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Teacher question

I’m the lead reading coach in our school district. We want to present one of the reading models to our teachers and administrators to guide our efforts to improve reading achievement in the elementary and middle schools. Which of the models do you favor (e.g., simple view, Scarborough’s rope, active view)?

Shanahan’s response

All those models have some value … and they all miss a key issue it seems to me. Let’s first take a quick tour of those models that you are trying to choose among and then let me suggest a more relevant model that I think you might want to consider, Shanahan’s Wheels of Reading Improvement (opens in a new window).

Philip Gough and William Tunmer put forth the simple view as a hypothetical construct that could be tested in future research. The power of this model is in its simplicity. Its basic premises are that reading only has one special or unique set of skills — decoding, and that if you decode well enough to translate print to oral language (that is, if you can read text aloud), then your listening comprehension abilities should determine your degree of comprehension. In this model — which is expressed as a tidy multiplication problem — reading comprehension is a product of decoding and oral language comprehension. (The initial idea was for the model to act as an Occam’s razor of reading research; Phil was concerned that reading scholars were over-complicating our understanding of reading comprehension and he wanted proof that their contributions were really adding something).

Hollis Scarborough’s rope had a different genesis. Her model accepted the idea of those same two constellations of skills and abilities in reading. Hers wasn’t a model to be tested or a criterion for determining what matters, but a quick summary aimed at communicating what was then known about the reading process, in broad strokes. The rope sums up what scientists had determined to be component parts of decoding and comprehension. Accordingly, she expresses those two abilities as strands of rope that must be twisted together to become reading and it explicitly lists the skills and knowledge included in set. She also adds the helpful idea that the decoding skills need to be automatic (executable without conscious attention) and that comprehension is strategic (intentional).

The more-recently issued active view model is the work of Nell Duke and Kelly Cartwright. This one is a response to what they view as the now-outdated simple view. Consistent with that purpose, the active model is significantly denser and more complicated. They still include those two major constellations of abilities (word recognition and language comprehension) including expanded lists of component parts, à la Scarborough. Usefully, they connect these two constellations with a third, a set of bridge variables implicated in both word reading and comprehension, such as vocabulary knowledge and reading fluency. It also introduces a fourth group of abilities under the moniker of active self-regulation which includes executive function and motivation — and these processes govern the whole thing.

Each of these models can be useful. The spareness of the simple view is its major value. From it, it is easy to understand the centrality of both decoding and language comprehension in reading. The simple view should convince your faculty that substantial instructional attention is needed for both. Scarborough’s rope complicates things a bit of course, but only by identifying some of the abilities that are included in decoding and comprehension (and specifying the importance of automaticity and strategic processing). To teach reading it is necessary to operationalize decoding and comprehension so they can be taught. A bit more complicated, but still easy enough to understand. The active view is even more complicated; it requires a deeper dive into research findings to gain purchase on it. But it manages to add some useful variables omitted or only implied in the earlier models. It also better characterizes those bridge variables – knowing of their complex nature can be useful for teachers.

Just as I can point up the benefits of each of these, I can highlight their deficiencies (e.g., simple view misses those language skills that are unique or high specialized to written language, the rope leaves out important variables identified since the 1990s (e.g., executive function), and the active view includes some variables not yet well proven to play an important role in reading development (e.g., theory of mind).

Those concerns are bothersome, but only one shortcoming strikes me as being critical — and all these models suffer from that one. All three of these are models of reading, not of reading instruction or learning to read. They describe the process of reading, the abilities one must marshal to read. But they have little to say about what a school district or even a classroom teacher needs to do to raise reading achievement.

I think you might find helpful my Reading Improvement Wheels — a model of school reading improvement.  

When it comes to what we can do directly with children to improve reading achievement there are three things that make a difference: the amount of instruction that we provide, the content or curriculum of that instruction, and the quality of the delivery of that content. Those variables are especially productive because they represent variables that if altered will change the students’ experience.

All things being equal, the teacher who keeps her kids on task 94% of the time is going to end up with higher achievement, than the teacher who only manages to accomplish that 62% of the time. Likewise, the teacher who engages students in learning how to read (like those abilities included in those three processing models) will be more successful than the teacher who emphasizes other stuff during the Language Arts block. And, the teacher who has clear purposes, explains things well, and provides kids with lots of opportunity to respond will out teach those who do not manage to do those things.

As such those models of reading advise what should be included in a curriculum — what we should try to teach the students to know or do — but they don’t emphasize how much attention we should pay those curricular components or how they may most effectively be delivered. Teachers often under- or overvalue some components, according too much time to some and too little to others. Seemingly, their actions are consonant with the various models – they are teaching items from the models, but mis-dosage can easily undermine success, as would a lack of quality in lesson delivery.

There is another whole tier of variables that should be attended to as well. These variables are important, but they are not as powerful as time, curriculum, and quality of instruction. They are secondary in nature. They can be successful in delivering higher reading achievement but only to the extent that they alter time, curriculum, and quality.

Think about it. If your school provides teachers with the highest quality professional development, it can only improve reading to the extent that it increases the amount of instruction, better focuses that instruction on essential curriculum goals, and/or improves the quality of the learning experience for students.

If any teacher comes away from that training not wanting to implement it for some reason, then it will have none of those outcomes — which means achievement won’t improve since the PD won’t have affected the children’s experience.

The same can be said about several other of these useful, but decidedly subsidiary school improvement levers. There is evidence supporting the potential value of leadership/supervision, parent involvement, textbooks/programs, assessments, special programs, and motivational efforts for improving reading achievement.

But none of these variables directly impacts student learning. They all operate through their ability to influence amount of instruction, content of instruction, or quality of instruction. These outer ring actions always must exert their impact, if there is impact, through some intermediary person or process. The best textbook program in the world will only work to the extent that teachers are willing and able to implement it. Supervision can only improve achievement if it leads to better implementation; and so on. As such, none of these secondary variables has the power to raise reading achievement — at least not directly — and all of them can do so if the intermediary person or process comes through.  

My Reading Improvement Wheel is meant to help you to think about these different types of school improvement variables. The students are in the middle. It is their learning that matters. The golden circle includes those three potent aspects of student experience that teachers and parents can shape. Appropriately, the golden circle is the one closest to the children, summarizing their academic learning experiences; experiences that can impact learning directly.

The outer blue ring includes those levers that we use to try to influence what happens in classrooms. These variables tend to have lesser effects when it comes to learning, since they only work to the extent to which they alter children’s experiences. If you download the circle and put in slide show mode, click the model snd the outer ring will rotate. This is important because each of those variables in the blue circle may affect any and all of the variables in the golden circle.

My advice? Start with the Wheels and determine what actions you intend to take to raise reading achievement, considering how that is all going to work. Think about how you will ensure that your actions on the perimeter will collaborate powerfully enough to exert changes in the inner circle. Then think about how you would organize the information in those reading process models to support instruction. Which lessons in the textbooks connect with those variables? How much time should teachers devote to these? How will teachers know these are being learned? What will they need to know to present such lessons effectively? How will supervisors monitor and shape students’ learning experience? How can parents contribute?

In other words, providing teachers with any of these models of reading processing will only be helpful if they can be translated into instructional actions that teachers can implement in their classrooms. Those models address only a small amount of what needs to be considered (they suggest, in broad strokes, some of the content for that curriculum variable in the golden circle — though they do not even attempt to organize that information in any way that would guide teachers in how to address these abilities in the classroom.

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
May 2, 2023