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The “Rocket Science” of Reading: Part 2 - Teaching Struggling Readers to Read

I am humbled by the overwhelmingly positive response to my first post in this 3 part series addressing reading instruction, The “Rocket Science” of Reading: Key Takeaways from the 2019 CDE READing Conference. Teaching reading requires helping a reader to acquire a collection of complex skills. As referred to in my previous blog, Dr. Hollis Scarborough (2001) compares skilled reading to the many strands of a rope, woven together to make a strong reader. In the reading rope, any single weakened strand compromises the entire rope, which means overall reading comprehension suffers. Needless to say, a struggling reader may grapple with one or many strands of the reading rope.

Scarborough's Reading Rope (2001) shows they many skills involved in the act of reading.
Scarborough's Reading Rope (2001) shows they many skills involved in the act of reading.

Scarborough organizes reading skills into two primary categories: Word Recognition and Language Comprehension. Word recognition is the ability to read and understand the words on a page, and language comprehension is the ability to make sense of the language we hear and read.

Beginning Reading Instruction should follow these general guidelines by both parents and teachers when working with a struggling reader.

Start with Word Recognition Skills

The word recognition strands (phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition of familiar words) work together as the reader becomes accurate, fluent, and increasingly automatic with repetition and practice. All beginning decoding instruction should be taught with decodable books because decodable text has only spelling patterns and high frequency words that have been taught. When children read decodable text, they do not have to guess words; they learn to rely on the letters to determine what the word is. The primary purpose for reading decodable text, after-all, is to develop the habit of accurate reading. When a child misreads a word in a sentence, always have the child re-read the sentence for accuracy. This develops strong word recognition skills. According to Scarborough’s research (2001), skilled reading requires that word recognition processes become so well practiced that they are automatic, effortless. It is only then that the reader’s cognitive energies can focus on comprehension processes.

Readers Need to Know:

  • How to orally segment and blend syllables.

  • Every syllable has a vowel sound.

  • Almost all syllables have one or more vowel letters.

  • a, e, i, o, u are almost always vowels.

  • y is always a vowel at the end of a word.

  • u is not a vowel after q.

  • In multi-syllabic words, children break words into syllables around the vowels in order to read them.

Adapted from Farrell, 2019

Use read-alouds to develop language comprehension

During early reading instruction while readers are practicing their word recognition skills, they can also be learning language comprehension skills by listening to stories that are read aloud to them.

These read-alouds and the discussions they lead to are the primary way early readers develop skills like vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge. It also gives readers the opportunity to connect with text in meaningful ways by encouraging them to tap into their own background knowledge and experiences to relate to the text.

Weaving the strands together

After a child shows strong beginning decoding skills, they are ready to read leveled readers themselves. At this point, readers can begin developing language comprehension through their own reading.

The language comprehension strands reinforce one another and then weave together with the word recognition strands to create a skilled reader. This does not happen overnight; it requires instruction and practice over time. Introduce leveled texts to your child and pay attention to the features of each level, like sentence length, words per page, repetition of words, pictures or graphics, and specialized vocabulary.

Intentional discussions around these features will increase your reader’s language comprehension skills and strengthen overall comprehension of the text.

What questions do you have about the next steps to take with your child’s reading challenges?

Contact us to learn how a Hopkins coach can support your struggling reader with a personalized plan to get them reading with confidence.



Farrell, Linda. “Lose the Rules! Multi-Syllable Words Made Easy.” Presented at 5th Annual READing Conference, Grand Junction, CO. October 10 & 11, 2019.

Farrell, Linda. “A New, Phonics-Based Approach to Teaching High-Frequency Words.” Presented Oct. 11, 2019 CDE READing Conference, Grand Junction, CO.

Gillis, Margie, Ph.D. “Grammar and Syntax: The Building Blocks of Comprehending and Writing Sentences.” Presented Oct. 11, 2019 CDE READing Conference, Grand Junction, CO.

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.


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