Dyslexia and the Case for the Narrow View of Reading

By Kamhi, Alan G. | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Dyslexia and the Case for the Narrow View of Reading


Kamhi, Alan G., Perspectives on Language and Literacy


In a recent article, I argued that the longstanding reading crisis in this country can be eliminated by embracing a narrow view of reading (Kamhi, 2007). Unlike the broad view of reading which conflates reading and comprehension, the narrow view restricts the scope of reading to word recognition. By doing so, the narrow view is consistent with the definition of dyslexia (Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003) published by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA). More importantly, if one accepts the narrow view, dyslexia becomes the only true reading disability, and no further discussion is needed about the meaningfulness of the term, its place in education policy, research, teacher education, and instructional services. I am not naive enough to think this will ever happen, but I hope you will find the possibility a provocative one.

There has been no shortage of explanations and solutions for the persistently poor levels of reading of our nation's school children over the last 30 years. Although some progress has been made-reading levels were lower in the early 1970s than they are today and the gap between Hispanic, black, and white children has decreased over the last 13 years-the proportion of children reading below the basic level has hovered around 35% in the last 25 years (range 36%-40%). According to our national testing program, 70% (range 69%-71%) never attain reading proficiency (NAEP, 2005). Everyone with any interest in our nation's school children has offered opinions on who or what is to blame for the continuing lack of progress and how to fix the problem. The most frequent targets are teachers (poorly trained), schools (not conducive for learning), students (high proportion of disadvantaged, second language learning, or learning disabled), assessment instruments (state assessments have lower criteria than national ones like NAEP), and instructional methods. The respective solutions are to provide better teacher training and school learning environments, better assessments and service delivery models to identify children at risk for reading failure (e.g., response to intervention), and the use of evidence-based instructional methods.

These solutions might have some impact on levels of reading achievement, but as long as the broad view of reading is reflected in high stakes assessment, our continued efforts to dramatically improve reading levels in this country will be no more successful than our previous efforts over the last 25-30 years. The broad view of reading is familiar to most people and accepted by almost everyone. Reading according to this view consists of two basic components-word recognition and comprehension. This view of reading is referred to as broad because it emphasizes the importance of higher-level thinking processes as well as word recognition processes (Perfetti, 1986). "Thinking guided by print" is a succinct way to define reading according to the broad view.

The fundamental problem with the broad view of reading is that it encompasses two very different abilities-word recognition (word-level reading) and comprehension. Word recognition is a teachable skill; comprehension is not. Word recognition is teachable because it involves a narrow scope of knowledge (e.g., letters, sounds, words) and processes (decoding) that once acquired will lead to fast, accurate word recognition.

There are numerous evidence-based instructional programs that have been shown to effectively teach word reading to all but the most severely disabled students (cf. National Reading Panel, 2000), and some of these severely disabled readers can be taught word reading skills with intensive phonics programs (cf. Torgesen, Otaiba, & Grek, 2005). Recent studies (e.g., Simmons et al., 2007) have also specified the instructional time and design specificity that accelerates learning in the lowest performing children.

Comprehension, unlike word recognition, is not a skill; it is a complex of higher-level mental processes that include thinking, reasoning, imagining, and interpreting. …

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