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As a Reading Specialist, I remember participating in many meetings and having conversations around students who were struggling with reading. Pinpointing exactly what students were struggling with as readers was so crucial in providing students with the appropriate support and interventions to become a fluent reader.  We would ask questions like, what were their miscues when reading the passage?  Do they struggle with spelling?  Do they struggle to comprehend what they read?  What I did not realize at the time was that we were using the strands of the Reading Rope to determine where reading was breaking down for this student.  Only then could we determine the best way to intervene and support their development as a reader.

What is the Reading Rope?

Many educators are familiar with the image of the Reading Rope, a visual representation of the many strands woven into skilled reading, which was created by Hollis Scarborough.  According to the International Dyslexia Association, “The genesis of the Reading Rope dates back to Scarborough’s lectures for parents on the complexities involved in learning to read. Originally, she spoke of skilled reading as resembling the “strands” of a rope, using pipe cleaners to illustrate the interconnectedness and interdependence of all the components.”  This visual is a useful tool for parents and educators, as we determine best practices in reading instruction and think about how our students develop as readers.

The Reading Rope is divided into two parts, focusing on Language Comprehension and Word Recognition.  Effective Tier 1 literacy instruction should encompass all components of the Reading Rope so that students learn to both decode and comprehend.  Intervention in Tier 2 or 3 instruction is where we can differentiate instruction and target specific skills.  As educators plan for instruction and work with students who struggle to read, it is helpful to be aware of and know the parts of the Reading Rope.

Printed word recognition includes phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition. These skills are woven or braided over time so that word recognition becomes more automatic.   When a student struggles to decode words automatically,  is a disfluent reader, or struggles with spelling, teachers may identify their area of weakness as decoding.  Interventions and instruction would focus on foundational reading skills, including phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics.   Automatic word recognition is required for students to be fluent readers.  

The Language Comprehension strands include Background Knowledge, Vocabulary, Language Structure, Verbal Reasoning, and Literacy/Print Knowledge.  Language comprehension becomes more strategic so that students can make meaning from what they read; this is the ultimate goal of reading.   When a student struggles to comprehend text, teachers can provide intervention that focuses on these strands of the rope.

Heggerty Phonemic Awareness is one strand of the Reading Rope

Heggerty Phonemic Awareness lessons address one strand of the rope: phonological awareness.  Systematic and explicit instruction in sounds builds the foundation for students to be readers.  As we learn more about how students develop as readers, the foundational skills of phonemic awareness and phonics are necessary for students to decode words accurately.   “Poor phonemic awareness and spelling pattern knowledge lead to a weak lower strand, again weakening the whole rope and making fluent, skilled reading for meaning difficult.”  (Spelfabet, 2013

The Heggerty Phonemic Awareness lessons in Tier 1 instruction provide systematic instruction in phonological and phonemic awareness.  The lessons work alongside phonics instruction, as students map sounds to print.  If the phonological awareness strand of the rope is missing or broken, students will struggle to read.   Tier 1 instruction in Kindergarten and Primary classrooms often include these foundational skills, and knowledge of word recognition and strategies to decode words are often assumed to be in place for older learners.  Yet, many educators find themselves working with older learners who struggle to decode words, and phonemic awareness instruction becomes part of an intervention.  Phonemic awareness is often found to be a missing component for older students.

Phonemic awareness instruction is both oral and auditory and builds students’ word recognition skills because students are focusing on hearing sounds in words.  Teachers often ask about incorporating visuals into instruction to provide language and vocabulary support during a phonemic awareness lesson.  This would provide instruction around the meaning of a word(s) when participating in a lesson. The focus of a phonemic awareness lesson is on isolating, blending, segmenting, and manipulating sounds in words, rather than building meaning, and the lessons can be taught without visual support.

Consider this…

In the example below, does showing the picture of the ladybug help build a child’s phonological or phonemic awareness?

Blending words:lady – bug, ladybug
Segmenting into words:ladybug, lady – bug
Onset Fluency:ladybug,  /l/
Isolating Final Sounds:ladybug,  /g/
ladybug

Actually, the picture was not needed to blend or segment the word ladybug, or to isolate the initial or final phoneme.  It is okay if students do not know what a word is; they can still hear the sounds without connecting meaning to the word.  

As we consider the strands of the reading rope, providing vocabulary instruction during the phonemic awareness lessons, moves instruction away from phonemic awareness, and into language comprehension (vocabulary).   It is often more beneficial to focus vocabulary instruction on content language and vocabulary to help students build meaning in their own reading.

Classroom application:  What does this mean for teachers?

  • According to Scarborough (2018), “Weakness in ANY strand can disrupt reading, and weakness in SEVERAL strands can disrupt reading more.”   We can no longer say that a student struggles to read without identifying the specific area of need and identify what breaks down for the learner.  We can ask questions such as, “Can they decode CVC words, like hat?”  “Can they decode CCVC words, like flat?”  “Can they comprehend what they read?”  Use the Reading Rope to identify and target instruction and intervention to meet student needs.
  • In a webinar titled, Unraveling the Reading Rope, Nancy Hennessy encourages teachers to, “Use their knowledge of assessment and practice in correlation with the rope.”  Assessment can inform instruction, especially when providing intervention, and the Reading Rope can be used to identify specific areas of need. 
  • Interventions for students who struggle with word recognition and decoding must include explicit and systematic instruction in foundational skills: phonemic awareness and phonics, so that they can develop the decoding skills needed to be a skilled and fluent reader.

As educators, committed to all children learning to read, we can use the Reading Rope to guide our instruction and our intervention.  When we come to the table to share observations, progress, and data, the Reading Rope offers us ways to define not only areas of need, but areas of strength for students.  This useful tool can guide our conversations and determine the best instruction to help our learners succeed.

Interested in learning more?

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