Structured literacy is getting a lot of well-deserved attention. Researchers in the areas of reading, psychology, speech and language pathology, neuroscience, and education all agree. Although there may be more than one way to TEACH reading, there is only one way that the human brain LEARNS to read. The majority of students learn to read better with a structured literacy approach and the principles of structured literacy are critical for students with dyslexia and other reading disabilities.
What is Structured Literacy?
Structured literacy explicitly teaches letter-sound correspondences and decoding strategies. The systematic approach starts with simple skills (phonemes for example) and moves through increasingly complex skills (syllables, morphology, semantics, and syntax). The cumulative approach builds upon previously taught skills. Teachers use diagnostic and informal assessments to ensure individualized instruction.
To learn more about structured literacy, check out these infographics from the International Dyslexia Association. You can also watch webinars made by the North Carolina branch of the International Dyslexia Association to learn more about the principles of structured literacy.
What Does Structured Literacy Instruction LOOK like?
Although some assume structured literacy is all about phonics, it actually explicitly teaches word reading/decoding AND language comprehension. It integrates the phonological parts of our language, reading, writing, comprehension, and oral language. It does not assume that children learn to read in the same way that they learn to speak. Structured literacy is engaging, direct, systematic…and did I say explicit?
Many reading difficulties start with deficits in the phonological arena of language. It is crucial, then, to build awareness of the individual speech sounds (phonemes) of spoken language. This starts with playing with language in preschool and kindergarten with phonological awareness activities like rhyming. Students learn to isolate and match parts of spoken words. When possible, practice these skills with your students before they encounter print.
A subset of phonological awareness is phonemic awareness. This is the awareness of the individual speech sounds in words. By late kindergarten/early first grade, students should be able to isolate individual speech sounds (for example, the /b/ sound in the spoken word bat.) Spelling and reading fluency require the reader to be able to map speech sounds to print. So fluent decoding and spelling depend on more advanced phonemic awareness skills. These phonemic awareness skills include segmenting the sounds in spoken words, blending the sounds, deleting a sound, or manipulating a sound. Until students are proficient/fluent readers, teachers should utilize explicit phonemic awareness instruction. For traditional readers, phonemic awareness instruction should be taught through second or third grade.
Phonics and Word Reading
The English language has an alphabetic code comprised of graphemes (letters) that represent phonemes (speech sounds). While some spellings and speech sounds can vary (the different pronunciations of /ou/ for example), educators should explicitly and systematically teach the sound-symbol relationships. This also includes morphology (breaking words into their smallest units of meaning with suffixes, roots, and prefixes), syllables, and “irregular” words. As teachers, we should teach these concepts in a simple to complex manner and one that follows a logical sequence.
Reading fluency is the ability to read words quickly and accurately in order to comprehend the text. Since fluent readers do not efficiently store words in their visual memory, we should not teach them to memorize words by how they look or by guessing at the first letter. We must teach them to decode each sound to solidify the letter-sound relationship. This is done best when a strong foundation of phonemic awareness skills and decoding strategies have already been taught.
A structured literacy approach uses many decodable texts that focus on one phonics skill at a time. Students need to practice their phonics skills in connected text. These books build upon one another so that the text used includes only skills that have been previously taught. Instead of relying on prolonged independent reading time, students should read aloud to a teacher when possible. This way the teacher can offer immediate decoding feedback and error correction. This will help the student attend to all the sounds and learn to not guess at words.
Vocabulary & Reading Comprehension
Reading and language comprehension (the ultimate goal of reading!) rely heavily on vocabulary. Vocabulary instruction includes teaching morphology, continuing read alouds with whole group conversation, content-specific vocabulary, and vocabulary acquisition through independent reading. If we teach phonics/decoding in a vacuum without attention to word meaning and overall comprehension, students will not comprehend text. So, play with words, discuss their multiple meanings, and teach vocabulary.
As literate students and adults, we engage in both reading (input) and writing (output) to communicate ideas. We need to teach the mechanics of writing to include punctuation, semantics, syntax, composition, and editing. While reading a variety of texts will reinforce students’ written expression skills, we still must directly teach these components.
All parts of structured literacy instruction work together to reinforce one another. We cannot rely solely on one piece without the others. This approach does not happen overnight; it requires direct instruction and review. With teacher-led instruction, the activities can be engaging, supportive, and individualized.