I keep hearing about the “reading wars” and structured vs. balanced literacy. What’s the difference between these two approaches?
The “reading wars” is a decades-old debate about how children best learn to read. In the 1980s and 1990s, some educators argued that phonics-based instruction, with its focus on the rules of decoding words, was the most effective.
Other educators said that phonics instruction bored students and didn’t build a love of reading. They believed in “whole language” — the idea that immersing kids in books helps them learn to read.
But the “whole language” approach had opponents too. Opponents said that learning to read doesn’t magically happen by putting a book in a child’s hands. In fact, research shows that reading is not an innate ability. We naturally learn to speak when we’re exposed to oral language as babies. But our brains aren’t wired in that same way to read. We must be taught how to read.
As the reading wars continued, a compromise emerged: “balanced literacy.” Balanced literacy uses a variety of teaching methods (such as read-alouds, independent reading and writing, and small group instruction) to address the five pillars of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
Finding that balance in busy classrooms is easier said than done. And some educators say they feel unprepared to teach all aspects of literacy, especially phonics. When phonics is taught, it’s not always in a direct way. In some cases, reading instruction includes “guessing” words based on pictures or other clues.
With renewed interest in the science behind how kids learn to read, some schools are using a more explicit way of teaching literacy skills. It’s an approach called structured literacy.
Structured literacy is:
Explicit, meaning that a teacher directly explains and models what’s being taught.
Systematic and sequential, meaning that skills are taught in a logical order — one skill building on the next.
Diagnostic, meaning it includes plenty of chances for student practice and teacher feedback.
One of the most notable approaches to using structured literacy is called Orton–Gillingham. Several reading programs use Orton–Gillingham strategies.
Why is there such a draw to structured literacy? It builds foundational skills in a way that helps all students. But it is especially beneficial for students with reading challenges like .
To learn more, watch a video of a reading intervention that uses structured literacy.
About the author
About the author
Kim Greene, MA is the editorial director at Understood. A former elementary teacher and a certified reading specialist, she has a passion for developing resources for educators.