The Reading Rope: Breaking it all down

The Science of Reading reveals the complexity of how the brain learns to read. The Reading Rope simplifies it all, helping us visualize and understand that exceptional process. Here, we’ll unravel and explain all the strands and show you how they come together as students become readers.

By èAV Staff | June 29, 2023

What do pipe cleaners have to do with learning to read? 

In the late 1990s, reading and literacy expert Dr. Hollis Scarborough used pipe cleaners to create a model of the intertwined skills that make up the process of learning to read.

That model is the iconic Reading Rope, the that helps us understand the essential strands of reading and how they work together.

In this post, we’ll examine the components of the Rope both individually and together, then explore how the Rope aligns with the and the five foundational reading skills.

What is the Reading Rope?

The human brain is wired to do many things, but reading is not one of them. The brain does not automatically know that certain marks on a page or screen are designed to represent sounds, or meaning. That’s why we have to teach reading, explicitly and systematically.

And when we teach reading using what science—the Science of Reading—tells us, the brain wires itself to start recognizing and understanding those letters, syllables, and words. 

The Reading Rope provides a visual representation of that process and all its essential, interrelated components.

Why is the Reading Rope important for the Science of Reading?

The Reading Rope emphasizes the need for a comprehensive, deliberate approach to reading instruction. It recognizes that reading is not a singular skill, but rather a set of interwoven processes.

By understanding and addressing each of these processes (known in the Rope as strands), educators can provide the targeted instruction that helps readers succeed.

How does the Simple View of Reading connect to the Reading Rope?

One of the research-based frameworks used in the Science of Reading is the Simple View of Reading.

According to the Simple View, two cognitive capacities are required for proficient reading: (1) word recognition and (2) language comprehension.

“Reading comprehension is the product, not the sum, of those two components. If one of them is zero, then overall reading ability is going to be zero,” says Dr. Jane Oakhill, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Sussex.

Those two skills make up the two meta-strands of the Rope. But as Dr. Oakhill explains further on Science of Reading: The Podcast, each strand contains its own subset of distinct skills and processes.

What are the strands of the Reading Rope? 

Let’s take a look: 

  1. Word recognition encompasses the ability to accurately and swiftly decode printed words. Phonological awareness, phonics, and sight word recognition contribute to this strand.
    1. Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the individual sounds (phonemes) within spoken words. It includes skills such as identifying rhymes, segmenting words into syllables, and manipulating sounds within words. Phonological awareness provides the foundation for phonics instruction.
    2. Phonics involves the systematic relationship between letters and the sounds they represent. It includes understanding letter-sound correspondences, decoding unfamiliar words by applying sound-symbol relationships, and blending sounds to form words. Phonics instruction gives students the tools to decode printed words.
    3. Sight word recognition involves the ability to recognize high-frequency words by sight, without decoding. These words don’t follow regular phonetic patterns and appear frequently in written texts. Building a repertoire of sight words boosts fluency.
  2. Language comprehension involves the understanding of spoken and written language, including vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and the ability to make inferences and draw conclusions. Language comprehension allows readers to extract meaning from text.
    1. Vocabulary refers to the words one knows and understands, both orally and in writing. A robust vocabulary enhances comprehension and communication.
    2. Grammar and syntax are the rules and structures that govern language. Understanding and applying grammatical rules helps students comprehend and construct sentences, enhancing their ability to make meaning from text.
    3. Inference and conclusion skills involve the ability to draw conclusions, make predictions, and derive implicit meaning. They require readers to combine their background knowledge with information in the text to make guesses and reach conclusions.

How do the strands combine to form a process? 

These strands are interconnected and mutually supportive. Strong word recognition skills enable efficient decoding, which frees up cognitive resources for language comprehension. Similarly, robust language comprehension skills facilitate deeper word understanding and contextualized reading.

That’s how the Rope represents not just the elements of learning to read, but also the process toward fluency. As students progress, their word recognition becomes increasingly automatic, and their language comprehension becomes increasingly strategic.

  • In the word recognition strand, readers focus on decoding individual words, relying on phonological awareness and phonics. With practice and instruction, word recognition becomes more efficient and effortless. This automaticity frees up cognitive resources for comprehension and higher-level thinking.
  • In the language comprehension strand, readers learn to engage actively with the text, ask questions, make connections and predictions, and monitor understanding. Strategic readers use comprehension strategies—summarizing, visualizing, self-questioning, and more—to deepen their understanding of what’s on the page.

Those two processes are intertwined and interdependent. The Rope shows that as readers progress, they get better at combining automatic word recognition with strategic reading skills.

They can effortlessly recognize words, allowing them to focus on comprehending the text and performing higher-level thinking. By strategically applying language comprehension skills, readers construct meaning, make connections, and analyze the text.

This combination of automatic and strategic skills supports reading and facilitates engagement with more complex and challenging texts.

How does the Rope relate to the five foundational skills of reading? 

The Rope is made of a lot more than five skills. How does it all add up? 

While the Reading Rope does not explicitly mention the five foundational reading skills as a distinct set, the strands do align with those skills. Here’s how: 

  1. Phonological awareness (and phonemic awareness) is represented in the Rope’s word recognition strand.
  2. Phonics is also a critical aspect of word recognition.
  3. Fluency—often considered a combination of accuracy, rate, and prosody—is not represented as its own strand, but it’s closely related to the word recognition strand. As students develop automaticity in word recognition, their reading fluency improves.
  4. Vocabulary aligns with the language comprehension strand. The development of a robust vocabulary enhances reading comprehension by allowing students to understand and infer the meaning of words encountered in the text.
  5. Comprehension is built into the language comprehension strand. It includes skills such as understanding sentence structure, making inferences, drawing conclusions, and connecting prior knowledge. These skills help the reader get meaning from the text and connect to higher-level thinking.

The Reading Rope is a game-changing tool, clarifying a complex process and helping teachers target instruction. When the strands come together, they weave the strongest possible foundation for student reading success.

ELA Literacy instruction Science of Reading

Related resources