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Linguistic Comprehension: Not a Simple View of Language

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

Over the weekend, Timothy Shanahan threw a cat among the pigeons again: . I always enjoy the way his writing makes me thoroughly examine my position. Every time I am beginning to feel a degree of comfort regarding my mediocre knowledge of language and literacy, Shanahan reaches over the ocean and gives me another virtual shake. I am grateful for all the contributions from those far more expert and knowledgeable than me. I have enjoyed observing much rigorous debate ensue. What is oral language? What is written language? How are they the same? How are they different? Does the Simple View of Reading (SVR) hold?

To allay your greatest fear, I want to say at the outset that I fully endorse the Simple View of Reading. It tells us that Reading Comprehension is the product of Linguistic Comprehension and Word Recognition. Guru Kate Nation describes it most eloquently here: . She writes, “it is not to say that the Simple View is false or limited as a framework to help us understand variation in reading comprehension. On the contrary, the Simple View is extraordinarily successful in this regard. When measured comprehensively and reliably, variations in decoding and linguistic comprehension capture individual differences in reading comprehension almost perfectly (Hjetland et al., 2019); this means that the terms decoding and linguistic comprehension have utility, if we accept that they denote complex constructs rather than explaining a particular cognitive process.”

I also want to say that we do have evidence that teaching components of oral language can improve reading comprehension. Vocabulary has been shown to have a relationship with reading comprehension, as have syntax and morphology. To review some of the literature on oral language and reading comprehension, let me recommend Tiffany Hogan’s excellent new thread: . I agree with Shanahan that there are limits to oral language instruction for reading comprehension, because language in written form is a far different beast to language in oral form. Oracy precedes literacy. The more we know about how language works in oral form, the better placed we are to comprehend language in written form. But that is not enough.

I don’t think Shanahan was disputing the theoretical value of the SVR. He seemed to be saying we should not use it as the basis for our teaching. My read of his view was that we can’t just teach word recognition and oral language comprehension and expect that to be enough for many students to achieve reading comprehension.

So, we have the Simple View of Reading. We also have three national inquiries from Australia, the US and the UK which collectively and comprehensively tell us that we need to focus on five key elements in reading instruction. These are phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and reading comprehension. So, is reading comprehension a natural product of WR and LC, or should it be taught? Can both be true? There are two main schools of thought that I come across when working with teachers and school leaders who are familiar with the science of reading and I think this was at least in part what Shanahan was writing about:

1. Reading comprehension is a product of WR and LC. If we ensure accurate word reading via work on phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency, and if we build oral language (vocabulary, syntax, morphology) reading comprehension will naturally come.

2. Reading comprehension needs to be explicitly taught.

That we have these competing ideas could be a problem for instruction.

What is linguistic comprehension?

I’m going to pose that the problem isn’t the SVR, but rather it is what we understand to be LC. The SVR was never intended to tell us how to teach. As Castles et al (2018), it is a useful framework, but not a model which can tell us how LC operates or develops. In the absence of such direction, I think we tend to make it up a bit as we go along. I know I have certainly been guilty of that in the past.

Gough and Tunmer defined linguistic comprehension as the following:

linguistic comprehension is the process of interpreting spoken words, sentences, and discourse


the process by which, given lexical (i.e., word) information, sentences and discourses are interpreted

There are many other nuanced definitions. In the literature LC is not always linguistic or language comprehension. You will see it referred to as listening comprehension, and even oral language comprehension. This perhaps was the beginning of the muddying of the instructional waters. Are we only talking about oral language or are we talking about oral and written language with respect to linguistic comprehension? Studies report measuring story retell, oral language, vocabulary, working memory, language comprehension, inferencing and/or verbal proficiency as representatives of linguistic comprehension. I’m sure we can agree that these are not all one and the same, and various combinations give inconsistent results. Studies also use various tests to capture these skills as a measure of linguistic comprehension. If there is inconsistency when it comes to definitions and there is inconsistency when it comes to measurement, it is no wonder that we get confused when it comes to teaching this amorphous beast.

Kate Nation (2019) is clear on this when she says, “the equation RC = D x LC works for beginning readers as it does skilled readers, assuming the constructs have been measured appropriately.”

So, if RC is the product of WR and LC, what is LC? It has been oversimplified I fear, to the point that sometimes it means teaching vocabulary, syntax and morphology. All of this helps, of course, but those aspects alone won’t lead to RC.

If we take a look at Perfetti’s Reading Systems Framework or Tunmer’s Cognitive Foundations Framework we start to see the various components of linguistic comprehension. What I like about both models is they pay attention to linguistic and cognitive aspects of reading. Key aspects covered in Tunmer’s framework are:

- Phonology

- Morphology

- Vocabulary

- Syntax

- Background knowledge

- Inferencing

And in Perfetti’s framework:

- Linguistic system (phonology, syntax, morphology)

- Lexicon (word meaning, morphology, syntax, themes, argument)

- General knowledge (including knowledge of text structure)

- Comprehension (parses, situational model, inferencing, text representation)

In both frameworks there is an interplay between aspects. They are both well worth a read.

So, what does all of this mean?

Teaching linguistic comprehension must involve teaching comprehension at the word level, the sentence level, and the extended text level (paragraph, chapter, book etc.).

The Simple View of Reading holds, if we agree to be clear on what Linguistic Comprehension includes and teach all components.

Many complex skills are required for Reading Comprehension to be achieved. These skills sit under the umbrellas of WR or LC.

How about we agree to describe and define LC in terms that are of benefit to instruction? From my reading over the past 5-10 years, this seems to be what the literature tells us is important in teaching linguistic comprehension, and in turn, reading comprehension:

Vocabulary (semantics)

Teach rich and deep knowledge of word meanings. This means multiple exposures in multiple contexts, developing rich mental representations. This book will get you there:

Grammar (syntax and morphology)

Teach affixes. Teach sentence structure. Teach relationships between sentences. Teach students to make connections.

Inferencing and metalinguistics

Teach students how to go beyond what is explicitly stated. This requires deep knowledge of vocabulary and background knowledge. Teach students about ambiguous language. Teach students about figurative language. Teach students about linguistic devices. Teach perspective taking.

Text types/genre

Explicitly teach text types. Teach audience and purpose. Teach and practice structure. Focus on aspects such as cause and effect, compare and contrast, sequencing and description.

Self-monitoring of comprehension

Teach students how to monitor for meaning. The book that has helped me the most with this is:

Background knowledge

Teach students a lot of stuff about stuff.

Teaching oral language ≠ teaching written language

Oakhill, Cain and Elbro (2015) outline five key differences between oral and written language:

1. “Text cannot be interrogated in the way that a partner in a conversation can be, and it does not adapt in response to a puzzled look or indication of lack of comprehension” (p.7)

2. Written text does not come with the prosody or intonation of oral language.

3. Written text, even if read aloud, is not every day spoken language.

4. Written texts are less anchored in the situation than spoken language (differences in use of directives or deictic expressions)

5. Spoken language is created generally ‘on the fly’. Written language is far denser and carries more information than spoken language.

Written text, even with fluent and accurate WR, is much harder to comprehend than spoken language. Further to this, text complexity increases as students get older, and a more sophisticated vocabulary (a literate lexicon) as well as deeper background knowledge are required.

When learning to read, a solid foundation in Tier 1 vocabulary and basic sentence structure is sufficient for RC, if WR is in place. When reading to learn, it’s just not that simple.

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