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)]

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5 thoughts on “Why do reading books for learners have pictures? (Part 1)

  1. Yes, the SVR is wrong. I agree wholeheartedly. I am writing this without reference to all the articles I have read about it, but there is one huge factor which messes up the whole model. A person’s VOCABULARY. In 2012 Tumner, one of the authors of the SVR put out a paper acknowledging that vocabulary is a factor in both strands of the SVR. This means, of course, that the claim that the strands are independent does not hold. If the strands are not independent, then their claim of reading being a product of these two strands is invalidated.
    (2012) The Simple View of Reading Redux: Vocabulary Knowledge and the Independent Components Hypothesis by William E Tunmer and James W Chapman

  2. I have been playing with your diagram trying to elide the ellipses, e.g. orange and green for ‘decoding’ and violet and blue for ‘language comprehension’. This is why I asked you earlier in the week if the SVR referred to the intersection of the ‘aural lexicon’ and the ‘grapheme-phoneme correspondences’. I haven’t got any further with this.

  3. My first books have pictures to make sure that the the child has ‘conscious awareness’ of the objects before teaching begins. This means we know that the words are in the child’s ‘aural lexicon’, and we have ‘sound as the conceptual trigger’.
    The written word and its letters can then be brought to the child’s attention. At this point the teacher splits the word into its phonemes and graphemes so that the child learns the GPCs (intersection of visual orthography store and aural vocabulary store) how to blend them together into words. I would call this ‘word recognition’ (as opposed to ‘decoding’) because the child knows the meaning of the words.
    By using pictures to illustrate the words ‘on, in, and, a the’ ( a cat on a hat, a hat in a box, a dog and a frog, a cat in the mud’) we can ensure that the words ‘on, in, and, a the’ are part of the child’s ‘knowledge field’. I think we may have reached ‘reading’ on your diagram by the end of books 4A and 4B.
    This description of how I devised the first books is neither synthetic phonics nor analytic phonics. It is just my analysis of the factors children need to learn to read.
    Plus, they need to be able to write the letters too and this helps to reinforce all the factors in reading

    • That makes absolute sense to me, too. I have a feeling that the most important aspect of helping learner readers is to be *systematic*, perhaps whichever oval in the diagram you start off with. We know that young children learn by differentiation, not in the ed sense, but in the sense of increasing specialization and calibration of their language and their understanding of the world around them – splitting the stream of sounds into into words, understanding categories of things, etc. The analogy I like is cellular differentiation. One of my childhood friends called all vehicles ‘dustcarts’ as a toddler – pretty much all toddlers do something similar. If reading instruction isn’t systematic in some way, this learning-by-differentiation process is likely to be much slower for the child, I think, because it’s harder to find a fixed reference-point to start from. But of course systems don’t have to be obvious to the child, and I think they need to be in some sense adaptive – to the individual child, and over time as teachers have new ideas for improvements as a result of practical experience.

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