Literacy is a fundamental key to success in every academic subject and in many aspects of life. Teaching young people to read is one of the most meaningful, important jobs any educator can have. Find support for this monumental undertaking within the Science of Reading (SOR), a vast body of gold-standard scientific research, replicable studies, and validated evidence on reading acquisition. Accumulated evidence from SOR provides a wealth of educational insight, enabling teachers to improve reading instruction. According to SOR research, Structured Literacy helps all students learn to read and is vitally important for students in Grades K-2. The Structured Literacy approach empowers students by explicitly, systematically teaching them how to decode words and comprehend texts.

What is the Science of Reading?

SOR is body of scientific research on how we learn to read, which parts of the brain are involved in reading, how they work together, and the most effective instructional techniques for successful reading development. This complex set of studies in many fields ranging from linguistics to neuroscience addresses a vast array of questions, including the specific elements required for children to learn to read, and how educators can best help them become skilled readers.

What is Structured Literacy?

A term originally coined by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), Structured Literacy refers exclusively to evidence-based systematic instructional approaches aligned with the Science of Reading. Effective with students of all learning abilities, Structured Literacy comprises a scientific approach to literacy instruction, giving students the tools to become accurate, efficient decoders so they can identify words and comprehend text.

The approach is carefully attuned to the way children’s brains actually learn to read and process information. Much more than just phonics, Structured Literacy encompasses the fields of decoding and language comprehension. Because issues with either of these components can lead directly to reading failure, Structured Literacy instruction constantly interweaves both. Structured Literacy directly teaches skills in a logical order, building cumulatively on previously mastered skills. The scope and sequence of Structured Literacy instruction can vary according to the curriculum, but it always does so in an order, with concepts increasing in complexity or difficulty, leading students along the surest path to mastery. This approach requires educators to interact directly and consistently with students, utilizing multisensory techniques whenever possible.

Another key to Structured Literacy involves making no assumptions about what students know or can do. Key steps aren’t skipped, abilities are honed as students advance, and skills are continually assessed. Diagnostic instruction addresses problems in real time, helping students forge healthy neural pathways that support reading and language skills.

Why is decoding so important?

The end goal of reading is comprehension of the text being read, so decoding is important because it acts as the bridge between the visual symbols that represent a word and the word’s actual meaning in the reader’s brain. Effective decoding gives the brain exactly the information it needs, so it can quickly get to work deriving meaning from the text (like you just did with this sentence). The more effectively a reader’s brain can decode, the more cognitive resources are available to focus on comprehension rather than on the mechanics of decoding. As a translation of symbol into meaning, reading depends upon decoding. Decoding itself depends upon phonological awareness, morphology, and orthography.

What are some of the language-based elements of Structured Literacy?

  • Phonology refers to the sound structure of spoken language. Students can demonstrate phonological awareness through activities like clapping on syllables or rhyming. Phonemic awareness, a crucial aspect of phonological awareness, includes segmenting words into phonemes, the smallest components of recognizable sound in a language.
  • Morphology refers to words and meaningful word parts. While a phoneme is a language’s smallest unit of sound, a morpheme is its smallest unit of meaning. Structured Literacy instruction includes the study of prefixes, roots, suffixes, and other forms and aspects of morphology. Knowing about morphemes is essential to decoding, supports fluency, and helps develop vocabulary.
  • Sound-Symbol Association (often referred to as phonics) refers to mapping phonemes (sounds) to symbols (letters), occurring in two directions: auditory to visual (spelling) and visual to auditory (reading). Teachers use the alphabetic principle (letters representing sounds) to teach sound-symbol association as the foundation for building reading skills.
  • Syllables contain one vowel sound and (in English) occur in six types: closed, open, vowel pair, r-controlled, vowel-consonant-e, or consonant-le. Learning syllable division rules helps readers accurately decode and more easily understand longer words. As a major bonus, knowing how to segment syllables aids in spoken pronunciation, and helps students spell more accurately when they’re writing.
  • Syntax refers to the principles or rules dictating the way words function in a sentence to convey meaning. Syntax addresses grammar, sentence structure, order, relationships, and other language mechanics. Reading requires text comprehension, which is built on an understanding of syntax. An understanding of syntax has been shown to predict successful reading comprehension.
  • Semantics refers to word meanings and how words relate to one another in language. To comprehend what they read, students must understand meaning, which is the purview of semantics. Students who’ve learned to accurately decode words, phrases, sentences, and texts must then be able to derive meaning from them. The better they’re able to read and understand text automatically, the better their fluency as readers. An accurate, automatic, fluent reader is a confident, skilled, successful reader.

