Written by Gen
You may be familiar with “The Reading Wars,” a global literacy teaching conversation which seemingly pits the simple view of reading against the complex view of reading.
The simple view of reading maintains that accurate decoding leads to comprehension. Therefore, in instructional models based on this theory, students are first systematically taught phonics through a series of explicit lessons beginning with the smallest word units to the largest. Teaching often includes decodable texts with controlled vocabulary and an isolated focus on phonemes.
The complex view of reading asserts that readers use decoding and other sources of information in a text in order to understand during reading. Constructing meaning while processing text is taught from the start alongside building knowledge of phonics for accurate reading. Instructional models based on this theory often use leveled texts with authentic text features and vocabulary with brief periods of carefully planned isolated phonics work in a sequence individualized to the needs of small groups of students.
The rhetoric between these two groups is getting heated. Various terminology is used in arguments determining if one group is right or the other wrong. What makes the conversation contestable, in my opinion, is that there are several serious misconceptions regarding the complex view of reading.
Myth #1: The 3-Cueing System
The term “3-cueing system” is used to describe the “cues” of meaning, structure, and visual information that young readers are meant to use to solve a word. The problem is, the 3-cueing system is a myth. Many literacy teachers are familiar with the work of Marie Clay, researcher and developer of Reading Recovery. She did not develop the 3-cueing system. You may also be familiar with the work of researchers Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, who have developed ways of teaching literacy responsively within a multi-text framework based upon the work of Marie Clay. They did not develop the 3-cueing system, either. The term “3-cueing system” may be a misunderstanding of researchers Ken and Yetta Goodman’s work around retrospective error analysis. Read below for an accurate view on what the terms “meaning,” “structure,” and “visual” are meant to be.
Myth #2: The Creation Story of MSV
Meaning, structure, and visual information are sources of information, not a cueing system. These three types of information exist inherently in text. I doubt anyone would argue that there is meaning in authentic text, or that there is language structure, or that you need to use the visual print on the page to read it. MSV was not created by Marie Clay, she observed that they were there by studying young children read real text. Knowledgeable and skilled literacy teachers record a student’s attempts at reading, as a form of assessment, and use the sources from the text, MSV, to analyze the individual child’s reading in order to determine to which sources the student is attending. This allows the teacher to develop a series of reading lessons designed to support that individual child. It is the teacher’s job to create a balance in how the student attends to all of the information in a text, which includes phonological information.
Teachers who operate under the complex theory of reading teach students to understand while they are reading right from the start- they do not wait for students to memorize phonics rules before asking them to predict, evaluate, and synthesize during reading. In order to do this, they point out information provided in the text in addition to the phonological information. The child will be asked to continuously be checking the words they are reading visually with the intended meaning of the text, while also anticipating the text structures in order to develop fluency and understanding. It is a checks and balances system for accurate reading: visual or phonological mismatches may alert the student to an error just as much as a mismatch in meaning or structure.
Clay (2016) has this to say about what children need to learn as readers, “He has to learn the letters, and the words, and their relationships to sound sequences, but he also has to build and expand the intricate interacting networks in the brain that must work together at great speed as he reads text.” In my opinion, the word also is the most significant word in that quote as it relates to the global literacy conversation. Clay did not dismiss the essential nature of learning the visual code, but rather suggests there are other equally important behaviors a reader must have.
Myth Myth #3: There’s No Systematic Phonics Instruction in Balanced Literacy
Those with a complex view of reading do teach phonics while also encouraging the child to not ignore the other sources of information that the text provides so that meaning can be made and vocabulary can be expanded. It’s even systematic, moving from the smallest to the largest phonemes over time. Here is a sampling of the reading behaviors related to solving words to teach, prompt and reinforce over time from Fountas and Pinnell’s Literacy Continuum (2017):
Text Level B:
- Read a few words with very easy, predictable letter-sound relationships (decodable) (p. 418)
Text Level D:
- Read words with easy spelling patterns with the support of pictures and language (VC, CVC, CVCe) (p. 431)
Text Level F:
- Read words with easy spelling patterns with the support of pictures and language (VC, CVC, CVCe, CVV, CVVC, VCe) (p. 442)
Text Level H:
- Use word parts to solve some two-syllable or three-syllable words (p. 454)
- Read many compound words: e.g., into, bedroom, playground (p. 454)
Text Level J:
- Use word parts to solve multisyllable words (p. 467)
- Read contractions, possessives, compound words, and simple connectives (p. 467)
Please note the progression of decoding behaviors and how they grow more and more complex over the course of instruction as text levels rise and picture support decreases. Using a picture to solve a word is a brief step in a continuum of complex word solving skills that are taught during guided reading. Knowledgeable and skilled teachers systematically move away from this behavior to more sophisticated ways of word solving (phonics!).
