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The “Rocket Science” of Reading: Key Take Aways from the 2019 CDE READing Conference


CDE READing Conference 2019

The Colorado Department of Education’s 2019 READing Conference held in Grand Junction in mid-October yielded exciting and important information regarding how educators need to approach reading instruction. CDE brought in some of the nation’s leading experts in reading science to present and share best practices in teaching reading and writing. They wanted all reading teachers to understand and share this information with other teachers and parents of children who struggle to read. Take a moment to look at The Reading Rope (pictured below), a metaphor for skilled reading, or reading comprehension. Though this is a complex figure and requires abstract thinking, I have taken the time to explain it to students as young as six years. It is important that we demystify the process of learning to read, and stop treating it like a guessing game filled with strange words from a “crazy” language that has no rhyme or reason. In fact, there’s a very logical structure and order to the written English language, and children must learn the rules of the language if they are to comprehend what they read with confidence and clarity.

When we read, our brains are completing a variety of complicated tasks in order to turn the symbols on the page (letters and words) into meaningful ideas that we, the reader, can understand. Scarborough’s rope metaphor depicts the interconnectedness of reading skills. Each strand of the rope, assigned to the individual skills required for reading comprehension, is woven tightly together, forming a strong and secure rope.

Originally appeared in: 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.

These complex reading skills fall into two categories: Language Comprehension and Word Recognition. Just like in a physical rope, if even one of these strands is weak or begins to fray, the integrity of the entire rope is compromised and the whole rope is weakened. It is the same with reading. When we read, we need to be strong at all these skills, not just some or most of them. Strong language comprehension skills do not make up for weak decoding skills. If a child cannot decode multi-syllable words, then of course they will struggle with comprehension questions because they cannot understand what the author is saying. But too often when a child struggles with word recognition skills (like phonological awareness and decoding--breaking down words), they are not taught the appropriate strategies that they lack.

Instead, they receive more instruction in language comprehension strategies. This may sound like, “look at the picture and guess” or “guess the word based on the context of the sentence.” Let me be perfectly clear: There’s NO place for guessing when a child struggles with word recognition. GUESSING is NOT an effective strategy to be teaching our children, when much of the time, they haven’t learned to properly decode words. There is an actual science to teaching reading, and guessing has no place in it.

I’m not suggesting that a child should only be taught decoding and word recognition strategies. What I am saying is that too many children have received great instruction in language comprehension skills while missing critical instruction in word recognition skills. And when a test determines that a child’s overall reading comprehension is low, many educators default to teaching more language comprehension and neglect the important and necessary work of teaching word recognition skills. Having a child find the main idea and supporting details (Language Comprehension skill) in a text that is too challenging for that child to decode isn’t giving the teacher any information about what that child actually knows about the main idea and details. The child will struggle to read the text, get the questions wrong, and the teacher will think, 'this student still doesn’t understand main idea. They need more practice in this area'.

I hope you can see where there’s a major disconnect in this thinking. Teachers, interventionists, parents and anyone else who teaches reading to a child needs to understand the science of teaching reading. It’s not all about language comprehension. It’s a little bit about that. But it’s also about word recognition skills. In fact that’s where it needs to start.


We do a HUGE disservice to young readers when we teach them that when they don’t recognize a word, just guess.

Nooooo! Guessing creates lazy readers who mumble through unfamiliar words and don’t build the grit it takes to become a solid reader and critical thinker. In my next blog, I’ll take you through the actual progression of teaching reading. It is like rocket science, and that’s why good reading teachers are like superheroes.

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