What is linguistic comprehension in the simple view of reading?

  • linguistic comprehension simple view of reading listening comprehension
  • 17 June, 2023

Teacher question:

I am hoping that you can clarify a question that some of us are debating. I've sought out the wisdom of Kelly Cartwright and Katie Pace Miles as well. Can you clarify the difference between language comprehension and listening comprehension? And where does linguistic comprehension fit in here? I'm asking because when we refer to the Simple View of Reading, so many people use listening comprehension (which is inaccurate) but this leads to the question of what are the nuances or subtleties of them all! Thank you!

RELATED: How I Teach Students to Use Context in Vocabulary Learning

Shanahan responds:

Awhile back, I posted a blog that dared mention that the language comprehension in the simple model of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) referred to listening comprehension. It wasn’t the point of the blog. Just a mention in passing.

I was shocked at the blow back I got from some quarters. Many reading authorities (some who I’d never heard of before), were certain that the term did not refer to listening and “they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”

I went back and found that one of the most vociferous critics had been using the term in the same way in her own publications. They were recent publications too, ruling out the possibility that she’d had a Paulian conversion (though I admit that the thought of her being knocked from her horse was pleasing).  Apparently, if I used listening comprehension as the synonym for linguistic comprehension, then I was an idiot. If she did it, she was a scholar!

Your letter reminded me of that weird exchange. Perhaps my response here will stir up another swarm of bees in the Twitterverse. I hope not, but here we go.

The simple view of reading model proposes that reading comprehension is the product of decoding and linguistic comprehension abilities. If you are lacking either of these collections of skills, then your reading proficiency will be undermined.

There are various reasons why someone might use terms like “linguistic comprehension” or “language comprehension.” One possibility is that those terms include both listening and reading comprehension. The use of those adjectives emphasizes this comprehensiveness. That, however, is clearly not what was intended here, given that the purpose was to describe the abilities that underlie reading comprehension. Comprehensiveness would be circular.

Another possibility was that those adjectives were meant to slow folks down, so they’d think about all the component parts of language that are inherent in listening comprehension.

I believe that to be the best explanation.

As Hoover and Gough (1990) explained explicitly, they meant the term linguistic comprehension as a synonym for “auding” (which was defined in that paper as “listening to language for the purpose of comprehension,” p. 157). 

Here is a quote from the same paper that reveals their desire to emphasize the complexity or multiple components comprising or underlying listening comprehension:

Comprehension. In the simple view of reading, linguistic comprehension is the ability to take lexical information (i.e., semantic information at the word level) and derive sentence and discourse interpretations. Reading comprehension involves the same ability, but one that relies on graphic-based information arriving through the eye. A measure of linguistic comprehension must assess the ability to understand language (e.g., by assessing the ability to answer questions about the contents of a listened to narrative).”  (Hoover & Gough, 1990, p. 131).

Phil Gough, the father of the simple view, indicates here that linguistic comprehension is determined by one’s ability to listen to a message and answer questions about it… which sounds, to me, exactly like listening comprehension. But what abilities are included in listening comprehension? Well, again, according to Dr. Gough (1975) and his colleagues, vocabulary, and morphological knowledge (that’s the lexical information they are talking about) and an understanding of syntax, structure, and cohesion (those skills needed to formulate the sentence and discourse interpretations that they mention).

This conclusion about the meaning of language/linguistic comprehension and my explanation of why it would be stated in that way is also quite consistent with Bill Tunmer’s later operationalizations of the term in his own empirical research (e.g., Tunmer & Chapman, 2002; Tunmer & Chapman, 2007). He – someone who certainly must have known the meaning of the terms as originally intended – employed measures of listening comprehension in his own studies to represent that linguistic comprehension component.

I’d also add, that though I’ve never discussed this issue explicitly with Phil, I believe my interpretation to be consistent with the aspects of his theory that we did discuss (he used the theory to press me hard on my ideas about the value of writing in reading development).

