What Is Structured Literacy?

Structured Literacy is a highly explicit and systematic teaching approach based on the Science of Reading, methodologies like Orton-Gillingham, and all five pillars of literacy – plus language comprehension, spelling, and writing.

Literacy Methods of the Past

The whole language approach to literacy assumes that students will expand their understanding of text and reading concepts through repeated exposure to rich children’s literature. Although phonics, decoding, and spelling are all addressed in word study, they are not explicitly and systematically taught. Instead, students are encouraged to activate the “three cueing system,” which promotes guessing based on semantics, syntax, or graphic cues.

Balanced Literacy

Decades of reading research have shown that reading is not an innate ability. Instead, children must receive instruction and exposure to learn how to read. As the necessity for phonics instruction grew, followers of the whole language approach adopted phonics lessons as an addition to the cueing system. They referred to the enhancement as “Balanced Literacy.”

Balanced Literacy instruction is focused on shared, guided, and independent reading. To teach introductory literacy skills, students concentrate on grapheme representations combined with context or imagery. While this approach emphasized the use of leveled readers for independent reading practice, struggling readers who could not decode the words slipped through the cracks. Children cannot encode and decode naturally. Balanced Literacy exposes young readers to unfamiliar text causing compensatory strategies, such as relying on picture cues, while valuable instructional time passes.

Structured Literacy

Structured Literacy is an umbrella term adopted by the International Dyslexia Association to refer to the many programs (like Orton Gillingham) that teach reading by following the evidence and research behind the Science of Reading. Structured Literacy is deeply rooted in phonemes and systematically introduces the letters or graphemes corresponding to each phoneme. Programs that exemplify the components and methods outlined in the term, Structured Literacy are beneficial for all students and essential for students who struggle with reading.

Structured Literacy is an approach that provides a framework to include both the principles (how we should teach) and the elements (what we should teach) that are aligned to the Knowledge and Practice Standards. Teaching whole word memorization is limited, and learning phonics empowers students with an exponential effect.

Structured Literacy: How It’s Taught

Structured Literacy supports explicit, sequential, systematic, prescriptive, diagnostic, and cumulative instruction. Through Structured Literacy, teachers implement appropriate methods for all students and particularly necessary for students with learning differences. Orton-Gillingham is an evidence-based Structured Literacy approach that uses research from the Science of Reading and incorporates recommended multi-sensory instructional techniques.

Students should be provided with repeated opportunities to decode text with ample representations of the phonetic elements for code emphasis. Students become skilled in spelling words within and outside of text through regular dictation of words and sentences containing phonetic concepts.

Comprehension is the ultimate goal for reading, driven by two broad skill sets identified in the Simple View of Reading as word recognition and language comprehension. The Science of Reading identifies five essential components of the Simple View of Reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Structured Literacy incorporates all five.

The Science of Reading has proven that a Structured Literacy approach is a necessary foundation for reading success.

How to Teach Structured Literacy

Explicit

The teacher gives a direct and clear explanation for each new concept during explicit instruction. Instruction should be enhanced with multi-sensory strategies to involve the visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic senses in learning to improve memory.

Systematic

The delivery of instruction follows a well-defined scope and sequence, which provides a logical progression of skills that move from simple to more complex.

Cumulative

Newly introduced concepts are layered upon previously learned concepts. The foundation of knowledge for phoneme-grapheme relationships, reliable spelling patterns, and generalization of rules is frequently reviewed to build automaticity.

Diagnostic/Responsive

Continuous formative assessment informs progress monitoring and allows teachers to measure outcomes and make decisions for prescriptive teaching and differentiation.

Structured Literacy Emphasizes the Structure of Language Through

Phonology | Speech sounds
Sound-Symbol Association | The relationship between sounds and symbols
Morphology | The study of the forms of words
Syllables | A word or part of a word that contains one vowel phoneme
Syntax | Sentence structure
Orthography | The conventional spelling system of a language
Semantics | The meaning of words

See Orton-Gillingham as a Part of Structured Literacy Training in Action

Structured Literacy can ensure that students are equally exposed to important foundational literacy skills in a sequential, systematic, and cumulative way.