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Scarborough’s reading ropes for multilingual children

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

When we think about teaching our children to read, we often wonder how we can teach them to recognise the letters or characters of our written language. Of course, this is key, but it is only part of the equation.

As the image below shows, there are many components /strands that are woven into skilled reading.

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.

Today, in this post, I will talk about the “Language comprehension” that often weighs a lot more in the balance than we believe. I will first explain the different components of the Scarborough Reading Rope and what it means for our multilingual children. Then, I will give you a few activities you can do with your child to develop their Language Comprehension.

1) The components of the Scarborough Reading Rope, and what it means for our multilingual children’s home language(s)

Background knowledge: This is what your child understands of the world around. It can relate to physical phenomenon such as the fact that water boils at 100°C and freezes at 0°C. It also refers to some customs and traditions specific to different cultures. Knowing (or not) these facts can have a huge impact on how much our child grasps the full meaning of a text and what is implied.

Vocabulary: This one is quite self-explanatory. The wider the range of vocabulary your child has, the more complex the text your child can access. When living and being schooled in one country your child is likely to develop a wider range of vocabulary in the community / school language due to their exposure to it. As a consequence, with time passing your child will carry on being able to access texts that satisfy their curiosity and interests. On the other hand, if their vocabulary in their home languages do not expand as quickly, they might not be able to access texts they would want to read. This could mean that your child will prefer reading books in the school language, rather than the school language.

Language Structures: This refer to the way a sentence is constructed in a given language (syntax), how it needs to be written to make sense (semantic). Understanding how a sentence is structured helps your child make sense of what they are reading. In the case of their home language, it is worth mentioning that our children are used to how we speak. Although we know different ways to express an idea, we generally tend to stick to the few same ones. This is called an “idiolect”. When reading a text, your child will encounter different idiolects, and this might make a text less accessible.

Verbal reasoning: This refers to understanding information that is implied in a text, working out what has not been said. The better grasp your child has of the previous components, the easier it will be for your child to understand what is implied.

Literacy knowledge: Each genre follows different norms. A comic book, an email, a sci-fi novel, and a newspaper are all structured differently. And this can change from one culture to another.

2) Activities to help develop Language Comprehension:

As explained in my YouTube video titled How ‘leverage’ will help you teach your child to read and write there are many skills that can be transferred between languages: the majority language and the minority language. However, if skills are transferable, knowledge of the vocabulary and culture, for example, are not.

Expanding the vocabulary:

It is therefore important to help our children expand their vocabulary. But how can we do that?

Our children spend so much time in school, immersed in the majority language. Consequently, they have many more opportunities to pick up new words and expressions. We also have to admit that although in school, they learn a variety of new things virtually every day, at home the daily and weekly routines mean that they can only encounter a limited number of situations, and consequently, words and expressions.

This is how the gap between the majority language and the home language grows year after year. Are we doomed? Isn’t there anything we can do to minimise that? Well, luckily there is!

But, before carrying on let’s keep in mind two important thoughts:

  1. There is no competition between the community/school language and the home language.

  2. It is important to cultivate a positive rapport between your child and their home language(s). Unless your child is preparing a specific exam, it is advisable to focus on topics that interest your child.

BOOKS: They are the number 1 resource we use to bring new words into our sons’ vocabulary. They cover a wide range of topics, and you are bound to find some that will provide your child with the words necessary to talk about their passion in the home language. (We will see in a future blog post the correlation between positive emotions and memory retention)

However, it is worth stressing again that as Scarborough’s Reading Ropes suggest, being able to read does not simply mean “being able to decipher words”. In other words, our children might decipher perfectly and confidently words without necessarily understanding the text. It is therefore very important that we read books with our children to help them access the content fully.

The fact that we can stop whenever to clarify the text is a huge benefit of books.

Research suggests that for a child to read on their own and work out the meaning of an unknown word, there needs to be at least 95% of comprehensible input (see Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith: BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER: TEACHING LANGUAGE LEARNERS HOW TO LISTEN. Independently Published, 2019).

Television does, of course, contribute to developing the vocabulary of our little ones in a similar way, by bringing experiences that they would not encounter in