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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 their daily lives.



Rare and exciting experiences: Create opportunities for your child to be confronted to different contexts. If you bring your children on exciting days out, and discover new things together, you will certainly be teaching them new words that describe what you are doing. This is how, last summer, when we were camping, my sons learnt in French words such as “campfire, ashes, and ember”.



Familiarity with customs and traditions:

Of course, the best way to teach our children about the different festivities and customs that are specific to your home culture is to celebrate them ourselves. Be (or carry on being) an ambassador of your own culture. Because if you are not, who will? Explain to your child how the New Year is celebrated in your culture for example. And of course, recreate the celebration yourself.


Sing and listen to traditional songs and nursery rhymes, read traditional tales.


Talk about the differences in table manners between your home culture and the majority culture.


Play games you used to play as a child. They are not always culture specific, but if you are referring to your childhood, it is a way to bring the culture alive (and therefore relevant) for your children.

These are all ways to get your child accustomed to your home culture(s) in a natural way.



Getting used to different ways of saying things:

When we live and are schooled in a country, we hear the majority language from a wide variety of sources. We then naturally pick up on the various ways to express an idea. However, we, parents, are generally the main (or only) source of language for our children. Consequently, the language input our children get from the home language is a lot more restricted.


For example, when I speak French to my sons, I very rarely use the two parts of the negation “ne … pas”, and only use the informal “pas” (by omitting “ne”). And I never switch suject and verb when asking a question. This is my idiolect, the way I speak.


It is nevertheless important for my sons to know that there are various ways to express an idea, and that different people use different words to express the same idea.


CARTOONS and BOOKS have been amazing sources to complement my idiolect, and provide my sons with a wider variety of vocabulary and expressions. But simply letting your child watch cartoons on their own, or letting them read books will not necessarily help them access this rich vocabulary.


It is therefore important for you to watch cartoons with your children (or at least be in the same room) so that whenever they hear a new expression, or find the way a sentence is formulated "strange", they can ask you straight away. You can also pick it up and tell your children!

As a side note, I would like to mention that a surprisingly good source of idiomatic expressions, and play on words has been Power Rangers (!) It has been translated in multiple languages, and chances are that you will find one in your language.


In this case, the advantage of books is that you can pause the reading without fearing missing on the action, or having to fiddle too much with the remote to pause too many times the story. For us, books have therefore been of immense help when it comes to enriching our sons’ knowledge of our home languages (French and Korean).


Here, I would like to add a point that is likely to be useful only in at least a few years’ time. Remember that different texts will be written following different codes depending on the culture. We do not read a novel like we read a newspaper for example. In the same way, when we write, we have to learn to adapt to different purposes. A “simple” email will not necessarily be that obvious for your child to write. And depending on the culture you need to formulate things differently. We, ourselves might not have learnt to write an email (or we forgot we did). Chances are that by receiving emails written in our language (your child’s home language) we became familiar with the codes and norms governing it, and we are following them more or less unconsciously. How do you address the person you are writing to? Should you write more formally, or informally? How do you end the email? (“Best regards”, “Kind regards”, “Warmest regards”, “Sincerely”, “Yours truly”, “Bye” …)

Let’s keep in mind that our children will probably not read as many emails in their home languages than in the community one. We therefore need to help them navigate their codes and norms.


What is implied:

An important skill to develop when it comes to reading skills is to understand the implicit. Your child probably works on this already in the school language, and that is a very transferable skill. It is however useful to help them develop it furthermore in their home languages to.


At home, it does not need to be done formally like in school. Here are two ways we do it with our 6- and 8-year-old sons.

  1. Questions to clarify the stories we read together: At the moment, in French, we read a lot of comic books. What is great about them, is that there are images. It is therefore easier to understand how the characters feel when talking. You can then draw the attention to the way they seem to be feeling when saying something. “That’s strange. She says ‘thank you’, but does she look happy? Why do you think she looks sad when she is saying that?” It can be a casual conversation you have with your child just to clarify the meaning of the text you are reading.

  2. Treasure hunts. Although when your child starts to read in your language you might want to keep the clues to find the treasure straightforward, once they become more confident readers, you can include riddles.

E.g.: “You are jumping so high!! But that’s thanks to me! You’ll find the next clue inside me.” The clue is hidden in a trampoline.

“I am rectangular, and people say that I am ‘a window to the world’. What am I? You’ll find the next clue on top me” The clue is on top of the TV.


Key Points:

Learning to read, is far more than just deciphering words. Let’s help our children learn the necessary vocabulary and the worlds the words on these pages translate.

The most important thing is to accompany them on this journey to help them access what is beyond the words.

Help them clarify the meaning of the words they don’t know, uncover the underlying message.


Remember: our children are most likely not exposed to the same variety of vocabulary in their home language and their school language. We need to help them access books that interest them in the home language if we want them to become "fully" multi-literate.

Keep in mind that for a reader to work out the meaning of unknown words, there needs to be at least 95% of comprehensible input.

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