The fundamental idea of the theory can be stated quite clearly in two linked terms: (1) if you can understand oral messages and can listen to oral narratives with comprehension, then (2) when you translate a text from print to oral language (in other words, you read the text aloud), then you should be able to comprehend that sample of oral language – the one read aloud. If either variable – listening comprehension with all its components and decoding with all of its – is deficient, then reading comprehension breaks down.

This homely explanation of the simple view raises an additional thought for why the more straightforward term “listening comprehension” was not used. It may have to do with silent reading. When someone reads aloud, or more aptly decodes aloud, the potential value of listening is evident. But what about during silent reading? A term like language comprehension covers instances when we hear language in our heads, rather than through our ears. We can read silently, but we can also remember something said earlier or we can carry on imagined conversations in our minds. The term linguistic comprehension includes these silent language phenomena. And, since as teachers we would have no access to those silent language versions, the only possible way to meaningfully operationalize linguistic comprehension would be through tests of listening. 

Th simple view theory has been valuable because of its simplicity and its testability. It is possible to see where the theory holds up and where it breaks down. Research has supported it in many ways; for instance, you won’t find many scholars of reading who don’t believe that decoding and language comprehension are key parts of reading comprehension. Just look at all the alternative models put forth since the simple view; every one of them prominently includes those two components.

There are also important limitations inherent in the model, however:

(1) Researchers have concluded that oral and written language are quite different in many ways (Hildyard & Olson, 1982; Leu, 1982). There are vocabulary terms rarely heard in oral language, for example. Likewise, the syntax of text tends to be much more complicated than that of oral language. That means readers must learn to deal with those differences when learning to read. Listening comprehension may not be enough, especially as one moves up the grades.

(2) Researchers have found that even if one considers decoding and linguistic comprehension, not all the variation in reading comprehension is accounted for (Foorman & Petscher, 2018). These simple view components only explain about 60% of the variance in reading ability. That means there must be other variables – knowledge, reasoning, executive processes, cognitive processing speed, and so on – that are implicated in reading, too. Their exclusion from the simple view is problematic.

(3) The math problem of multiplying decoding with listening comprehension doesn’t quite work in the way the theory suggests (Wang, Sabatini, O'Reilly, & Weeks, 2019), which could both be due to those missing variables or a more complex relationship of those decoding with language comprehension variables. In fact, research reveals that decoding and linguistic comprehension are not as modular or separate as the theory holds (Duke & Cartwright, 2021). That vocabulary knowledge is implicated in decoding development is the kind of thing can really mess up a multiplication problem – and that has important implications for both what and how we teach.

(4) The model implies that reading comprehension instruction may not be needed since a strong listening capacity alone would be expected to do the job. Research, however, finds listening and reading to be imperfectly correlated and shows that listening skills do not necessarily translate to reading automatically (Sticht, Beck, Hauke, Kleiman, & James, 1974). This means that no one should allow the simple view to discourage explicit reading comprehension instruction.

Using the simple view to explain the importance of decoding or language comprehension in schools that are neglecting either makes great sense. It is easy to understand and persuasive.

However, you should hear screeching brakes, squealing tires, and smashing glass like in the latest Marvel movie when someone tries to use the simple view as a map of what to include in a comprehensive reading curriculum. Using it that way would be about as effective as trying to buy your Tay-Tay tickets from Ticketmaster. You know, some are going succeed, many others won’t, and everybody is going to be ticked off.

My advice?

First, make sure your use of the simple view makes sense and isn’t misleading you into ignoring important aspects of the reading process that are neither focused on decoding or linguistic in nature.

Second, don’t overcomplicate things. Basically, language/linguistic comprehension simply means for all practical purposes listening comprehension.

Third, don’t miss out on what is being emphasized by those language adjectives either. Listening is not a unitary ability. It is an applied ability that depends upon several language skills including vocabulary, morphology, syntax, cohesion, and discourse structure. No one becomes a good reader without considerable development of all those abilities that are part of listening comprehension.

Fourth, although the model emphasizes the primacy of oral language abilities, I believe research suggests that building those skills both orally and textually is the best way to go. 

