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Introducing the Cascade Reading Lesson Series – ‘The Other Side of the Rope’

By Julie Van Dyke (Chief Scientist, Cascade Reading) and Margie Gillis (President and Founder, Literacy How)

Improve Your Students’ Reading Comprehension with Cascade Reading


This blog post introduces a new lesson series from Cascade Reading called ‘The Other Side of the Rope’. Today’s teachers deserve all the support we can give them!  

Resources for teaching word recognition (a.k.a. decoding) abound– but not so much for the “other side” of the Reading Rope– the language comprehension side . We believe Cascade Reading fills a gap by providing tools to transform the teaching of reading comprehension. 

We hope these lessons inspire teachers to add the Cascade Format and Cascade Explorer to their teaching toolkit! Each lesson includes a lesson plan, free downloadable references, and everything you need to put Cascade to work improving reading comprehension in the classroom.

Sign up for a free Cascade Reading account and start teaching in Cascade, or sign up for the Cascade Reading newsletter to be notified of new lessons.

Find our first lesson here – and – keep reading to learn more about why ‘The Other Side of the Rope’ matters.

The Other Side of the Rope

A Conversation about Why Now for Cascade Reading


When Julie Van Dyke and Margie Gillis first met at Haskins Laboratories over twenty years ago, Julie had been studying the mechanisms of language and reading comprehension for over 10 years. Margie was preparing for the  ‘Mastering Reading Instruction’ study, funded by the US Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to provide professional development and classroom support for evidence-based reading instruction in first grade..

Both of us saw Haskins Scientist Hollis Scarborough present the Reading Rope many times—and both of us recognized that a whole lot more was known about how to teach the word recognition side of the rope than the language comprehension side.  The fundamental challenge for teaching comprehension is that it is way more complex.

Julie continued her research into reading and language comprehension, investigating how memory supports language, whether skilled and less skilled readers retrieve information differently, how particular syntactic constructions make comprehension difficult, and how poor comprehenders have particular difficulty with syntax and oral reading fluency.  During that time, Margie left Haskins and founded Literacy How, a non-profit organization with the mission to bring research into the classroom.  

Margie – “Julie and I have stayed connected. Why? Because I am committed to understanding what the research says about all aspects of reading—including comprehension—and translating that information for teachers. The practices that teachers use every day in their classrooms should be grounded in evidence. Teachers need effective tools to ensure that their students learn the content that they teach. At Literacy How, every day our teachers ask us to show them what instruction based on science should look like in their classrooms.”


Syntactic Skills are the Backbone of Reading Comprehension


Julie – “Over the last 20 years I’ve watched as professional development and technical tools have emerged to provide evidence-based support for teaching word recognition (a.k.a decoding).  Yet there’s not nearly as much support for teaching language comprehension—and what there is largely promotes strategies to improve comprehension (e.g., learn more vocabulary, learn more background knowledge) instead of supporting the syntactic skills that form the backbone of language comprehension.”

Sentences are not mere jumbles of words, and comprehension does not happen automatically once a child can decode each word.  Instead, comprehension depends on recognizing the relationships between ‘do-ers’ and ‘do-ees’, and how the action and description words in a sentence touch each of them (or not). This information comes from processing the syntax in the sentence—a basic component of skilled language use.


We devised Cascade Reading around Four Principles that provide visual cues that make these relationships explicit.  As readers gain more and more practice using Cascade, they become more and more expert at processing those relationships —even when the visual cues from the Cascade Format go away.

Syntax is the Missing Piece that Connects Word Reading to Text Comprehension


Margie – “After 20 years working with teachers in and out of classrooms, I’ve watched them struggle to help their students understand how sentences work. I believe that knowledge of syntax has been a missing piece in comprehension instruction and see it as a bridge between reading words fluently and comprehending complex text.

When Julie reached out to me a year ago to introduce me to Cascade Reading, we were immersed in writing an online syntax course so the timing was perfect. I saw that Cascade could make this easier and I couldn’t wait to support the development of lesson plans for teachers.

Christine Cohen, Vice-President of Literacy How, joined us in exploring how Cascade Reading can make complex sentences in passages and books more comprehensible, and to assist with this lesson series.”

The Cascaded Text and the Four Principles  that you’ll learn about as you use Cascade will show how words, phrases, and clauses work together in sentences and explain what their function is – all in the service of ensuring that kids are able to comprehend what they read.

Cascade Reading has also released the Cascade Explorer – a dynamic tool for in-classroom instruction that helps you demonstrate how the Cascade Format works, and how particular elements in a sentence work together to make meaning.  At the end of this post you’ll find helpful links about how to use the Explorer in your classroom, and how to learn more about syntax.

Over time, we will provide more lessons to help you use the Cascade Explorer in real time, as you teach comprehension.  Come back to this space to find regular lesson updates, and more information to help you support your students as they learn to comprehend better!

Start Teaching with Cascade Reading

Get started with Cascade Reading in your classroom!

  • Sign up for a free Cascade Reading account, 
  • Try out the Cascade Explorer
  • And find the first ‘Other Side of the Rope’ lesson here! 

By signing up for an account – you’ll automatically get updates when new lessons are published. We can’t wait to hear your feedback so we can support you in improving reading comprehension!

Let’s change reading together!

Julie Van Dyke and Margie Gillis

Cascade Reading

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