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Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler!

Jakob Åsberg Johnel's latest blog entry

[Posted on 29 May, 2018 by Jakob Åsberg Johnels]

The above quote is usually attributed to Albert Einstein, and often comes up in epistemological discussions regarding the absolute and relative value of different theoretical explanations for phenomena within our world. Even though there has been some doubt in recent years as to whether these words were actually uttered by Einstein, they nevertheless contain a very important insight for both practical and scientific work: don’t needlessly complicate things!

In all research concerning people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours, one cannot help but be struck by how incredibly complex things are (and we researchers tend to feel that our own respective areas of research are especially complex).

My research has primarily focused on children’s communication skills and difficulties. A lot of research has been devoted to one particular communication skill – reading – and as a result we actually know a great deal about it. The research on what happens on a strictly cognitive level when we read dates back over 100 years. Right from the start, researchers were struck by how complex the reading process is; thus Edmund Huey wrote as early as 1905, in his book “The psychology and pedagogy of reading” that “to completely analyze what we do when we read would almost be the acme of a psychologist’s achievements, for it would be to describe very many of the most intricate workings of the human mind, as well as to unravel the tangled story of the most remarkable specific performance that civilization has learned in all its history”.

Since the publication of Huey’s book, a long line of studies have examined factors influencing children’s reading skills – memory, IQ, vocabulary, motivation, personality, executive functions, socioeconomic status, teacher aptitude and so on and so forth have all been recognised as relevant, and the conclusion of these studies has usually been that reading is complex and that there are many factors at play. But what are the most important factors? And how can we support and help those who struggle with reading? Can all complexity be captured in a few central – and pedagogically relevant – main principles?

1990 saw the publication of an article that would change how researchers and educators would approach the subject of reading and reading difficulties over the following decades. This article described the so-called “Simple View of Reading” where the authors primarily performed an analysis of the two main and most proximal components of reading – namely the ability to decode the black letters on the paper (word decoding) and the ability to understand the linguistic content (which can be considered equivalent to hearing comprehension skills). Together these two functions constitute reading. This concept is of course only ostensibly “simple” as neither word decoding nor hearing comprehension are “simple” processes, but this framework has enabled researchers to approach a number of important issues without getting stuck on the idea that things are (too) complex.

A large number of studies have employed this framework in an unusually effective manner. Among other things, this has allowed us to differentiate between different types of reading difficulties; it has become clear that some children only struggle with the word decoding aspect (this is also called dyslexia), while others show fluency in word decoding but struggle with both reading and hearing comprehension. A third subgroup struggles in all of these areas. Based on this knowledge, the framework has provided guidance in terms of which training and which compensatory measures are necessary in learning situations. The Simple View of Reading has also been used to understand reading development and to understand the relationship between aspects of reading development and aspects of language development, other cognition and also motivation and social relationships. Finally, ever since the concept was introduced, it has spawned research questions aimed at questioning whether “The Simple View of Reading” is “too simple”. There have thus e.g. been studies examining whether ADHD symptoms and autistic traits affect a person’s ability to understand written coherent texts beyond any influence from the two main functions in the Simple View of Reading (and we have found some evidence that they likely do have some impact, at least in adolescents).

Recently, researchers have introduced a similar “Simple View of Writing”, hoping that this will propel research on writing and associated pedagogic efforts in much the same way that research on reading was accelerated by the Simple View of Reading. As for our own research group, we have considered whether it would be possible to organise research on oral storytelling in this manner. Being able to concisely and coherently recount an event using language is something that presents a major challenge to many children and adolescents with ESSENCE problems, not least in cases of autism. There is currently no scientific theory concerning oral storytelling, which also limits our ability to effectively design training programmes to support this crucial skill. We have now dedicated two research projects to examining to what degree we can capture the complexity in the oral storytelling in children with ESSENCE through the following two partial functions: expressive language skills plus the ability to sequence single events to create complete stories. The results so far have been promising, and perhaps they will eventually be summarised into a “Simple View of Narrating”. Keep it simple!

This is a blog. The purpose of the blog is to provide information and raise awareness concerning important issues. All views and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily shared by the GNC.