READ MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Blog


Duke, N.K., & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1). https://doi-org/10.1002/rrq.411

Foorman, B. R., & Petscher, Y. (2018). Decomposing the variance in reading comprehension to reveal the unique and common effects of language and decoding. Journal of Visualized Experiments: JoVE, (140), 58557. https://doi.org/10.3791/58557

Gough, P. B. (1975). The structure of the language. In D. D. Duane, & M. B. Rawson (Eds.), Reading, perception and language (pp. 15-38). Baltimore, MD: York Press.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. RASE: Remedial & Special Education, 7(1), 6-10. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/074193258600700104

Hildyard, A., & Olson, D.R. (1982). On the comprehension and memory of oral vs. written discourse. In D. Tannen (Ed.), Advances in discourse processes: Spoken and written language (vol. 9, pp. 19-33). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Hoover, W. A., & Gough, P. B. (1990). The simple view of reading. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2(2), 127–160. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00401799

Leu, D. J. (1982). Differences between oral and written discourse and the acquisition of reading proficiency. Journal of Reading Behavior, 14(2), 111-125.

Sticht, T. G., Beck, L. J., Hauke, R. N., Kleiman, G. M., & James, J. H. (1974). Auding and reading: A developmental model. Washington, DC: HumRRO.

Tunmer, W. E., & Chapman, J. W. (2002). The relation of beginning readers' reported word identification strategies to reading achievement, reading-related skills, and academic self-perceptions. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 15(3-4), 341-358. doi:https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1015219229515

Tunmer, W. E., & Chapman, J. W. (2007). Language-related differences between discrepancy-defined and non-discrepancy-defined poor readers: A longitudinal study of dyslexia in New Zealand. Dyslexia: An International Journal of Research and Practice, 13(1), 42-66. doi:https://doi.org/10.1002/dys.327

Wang, Z., Sabatini, J., O'Reilly, T., & Weeks, J. (2019). Decoding and reading comprehension: A test of the decoding threshold hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(3), 387-401. doi:https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000302


See what others have to say about this topic.

T Truog Jun 17, 2023 02:04 PM

I loved this! It also ties in perfectly with the Active View of Reading which I recently read about in an article by Duke and Cartwright. I always enjoy the critical thinking in your blog posts.

Ruth McEwen Jun 17, 2023 02:07 PM

While not exactly on the topic of this weeks blog, which I read religiously every week, as a Lutheran, I have to say I got quite the chuckle out of your reference to the Paulian conversion! Thanks for the laugh!

Isabel Jun 17, 2023 02:19 PM

Thank you for this post!

I do have a thought on the potential value of language comprehension vs listening comprehension as a term, which is that I know for me my reading comprehension is MUCH higher than my listening comprehension (going back to standardized tests I took as a kid and continuing to this day). To some extent I suspect this is true of a lot of people for the reasons you give in point one - it seems logical that part of the reason written language is more complex is that it *can* be more complex and still be understood. But I also have ADHD and, to be frank, I zone out a lot. If I’m reading by myself, I can catch myself and go back and put things back together (I probably wind up reading most sentences in a book at least twice), and it’s a pretty seamless process regardless of text complexity. But when I was assistant or co-teaching elementary school I would have no idea what was going on in chapter books we were reading out loud to the kids unless I took the time to read them alone (I can’t attend very well to text I’m reading out loud, either - my mouth says the words and the syntax tells me how to make it sound, but I can’t hold on to comprehension while doing all that). To this day I have no idea what happens in Bunnicula and I was there for that whole book. I am literally worse at listening than my first graders were (and, sure enough, I disliked read-alouds as a kid, probably because I found them so hard to attend to).

Anyway - no assessment is perfect but by every standardized metric I’ve ever taken my reading comprehension is more than competent, so clearly my listening issues haven’t held me back. It does kind of make sense to me to look at my reading ability as the product of decoding skill and language comprehension rather than listening comprehension, because I can’t actually apply my language comprehension to listening very well. I wonder if some people using the phrase are thinking about similar issues where listening comprehension is impacted by things that actually don’t necessarily impact reading in the same way.