What’s the difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness?

  • Phonological awareness enables people to identify syllables, words, rhymes, and other word qualities.
  • Phonemic awareness enables people to identify the smallest speech sound units, called phonemes. Reading and writing depend on phonemic awareness.

Can Structured Literacy help anyone or is it just for helping students with learning disabilities?

While it can be especially useful for struggling readers or students with dyslexia or learning disabilities, Structured Literacy helps improve literacy skills in all students. Teachers directly explain concepts and teach skills systematically, assessing students regularly for comprehension, so it’s an approach that works for everyone. It’s not uncommon for reading proficiency scores to improve drastically after implementing this SOR-based instructional approach.

Because learning to read is such a complex neurological process, explicit phonics instruction is appropriate for all learners, but it’s essential for any student having difficulty with reading acquisition. Structured Literacy especially benefits students who learn differently or think differently, utilize interventions, need support with phonemic awareness, struggle with language skills or language comprehension, are English language learners, or have learning disabilities or dyslexia.

How do instructors teach Structured Literacy?

In a nutshell, Structured Literacy instruction is systematic, explicit, cumulative, and diagnostic.

  • Systematic: Instructional sequences begin with simple concepts and methodically progress to more challenging, complex, or sophisticated elements.
  • Explicit: Instruction is deliberate and clear, with continuous interaction.
  • Cumulative: Each instructional step builds upon previously learned concepts.
  • Diagnostic: Instruction is tailored to each student to meet their unique needs, based on ongoing formal and informal assessments.

What are some tips for effective Structured Literacy instruction?

Try some of these ideas for practicing Structured Literacy instruction:

  • Build skills in a targeted sequence moving from beginner to advanced, focusing on both phonological and phonemic awareness. Utilize a solid phonics curriculum, and follow a consistent scope and sequence across multiple grades.
  • Teach regular phonetic patterns, highlighting the differences in irregular words. Encourage students to analyze new words for regular grapheme-phoneme patterns, so they can easily identify irregularities.
  • Use morphology to expand vocabularies. When students know the meanings of root words, suffixes, and prefixes, they’re already on the way to understanding new words when they recognize those word parts.
  • Use orthography to help students learn the alphabetic principle. Talk about why words are spelled as they are. Students learn about phoneme-grapheme correspondence, patterns, position constraints, and other important concepts key to literacy.
  • Post and continually change word walls, so students have constant visual reminders of the words and parts of speech they’re learning. Multisensory tip: have students write down the new words and say them aloud in games or songs.
  • Find ways each day to focus on fluency and comprehension. For students struggling with fluency, work on decoding skills. Give students plenty of opportunities to read decodable texts.
  • Utilize the Orton-Gillingham approach: explicit, sequential, multisensory instruction.
  • Teach the parts of speech, sentence structure, subject-verb agreement, and verb tenses, appropriate to grade level.
  • Teach skills explicitly. Don’t assume students know things or will figure things out. Keep teaching intentional and objectives clear.
  • Engage students by taking any opportunity to show them how what they’re learning is relevant and useful to their lives and their futures.

Structured Literacy benefits all students and is essential for struggling readers. By implementing the principles of SOR with Structured Literacy, educators, administrators, and district leaders can be confident they’re giving students what they need to be successful readers.

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