In 2001, Dr. Hollis Scarborough designed “Scarborough’s Reading Rope” to illustrate the skills of word recognition and processes of language comprehension as “strands” essential for achieving reading comprehension. Scarborough’s Reading Rope is widely depicted and referenced in reading research literature and visually breaks down the two critical components that lead to skilled reading (language comprehension and word recognition) into two distinct ropes that must automatically and strategically work together. In Scarborough’s Reading Rope model, individual strands represent underlying skills that make up the two ropes that are ultimately woven together to support growth toward skilled reading.

Scarborough's Rope

Taken together, the Simple View of Reading (Gough and Turner, 1986) and Scarborough’s Reading Rope support effective reading instruction by clarifying the essential building blocks for successful reading comprehension based on what we know about language and how our brains learn to read. The Simple View of Reading provides a framework aligned with the science of reading for understanding the impact of word recognition, also known as decoding, and language comprehension) on reading comprehension. The formula indicates that reading comprehension can only be achieved if both word recognition and language comprehension are strong. In Scarborough’s Reading Rope, each strand represents a unique skill or process that is critical in teaching reading using evidence-based practices for students to learn to read. When the two braids and individual strands of Scarborough’s Reading Rope are automatically and strategically working together, the result is reading comprehension.

Word Recognition
Word recognition is the ability to decode words: segmenting a word sound-by-sound, matching sounds to symbols, and blending the sounds to form a word. In order for word recognition to be strong, a reader must rely on knowledge and use of skills. When readers are accurate and automatic, they can fluently recognize words by sight. Once the essential skills are mastered through explicit instruction, little effort or attention is needed for decoding and the mind can focus on meaning. In Scarborough’s Reading Rope model, the word recognition strands are braided, which demonstrates interdependence of the three skills necessary for word recognition:

  • Phonological Awareness – the ability to recognize, blend, segment, and manipulate syllables and sounds in words. This is a fundamental skill that strengthens decoding and spelling.
  • Decoding – the ability to break down words into individual sounds in order to read as a whole. This skill requires the alphabetic principle that letters represent sounds and those sounds go together to form words.
  • Sight Recognition – the accurate and rapid recognition of words that is needed to make space in the mind to construct meaning. Reading comprehension is hindered without the automaticity that comes with effective sight recognition.

Language Comprehension
Language comprehension is deriving meaning from spoken words when they are part of a sentence or other discourse. Language skills are mental processes that develop over our lifetime and are never truly mastered. In Scarborough’s Reading Rope model, the five strands of language comprehension are twisted, which denotes a relationship of the processes with each other, but the processes are not dependent on one another for all reading tasks:

  • Background Knowledge – includes facts, concepts, and important details from the text.
  • Vocabulary – developed from background knowledge and consists of words we know, words we know deeply, and recognition of signal words that show a relationship between concepts in the text.
    Language Structures – includes syntax, semantics, and use of transition words and other language structures that play a part in constructing meaning.
  • Verbal Reasoning – needed to draw inferences and understand figurative language. It is dependent on other strands to develop.
  • Literary Knowledge – understanding of how texts are structured to construct meaning such as print concepts, directionality, punctuation, and other text structures used for the genre or purpose of the text.

Reading Comprehension
Reading comprehension is deriving meaning from print. Reading comprehension is not a single skill, but rather the result of automatic word recognition and the strategic use of language comprehension. The desired product and the end goal of reading is reading comprehension.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope indicates skilled reading is the fluent execution and coordination of word recognition and language comprehension. Educators recognize the critical role of each of these skills and processes in reading comprehension and can make more informed decisions to improve comprehension of text during reading instruction. Scarborough’s Reading Rope is an illustrative reminder that we have the ability to pull each of the individual strands together to support growth and create readers who have developed the word recognition skills and language comprehension processes necessary in order to construct meaning for skilled reading.

Want to learn more about the Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Reading Rope and how they support effective reading instruction? The Big Dippers Science of Reading Short Course makes it easy for educators to learn about the science of reading on their own time and at their own pace. This one-of-a-kind course was developed by a coalition of reading experts and allows teachers to learn about reading instruction at their own pace. The knowledge of evidence-based reading instruction can complement any curriculum, be applied in any elementary classroom, and help support struggling readers at all grade levels. Learn more about the course and contact us for more information.


Gough, P. and Tunmer, W. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.

Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp. 97–110). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

The Big Dippers Science of Reading Short Course. (2021, April 9). Module 2: Structured literacy.

Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp.97-110). New York: Guilford Press.