Saturday / April 13

A Neglected Strand of the Reading Rope is Verbal Reasoning

Spend a bit of time with young children and you’ll almost certainly hear questions like this: Why? Why not? How come? They are curious about the world around them. Their questions help them to locate a logic in what they experience and see. That’s verbal reasoning at work. It’s fundamental to how we understand the world around us. It’s critical for understanding texts.

Scarborough’s reading rope has been called one of the most influential infographics in education because of the way it succinctly captures the complexities of learning to read, both in terms of skills, represented by the strands, but also because of the dynamic way it portrays what reading teachers do—consolidate these skills by braiding them together to promote fluent and strategic readers.


But while other elements of the reading rope are well-understood by elementary educators, verbal reasoning may be something of a mystery (Fisher, Frey, and Lapp, 2022). In this blog, we address verbal reasoning and offer two ways to foster it in your classroom.

What is Verbal Reasoning?

Verbal reasoning is the ability to infer to find logical coherence in a text. It involves understanding concepts as they are framed in words, especially in terms of making inferences and understanding figurative language such as metaphors and idioms.  For some students, it’s a piece of cake.  For others, they get by the skin of their teeth.  Notice what we just did?  You used your verbal reasoning, not isolated word meaning, to understand our point.

The second level of inferencing has to do with filling in a gap in the information. Take two sentences in the picture book Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall (2017). Jabari is a young boy watching other children climb a diving board ladder and jump off. He’s holding his father’s hand.

“Looks easy,” Jabari said. But when his dad squeezed his hand, Jabari squeezed back. (p. 9)

The author doesn’t explicitly say that Jabari is feeling a bit nervous about jumping off the diving board. The word But at the beginning of the second sentence sets up a contrastive. While Jabari’s words sound confident, his action may be telling us something else. Take But out of the sentence and there’s no longer a reason to question how Jabari is feeling. The author chose that word carefully to signal that the protagonist’s words and actions might not be completely aligned.

Teach to Strengthen Verbal Reasoning

Young readers benefit from instructional routines that promote their verbal reasoning skills. Although these recommended techniques vary widely from one another, they have one clear through line: they challenge students to make meaning from text, going beyond it to locate a deeper meaning, and explain it verbally.

Use Word Games

Games that involve words and their relationships to one another promote verbal reasoning. The logic behind identifying words as synonyms and antonyms uses verbal reasoning. After all, there is reasoning which explains why quiet and soft are similar while quiet and loud are opposites. One word game to play is opposites 1-minute speed rounds, where you provide a word and the child has to furnish the antonym.

Another word game to use with the whole class is the Alphabet Chain.  Announce a category (animals, cities, items of clothing, world leaders) and then challenge them to sequentially list words that fit the category (alligator, bear, cat, etc).   This is a great sponge activity when there are a few extra minutes to be filled before the next activity or class period.

Odd One Out is verbal word game where four words or phrases are furnished. While three of them are conceptually linked, one is the outlier. However, the logic may be due to the way one organizes their thinking. As one example, the sequence dog, cat, duck, and dragon has two possible answers. One is that dragon is the odd one out because it is imaginary. But another correct answer is that cat is the odd one out because it is the only one that doesn’t begin with /d/.

Ask Forward and Backward Inference Questions

It is common to ask readers questions that cause them to make an inference about something that is going to happen in the story. We invite them to draw a conclusion about the plot in a narrative text and then ask them to make a prediction based on what they know so far. These forward inferences are important because they cause the reader to organize knowledge and state a reasoned hunch about what might occur next.

However, readers also use backward inferences to comprehend the text. Backward inferences are made when a reader links a current information in a reading to something they already learned in the text. Think of the last mystery novel you read. When you found out “who-dun-it,” did you revisit earlier events in the text to confirm that it was a logical? That’s backward inferencing.

Ask questions that cause students to make both forward and backward inferences. We’ll use the example using Jabari Jumps again. It’s not really meaningful to ask whether he will jump—the answer is right there in the title. (By the way, you just made an inference because we didn’t directly answer the question.) But you could ask a better inference question: “Will it be easy or hard for Jabari when he does jump?” You’ve introduced a gap in their knowledge that they must bridge. In other words, they are going to have to make some backward inferences to answer the question.


Verbal reasoning plays an essential role in reading comprehension. Use word games to strengthen logic skills, especially in grouping like items, and interrogating synonyms and antonyms. Foster its application with forward and backward inferencing questions to help students see the coherence and logical flow of narrative and informational texts.  In doing so, we can ensure that verbal reasoning isn’t neglected.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Lapp, D. (2022). Teaching Reading: A Playbook for Developing Skilled Readers Through Word Recognition and Language Comprehension. Corwin.

Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He is also the author of PLC+, The PLC+ Playbook, This is Balanced Literacy, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12, Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom for Grades K-5 and 6-12, Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12The Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook and several other Corwin books. 

Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including PLC+The PLC+ PlaybookThis is Balanced LiteracyThe Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignRigorous Reading, Texas EditionThe Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbookand many more.  To view Doug and Nancy’s books and services, please visit Fisher and Frey Professional Learning. 


Diane Lapp, EdD, is a distinguished professor of education at San Diego State University, where her research and instruction focuses on issues related to struggling readers and writers, their families, and their teachers. An instructional coach for Health Sciences High & Middle College in San Diego, she has recently returned to the classroom to teach sixth-grade English and Earth science. Diane is also a member of both the California and International Reading Hall of Fame for her dedication to reading instruction.

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