What Is Scarborough’s Reading Rope and How Do Teachers Use It?

The many strands that weave into skilled reading.

What Is Scarborough's Rope? on teal background with #BuzzwordsExplained logo

Experienced teachers know that true literacy is much more than just being able to sound out the letters on the page. Skilled readers need to be able to master both what the words are and what they mean. To do this successfully, they bring together various skills like vocabulary, language structure, and verbal reasoning. The Scarborough’s Reading Rope model can help educators better understand what it truly takes to create skilled readers.

What is Scarborough’s Reading Rope?

Scarboroughs Reading Rope rgb G1-102 UNI 032422

Source: Brainspring

Dr. Hollis Scarborough invented the concept of the Reading Rope in the early 1990s. She used it to help parents understand the various skills their children needed to master to become proficient readers. Originally, she twisted together a model made of pipe cleaners to demonstrate her point.

In 2001, the model was published in the Handbook of Early Literacy Research (Neuman/Dickinson). Reading teachers immediately saw how useful it was, and it became a staple for educating new teachers and parents alike.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope contains two main sections: Word Recognition and Language Comprehension. Each of these comprises several smaller strands. Woven together, these strands become the rope that represents complete skilled reading. All the components are interconnected and interdependent. If just one strand is weak, it affects the rope (and the reader) as a whole.

Lower Section: Word Recognition


A pipe cleaner model of Scarborough's Reading Rope

Source: Payne STEAM Academy on Twitter

The lower section of Scarborough’s Reading Rope focuses on word recognition skills. These are the skills we tend to think of most when we talk about teaching kids how to read. Imagine a kid sounding out the letters on a page or putting together phonics sounds and syllables. These are the basics of word recognition.

Phonological Awareness

Put simply, phonological awareness is about understanding that words are made up of sounds. Kids learn to speak without ever needing to see a written word. But when they learn reading, they need to recognize that the sounds they make with their mouths correspond with the words they see on the page. This is a very early skill that sets the stage for what follows.

Learn more: Phonological Awareness/Massachusetts Department of Education


Decoding is what we picture when we see beginning readers: kids sounding out the words letter by letter. It includes things like phonics, letter blends, silent letters, and more. Kids proficient at decoding can sound out all the words they see on a page, even if they don’t know what the words mean.

Try it: Effective Decoding Strategies and Activities for Emerging Readers

Sight Words

Some words are used so frequently that it makes more sense to teach kids to recognize them on sight. This is an extremely common method used in pretty much every early elementary classroom today. Learn more about sight words here.

Try it: Fun Sight Word Activities That Work

Upper Section: Language Comprehension

Bulletin board showing Scarborough's Reading Rope model

Source: @teachloveread

Word recognition on its own doesn’t create fluent readers. If kids don’t know what the words themselves mean, they’re not really reading. Furthermore, understanding the meaning of words on their own isn’t really useful. Fluent readers understand the text they’re reading as a whole, drawing meaningful conclusions and finding important takeaways. The upper strands of Scarborough’s Reading Rope are incredibly key in creating strong readers.

Background Knowledge

This strand of the rope is where cross-curriculum learning can really come into play. Kids reading a novel set in World War II Germany will get a lot more out of it when they understand more about WWII in general. For teachers, this means placing reading choices in context. Use reading (at any age) as part of a larger lesson on any topic. Kids will develop a deeper understanding and improve literacy skills at the same time.

Try it: Ways To Build Background Knowledge—and Make Reading Skills Soar


Building a rich vocabulary means kids can enjoy reading a wider variety of books. When you have to stop every few sentences to look up a word, you’re likely to give up on reading a lot faster. Even worse is when kids don’t stop to find out the meaning of a word, since they’ll have “read” something without understanding it fully—or at all.

Try it: Meaningful Vocabulary Activities for Every Grade

Language Structure

When we talk about language structure, we generally mean syntax (the order of words) and semantics (the meaning of the text). English has a lot of rules for the patterns and order of words, known as syntax. Semantics delves deep into how words and phrases combine to create meaning and how an author’s word choice affects that meaning. It’s a complicated topic, which good readers continue to consider throughout their lives.

Learn more: Language Structures: Reading Comprehension/Surrey Schools ONE

Verbal Reasoning

When it comes to Scarborough’s Reading Rope, verbal reasoning refers to understanding when and how words are being figurative and literal. It includes things like metaphors, analogies, idioms, and figurative language. Kids pick up some of these things as they grow, but classroom instruction can be helpful too.

Try it: Figurative Language Anchor Charts That You Literally Need Right Now

Literacy Knowledge

Kids gain literacy knowledge by exposure to a wide array of genres and styles. This is why a strong curriculum covers fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in all their forms. Generally speaking, the more types of reading a child encounters, the more advanced their literacy knowledge becomes.

Learn more: Literary Genres/California Department of Education

How can teachers use Scarborough’s Rope?

Chart showing how various literacy skills relate to Scarbrough's Reading Rope upper and lower strands

Source: Brainspring

Many teachers find Scarborough’s Reading Rope useful in two main ways. First, it helps teachers themselves identify where struggling readers may need more help. For instance, a student may be very good at sounding out the words on the page but lack the vocabulary or verbal reasoning to make sense of what they’re reading. Once they identify the weak strands, a teacher can make adjustments or offer enrichment to help that student succeed.

Second, teachers can (and should) share this model with parents. It can help them understand why their child is struggling or why teachers use such a variety of methods in the classroom. It’s a good tool to reinforce that reading at home is essential to building the literacy skills kids need in school and throughout their lives.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope Resources

Try these free resources to learn more about this valuable literacy model.

How has Scarborough’s Reading Rope enhanced your teaching of reading? Come share your thoughts in the WeAreTeachers HELPLINE on Facebook.

Plus, check out What Is Balanced Literacy?

Scarborough's Reading Rope is a model of the many strands of language comprehension and word recognition that weave into proficient reading.