Using formative assessment to support literacy

The Reading Rope shows us how reading works—and how to support students.

By Amplify Staff | February 12, 2024

image of Amplify Science of Reading blog post about using formative assessments for reading comprehension strategies

Learning to read is not linear. That’s because reading is not just one skill, but a bundle of skills, intertwined and supporting one another.

In the late 1990s, reading and literacy expert Hollis Scarborough helped us visualize this complex process by creating a model that’s now known as the Reading Rope. Grounded in the Science of Reading, this now-iconic model emphasizes the need for a comprehensive, deliberate approach to reading instruction. It’s an approach that recognizes the importance of building both reading skills and the background knowledge that makes them even stronger.

The Reading Rope model also connects educators to key strands of formative data that guide instruction and assessment.

With data and information that support the relationship between language comprehension and word recognition skills, teachers can devise reading comprehension strategies and get a better idea of where to focus their instruction. And thanks to the Science of Reading, this data can also help you track what students know, and where they need to go.

Let’s take a closer look to see how it all works.

Reading comprehension and more: The strands of the Reading Rope

The design of the Reading Rope shows that the two core components of reading are word recognition and language comprehension.

Word recognition encompasses the ability to accurately, effortlessly, and rapidly decode printed words. Phonological awareness, phonics, and sight word recognition contribute to this strand.

  • Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the individual sounds (phonemes) within spoken words. It includes skills such as identifying rhymes, segmenting words into syllables, and manipulating sounds within words. Phonological awareness provides the foundation for phonics instruction.
  • Phonics involves the systematic relationship between letters and the sounds they represent. It includes understanding letter-sound correspondences, decoding unfamiliar words by applying sound-symbol relationships, and blending sounds to form words. Phonics instruction gives students the tools to decode printed words.
  • Sight word recognition happens when students have had enough practice decoding words that they can automatically recognize and apply sound-spelling patterns across words. Automaticity in word recognition allows students to shift their focus from decoding to comprehending texts.

Language comprehension involves the understanding of spoken and written language. This includes vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and the ability to make inferences and draw conclusions. Language comprehension allows readers to extract meaning from and create meaning with text.

  • Vocabulary refers to the words one knows and understands, both orally and in writing. A robust vocabulary enhances comprehension and communication.
  • Grammar and syntax are the rules and structures that govern language. Understanding and applying grammatical rules help students comprehend and construct sentences, enhancing their ability to make meaning from and create meaning with text.
  • Inference skills involve the ability to draw conclusions, make predictions, and derive implicit meaning. With these skills, students are able to combine their background knowledge with information in the text to make guesses and reach conclusions.

The importance of knowledge

The Reading Rope affirms that readers use their existing knowledge and experiences to make sense of what they are reading. A student who brings relevant background knowledge to a text can understand it even better than a stronger reader who’s new to the topic.

Background knowledge also helps readers navigate unfamiliar vocabulary or concepts. When readers encounter words or ideas they already have some familiarity with, they can make connections and use contextual clues to determine meaning, which contributes to reading fluency and comprehension.

Intentionally building background and academic knowledge—coupled with comprehension strategies—fuels students’ capacity to understand texts, answer questions, and grapple with ideas.

As educators Barbara Davidson and David Liben write: “Although students’ independent reading is often at lower complexity levels at the beginning of a unit, as they acquire knowledge about the core topic they are generally able to read texts on their related topic at complexity levels greater than their diagnosed grade level.”

Putting it all together with formative assessment

There are a variety of ways to gather information about your students’ skills and knowledge, using the Reading Rope as your guide. Here are just a few examples that correspond to its strands:

Word recognition

  • Letters: See how students do with letter-sound correspondence tasks such as: matching graphemes to phonemes, writing letters that represent sounds, word-building activities, and sound sorts with word cards.
  • Words: Gauge students’ ability to apply sound-symbol correspondences by asking them to spell words with sound-spelling patterns they’ve already learned.

Language comprehension

  • Knowledge: How much are students learning about a topic overall? Keep asking—through pre-reading tasks, discussions, and checks for understanding.
  • Vocabulary: Track students’ vocabulary growth with word-mapping, context-clue, and word-brainstorming tasks.

Skilled reading

Here’s where it all comes together. Many formative assessment activities will help you discover what your students know about the skills they’re using as readers. Here, we’ll focus on the power of students speaking and writing about what they’re reading.

  • Speaking: As children learn to speak, they develop vocabulary and knowledge of sentence structure, both of which support reading comprehension. Simply giving students the opportunity to talk about a topic can provide insight into their oral language development.
  • Writing: Challenge students to write summaries, critiques, and analyses of texts to see what they’re comprehending from what they’re reading.
Literacy instruction Reading curriculum Science of Reading curriculum

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