Let’s not forget that guided reading is only one type of instruction that is meant to occur within a much larger teaching framework which should include (Fountas & Pinnell, 2017):
- shared reading & writing
- interactive reading & writing
- guided reading & writing
- independent reading & writing
- and… phonics & word study!
Each of these areas requires specific planning and teaching. Students are not meant to be left to their own devices to guess at words.
Myth #4: Using Meaning is Guessing from Pictures and Students Solve Words With Context Clues.
The “M” from MSV has somehow become synonymous with looking at pictures and guessing. I suppose it’s another case of not fully understanding a theory before putting it into practice. The “M” from MSV stands for meaning, but the meaning is so much deeper than the pictures.
Here is the language for a few reading behaviors from Fountas and Pinnell’s Continuum (2017) that speaks to the use of context:
Text Level H:
- Expand understanding of the meaning of words by connection with the pictures and/or understanding the context (p. 455)
- Use details in illustrations to understand new vocabulary (p. 455)
You can see from the language used here, that the use of context is meant to receive the message of what has been read, not to solve the word.
Within the complex view of reading, decoding and processing text for understanding are taught simultaneously because authentic text does not exist without meaning, structure and visual information. In the beginning, young readers do use information from pictures because they are new to this! They don’t know how to make sense of the squiggles on the page yet, but they do understand pictures. We have known for a long time that effective instruction builds new knowledge by connecting it to what is already known. Over the course of a little time, these young readers are taught to understand the little squiggles and they are taught to pay more and more specific attention to the print and spelling patterns. Patterned texts with one sentence on a page are reserved for the very beginning stages of reading to establish one-to-one pointing and directional understandings, such as left-to-right and return sweep. Once these things are secure, children should be moving into text without pattern and greater demands for searching visual information.
We don’t want to wait to teach children to think while they read until they have mastered all phonics skills. Just like anything in life, children learn to read at various rates. Children who are slower to acquire knowledge of phonics will be significantly delayed in their ability to comprehend if we do. I’d like to make it clear that I am referring to teaching children to comprehend while they are reading, not listening to, a text. Processing written text and listening comprehension are different skills. Listening to text is part of a multi-text framework, according to Fountas and Pinnell (2017).
So, why is the complex theory of literacy instruction so misunderstood? In my opinion, there are several reasons:
Reason 1: Not everyone gets a deep enough understanding of the theory behind what they do before they do it. This is how we get things like cute animal mnemonics for reading strategies. These cute animal rhymes for how to solve a word are not from researchers. I can tell because they are oversimplifying observable reading behaviors that skilled teachers use to analyze student reading and use to develop lessons, not strategies that are to be taught. Knowledgeable and skilled teachers do not ask a child to look at a picture and guess a word. But these are things that are observed in classrooms and become the face of a movement. Flawed execution is not indicative of a flawed theory.
Reason 2: Districts are under pressure for higher test scores and teachers are overwhelmed in time and emotional energy. Therefore they seek quick and easy methods to relay information to children. This is how we get scripted reading programs that remove teacher autonomy and diminish reading to a series of memorized sounds and words. Researcher, Dr. Richard Allington (2002) calls this “teacher-stupidification.” He says, “Who would benefit from a teacher-stupidification consensus? The most obvious potential beneficiaries are those who provide educational products or services for profit (p. 33).” It makes sense that companies, because they are corporations and not literacy specialists, would be inclined to adopt the simple theory of reading given the measurable nature of it’s components. This is not necessarily true for all companies, so consider programs and resources wisely. The responsibility falls on the consumer to analyze the research behind the product. Allington (2002) asserts that it is teacher expertise alone that impacts successful literacy teaching. “Inexpert teachers are less successful than expert teachers at teaching children to read even when packaged curriculum products are available (p. 29).” He maintains that districts must consider where they put their funding, “Far too many schools (and school districts) either have failed to buy (that is, hire) teachers with the expertise needed to offer effective reading lessons, or are ignoring the expertise of their instructional staff (p. 30).”
As an educator, you have to decide if you believe in a simple or complex view of reading. Either way, please understand that teaching phonics, decoding, and spelling are essential pieces of both. While you are developing your philosophy of literacy, you will hear about the “science of reading,” and so I will leave you with the thoughts of linguist and researcher Frank Smith regarding neuroscience and reading instruction. Smith (2003) contends that brain research can tell us merely about what the brain does and not why it does. We can see what the brain does when a child reads, but there is no way to know how the neurological or chemical processes produce the reading. He says, “[Neuroscientists] will draw diagrams of the inside of the brain with arrows and little boxes labeled <input> <output> <phonemic processing> <memory> and even <understanding>. But they can’t explain what goes on in those boxes, or the ‘information’ assumed to pass along the routes indicated by the arrows (p. 8).”
If you are a teacher of literacy, please read a variety of research that is both in and out of line with your current thinking. Analyze it carefully. If you can provide a rationale for your methods of teaching that is steeped in theory and supported by research and your students are learning to read, then sleep well at night, my friends.