Tammy Elser Jun 17, 2023 02:23 PM

Now I am so eager to hear more of your thoughts on the expressive vs receptive side of the equation, missing in the simple view - reciprocity of speaking and writing? I appreciate your thought provoking and helpful insights

Mark Pennington Jun 17, 2023 02:32 PM

We teacher types like things tied up neatly with a bow. We want to harmonize the Simple View, Active View, and Scarborough's Rope. If you were doing a Venn Diagram of the three, what would the commonalities and outliers look like?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 17, 2023 03:09 PM

The reading rope reveals the component parts of decoding and language comprehension, but instead of multiplying those parts, it weaves them together -- which illustrates how they are interrelated throughout development. It also introduces the ideas of automaticity and strategic into the mix. The active view maintains decoding and language comprehension but recognizes that there are overlaps (processes that are not entirely fish or fowl-- like fluency and vocabulary) and adds some additional component items not included in the rope. It also allows both decoding and language comprehension to be strategic, but ignores automaticity. Includes affective factors (motivation and engagement), and executive function. The active view is the most recent and the most complicated and includes some variables the importance of which is not yet clear (theory of mind).
And don't forget Jan Wasowicz's (2021) lovely reading and writing framework that includes both reading and writing and their connections (writing is ignored in all of the other models).

Timothy Shanahan Jun 17, 2023 03:14 PM

You need to remember that the simple view is a processing model rather than a developmental model. It is meant to summarize how we read, not how we learn to read. The same is true, for the most part, of the other reading models. When it comes to learning their is definitely reciprocity between the expressive and receptive -- particularly between reading and writing. That's one the pluses about the Wasowicz, R-W Model



Timothy Shanahan Jun 17, 2023 03:16 PM

Your insights about your own reading experiences and learning to read seem accurate, but no, this model was not trying to capture that. It was an attempt to describe what happens cognitively when we read (it is not about learning to read or any of that).


Timothy Shanahan Jun 17, 2023 03:17 PM


I'm glad somebody's paying attention.



Harriett Janetos Jun 17, 2023 03:54 PM

Here's how Hoover and Tunmer explain the Foorman & Petscher research in The Primacy of Science in Communicating Advances in the Science of Reading, 2021, Reading Research Quarterly. Any thoughts?

"Foorman and colleagues (Foorman & Petscher, 2018; Foorman, Wu, Quinn, & Petscher, 2020), cited by Duke and Cartwright (2021), have found that word recognition and language comprehension make both independent as well as shared contributions to reading comprehension, but that these contributions reveal different patterns from elementary school to high school. Their interpretation, which also does not require the inclusion of additional variables, is that word recognition and language comprehension have a synergistic relationship with reading comprehension, where the two proximal factors have a dynamic influence on reading comprehension beyond any influences each one may exert individually. We believe that Matthew effects, representing reciprocal causation, could be viewed as a form of such synergy.

Lonigan, Burgess, and Schatschneider (2018), in a study also described by Duke and Cartwright (2021), made the claim that such shared variance could be due to a distal factor impacting both word recognition and language comprehension, which would not require introduction of another proximal factor into the SVR. They proposed, consistent with the principle of parsimony, that “a general linguistic or cognitive ability” (p. 271) could be driving both word recognition and language comprehension, causing them to vary together and impacting reading comprehension through them. Their overall conclusion is one with which we concur: “To date, there is no substantial evidence indicating that the SVR needs to be made more complex by adding additional components or processes” (p. 271)."

Timothy Shanahan Jun 17, 2023 04:17 PM


That exchange is somewhat misleading. One example: it is evident that world knowledge or content knowledge is neither a component part of decoding nor linguistic comprehension (except for the vocabulary labels associated with some knowledge). Clearly, such knowledge plays a very important role in comprehension, suggesting a gap in the simple view. The response to that is that as long as your decoding is proficient you should be able to understand anything by eye that you can grasp by ear (without any concern for the reason for either the success or the breakdown). That means that some items that clearly are not linguistic or are mainly linguistic (such as knowledge, reasoning, and attention management) are not specified but are viewed as being included in the model since you measure "linguistic knowledge" through listening comprehension. Since, according to the model, the use of knowledge should be equivalent in both listening and reading comprehension, there would be no need to specify them. That's fine, but it argues for using listening comprehension as the variable not as a proxy of the variable.


