For many years, a debate has persisted around whole-language instruction and phonics instruction. And somewhere in the distance, reserved for students who had been identified with a reading disability, there was the Orton-Gillingham approach.


So, What Is Structured Literacy? 


In the 1920s, Dr. Samuel T. Orton and Anna Gillingham created a method that was phonics-based, systematic, explicit, highly structured, and multi-sensory to help students with dyslexia — known as the Orton-Gillingham method. Over time, educators and academic researchers built upon this method to develop what we know today as Structured Literacy.

Structured Literacy supports explicit, sequential, systematic, prescriptive, diagnostic, and cumulative instruction to benefit all learners, both general education and remedial. The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) states that the three essential components of Structured Literacy are systematicity, explicitness, and multisensorality. 

  1. Systematicity

Structured Literacy instruction is organized, sequential, and cumulative. It follows a logical order in teaching the foundational skills of reading and spelling, such as phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, and comprehension. Each skill taught serves as a foundation for the next skill, building upon what the learner has already mastered. This systematic approach ensures that learners, including students with dyslexia, progress steadily from basic to more complex skills.

  1. Explicitness 

Structured Literacy instruction explicitly teaches the relationships between sounds and letters, as well as the patterns and rules governing the English language. Teachers clearly explain concepts and skills, providing direct instruction and modeling of strategies. Explicit instruction helps learners develop a deep understanding of language structure and how it relates to reading and spelling.

  1. Multisensorality 

Structured Literacy instruction engages multiple senses — such as sight, hearing, and touch — to enhance learning and memory. Learners are encouraged to see, hear, and feel the components of language through activities that involve writing, reading, listening, speaking, and manipulating letters and sounds. By appealing to different senses, multisensory instruction accommodates diverse learning styles and reinforces learning for all students, including those with dyslexia or other language-based learning differences.

The science of reading — a multidisciplinary body of research conducted over decades to explain how people best learn to read — has proven that a Structured Literacy approach is a necessary foundation for reading success.


The Six Elements of Structured Literacy


Every approach to Structured Literacy incorporates six key elements: 

  1. Phonology: Phonology is a branch of linguistics that studies the sound patterns of language, focusing on the organization and systematic nature of sounds within a particular language or languages. It examines how sounds function and interact with each other to convey meaning in speech. 
  2. Sound-Symbol Association: Sound-symbol association refers to the alphabetic principle, or the relationship between the sounds of language (phonemes) and the corresponding written symbols (graphemes). It is the understanding of how spoken sounds are represented by letters or combinations of letters in written language. 
  3. Syllables: A syllable is a unit of spoken language consisting of one or more sounds, typically formed around a vowel sound, and often with surrounding consonants. Syllables are the basic building blocks of spoken words. In written language, as few as one letter may represent a syllable.
  4. Morphology: Morphology is a branch of linguistics that studies the structure and formation of words in a language. It deals with the internal structure of words and how they are formed from smaller meaningful units called morphemes.
  5. Syntax: Syntax is the branch of linguistics that studies the rules governing the structure of sentences in a language, including word order, sentence structure, and the relationships between words and phrases. It explores how words are combined to form phrases, clauses, and sentences, and how these elements are organized to convey meaning.
  6. Semantics: Semantics is the branch of linguistics concerned with the study of meaning in language. It explores how words, phrases, sentences, and larger linguistic units convey meaning, as well as how meaning is interpreted and understood by speakers and listeners.


How Is Structured Literacy Taught?


While individual approaches may vary, all forms of Structured Literacy are:


The Ladder of Reading


Students naturally fall into groups with different levels of reading ability. Students who are located in a less advanced level while receiving broad instruction may move into the level above when explicit, structured instruction intensive enough to meet their needs is implemented. This upward shift can be visualized as a ladder — one the education expert and literacy advocate Dr. Nancy Young dubbed the Ladder of Reading. This concept illustrates how, while all students benefit from Structured Literacy, for some, such as students with dyslexia, it may be essential for success. 



Approximately 40% of children learn to read relatively easily with broad, or implicit, instruction. These students can recognize patterns and words as a whole, but they can still benefit from explicit instruction to reach their maximum reading potential. However, up to 50% of children require direct or explicit instruction to learn to read proficiently, while up to 15% of children need explicit, intensive instruction with many repetitions. 

The Ladder of Reading shows how Structured Literacy can ensure that different student groups are equally exposed to important foundational literacy skills in a sequential, systematic, and cumulative way.


Understanding the Relationship Between Orton‑Gillingham and Structured Literacy 


Orton-Gillingham is one approach within the category of explicit instruction methodologies known together as Structured Literacy. Orton-Gillingham and the other Structured Literacy approaches are closely related ways to teach reading, writing, and spelling, especially for students with dyslexia or other language-based learning differences. Orton-Gillingham is considered one of the foundational methodologies that contributed to the development of Structured Literacy.


Learn How Orton-Gillingham and Structured Literacy Empowers Educators


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


Like what you read?