Topics: Featured Science of Reading

Examining Scarborough’s Rope: Verbal Reasoning

Great Minds

by Great Minds

September 13, 2022
Examining Scarborough’s Rope: Verbal Reasoning

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Posted in: Aha! Blog > Wit & Wisdom Blog > Science of Reading > Examining Scarborough’s Rope: Verbal Reasoning

Scarborough’s Reading Rope provides a model for understanding the components of skilled reading. This blog series examines each of the strands of the Language Comprehension half of the rope and how Wit & Wisdom® strengthens these upper strands.Image of Scarborough's Reading Rope made up of lower and upper strands depicting Language Comprehension and Word RecognitionImage courtesy of Dr. Hollis Scarborough, 2001.

Good readers think about what they are reading. Developing strong reading comprehension includes developing students’ expectation that what they read should make sense (Liben and Pimentel). In Scarborough’s Rope, the Verbal Reasoning strand refers to a reader’s ability to think about a text and infer meaning from what is explicitly and implicitly stated. To do so, readers must engage in cognitive and metacognitive processes such as

  • making logical inferences,
  • integrating ideas within and across texts, and
  • interpreting abstract language.

Verbal reasoning requires readers to go beyond what they read so they can make sense of a text and more deeply understand a topic (Burton et al. 5). For students to flex their verbal reasoning muscles, they need access to complex texts, adequate stores of background knowledge, and regular opportunities to think for themselves, with appropriate support along the way.

Knowledge and Verbal Reasoning

Readers make inferences by connecting prior knowledge to information stated in the text. But what happens if a student has very little prior knowledge? What if their knowledge is inaccurate or incomplete? The student will likely struggle to make a logical inference.

Educators often fail when trying to teach students to make inferences without first building background knowledge—students need to draw on a body of knowledge as they think through a text. According to cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, “factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes [such as] problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes—the very ones that teachers target—operate.” Background knowledge provides the reader with tools to ask questions, connect concepts, and evaluate ideas within a text.

Productive Struggle and Verbal Reasoning

To support students with reading and thinking about complex texts, educators must foster students’ productive struggle. Productive struggle describes the effort students exert when they persist and succeed with appropriately challenging tasks. Educators can foster productive struggle by gradually releasing responsibility to students as they work with complex texts.

Teachers may equip students with strategies for making inferences or interpreting and integrating textual information. Education researcher Nell Duke and colleagues recommend teachers gradually release responsibility to students to apply strategies in the texts they read. Teachers model thinking, provide opportunities for collaborative or guided practice, and require students to independently apply their strategies to reading. The most beneficial work happens in the middle when students collaboratively and independently practice while supported by the teacher (65–66).

Strengthening Verbal Reasoning in Wit & Wisdom

With a strong foundation of building knowledge and fostering productive struggle, Wit & Wisdom’s design further supports verbal reasoning development in three ways:

  • Complex texts create opportunities for verbal reasoning. Students need opportunities to read texts that will challenge their thinking. The complex texts students read in Wit & Wisdom allow them to apply their background knowledge to make inferences, interpret language, and integrate information across texts in a module.
  • The Content Stages invite all students to engage in verbal reasoning. The Content Stages scaffold students toward deeper thinking about a text over time. Each Content Stage employs associated strategies, which students use to comprehend what they read. Students gradually gain increased responsibility for applying the Content Stages to their reading and internalize the process for navigating texts independently.
  • Wit & Wisdom instruction fosters collaboration. Students regularly collaborate with their peers to exchange ideas and build on each other’s thinking. Much of the collaborative work in Wit & Wisdom engages students in productive struggle to make sense of the texts they read. Students will often collaborate with a partner or small group and eventually bring their learning back to the whole group to deepen everyone’s understanding of the text.


Successful reading comprehension requires students to apply their knowledge to new ideas in texts. In Wit & Wisdom classrooms, students leverage their background knowledge to effectively make inferences, interpret language, and integrate ideas within and between texts while engaging in lively, collaborative work that helps unlock hidden meanings in the rich, complex texts of each module.


Works Cited

Burton, Nancy W., et al. Toward a Definition of Verbal Reasoning in Higher Education. ETS, Nov. 2009,

Duke, Nell K., et al. “Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading Comprehension.” What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction, edited by S. Jay Samuels and Alan E. Farstrup, 4th ed., International Reading Association, 2011, 51–93.

Liben, Meredith, and Sue Pimentel. “Placing Text at the Center of the Standards-Aligned ELA Classroom.” Achieve the Core, Student Achievement Partners, 24 Aug. 2021,

Smith, Reid, et al. “The Role of Background Knowledge in Reading Comprehension: A Critical Review.” Reading Psychology, vol. 42, no. 3, 22 Feb. 2021, pp. 214–240. Taylor & Francis Online,

Willingham, Daniel T. “How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking.” American Educator, American Federation of Teachers, Spring 2006,

Wexler, Natalie. The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—And How to Fix It. New York, Avery-Penguin Random House, 2019.


Hannah Dieter

About Hannah Dieter 

Hannah Dieter is a director of implementation services on the Humanities team at Great Minds. In this role, she leads a team of implementation leaders who support schools and districts across the country with their implementation of  Wit & Wisdom and Geodes. Before joining the Great Minds team, she was the director of early childhood education for Lorain City Schools in Ohio. Hannah is also a former kindergarten teacher and instructional coach. She is currently working on her master’s degree in reading science from Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati. 


Tanisha Washington Headshot

About Tanisha Washington 

Tanisha Washington is a director of implementation services on the Humanities team at Great Minds. In this role, she leads a team of implementation leaders who support schools and districts across the country with their implementation of Wit & Wisdom and Geodes. Before joining the Great Minds team, she was an assistant principal for a charter school in Washington, DC. As an assistant principal, Tanisha was a member of the 2013 New Leaders’ Aspiring Principals program, the 2018 Relay Graduate School of Education’s National Principals Academy, and the 2018 School Leader Lab’s leadership cohort. Tanisha is also a former elementary school teacher and has a master’s degree in elementary education from American University in Washington, DC. 

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Topics: Featured Science of Reading