Dr. Bill Conrad Jun 17, 2023 04:23 PM

Reading: The simplest view: Reading is the ability to derive meaning from text.

Rosalie Fleming Jun 17, 2023 09:50 PM

After reading Isabel's comment I seem to be having an aha moment. I struggle to absorb what I'm reading if there is distracting conversation nearby, in an exam type situation where reading material is academic or unexciting.
I think there is a something called tunnel reading for this.
Now I'm thinking about kids trying to comprehend reading material in a modern learning environment!
Thank you for your (free) messages each week.

Amanda Tinker Jun 17, 2023 10:49 PM

I so enjoyed your Tay-Tay ticket analogy!

Beth Hankoff Jun 18, 2023 12:35 AM

Along the lines of what Isabel said, I am much better and comprehending when I’m reading than when I’m listening. Even if I’m listening while reading along or taking notes, it helps a lot. Simply listening to a lecture or sermon makes it much harder for me to follow the overall message. It’s as if each sentence comes across with the same priority, whereas note taking allows me to organize what is being said into main points and supporting details quite easily. Then, when I’m working with children who have dyslexia, ADHD, autism, etc., I find there are some who do so much better if I read aloud to them. Generally, there are issues with their reading, which we are also working on. But if they just need to understand something in the moment, I will read to them and they can then answer questions. I assume it related to processing, memory, and executive functioning-type things, especially in cases where their reading seems strong enough, but they still need to hear it. If you have any knowledge about this, I would love to hear it. Thank you!

Gaynor Jun 18, 2023 12:42 AM

I can relate to Isabel and Rosalie's comments since I was a brain damaged baby from a very difficult birth. Consequently I was a very nervous and anxious child. Learning to read was a very slow and painful affair. It was only the skill and infinite patience of my mother that had me achieve I had great difficulty with oral comprehension and when asked a questions in class by the teacher, my mind would go completely blank . In important written exams the same thing would happen and although I could read all the words sometimes many times, comprehension didn't happen.
These unpleasant experiences have however, helped me understand struggling readers and maths students who very often have low esteem and high anxiety. I always say to the parents that patience is the main quality they need if they wish to help their child with reading . There seems to be little mention of the place anxiety has in reading achievement but to me it is a big issue. I did notice Wiley Blevins mentions this factor in discussing whole language ' guessing ' and low SES children.

Nicola Jun 18, 2023 01:10 AM

Thank you for expressing your thoughts around the limitations of the Simple View of Reading.
I have long held the opinion that the Simple View of reading is too simple!
I am interested in the Active View of Reading (Duke and Cartwright), especially in terms of its ability to explain the complex interplay of many different variables. However, I accept that more reading theories will eventually evolve, alongside continued research.
Unfortunately, in recent years the SVR has been used in some school settings to justify what is taught in reading classes as well as how it is taught. I am concerned about the oversimplification of one reading theory leading to a narrowing of teaching approaches and outcomes.

Tania Jun 18, 2023 08:18 AM

What do you think about the Interactive Dynamic Literacy model (Kim, 2020) as a developmental model?

Patrick Manyak Jun 18, 2023 01:43 PM

I am quite familiar with all the models mentioned, and I continue to follow the "model discussion/debate" as it winds its way forward. However, given the highly imperfect world of schools and classrooms (i.e., relatively ineffective teacher prep and PD, less-than-perfect commercial programs, time constraints, etc...), I can't help but feel that it really pays to cut through all the verbiage around and within the models and simply ask, "Okay, what do we really know about the very best ways to teach kids in order to enable them to become highly proficient readers? and, "What are the best 'next steps' that would improve most schools and teachers' implementation of these 'best ways?"

Anyone who reads TIm's blog knows that while we may not have complete and total answers to the first question, we do know quite a bit. In fact, in my mind, we know more than enough to improve the current practice of nearly all teachers. The NRP represented a big step forward 20+ years ago in terms of the key objectives of highly effective reading instruction. A few years later Graham and colleagues added an important meta-analysis that highlighted the additional importance of including writing about reading. Further, many researchers have been chipping away at specific "best ways" to teach those key objectives - say, for example, Stahl, Kuhn, and colleagues' research on FORI as a structured approach for supporting fluency.

