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Structured literacy: What you need to know

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.

Today, we know a lot more than we did decades ago about how children learn to read. Thanks to research on the science of reading, we can use evidence-based literacy instruction for all students. The International Dyslexia Association uses the term structured literacy to describe this type of teaching.

What is structured literacy?

It’s important to know both what to teach (the content) and how to teach it (the delivery) with structured literacy.

What to teach

  • 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

How to teach

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.

With explicit instruction, 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 that 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.

Who does structured literacy help?

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

But this type of instruction is especially beneficial for some students, including:

  • Those who learn and think differently. Students with dyslexia benefit from interventions using explicit instruction in phonemic awareness . Likewise, students who struggle with language comprehension 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. Specifically, knowing the elements of English (like phonology and syntax) can help unlock the mystery of a new language.

How is structured literacy different from other approaches?

Structured literacy may sound similar to — or perhaps different from — other ways of teaching reading and writing. For that comparison, a mini history lesson can be helpful.

You may have heard of the “reading wars,” a decades-old debate about how children best learn to read. Back 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 argued 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. But 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.

With the right training, structured literacy can help you explicitly and systematically teach all areas of literacy in an engaging way.

How do I get started with structured literacy in my classroom?

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 and foremost, advocating for quality professional learning opportunities can help you and your colleagues feel you have the resources and support you need.

You can also try teaching strategies to augment your reading program or curriculum, one step at a time. For example, explore these strategies that include key elements of evidence-based literacy instruction:

How can families support this at home?

Families are important partners in your students’ literacy development. Share ideas with them about how they can practice the key elements of structured literacy at home, including phonological awareness (for grade schoolers and middle schoolers ), syllables , word meaning , and fluency .

Remember that some parents and caregivers may struggle with reading themselves. Offer ideas for how parents and caregivers who don’t like to read or who have trouble with it can still support literacy at home.

How do I 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.

You’ll begin to see how this way of teaching benefits all students, and especially those who struggle with reading and writing. Once you see those gains, you can share those success stories with your colleagues and advocate for changes to how literacy is taught in your district.


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Share Structured literacy: What you need to know

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Email
  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom