Mississippi Miracle? How the Simple View Model May Have Raised Reading Scores

When the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores were released in October 2019, many observers found themselves asking the same question: What is going on in Mississippi?

One of the poorest states in the country, Mississippi grapples with widespread segregation, racial achievement gaps, and deep poverty. Yet despite these challenges, the Magnolia State managed to post the nation's highest gains in NAEP fourth-grade reading scores, causing many a jaw to drop in education policy circles. 

In fact, education reporter Emily Hanford noted in a 2019 New York Times opinion piece that Mississippi readers are now “on par with the national average” following a lengthy history of trailing the pack. 

So, how did this "Mississippi miracle" come to pass? 

A scientific approach

As Hanford explained in a 2018 piece for American Public Media, "The prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools are inconsistent with basic things scientists have discovered about how children learn to read. … Most teachers nationwide are not being taught reading science in their teacher preparation programs because many deans and faculty in colleges of education either don't know the science or dismiss it." 

Consequently, teachers tend to be left to their own devices when it comes to helping all students become fluent readers. But thanks to a state-funded effort, teachers in Mississippi are now being trained in the simple view model of reading instruction, a tried and true approach that Hanford characterized in her New York Times piece as having been “confirmed over and over again by research.” 

What is the simple view of reading instruction?

To read with accuracy and comprehension, students need to understand two things: how to decode words and how to understand them. Although words would not make sense without language comprehension, decoding is equally important when it comes to figuring out meaning—and the essence of the simple view is that you cannot become a successful reader unless you have both skills in your arsenal.

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A policy guide written by Dr. Scott Baker and available through the National Center on Improving Literacy's website delves deeper into the tenets of the model. Although the simple view may sound... well, simple, Dr. Baker emphasized that “both accurate word reading and text comprehension require careful, systematic instruction” before going on to assert that “once formal reading instruction begins in school, instruction in both of these areas should occur on a daily basis.”

The history of the simple view

According to a blog post on the Orton Gillingham Online Academy website by dyslexia specialist Lorna Wooldridge, the simple view of reading “was developed to reconcile ‘The Reading Wars’ argument of the 1980s between advocates of bottom-up processing (decoding) and those who supported top-down processing (language comprehension).”

Wooldridge went on to reference the well-known “reading rope” graphic produced by Dr. Hollis Scarborough in 2001, which visualizes the idea that reading proficiency is incumbent on various strands being “woven together.” In the context of the simple view model, decoding words is one strand and language comprehension is another. Neither strand is strong enough to support reading proficiency by itself (and, indeed, each is composed of multiple elements in its own right). In other words, reading success can only be achieved by combining decoding with language comprehension.

A simple view of the future

Despite the value of the two-pronged approach, teachers who lack a firm grasp on the science of reading instruction may prioritize students’ engagement with a text over the need for young readers to learn how to decode words. And while nearly half of all students will eventually learn how to read without explicit instruction, Hanford opined in her New York Times piece that “the lack of skills instruction can be a disaster” for those who can’t learn to read on their own or need more than just minimal guidance. As is the case with many education-related challenges, students from low-income homes can be disproportionately affected because they tend not to have access to expensive outside tutors or other forms of personalized support.

As well as shedding light on Mississippi students' history of poor NAEP performance, the fact that Mississippi consistently appears on the list of states with the highest poverty rates also helps contextualize the significant reading improvement seen after teachers received training on the simple view model. After all, Hanford asserted, this methodology can help impart essential decoding skills that may give marginalized students “their best shot at catching up.” Ultimately, establishing a foundation of decoding knowledge and language comprehension may be just the thing to help students “gain knowledge and expand their vocabulary through reading”—across Mississippi and beyond.


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