How Can Teachers Use Scarborough’s Reading Rope?

Written by Dan

Last updated

Experienced teachers understand that true literacy involves far more than simply sounding out words on a page. Skilled readers need to grasp both what the words say and their literal meanings, combining skills such as vocabulary, language structure, and verbal reasoning.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope model is invaluable for educators striving to cultivate proficient readers.

Related: For more, check out our article on How To Use Reading Books In School  here.

What is Scarborough’s Reading Rope?

As an educator, I understand just how important reading truly is to the overall development of a child. So as teachers, we are always searching for the next intervention to help.

In the early 90s, Dr Hollis Scarborough revolutionised literacy education by introducing her concept of the Reading Rope – a pipe cleaner model to help parents understand what their children needed to know to become proficient readers.

The idea quickly gained traction among reading teachers when featured in Neuman/Dickinson’s 2001 Handbook of Early Literacy Research. It has since been an invaluable resource for educating new instructors and caregivers.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope is comprised of two core elements- Word Recognition and Language Comprehension, which are each made up of several smaller strands.

When intertwined, these tiny strands become the rope that represents complete skilled reading – any weak strand affects the reader’s real strength (and success).

All components within this “Reading Rope” are interconnected and dependent on one another for optimal results.

Strand of Reading RopeComponentsTeacher Actions for Instruction
Language Comprehension (Upper)Background KnowledgeEncourage connections to prior knowledge and real-world experiences.
VocabularyIntroduce new words in context; promote vocabulary development.
Language StructuresTeach grammar and sentence structure; analyze text construction.
Verbal ReasoningFoster critical thinking; discuss inferences and logical connections.
Literacy KnowledgeDiscuss text genres and structures; explore author’s purpose.
Word Recognition (Lower)Phonological AwarenessDevelop awareness of sounds in words through rhymes and segmentation.
Decoding and SpellingTeach systematic phonics and word analysis skills.
Sight RecognitionEnhance automatic recognition of high-frequency words.

This table provides an overview of the two main strands of Scarborough’s Reading Rope—language comprehension and word recognition—along with their components and suggested actions that teachers can take to develop these skills in their students. This model is designed to support the interweaving of various reading skills for proficient reading.

Word Recognition

The lower section of Scarborough’s Reading Rope emphasises word recognition abilities, the most common skills for teaching kids to read.

For instance, a child may sound out words in a book or combine phonetic sounds into syllables – both essentials for acquiring these capabilities.

Awareness of Phonemes

In the most straightforward terms, phonological awareness recognises that words are composed of individual sounds.

Without having written text to look at, children can quickly learn how to speak; however, when they begin learning how to read, it becomes essential for them to understand that spoken language and written language have a connection.

This fundamental skill serves as preparation for different levels of reading development.


Decoding is breaking down words into their letters and phonic sounds, such as blends, silent letters and more. Children skilled at decoding can sound out any word on a page without knowing its definition. This ability provides them with an edge when learning to read.

High-Frequency Words

Our young learners need to be able to identify high-frequency words quickly, and this technique has become the norm in elementary classrooms. Teaching kids these standard terms by sight can help them read more efficiently and accurately.

Language Comprehension

Knowing what words mean is essential for reading fluency; however, more than knowing the meaning of individual words is required.

To become a proficient reader, one must comprehend and make connections within a text and draw meaningful conclusions from it.

This can only be done if readers understand the upper strands of Scarborough’s Reading Rope, which are critical in developing literacy skills.

Background Knowledge

By integrating cross-curricular learning into the reading curriculum, students can deepen their comprehension of a novel’s context and expand their knowledge on other topics.

For instance, if they’re reading a book set during WWII in Germany, it would be beneficial to explore that specific period from different angles.

This allows teachers to turn any piece of literature into an opportunity for further growth – enabling kids to strengthen their literacy capacities and build a greater understanding of the world around them.


Expanding your child’s vocabulary enables them to confidently explore a much wider range of books.

Without comprehensive word knowledge, they will become quickly discouraged and potentially give up if they need to pause after every few sentences for definition clarification.

Furthermore, with understanding the words completely (or at all), children may believe that their comprehension level is sufficient when it has yet to be achieved.

Language Structure

Syntax and semantics are the two most common components of language structure. Syntax explains how words should be ordered in a sentence, while semantics informs us about the underlying meaning that each phrase or word has.

