Theories of reading

This article is in two parts. The first part will look at some of the shifts and trends in theories relating to reading. The second part will examine tips and guidelines for implementing a theory of reading which will help to develop our learners' abilities.

Theories of reading - reading article
Shahin Vaezi Ph.D. Assistant professor, University of Science and Technology, Iran
  • The traditional view
  • The cognitive view
  • The metacognitive view
  • Conclusion


Just like teaching methodology, reading theories have had their shifts and transitions. Starting from the traditional view which focused on the printed form of a text and moving to the cognitive view that enhanced the role of background knowledge in addition to what appeared on the printed page, they ultimately culminated in the metacognitive view which is now in vogue. It is based on the control and manipulation that a reader can have on the act of comprehending a text.

The traditional view
According to Dole et al. (1991), in the traditional view of reading, novice readers acquire a set of hierarchically ordered sub-skills that sequentially build toward comprehension ability. Having mastered these skills, readers are viewed as experts who comprehend what they read.

  • Readers are passive recipients of information in the text. Meaning resides in the text and the reader has to reproduce meaning.
  • According to Nunan (1991), reading in this view is basically a matter of decoding a series of written symbols into their aural equivalents in the quest for making sense of the text. He referred to this process as the 'bottom-up' view of reading.
  • McCarthy (1999) has called this view 'outside-in' processing, referring to the idea that meaning exists in the printed page and is interpreted by the reader then taken in.
  • This model of reading has almost always been under attack as being insufficient and defective for the main reason that it relies on the formal features of the language, mainly words and structure.

Although it is possible to accept this rejection for the fact that there is over-reliance on structure in this view, it must be confessed that knowledge of linguistic features is also necessary for comprehension to take place. To counteract over-reliance on form in the traditional view of reading, the cognitive view was introduced.

The cognitive view
The 'top-down' model is in direct opposition to the 'bottom-up' model. According to Nunan (1991) and Dubin and Bycina (1991), the psycholinguistic model of reading and the top-down model are in exact concordance.

  • Goodman (1967; cited in Paran, 1996) presented reading as a psycholinguistic guessing game, a process in which readers sample the text, make hypotheses, confirm or reject them, make new hypotheses, and so forth. Here, the reader rather than the text is at the heart of the reading process.
  • The schema theory of reading also fits within the cognitively based view of reading. Rumelhart (1977) has described schemata as "building blocks of cognition" which are used in the process of interpreting sensory data, in retrieving information from memory, in organising goals and subgoals, in allocating resources, and in guiding the flow of the processing system.
  • Rumelhart (1977) has also stated that if our schemata are incomplete and do not provide an understanding of the incoming data from the text we will have problems processing and understanding the text.

Cognitively based views of reading comprehension emphasize the interactive nature of reading and the constructive nature of comprehension. Dole et al. (1991) have stated that, besides knowledge brought to bear on the reading process, a set of flexible, adaptable strategies are used to make sense of a text and to monitor ongoing understanding.

The metacognitive view
According to Block (1992), there is now no more debate on "whether reading is a bottom-up, language-based process or a top-down, knowledge-based process." It is also no more problematic to accept the influence of background knowledge on both L1 and L2 readers. Research has gone even further to define the control readers execute on their ability to understand a text. This control, Block (1992) has referred to as metacognition.

Metacognition involves thinking about what one is doing while reading. Klein et al. (1991) stated that strategic readers attempt the following while reading:

  • Identifying the purpose of the reading before reading
  • Identifying the form or type of the text before reading
  • Thinking about the general character and features of the form or type of the text. For instance, they try to locate a topic sentence and follow supporting details toward a conclusion
  • Projecting the author's purpose for writing the text (while reading it),
  • Choosing, scanning, or reading in detail
  • Making continuous predictions about what will occur next, based on information obtained earlier, prior knowledge, and conclusions obtained within the previous stages.

Moreover, they attempt to form a summary of what was read. Carrying out the previous steps requires the reader to be able to classify, sequence, establish whole-part relationships, compare and contrast, determine cause-effect, summarise, hypothesise and predict, infer, and conclude.

In the second part of this article I will look at the guidelines which can also be used as general ideas to aid students in reading and comprehending materials. These tips can be viewed in three consecutive stages: before reading, during reading, and after reading. For instance, before starting to read a text it is natural to think of the purpose of reading the text. As an example of the during-reading techniques, re-reading for better comprehension can be mentioned. And filling out forms and charts can be referred to as an after-reading activity. These tasks and ideas can be used to enhance reading comprehension.

This article published: 23rd March, 2006 was first published in Iranian Language Institute Language Teaching Journal Volume 1, No.1 Spring 2005.

Further reading
Barnett, M. A. (1988). Teaching reading in a foreign language. ERIC Digest
Block, E. L. (1992). See how they read: comprehension monitoring of L1 and L2 readers. TESOL Quarterly 26(2)
Dole, J. A. Duffy, G. G., Roehler, L. R., and Pearson, D. D. (1991). Moving from the old to the new: research on reading comprehension instruction. Review of Educational Research 61
Dubin, F., and Bycina, D. (1991). Models of the process of reading. In Celce-Murcia (ed.), Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language. Boston, Mass.: Heinle and Heinle.
Duke, N. K., and Pearson, D. P. (n.d.). Effective practices for developing reading comprehension. Available at //effective (Oct. 15, 2001).
Estes T. H. (1999). Strategies for reading to learn. Available at www.reading strategies.
Fitzgerald, J. (1995). English-as-a-second-language learners' cognitive reading processes: a review of research in the United States. Review of Educational Research 65
Klein, M. L., Peterson, S., and Simington, L. (1991). Teaching Reading in the Elementary Grades. Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.
Lebauer, R. (1998). Lessons from the rock on the role of reading. Available at //
McCarthy, C. P. (n. d.) Reading theory as a microcosm of the four skills. Applied Linguistics Series.
Nunan, D. (1991). Language Teaching Methodology. Hertfordshire: Prentice Hall International.
Paran, A. (1996). Reading in EFL: facts and fiction. ELT Journal 50
Rumelhart, D. E. (1977). Toward an interactive model of reading. In S. Dornic (ed.), Attention and Performance IV. New York, NY: AcademicPress.
Steinhofer, H. (1996). How to read nonfictional English texts faster and more effectively. The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. II, No. 6, June 1996
Ur, P. (1996). A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Vaezi, S. (2001). Metacognitive reading strategies across language and techniques. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Allameh Tabataba'iUniversity, Tehran, Iran.
Van Duzer, C. (1999). Reading and the Adult English Language Learner. Washington, D.C.: Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education


Submitted by Padovacucina on Fri, 12/04/2015 - 08:03


Some bottom-up models were developed by cognitive psychologists and, therefore, describe and explain reading in terms of cognitive processes. See Schneider (1985), Anderson (1982), and Rosenbloom & Newell (1986).

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