely adopted to talk about dyslexia with educators and parents. But let's dig deeper and ask a more pressing question.

How well does a contemporary understanding of dyslexia fit within the simple view of reading?

The answer to this question is – not so well. And it seemed timely to pause to consider why this is. To understand why we should consider the limitations of the simple view when it comes to dyslexia. And this compels us to answer a fundamental question.

What is the simple view of reading?

The simple view is a basic way of thinking about reading comprehension introduced in the 1980s by a pair of researchers. They proposed reading comprehension to be the product of two aspects of receptive language – oral language comprehension and word recognition. From these two aspects of language - the simple view was used to identify four categories of readers based on various strengths and weaknesses in oral language comprehension and word recognition. A two-by-two contingency table is typically used to illustrate them. The cells in this table indicate different categories of readers that emerge based on oral language comprehension and word recognition abilities.  When skilled in both domains, a child is labeled a typical reader. Deficiencies in oral comprehension give rise to a specific reading comprehension pattern of reading struggles. Being deficient in word recognition gives rise to the dyslexic category. And being low in both oral language comprehension and word recognition gives rise to a mixed profile or a garden-variety poor reader.

The simple view of reading is a simplistic way of thinking about things.  And many researchers, educators, and others have made this point. Since the simple view's inception, several not-so-simple views of reading have been put forth. And I have put forth variations of a not-so-simple view in various graphics I have created. But there is nothing as practical as a good theory. And that is because it allows us to predict the world around us. And the simple view does just that. And the categories of reading profiles that emerge from the simple view of reading have been adopted widely in the Science of Reading movement. And the simple view of reading is a foundational doctrine of this movement. Yet, I want to pause and ask how well the simple view of reading captures the reality of dyslexia as understood in the 21st century. Because I fear that if we don’t pause and reflect, many children and adults might be unintended casualties and not receive the services they are entitled to under federal and state laws.

Which members of the dyslexia community are captured by the simple view of reading?

As a member of the dyslexia community, I would suggest that it captures those of us who fit the stereotype of dyslexia that is pushed in popular culture. These are the precocious children with dyslexia growing up in an enriched academic language environment with ample opportunities to explore the vast world in their community and beyond. But it only captures the presentation of dyslexia in these children early in their schooling, and it does not capture all of the primary characteristics these children would exhibit when striving to read and write English. As a result, the simple view is insufficient even for the children held up as the prototype of dyslexia.

How does the category “dyslexic” derived from the simple view of reading fall short?

First, it misses an essential primary characteristic of dyslexia outlined in the consensus definition – spelling. Because the simple view is all about reading, and dyslexia in the English language is all about word reading and spelling. As such, the dyslexic profile derived from the simple view of reading misses a critical consideration when identifying children with dyslexia. This deficit applies to all of us with dyslexia. But you can find us if you look for the right things. It would be best to look for word reading and spelling deficits. It would be best if you looked for deficiencies in oral reading fluency. And it would be best if you looked to see how much instruction and practice it is taking to get us to develop these skills because it takes a tremendous amount of instruction and time practicing for us to develop them.

Second, many of us will fall into the mixed profile or garden variety category outlined by the simple view of reading. If the Science of Reading movement adheres too closely to the simple view of reading and the reading profiles that come from it, it will fail to serve many children and adults with dyslexia. I did not have a college-educated parent in the house growing up. My parents loved me, but their academic language use was less advanced than it might have been had they been college educated. And this likely contributed to why neither me nor my sister, when tested, looked like what we were supposed to look like to be called dyslexic. And neither of us got identified as having dyslexia in elementary school. We could have done better on listening comprehension tests, and IQ had certain environmental protective factors been in our household. But those weren't present, and we were labeled a “garden variety struggling reader.” As a result, we were denied protections under both a federal law and a state dyslexia law. We both should have received those protections.

These failings were not our fault. Nor were they the fault of our family or our upbringing. The responsibility lies in the failure of society to adopt effective ways to see our potential as human beings. Indeed, my son fits the stereotype of dyslexia. His oral language development, especially his vocabulary, was more advanced than mine as a young child. He also had developed far more background knowledge about the word as a young child than my sister or me. Dyslexia is generational, and my view of dyslexia is very long. I raise my voice for the sake of all children, including my potential grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

What about children with multiple brain-based language differences? 

The simple view also inappropriately categorizes children with developmental language disability (DLD) and dyslexia. According to the simple view, these children would present as garden variety struggling readers. This is because dyslexia, if not prevented through early intervention, develops into word reading and spelling deficits. And DLD is characterized in part by listening comprehension deficits. However, you can identify a DLD well before school starts. And when this happens, it should be documented and considered when addressing the child’s schooling needs because there is a high co-occurrence of DLD and dyslexia. You can also identify the risk of dyslexia before a child starts kindergarten.

What about the precocious children held up as the prototype of dyslexia by society?

The categorical label of dyslexic, as outlined by the simple view, would only capture some of even the privileged precocious children because of the cascading effects that being unable to read words can have on oral language comprehension abilities. After formal schooling starts and children learn to read, oral language development is partly fed by reading text. This allows children to acquire new vocabulary and background knowledge needed to perform well on grade-appropriate measures of listening comprehension. As such, the children who experience secondary consequences of dyslexia could transition from having a strength in listening comprehension to deficits in this aspect of language. And when tested, they may be labeled as a garden variety struggling reader according to the simple view of language. This is why advocates and parents push so strongly for accommodations to allow children with word reading deficits access to written language through other means – such as print-to-speech technology, audiobooks, and access to books being read by others. Also, I am sticking to the limitations of the simple view of reading. There are other reasons children with dyslexia may not be identified based on standard practices being implemented nationwide. But to keep this blog entry short and to the point, I will save that discussion for another day. This is also why so many of us push for early identification of the risk of future reading problems and early instruction and intervention to head off word reading deficits before they start.

So for me, the bottom line always comes down to this – what in theory makes good sense may not translate into practice as well as hoped.

How can we do better?

And let us remember the ultimate question. How can we do better? The answer to this question is as complex as a not-so-simple view of reading. I provided some suggestions throughout this blog post. And I will highlight another. When we introduce the simple view, we must address the complexity of the profiles of readers and spellers. Because many people, including me, have used the simple view to talk about dyslexia for a long time. When we do, we should address its strengths and weaknesses.

And as I continue to share my perspective as a member of the dyslexia community, I will attempt to share my thoughts on how we can all do better in other posts. And I welcome other community members to raise their voices and share their thoughts. Create your platform and share your perspective. None of us are alike, and we all have our own stories to share. Although we experience similar deficits, there are infinite ways that we shine bright. There is no single list of strengths ubiquitous to our community. And I share my voice to elevate all of us with our unique strengths true to us. And my voice is never intended to marginalize or minimize the voices of others in my community.