The controversy over reading behavior as consisting of several specific skills components on one hand and its being taken as undifferentiated and unitary process on the other was still an unresolved issue (Weir & Porter, 1994). In addition, Weir and Porter argued that polarizing one’s stand in favor of one or the other approach might result in incorrect assessment of students’ general reading ability. In this connection, adherence to one or the other view of reading might have a direct effect on teachers’ preference of assessment methods to evaluate their respective students’ reading abilities. Consequently, teachers need to familiarize themselves with the claims made by these rival theories in order to fully understand the nature of reading behavior.
Proponents of the componential approach claim that the reading behaviour consists of several specific components (Davis, 1968; Munby, 1978; Heaton, 1988; and Hughes, 1989). Similarly, other researchers used multiple regressions and thus managed to successfully identify the existence of separate reading sub-skills (Drum et al. 1981, Pollitt et al. 1985, and Davey 1988). Besides, researches conducted in the 1980s and 1990s attempted to validate the importance of a number of strategies and endorsed their acceptance with varying degrees (Duke & Pearson, 2002; Pearson, Roehler, Dole, & Duffy, 1992). Even though these researchers expressed agreement on the divisible nature of the reading skills, they failed to come to terms with each other on the exact number of sub-skills that presumably constituted the macro-skill. Even so these components were found to be important as they served as a framework for writing textbooks, constructing tests, and designing courses (Liu, 2010; Lumley, 1993; Grabe, 1991).
In spite of its utility, this divisibility view was challenged by some other group of researchers who claimed that the componential approach lacked empirical support to verify the existence of separate skill components. In this connection, Alderson (1990a, 1990b) attempted to determine the relationship between skill components and reading test items. In order to achieve this, he took a team of experts to judge which test items tested which skill components. The result of his study suggested that the judges found it difficult to agree on a specific skill component being operationalized in a particular test item. Similarly, other researchers (Alderson and Lukmani, 1989; Carver, 1992; Rosenshine, 1980; Lunzer et al. (1979), and Rost, 1993) could not empirically verify the separate functioning of the specific skill components and their operationalizations in test items. Hence, this situation cast doubt on the viability of divisibility theory.
As a reaction to the lack of empirical support to sustain the componential approach, Oller (1979) proposed his influential holistic view of language, which he termed as “Unitary Competence Hypothesis (UCH)”. Oller in his study rigorously computed the scores from a wide variety of language tests and reported to have discovered the ‘g-factor’ which presumably accounted for the unitary nature of general language proficiency. In other words, Oller contended that even if language performance is thought to have been composed of specific skill components, it draws on the same set of source. Similarly, researchers like Lunzer et al. (1979), Rosenshine (1980), and Rost (1993), using factor analysis, came to the findings that the skill components load on the same factor even though they appear to be putatively different. That is to say, even if they happen to be seemingly different, the skill components statistically function in a very similar way. As a result, this may suggest that reading is believed to be undifferentiated single ability.
So far, we may realize that these two rival theories seem to be mutually exclusive. Hence, this difference is reflected on their approaches to teaching and assessing the reading skills. Specifically, the componential approach used the specific skills in teaching and assessing students’ reading comprehension (Weir & Porter, 1994) whereas the unitary approach used the integrative or holistic approach in teaching and assessment (Oller, 1979).
Test constructors who identified themselves with the componential approach set comprehension test items in order to measure students’ reading ability. Based on the nature of comprehension questions, Liu (2010) reported that researchers seemed to come up with three levels of reading comprehension: literal, referential/ interpretative, and critical level. According to his description, literal comprehension level refers to students’ understanding of plainly-stated meanings. On the other hand, students should be able to work out the relationship between sentences and the underlying meanings of sentences at the inferential level in order to fully understand the given reading text. In this case, students need to make inferences and conclusions. The critical level requires learners to apply the highest level of cognitive operations. In this case, learners are expected to have attained the ability to evaluate what they have read against their background knowledge.
There appears to be a direct relationship between reading test scores and reading comprehension levels. In this connection, Fisher (2005) contends that students who have attained literal level of comprehension might be in great difficulty to work out the underlying meanings of sentences and demonstrate evaluative ability of a given reading text. Conversely, learners who have already developed evaluative ability might not have difficulty with literal and inferential question items. Hence, learners’ test scores indicate the level at which they can perform well in test-taking situations.
On the other hand, test writers who ardently took the unitary view used integrative tests such as cloze tests so as to measure students’ reading ability. Although Taylor (1956) was credited for developing the cloze procedure, Rankin & Culhane (1969) were the ones who worked out reading levels by computing the scores from multiple-choice comprehension test items and cloze test items. The levels of reading, thus, identified were: independent, instructional, and frustration levels. As the name indicates, independent reading level might suggest that students can understand a specific reading text by themselves. However, students at instructional reading level might require some assistance from the teacher so as to understand. In spite of getting assistance from teacher, students at frustration reading level might be in great difficulty to understand the given reading text. Thus, learners’ test scores in cloze tests might indicate their reading levels in test-taking situations.
Despite the persistence of the theoretical controversy over decades, researchers’ interest to pursue studies in view of these rival theories seemed to have decreased since the late 1990s. Consequently, the research trend seemed to take a different direction. Instead of focusing on the rival theories, most of the studies were dedicated to study how students performed with respect to specific reading sub-skills. For example, Morley (2009) and Baker & Ellece (2011) studied lexical cohesion in rhetorical structures and discourse analysis while Khaleel (2010) focused on presupposition triggers. At the same time, Davoudi (2005), Preszler (2006), and Warnidah & Suwarno (2016) seemed to take interest in inference making skills and difficulties associated with them. Similarly, Jitendra et al. (2001) studied main idea strategy instruction whereas Rapp et al. (2007) made their focus on comprehension processing skills of struggling readers. Meyer, Brandt, & Bluth (1980) and Kendeou & van den Broek (2007), on their part, studied text structure to realize reading comprehension and its effect on comprehension process. Furthermore, Kim & Piper (2019) studied the structural relations between word reading skills, text reading fluency, and reading comprehension; Hessamy & Sadeghi, (2013) studied the hierarchical relationship between reading sub-skills, specifically their difficulty level and contribution to reading comprehension; and Kim & Jang (2009) studied how reading sub-skills differentially functioned in a standardized reading test (OSSLT) for L1 and L2 students. On the other hand, other researchers made their focus on the theories of reading. For instance, a number of studies (Geva & Farniaa, 2012; Gottardo & Mueller, 2009; Kirby & Savage, 2008, Proctor, Carlo, August, & Snow, 2005) attempted to validate the SVR (Simple View of Reading) that accounted for reading comprehension in a very simplistic way. Lie, et al. (2020), on their part, studied the contributions of the three domains (i.e. cognitive, psychological, and ecological) in (CMR) Componential Model of Reading to reading comprehension.
Despite researchers’ lack of interest in the theoretical dispute, we may still question the assumption that the two theoretical positions are mutually exclusive. Couldn’t there be some relationship or overlap between the two rival theoretical positions as long as they are interested in measuring the reading behavior? Couldn’t there be linear relationships between reading levels and ability groups? How do learners belonging to different reading levels and ability groups fare in light of specific reading sub-skills?