Scarborough’s Rope is a Wonderful, Misrepresented Visual Metaphor (Hear it in Her Own Words), Part 2

Scarborough’s Rope is a Wonderful, Misrepresented Visual Metaphor (Hear it in Her Own Words), Part 2

This is Part 2 in a series on “protecting good teaching in an era of bad programs.” Part 1 can be found here.

By Founding Director of The Educator Collaborative, Christopher Lehman

While being vigilant over good practices in a time of problematic programs, it is essential that we remain critical consumers. Not only in the caveat emptor sense, but also remain critical consumers of information. Just as quotes can quickly become memes that lose their original context, it is easy for ideas to take on a life of their own and lose their original, intended purpose.

There has been a curious proliferation of presenters, publishers, and profiteers citing “Scarborough’s Rope” as seemingly scientific proof of this thing or that thing. When, in fact, it was never intended for that use. It is an elegant visual metaphor that was created to help non-researcher audiences appreciate the complexity of reading.

I am thankful to have found this 2020 gem of a talk by Dr. Hollis Scarborough, a decorated developmental psychologist with a long list of honors, appointments, editorships, and papers, and the creator of—the now capitalized and in flashing lights—”Scarborough’s Rope.”

Here are some of my key takeaways from viewing. I encourage you to watch and consider your own.

Takeaway one: I find her delightful.

Now, the News You Can Use

Contrary to current mythology, Dr. Scarborough DID NOT create the reading rope to represent the Simple View of Reading. While she respects that research, she says “with 100% certainty” it was not created with it in mind, most likely she didn’t know about it at the time.

Likely created in the 1990s, she was aiming to metaphorically represent an academic lit review for audiences of teachers and parents. Thinking of a visual way to represent the complexities of reading research to an audience that may have not been reading as much of it, the rope seemed like a perfect fit.

It is a braid because, Dr. Scarborough says, she “knew how to draw a braid.” Ha. It has an upper part and lower part because, at the time, the theory of “top-down” and “bottom-up” information processes were common in the research. She says it was in black and white because it was the ’90s and cheaper to copy. (Refer back to key takeaway #1: delightful.)

Dr. Scarborough finally published the image in 2001 because—and I absolutely love this and am taking professional note—it was floating around uncredited to her, so she snuck it into a chapter she was already writing, “it really didn’t have much to do with it.” The chapter is found in Handbook for Research in Early Literacy, Volume 1 and called, “Connecting Early Language and Literacy to Later Reading (Dis)abilities: Evidence, Theory, and Practice.”

Merit On Both Sides

Dr. Scarborough intentionally wanted to avoid a reenactment of “the reading wars” through her visual metaphor. She says she sees merit “on both sides.”

Instead, Dr. Scarborough’s visual metaphor focuses on change over time. It shows how all aspects of reading are essential and blend together as strengthened. While she says her friends “are more on one side of the rope,” she notes that when it comes down to it, even the “feuding factions” agree every strand has equal merit.

Worthy of repeating: Dr. Scarborough was intentionally not representing only one view about how children learn to read over another. She intentionally was showing how all aspects of reading are necessary to a child’s development. She says: “Reading is complicated. All strands interact overtime.”

Be Wary of Misrepresentation and Misuse

This was and is a visual metaphor, not scientific proof of whatever someone wants to sell you. Dr. Scarborough says explicitly: “There is no formal, testable theory lurking in the figure.”

When asked, she said she has no intention of updating the rope. She does not give permission for changes to it, only to reproduce it as is and cite the 2001 chapter. She is unhappy with those who have added jargon or complications that “muddy the message.” She finds many of the revisions “miss key points of the original rope” and she feels there is often “a hidden agenda” in changes that seem to point to a “reading war intention.”

She does welcome reasoned critique through an academic process. She also welcomes people to create their own, different visual metaphors that may better fit different theories.

Bonus Segment: Challenging the Phonological Defecit Hypothesis

While not directly part of the discussion on the rope’s visual metaphor, in the final segment of the talk, Dr. Scarborough discusses her 2005 chapter, “Developmental Relationships Between Language and Reading: Reconciling a Beautiful Hypothesis with Some Ugly Facts,” found in The Connections Between Language and Reading Disabilities.

She reviewed studies that challenged the prevalent theory—and one she shared—that phonological weaknesses explain students’ reading failures. She summarizes her “10 Ugly Facts” that are inconsistent with this theory. For example, how “surprising proportions of good readers do poorly on conventional Phonemic Awareness tests.” In the talk, as well as in the chapter, she says she does not argue this phonological core theory is necessarily wrong, just incomplete. Watch the segment and read the chapter for more discussion.

Being Knowledgable Consumers

In this era of mandates and messaging, it is easy to get sold an oversimplification of the incredibly rich and complex work that goes into teaching thoughtfully. A vast knowledge base can too easily get lost when ideas are commoditized.

What I see in Dr. Scarborough’s work is an example of the mindsets that can most benefit us now: continually seeking knowledge and embracing complexity. The this versus that dichotomy that she rejects is the same that most of the educators and leaders I work closely with reject as well. Continually adding to our toolkits, in whatever areas, both within and beyond the Rope, helps us to better respond to the learners in front of us.

In that spirit of continual learning, here is another talk by Dr. Scarborough from 2019, when she won an inaugural award named in her honor. In it, she talks a bit more in depth about the strands of her Rope metaphor as well as other important ideas. Dr. Scarborough also notes: “I admit to ignorance about the practical side of education, and would not dare tell anyone how to teach reading.” (See, again, takeaway #1: delightful.)

Embrace complexity. Reject simplicity. Continue learning. Programs, alone, cannot do what knowledgable, curious educators can.

Note: linked videos are hosted on third-party sites and are the sole property of those sites or organizations. Linking to a site or organization does not imply endorsement.