Components of the Reading Rope: Language Structure

Language structure, one of the eight “strands“ of Scarborough’s reading rope, consists of a complex set of rules and conventions. These conventions allow us to communicate with one another verbally and in writing. Put simply, students need to develop an understanding of the structure of the English language as they are learning how to read.

One way to think about language structure is in layers. Letters make up words, which make up sentences, which make up paragraphs, which make up entire texts. Along with these components are other structures within language, such as semantics and grammar. Here are all the components that go into language structure:


The rules of grammar dictate so much of how and what we write. It’s important for students to develop an understanding of those rules in order to make sense of what they read. While grammar instruction has taken a backseat in education in recent years, certain elements of English grammar are still crucial for students to know and understand in order to communicate clearly and comprehend what they are reading.


A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a word. Phonemes make up the structure that gives words meaning. Sometimes a single phoneme is one letter, sometimes multiple letters, and sometimes a single letter can have multiple phonemes (as in the ‘x’ in the word ‘fox.’)


A morpheme is the smallest unit of sound that carries meaning. While the letter ‘r’ can be a phoneme within a word, it is not a morpheme because it does not carry meaning by itself. However, the letter ‘a’ can act as both a phoneme and a morpheme because it is a word by itself. Some morphemes are whole words that can stand by themselves. These include words like ‘dog,’ ‘water,’ and ‘strong.’ But morphemes don’t necessarily have to be able to stand on their own. Affixes are also morphemes because, while they don’t work by themselves, they still carry meaning that changes the words to which they are added.


We have no doubt that anyone reading this already knows what a word is. However, this component is not quite that simple. It isn’t enough to say that sentences are made up of words. They are made up of specific words, and whether or not we intend it, the words we choose directly affect the meaning of what we say and write. The meaning that results from specific word choice is called semantics, and it’s another component of language structure.


Semantics refers to both the meaning of individual words as well as the meaning of entire phrases, sentences, and whole texts. Changing one word in a sentence alters its semantics slightly. Rewording a whole paragraph changes its semantics drastically.


This component of language structure actually falls under the umbrella of grammar but is specifically about the rules surrounding how we organize words to create sentences that are logical and meaningful. English, like all other languages, is dictated by specific rules about the order of words. For example, when an adjective and a noun are paired, the convention in English is for the adjective to come first. However, other languages order their words differently. In English, we would say “a red house,“ not “a house red.“ In Spanish, adjectives come after the noun in most cases, so a Spanish speaker would say “casa roja.”


As with all other strands of the reading rope, these elements of language structure are crucial in order for students to understand the sentences they read. However, students don’t master these skills all at once, but gradually over time. They are scaffolded to meet students where they are in terms of their age and readiness as readers.

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