Why do reading books for learners have pictures? (Part 2)

But just because the SVR, as explained by Gough, is wrong in my view to leave out non-verbal aspects of reading, this does not mean that the SSP prioritizing of word-sounds, or its desire to put sounding out chronologically first is necessarily wrong as well.

Although the SVR has been used as a justification of the SSP approach, they are different things. It will be abundantly clear that I am no cognitive scientist, but I think that cognitive science is the most likely discipline to supply some answers. I’m just hoping that this blog might encourage somebody to look for some.

In trying to explain my diagram to the people I originally made it for, I generated more diagrams. Mathematicians look away now…

The first takes the top two of the ovals, basically sounds and symbols, and, starting with them gradually adds the ingredients that lead to reading with comprehension.

The second stats with the bottom two of the ovals, basically things and their context, and does the same thing.



Drawing a line around any of the concepts in the boxes is in some ways a leap of faith – but pragmatically speaking, I hope they’re reasonably clear and a bit helpful.

NB I don’t think of the processes as being as linear or clear cut as any of these diagrams might imply; but it’s hard to represent a dynamic relationship in a static picture.

So where does this leave the pictures in the books…?

My theory is that pictures in reading books act as a kind of proxy for the mental image which a skilled reader would generally have.They also act as an encouragement to connect the visual image of the word with the mental image which a learner reader may already have connected with the word’s sounds.

They have many other functions, but as an ingredient of learning to read, I think these possible functions might be quite important. If these functions are real, then it means that SSP’s concern with ensuring that the letters of the word are connected to the word’s sounds (at a deep level in the reader’s understanding) becomes important in relation to a reader’s store of mental images as well as in relation to their vocabulary. I believe this is the case because if a reader looks at ‘rug’ on the page, cannot read it and then uses a picture of a rug to guess ‘carpet’, they will not learn the specific connections between the sounds, the letters, and the ‘thing’ (or mental image of the thing).

[To be continued, again….]

Why do reading books for learners have pictures? (Part 1)

[Usual disclaimers about not knowing quite what I’m talking about, and apologies for blundering about where others would do better than I would…]

In a previous post, I touched briefly on the apparent contradiction that mainstream phonics readers are lavishly illustrated, with content- and context-related images. Given the SSP focus on the sounds of the words, and the insistence that words should absolutely not be guessed by using pictures as reference, I wondered why this might be.

The first reason, as I understand it, is that pictures can be considered as context, and that SSP does not preclude the use of context in the path to meaningful reading, as long as the sounds of the word come first in the process and the child is encouraged to internalize these sounds as the dominant recognizable characteristic of each word.

Secondly, most people are drawn to look at bright colours and attractive or interesting visual representations. One function of the pictures must simply be to grab children’s attention, to encourage them to want to read the book in order to find out more about the pictures.

Another function is as a transition from stories told almost entirely via images, or stories where the adult reads and the child looks mainly at the pictures. If a child has seen lots of picture books, and has been read to frequently, then the use of pictures creates a sense of familiarity, and functions as a transition from picture books to books of text.

However. After a conversation on Twitter (as always) about the usefulness or not of the Simple View of Reading diagram, and other diagrams seeking to represent the reading process, I started to think more carefully about how reading as a process is delineated – specifically, how we divide up and label the different processes and areas of knowledge involved, and what this might tell us about the uses of pictures in learners’ reading books.

Having failed to explain my view of various reading diagrams, I decided that I’d have a go at one myself, just to see if I could clarify my own thoughts. As I’ve said in at least one previous post, I don’t view diagrams as a ‘picture of reality’, but as an approximation of the diagram-maker’s own perspective. A diagram can be a rhetorical device even when it involves actual numbers (think of the climate-change ‘hockey stick’ graph), but when diagrams are used to try and represent qualitative relationships they become even more so. Social science diagrams, for instance, are very often opinion and interpretation disguised as objective fact.

So my diagram is a picture of how I visualize the elements of reading, nothing more. But in the process of making it I found myself thinking about things which I haven’t thought about much in a very long time (and am therefore very rusty on): the visual-symbolic aspects of language comprehension.

