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What is structured literacy?

By Kim Greene, MA

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

At a Glance

  • Structured literacy is based on the science of how kids learn to read.

  • Skills are taught in a direct way and a logical order.

  • It’s especially helpful for kids with reading challenges like dyslexia.

Structured literacy is an approach to teaching oral and written language. It’s based on the science of how kids learn to read. The International Dyslexia Association coined the term.

Structured literacy is especially helpful for kids who struggle with reading. But research shows that it can help all students improve their reading skills.

With structured literacy, teachers introduce new concepts and skills in a logical order. They teach in an explicit way that fully explains concepts and skills. Teachers also continually check in on students’ understanding.

Structured literacy covers the following concepts:

  • Phonology: the study of sounds in spoken words

  • Sound-symbol (orthography): how to map sounds (phonemes) to letters (graphemes)

  • Syllables: knowing the types of syllables and how to divide words into syllables

  • Morphology: the study of base words and affixes (prefixes and suffixes)

  • Syntax: understanding the grammatical order of words (like sentence structure)

  • Semantics: understanding the meaning of words and sentences

Who does structured literacy help?

Structured literacy instruction helps all students. When general educators use explicit instruction in phonics, kids’ reading skills can improve drastically. In one district, student reading proficiency increased from 47 percent to 84 percent after teachers learned about the science of reading and used explicit and systematic phonics instruction.

Structured literacy is especially helpful for some students, including:

  • Those who learn and think differently. Students with benefit from interventions using explicit instruction in phonemic awareness. Students who struggle with language comprehension also benefit from explicit instruction on semantics (meaning) and syntax (the grammatical order of words).

  • English language learners. Evidence-based literacy instruction can help these students develop reading and writing skills. Knowing the elements of English (like phonology and syntax) can help unlock the mystery of a new language.

Learn more about how structured literacy is used to teach kids with dyslexia .

For educators: How to teach structured literacy

Structured literacy requires explicit, systematic, and sequential instruction.

Explicit instruction: With explicit instruction, you make learning clear and straightforward for students. There’s no guesswork. You directly model a skill using multiple examples, and you verbalize your thought process at the same time. For example, you could use explicit instruction to show students how to segment a one-syllable word into individual sounds.

You also provide plenty of guided practice (working with students) and independent practice (having them work on their own). There’s a lot of teacher-student interaction with in-the-moment feedback.

Systematic and sequential instruction: With systematic and sequential instruction, you teach skills in a logical order. Students learn and master easier skills before moving on to more complex skills. For instance, you would teach students how to blend two letters before asking them to find the blends in words.

The goal of systematic and sequential instruction is to make sure students have the knowledge they need to learn a new skill. Teachers who use this type of teaching also continue to practice and review previously learned skills.

Read more about explicit instruction and how structured literacy is different from other approaches.

For educators: How to use structured literacy during distance learning

  • Prioritize the most essential components of the curriculum. 

  • Talk with your students’ families to find out what resources they have available and what they might need to support learning at home.

  • Use synchronous lessons to hold discussions, check for understanding, give targeted instruction, and build relationships.

  • Provide asynchronous options, like recorded lessons, so students can preview and review the content on their own time.

  • Give students learning activities, like guided notes, to help them focus and retain information during all asynchronous learning.

  • Use small flexible groups to give more targeted instruction and opportunities for peer interaction. Prompt students to share their thinking with you and with each other.

  • Learn additional strategies for using technology to teach reading online.

For educators: How to get started

You may be thinking that your school’s literacy curriculum doesn’t include these components, or that your teacher preparation program didn’t cover literacy instruction in great depth. Don’t worry — there are several things you can do.

First, advocating for quality professional learning opportunities can help you and your colleagues get the resources and support you need. You can also try teaching strategies to augment your reading program or curriculum, one step at a time. 

Explore these strategies that include key elements of evidence-based literacy instruction:

For families: How to help at home

Talk with your child’s teacher about how you can practice the key elements of structured literacy at home. 

In the meantime, here are some ways to practice:

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom