Structured Literacy vs. Balanced Literacy: Where Orton-Gillingham Fits

In the 1980s and 1990s, a debate existed revolving around the question: What is the best approach to teaching reading?

There has been a debate in the general education classroom between whole language instruction and phonics instruction for many years. And Orton-Gillingham was reserved for students identified with a reading disability. 

The whole language approach to literacy assumes that students can expand their understanding of reading concepts and text through repeated exposure to rich children’s literature. While phonics, spelling, and decoding are addressed through word study, they are not systematically or explicitly taught. 

Instead, the “three cueing system” is encouraged. This system promotes guessing based on semantics (context clues, pictures, background knowledge), syntax (use of language patterns), or graphophonic cues (sounding out words).

While context clues may sometimes prove to be a beneficial strategy in reading, Dr. David Kilpatrick reminds us that context helps identify the meaning of words but should not be promoted as an effective strategy for word identification (2015).

The use of phonics instruction faded away when the use of the whole language approach took root in elementary classrooms across the country. Over time, students began to rely more on compensatory strategies.

Unlike learning to speak, reading is not an innate ability. Students must receive instruction to achieve the skill of reading. When the need for phonics instruction arose again, users of the whole language approach blended phonics lessons with the cueing system to create “Balanced Literacy.”

While Balanced Literacy focused on opportunities for shared, guided, and independent reading, students continued to rely on the cueing system. Struggling readers fell behind while this approach emphasized using leveled reading books for independent reading practice.

When people became more aware of the rising number of students reading below grade level and advocacy for dyslexia intervention increased, “Structured Literacy” came to the forefront.

Structured Literacy is an umbrella term adopted by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) that refers to programs such as Orton-Gillingham that teach reading based on the Science of Reading. Structured Literacy programs prove to be beneficial not only to the struggling reader but to all students.

Results of the 2019 report from the NAEP on nationwide student performance showed that 4-grade reading scores were lower than in 2017, with 38% reading at a “below basic” level. These statistics are exactly what prompted the IDA and other advocates of reading intervention to define what effective reading instruction is properly.

Structured Literacy provides a framework to incorporate the principles (how we should teach) and the elements (what we should teach).


How to Teach Structured Literacy

Teachers must have a strong knowledge of the principles of Structured Literacy.


Teachers should give a direct and clear explanation for each new concept during explicit Orton-Gillingham instruction. Multi-sensory strategies should enhance learning and instruction through visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic senses.

Teachers should provide guidance and feedback during student application to promote proper learning.


Instruction should follow a well-defined scope and sequence that provides a logical advancement of skills that progress from simple to more complex.


New concepts are layered on top of previously learned concepts, and the foundation of phoneme-grapheme relationships, generalization of rules, and reliable spelling patterns is continuously reevaluated to build automaticity.


Progress monitoring allows teachers to identify and make decisions for prescriptive teaching and differentiation. 

Gough and Tunmer’s Simple View of Reading can provide a snapshot of the two processes required for students to achieve reading comprehension through Structured Literacy. Those processes are decoding (word recognition) and language comprehension.

Dr. Hollis Scarborough’s well-referenced Reading Rope provides a research-based analogy that breaks these two processes into sub-processes and skills. These are woven together to clearly represent how these decoding skills and comprehension strategies are intertwined to lead to skilled reading.


What to Teach to Support Decoding

Phonemic Awareness

In 2000, the NICHD reported that over 90% of students who presented with significant reading problems exhibited a core deficit in their ability to process phonological information. This was especially evident at the phoneme level and identified phonemic awareness skills as a reliable predictor of future literacy learning. Teachers should expose students in preschool to oral exercises or listening activities that will improve awareness of the smallest parts of our spoken language, such as sounds and syllables. As they develop skills to hear and identify the parts, they can then progress through more advanced activities to strengthen their ability to manipulate sounds and syllables accurately and automatically.


Explicit Orton-Gillingham instruction should be given to students in recognizing the sound-symbol correspondence. Students can progress to blending letter sounds sequentially from the sound to syllable to multi-syllabic word level in decoding when they learn that graphemes (letters) and letter combinations represent phonemes (sounds).


The English language is made up of a complex structure of 26 letters that are represented by 44 sounds. Cumulative instruction that focuses on building letter and word patterns into memory to enhance spelling knowledge is beneficial for students. Students learn to identify syllable patterns and syllable types through Structured Literacy, which provides a strategy to break multi-syllabic words into syllables for easier decoding.


Often recognized as prefixes, suffixes, roots, and combining forms, morphemes comprise significant parts of words. Morphological awareness begins early in the young child’s use of language and later provides a strategy for word-level reading, spelling, and vocabulary. The explicit, systematic, and sequential instruction of morphological knowledge that Orton-Gillingham provides will also prepare students to transition into third grade, where Latin and Greek-based roots are commonly presented in text.


What to Teach to Support Language Comprehension


A student’s knowledge of the parts of speech is also predictive of reading comprehension. The structure of sentences becomes more complex across the grades. Students can easily get lost if unable to recognize concepts such as the use of connective words, pronoun referencing, clauses, agreements, and more.


Repeated exposure to Tier 2 words and more sophisticated language used in teacher-read text is one way to advance student vocabulary development. In addition, students will benefit from learning strategies to enhance word meaning, including the use of application of synonyms, context clues, visualization, and lessons in figurative language.


A student’s overall comprehension is highly impacted by their background knowledge. When teachers model metacognition during reading, comprehension will profit. Enhanced student engagement happens when skills such as predicting, questioning, inferencing, clarifying, and summarizing are modeled consistently. Teachers should weave opportunities to focus on cause/effect, compare/contrast, and various text structures.


Who Should Teach Structured Literacy?

With legislation constantly changing, teachers are seeking to be prepared to support Structured Literacy in their classrooms. They will need the broad knowledge found in the Knowledge and Practice Standards (KPS) that the International Dyslexia Association has developed in an effort to unify and certify those who teach reading in order to feel equipped to deliver this evidence-based approach.

By adopting Structured Literacy as an application of the Science of Reading, the International Dyslexia Association has provided a great service to teachers everywhere. Structured Literacy is an effective reading framework and is necessary to help students with language-based learning disabilities, and those in the general education classroom become successful and engaged learners.


Why Teach Structured Literacy?

The debate regarding effective instruction will end with Structured Literacy. As more and more teachers become skilled in Structured Literacy and more programs fall under the Structured Literacy umbrella, many significant changes will fall into place.

Teachers will be empowered to diagnostically teach and monitor students’ progress and be able to customize the experience for each individual student.

Structured Literacy can ensure that students are properly exposed to important foundational literacy skills that are sequential, systematic, and cumulative. This can alleviate the need for wide variations of reading approaches and provide a smooth transition to more advanced concepts every year.

This means that schools can engage a positive and collective impact on the number of students who can read at or above grade level in the future.