Although the Simple View of Reading has just two elements, these two elements combine various complex processes. See this interesting chapter on the SVR, where the authors state:

The simple view does not deny that the reading process is complex. Linguistic comprehension is certainly a complicated process, whether accomplished in reading or auding; and decoding, as evidenced by the extreme difficulty some have in acquiring it, is no simple matter. The simple view simply holds that these complexities can be divided into two parts’ (Hoover & Gough 1990, p. 128)

The so-called ‘bottom-up’ model of the reading process..has been shown to be inadequate… The Bottom-up conception holds that reading is a serial process, with decoding preceding comprehension. On this view, decoding should take place before, and thus, independently of comprehension, and it should not be influenced by things taking place at any higher levels. Yet word recognition can be dramatically influenced by linguistic context.., and this falsifies the strictly bottom-up model.’ (Hoover & Gough 1990, p. 130)

Since one of the authors of this study is Philip Gough himself, this should give pause to anybody faced with the claim that the Simple View of Reading underpins  a linear approach to decoding and reading. The more expert SSP advocates do not tend to make such claims, but I have come across numerous claims of this sort from practitioners: ie that ‘decoding’ = ‘sounding out’ and blending, and that only then, once a reader has a word-sound, can they refer to context for meaning. In the case of homographs of course this is simply not possible.

The paper quoted and linked to above is interesting – perhaps even remarkable – in its dismissal of the role of broader cognitive processes and knowledge in relation to understanding reading.

The authors claim that (1)

The acquisition of familiarity with a specified set of culturally valued literary works or knowledge bases is independent of the mode of acquisition, as such can be achieved in a number of ways that do not involve the individual’s own reading.

And also (2) that since

The skills of thinking, evaluating, judging, imagining, reasoning, and problem-solving can be found in both illiterates and literates..these cognitive abilities are not the exclusive dependents of reading.

Finally, they claim that (3)

While reading is exclusively linguistic, many of the commonly claimed literacy tasks are non-linguistic (eg., knowing how to carry out arithmetic operations or how to ‘read’ a map).

As a result of these claims, the authors decide that (4)

These points argue that the notion of conceptual understanding as a component of literacy is logically independent of reading.

Now, it seems to me that all of these statements are, as KS1 would have it, most definitely ‘opinion’ rather than ‘fact’. It is perfectly reasonable to decide on a working separation of categories into knowledge/culture and the ‘mode of acquisition’; but for the authors to claim, as late as 1990, that these two categories are really separate strikes me, as I think it would most people with a background in the study of literature or other forms of culture, as remarkably simplistic, even naive.

The claim that since according to statement (2) various cognitive processes are found in illiterates as well as literates these processes are (statement 4) necessarily separable from reading, seems to be to follow a false logic. After all, most illiterates have the same kind of eyes as literates, but eyes are certainly not separable from the process of reading written text. Simply because certain processes are more broadly useful than just for reading, it does not follow that these processes are separable from the reading process itself.

Claim (3), that ‘common claimed literacy tasks are non-linguistic’ seems to me to be a circular argument: since the authors have defined ‘language’ as a purely verbal category, they therefore exclude the aspects of language which their definition excludes. Once again, the exclusion of mathematical  and visual-symbolic language as entirely separate categories, rather than seeing them as connected, even overlapping matrices of cognitive functions, seems to me to be unhelpfully oversimplistic.

[Edited to add: I’ve just been reminded of this, created by the same authors, which illustrates their view of reading very clearly. It misses the same important aspects, I think, but I hope to be able to talk about that in later posts. I’ve added it in here because I think it’s a very helpful clarification of their perspective, and although not comprehensive (what diagram is?), it is still a much more nuanced view of reading than the ubiquitous SVR diagram.]

What seems to me to be missing from the SVR is precisely this role of broader conceptual understanding and knowledge in the process of reading (and learning to read). Although the processes that the SVR identifies are clearly central to the reading process, none of the studies cited by Hoover & Gough’s article actually claim that they are the *only* processes, just the only processes which have an independent effect on reading.