I guess my point here is that I believe that it is critical to remember the end purpose of models of reading processing should be to help teachers provide the very best of reading instruction for all students (and inform practical research agendas that aim to further our understanding of this best instruction.) I don't mean to imply that those elaborating the models don't remember this. However, I do believe that it is critical to "keep our eye on the ball" in terms of maintaining a consistent high focus on the pragmatic questions of "How can we as teachers and schools provide the best systems of instruction in word reading, reading fluency, vocabulary (and world) knowledge, comprehension skills and strategies, and analytic writing about reading?" and "Where, among these critical elements, does our school, our district, my own class tend to fall short and what are evidence-based practical steps we can take to remedy this situation?" I understand the idea that at some future point in time, a new model of reading and a substantial empirical research base around it may actually change our answers to these practical questions. But, it seems to me, that for now, addressing these question as they are posed, and, perhaps, not straying too far into the "reading models" weeds, is the best thing that we can do for the kids we care so much about!

Timothy Shanahan Jun 18, 2023 02:20 PM


I don't have a copy of that one so can't comment too specifically. I certainly agree with the major premises of it, but I would not be able to evaluate its value for summarizing learning and development as opposed to processing alone. Of course, parts of it are based on research that I did (work in which the models were processing models, but which were examined at different points to address issues of development). I know Kim's work in this area has a similar focus, so it might say more about teaching than these other models do.



Tammy Elser Jun 18, 2023 03:16 PM

So very helpful! Wascowicz network model is fascinating and correlates uniquely with my observations in classroom. Thank you!

Ann Christensen Jun 18, 2023 07:19 PM

Wow! This was such a great post and the comments are insightful. I believe children develop language comprehension through meaningful language use. This has many implications for preschool curriculum. Conversation that expands vocabulary and sentence complexity is necessary and so often missing.

Maureen Donnelly Jun 20, 2023 02:24 PM

Love reading your blog posts. Can you sometimes include issues or elements of literacy instruction that relate to children who face complex learning barriers? I'd love to hear your thoughts particularly about kids who are non-verbal or who have limited verbal abilities.

Jill Kerper Mora Jul 09, 2023 02:02 PM

Language is language, regardless of the modality of its delivery into the human brain. Think of Helen Keller, for example. The modality through which she learned language was entirely tactile because she was both blind and deaf. But Helen Keller had to discover language in order to comprehend the modality of signing in her hand and later, Braile. In fact, sign language for the deaf is a language. There is ample neurological research that supports the notion that listening comprehension and comprehension of written text occur in the same region of the brain that are dedicated to language processing.

In fact, literacy begins with writing, not with reading because some author wrote his or her ideas onto a page to communicate those ideas to a reader, using the conventions invented by a sociocultural group to symbolically (graphically) represent language. In the case of alphabetic languages, the graphic representations are related, but not a perfect match to the phonology of the language of the text.

A very important take-away from the Simple View of Reading is that whatever enhances linguistic comprehension enhances decoding, and vice versa, reciprocally.

Carol Johnson Aug 04, 2023 04:36 PM

Can you point to the blog where you first mentioned this? Awhile back, I posted a blog that dared mention that the language comprehension in the simple model of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) referred to listening comprehension. It wasn’t the point of the blog. Just a mention in passing. Can you point to the blog where you first mentioned this?

Thank you!

Timothy Shanahan Aug 05, 2023 04:03 PM


March 7, 2020.


Sheila Mularski Mar 27, 2024 03:00 PM

Do you have any resources for assessing listening comprehension? I have a million ways to assess decoding, but I feel like I am lacking a way to assess whether my struggling fourth graders have adequate listening comprehension skills. I know I can create my own, but if there is something with a stronger research base I would prefer to use that.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 27, 2024 05:41 PM


I don't. There are various published listening comprehension tests, but I don't know of any research on them so wouldn't be able to comment on that. Good luck.


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What is linguistic comprehension in the simple view of reading?


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