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 addressed in word study, they are not explicitly or systematically taught.

Rather, students are encouraged to activate the “three cueing system”, which promotes guessing based on semantics (context clues, pictures, background knowledge), syntax (use of language patterns), or graphophonic cues (sounding out words).

Although no one would argue that the use of context clues is 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).

As the whole language approach took root in elementary classrooms across the country, the use of phonics instruction faded away. Over time, students did not become more reliable. They either became more reliant on compensatory strategies or they relied more on compensatory strategies.Sand Tray for Literacy Skills

Decades of reading research has shown that reading is not an innate ability. Unlike learning to speak, children must receive instruction and exposure to learn how to read. As the necessity for phonics instruction made its way to the forefront once again, followers of the whole language approach adopted phonics lessons as an addition to the cueing system and referred to the enhancement as “Balanced Literacy”.

Students continued to rely on the cueing system, while Balanced Literacy focused on opportunities for shared, guided, and independent reading. While this approach emphasized the use of leveled readers for independent reading practice, struggling readers who were unable to decode the words, slipped through the cracks.

With a heightened awareness of the rising number of students reading below grade level combined with an increase in advocacy for dyslexia intervention, “Structured Literacy” stepped into the spotlight.

Structured Literacy is an umbrella term that was 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. Programs that exemplify the components and methods that are outlined in the term, Structured Literacy, have been found to be beneficial for all students and essential for students who struggle with reading.

Results of the 2019 report from the NAEP on nationwide student performance showed that reading scores for 4th graders were lower than the previous performance assessment in 2017, with 38% of students in this grade reading at a “below basic” level. Statistics like these have prompted the International Dyslexia Association and other advocates of reading intervention to take a closer look at what defines effective instruction.

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).

How to Teach Structured Literacy

Teachers need to have a solid understanding of the principles of Structured Literacy.

Explicit

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

Introduction is followed by modeling and student application of the new concept. While the student is applying the new knowledge, the teacher provides guidance and specific feedback to promote errorless learning.

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 for teachers to make decisions for prescriptive teaching and differentiation.

When we look at the elements of Structured Literacy, Gough and Tunmer’s Simple View of Reading can provide a snapshot of the two processes that are required for the student to achieve reading comprehension: decoding (word recognition) X language comprehension = reading comprehension.

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

What to Teach to Support Decoding

Phoneme 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 particularly evident at the phoneme level and identified phonemic awareness skills as a reliable predictor of future literacy learning.Young students partaking in multi-sensory instruction In preschool, teachers should expose students to oral exercises or listening activities, that will enhance 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 an ability to manipulate sounds and syllables accurately and automatically.

Phonics

Students should receive explicit instruction in recognizing the sound-symbol correspondence. As students are taught that graphemes (letters) and letter combinations represent phonemes (sounds), they can progress to blending these sounds to sequentially move from the sound to syllable to multi-syllabic word level in decoding.

Orthography

The English language is made up of a complex structure of 26 letters that are represented by 44 sounds. Students benefit from cumulative instruction that focuses on building letter and word patterns into memory to enhance spelling knowledge. Structured Literacy teaches the student to identify syllable patterns and types to provide a strategy to break multi-syllabic words into syllable for easier decoding.

Morphology

Morphemes encompass the meaningful parts of words and are often recognized as prefixes, suffixes, roots, and combining forms. 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 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

Syntax

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

Semantics

Teachers must continue to advance their students’ vocabulary development with repeated exposure to Tier 2 words, and more sophisticated language used in teacher-read text. In addition, students will benefit from learning strategies to enhance word meaning including the use of context clues, application of synonyms, lessons in figurative language, and visualization.

Discourse

A student’s background knowledge can significantly impact his overall comprehension. Comprehension will profit when teachers model metacognition during reading. When modeled consistently, skills such as predicting, questioning, inferencing, clarifying, and summarizing will enhance student engagement with the text. Teachers should weave opportunities to focus on cause/effect, compare/contrast, and various text structures.

Who Should Teach Structured Literacy?

With the new changes in legislation, teachers across the country will want to be prepared to support Structured Literacy in their classrooms. To feel equipped to deliver this evidence-based approach, they will need a broad knowledge of the elements and principles that can be found in the Knowledge and Practice Standards (KPS) that have been developed by the International Dyslexia Association in an effort to unify and certify those who teach reading.

The International Dyslexia Association has provided a great service to teachers everywhere by adopting Structured Literacy as an application of the Science of Reading. Structured Literacy has been demonstrated as an effective reading framework to teach all learners and is necessary to help students with dyslexia to become successful and engaged learners.

Why Teach Structured Literacy?

Structured Literacy will end the debate regarding effective instruction. As more teachers become skilled in this application and more programs align under the same umbrella, we will see several important changes take place with far-reaching effects.

First, highly qualified teachers will be empowered to teach diagnostically, monitor student progress, and customize instruction to differentiate and individualize. They will serve as preventative agents in the early identification of dyslexia and other reading challenges.

The wide-spread adoption of Structured Literacy can ensure that students are equally exposed to important foundational literacy skills in a sequential, systematic, and cumulative way. This alleviates the need for students to succumb to the wide variations and potential deficits in reading approaches from year to year and program to program. Rather, a smooth transition to more advanced concepts can occur with each new year.

Finally, schools could engage a positive and collective impact on the number of students who can read at grade level or above in the future.

The Institute for Multisensory Education has been training teachers for over 25 years. If you are looking to enhance your professional knowledge and share the gift of Structured Literacy in your classroom, contact info@imse.com to learn more about opportunities for training and support.

About The Author

Dr. Kirstina Ordetx is a Level 4 Master Instructor with The Institute for Multi-Sensory Education (IMSE). She holds a doctorate in Counseling Psychology with a concentration in pediatric neurology.  Dr. Ordetx is an educational specialist with over 25 years of clinical experience, research, and consultation. She is a certified Structured Literacy Dyslexia Interventionist through the Center for Effective Reading Instruction, a Certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, Executive Functions Coach, and a registered Licensed Mental Health Intern. Dr. Ordetx has published two books that compile her research and practice in Theory of Mind.  She has served on accreditation committees for the Florida Council of Independent Schools, is a university adjunct professor in developmental and child psychology, and presents at various national and international conferences. Dr. Ordetx is head of school for a private academy in Lakewood Ranch, Florida specializing in the multi-sensory education of students who have language and learning-based differences. She is the Executive Director of the Pinnacle Pediatric Therapy Group, a multi-disciplinary, pediatric therapy clinic.