When I started trying to create my own diagram, I found that I could not explain or include certain processes without reference to non-verbal (not ‘non-linguistic’) elements. I’ve been fiddling about with labels which accurately reflect the concepts I’m trying to express for each section of the diagram, but it’s still a thought in progress, and the labels are pretty inconsistent.

I’ve delineated four general areas of knowledge/cognitive function (I don’t see a true separation between these concepts) into:

  • Aural vocabulary store (word-sounds whether with meaning attached or not)
  • Visual symbolic store (knowledge of letters, but also of other images)
  • Conscious awareness of referents (roughly, the ‘picture’ in your head)
  • Context (genre, syntax, the general ‘field’ in which the reading/things read about are placed)

These are just working definitions (all of which would be pulled to bits by proper philosophers of language) but I need to create myself something to stand on, so those are, basically, my personal categories, at least for now. Don’t quote me – I will probably change them.

The problem with the SVR is that it both elides a number of complex processes and also appears to create a disjuncture between two processes which are interdependent.

In fact, as made clear in the quoted statements on the ‘bottom-up’ approach, the SVR is meant to represent a relationship between two interdependent and parallel processes, rather than a linear approach.

So when trying to unpick the effect of the SVR on current literacy policy in England, there are in fact two things to address: the SVR itself, and the apparent interpretation, in England, of the SVR as representing precisely the sort of linear model which it was meant to supersede.

Hoover and Gough’s dismissal of a linear model has implications for our understanding of the relationship of the SVR to current SSP practice and English literacy policies which I’ll leave others to think about.

But their dismissal of the role of processes other than ‘decoding’ and ‘linguistic comprehension’ seems to me to relate closely to the conundrum of why, if these two processes are all that’s needed, we still have pictures in learners’ reading books.

The answer to this conundrum, it seems to me, is that the SVR is wrong.

[To be continued….(I hope)]

Reading diagram

I’ve been mucking about with models (this is just for people I’ve been talking to! It probably makes no sense….)

reading diagram_3

For Marian & Jelly & Bean:

Each coloured oval is an ‘ingredient’; you can combine them differently and get different second-order ‘ingredients’ of reading.


Aural vocabulary store + visual symbolic store allows phoneme-grapheme correspondences.

Then phoneme-grapheme correspondence + known referent allows decoded word.

Then the decoded word understood in context is ‘reading’


A known referent + word-sound from aural vocabulary store = one element in an aural lexicon (ie the vocabulary of a pre-literate child or non-literate person)

This element from aural lexicon + context allows understanding of the word in relation to context.

This meaningful contextualized sounded word + visual symbolic knowledge (via the concept of words in text) allows ‘reading’.

That is, each step in towards the middle adds more of the relevant aspects together: ‘reading’ does not exclude grapheme-phoneme correspondence, but needs to combine it with knowledge and context via an aural lexicon and concept of a ‘text’ in order for reading to take place.

So each of the little triangular bits around the centre is something that is *nearly* reading, but lacks one element, which you get by moving over the line into the section which overlaps with the missing aspect (the ‘Reading’ section).

eg If you read ‘the film star showed off her £25,000 engagement fnurg’, you can sound out the sounds (aural + visual), and guess (from context) that fnurg might mean ring, but without a known referent you can’t know. It could be ‘present’, or even ‘calendar'(!)

I’m still trying to think of better ways of labelling the different bits, though…..

Sh – ee – p

A small but pertinent post about the importance of children’s imaginative and aural engagement with the sounds they are learning.

Freeing the Angel

J: Ssh … ssh … [he holds his finger to his lips]

N: Why do we have to be quiet?

Sue: Because we don’t want to wake the monster that lives under the ground. That’s our game. We’re playing together.

N: Can I join in? I love playing games.

J and Sue: Sure!

E:[coming over from the other side of the playground] Look! There are some sheep in the field over there! Can we go and play with them?

J & N:[fingers to lips] Ssh, you’ll wake the monster!

Sue: And you might scare the sheep away too.

[The early years setting is very rural. There are animals everywhere.]

A: [joining them] Shall we go and see them? The sheep?

Sue: That’s a great idea. Hey everyone, can you hear that ‘sh’ sound we keep making? Remember? That’s our sound this week. Shall we see how many times we…

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