While English is one of several languages with an intricate set of syntax rules, its semantic understanding goes beyond basic comprehension – allowing readers to gain deeper insight into the text as they continue growing their knowledge throughout life.

Verbal Reasoning

Comprehending when and how words may be used figuratively or is essential to Scarborough’s Reading Rope.

This includes understanding metaphors, analogies, idioms and other figures of speech that children learn as they grow. However, classroom instruction can also provide valuable assistance in mastering these skills.

Literacy Knowledge

Regarding literacy, kids benefit immensely from being exposed to different genres and styles. An effective curriculum should include all varieties of fiction, nonfiction and poetry to ensure maximum learning potential.

The greater the type of reading material a child is exposed to, the more their knowledge will grow in terms of literacy proficiency.

How can teachers use Scarborough’s Rope?

The Reading Rope is an effective tool for teachers because it allows them to identify the areas where struggling readers may need more help.

For example, students might be good at sounding out words but need more vocabulary or verbal reasoning to understand their reading. By identifying the weak strands, a teacher can make adjustments or provide enrichment to help the student succeed.

Moreover, educators should explain this concept to parents to help them comprehend why their child is having difficulty or why numerous approaches are being used in the classroom.

This model serves as a compelling reminder that reading at home is critical for developing literacy skills that kids need inside and outside school walls.


Take advantage of these free resources and discover the incredible power of this literacy model.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope is an effective model to help improve reading comprehension in children. It provides teachers with a tool to identify struggling readers and target specific areas that need improvement while encouraging parents to become involved in their child’s literacy journey at home.

With an understanding of the many strands of language skills and knowledge required for successful comprehension, teachers and parents can work together to ensure that children have the necessary resources to read confidently.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope provides an invaluable framework for educators and parents to help their students improve their reading skills.

By understanding this model, they can provide the best support possible for their child as they attempt to master the complexities of reading and literacy.


Q: What is Scarborough’s Reading Rope model?

A: Scarborough’s Reading Rope model is a framework designed to explain the cognitive processes involved in reading. Dr Hollis Scarborough developed it and is widely used in education to guide instruction and assessment.

Q: How does the Reading Rope model work?

A: The Reading Rope model breaks down reading into two main strands, word recognition and language comprehension, which are intertwined like the strands of a rope.

Word recognition involves decoding words accurately and fluently, while language comprehension refers to understanding what those words mean in context. Within each strand, several subcomponents contribute to reading ability.

For example, word recognition includes phonological awareness, phonics skills, fluency, and vocabulary knowledge. Language comprehension provides background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, language structures (syntax), verbal reasoning skills, and literacy knowledge.

Q: Why is the Reading Rope model useful for educators?

A: The Reading Rope model helps educators understand that reading is a complex skill requiring multiple cognitive processes. By breaking down these processes into subcomponents, teachers can identify areas where students may be struggling and provide targeted instruction or interventions.

The model also emphasises the importance of simultaneously building both word recognition and language comprehension skills. This means that education should focus on decoding words and building vocabulary knowledge and background knowledge to support comprehension.

Q: How can educators use the Reading Rope model in their teaching practice?

A: Educators can use the Reading Rope model to assess students’ strengths and weaknesses in various subcomponents of reading. This information can guide instructional decisions, such as selecting appropriate student texts or providing targeted intervention for struggling readers.
Teachers can also use the model to design lesson plans that target specific subcomponents of reading, such as phonics instruction or building background knowledge through content-rich texts.

Q: Is the Reading Rope model applicable across all grade levels?

A: Yes! While some subcomponents may become more complex at higher grade levels (such as syntax), the basic framework of word recognition and language comprehension remains consistent across all grade levels.

The Reading Rope model can be applied from early childhood through adulthood. In conclusion, Scarborough’s Reading Rope Model provides a comprehensive framework for understanding how readers process text.

By breaking down reading into its components, teachers can better identify areas where students may need additional support or intervention.

The model emphasises simultaneously building both word recognition and language comprehension skills, making it an effective tool for guiding instructional decisions at all grade levels.

About The Author

I'm Dan Higgins, one of the faces behind The Teaching Couple. With 15 years in the education sector and a decade as a teacher, I've witnessed the highs and lows of school life. Over the years, my passion for supporting fellow teachers and making school more bearable has grown. The Teaching Couple is my platform to share strategies, tips, and insights from my journey. Together, we can shape a better school experience for all.






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