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 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”.

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.

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.

Be sure to check out the rest of our blog series on Structured Literacy vs. Balanced Literacy:

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.