Learning to read is an essential step in a child’s educational journey. But for many students, reading is a challenge. We recognize that no job is more difficult, or more rewarding, than teaching a child to read. Teachers, educational leaders, and parents deserve a big thank you for their tireless efforts. As a community, we can support these efforts, and create learning environments that support all students.
To achieve this goal, it helps to have an understanding of what works, and why. This article provides an overview of the research on structured literacy for teachers and leaders who would like to better understand the theory behind what they teach.
The Need for Evidence-Based Reading Instruction
Since its inception, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has continued to document low levels of reading proficiency among students in the U.S. In the 2019 administration of NAEP, only 35% of Grade 4 students scored proficient or higher. Even more concerning is the immense variation in the opportunity gap by student group, which ranged from 18% to 57% by race and ethnicity in 2019.
Evidence-based reading instruction, such as structured literacy, can make all the difference. A structured literacy approach is beneficial for all students and critical for those experiencing reading difficulties, such as dyslexia, which by some estimates includes 15%–20% of students. (Find out how to screen for dyslexia and support students with learning differences.)
Structured Literacy Definition
First coined by the International Dyslexia Association, structured literacy is characterized by the provision of systematic, explicit instruction that integrates listening, speaking, reading, and writing and emphasizes the structure of language across the speech sound system (phonology), the writing system (orthography), the structure of sentences (syntax), the meaningful parts of words (morphology), the relationships among words (semantics), and the organization of spoken and written discourse.”
What Are the Components of Structured Literacy?
There are six evidence-based components of structured literacy:
Phonology is the study of the spoken word’s sound structure. Phonemic awareness, central to phonology, refers to the fact that every spoken word is a sequence of phonemes, which are the smallest units of sound. Phonemes are represented by graphemes, the letters of the alphabet, and the awareness of phonemes is crucial to understanding the alphabetic principle and thus to the learning of phonics and spelling.
Sound-symbol association is also known as the alphabetic principle or the correspondence between letters and speech sounds, that is how to map phonemes (sounds) to graphemes (letters).
Syllables are larger units of spoken language than phonemes and are thus easier for beginners to hear and manipulate. Syllabication, the ability to identify and divide syllables in written words equips students with strategies for identifying unfamiliar multisyllabic words.
Morphology refers to the underlying meaning structure of words. In the context of foundational literacy instruction, morphological awareness refers to the ability to understand the function and meaning of word bases and affixes (e.g., inflectional endings, prefixes, suffixes), and how they can be combined to form words.
Syntax refers to how words are usually ordered in sentences or clauses to communicate meaning (e.g., nouns or pronouns followed by verbs, with modifiers as needed). Parts of speech, the usual conventions of language, and the structures of different sentence types are included in the study of syntax.
Semantics refers to the meanings of single words, phrases, and sentences. Semantics relates to vocabulary instruction but extends to the directly stated or implied meaning of phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. The term also refers to the understanding of text organization (e.g., a poem vs. a story vs. an informational piece on the same topic).
The Structured Literacy Approach
Three teaching principles guide how structured literacy instruction can be implemented within the classroom:
- Systematic and cumulative instruction
- Explicit instruction
- Diagnostic instruction
Systematic means that the organization of the materials begins with the easiest and most basic concepts and elements and progresses methodically to more difficult concepts and elements through a logical scope and sequence. Cumulative refers to instruction where each new step is based on concepts previously learned. In other words, lower-level skills must be mastered prior to acquiring higher-level skills.
Explicit instruction intentionally covers all concepts and its rules with continuous student-teacher interaction. It is not assumed that students will naturally deduce these concepts on their own or simply learn through implicit learning or exposure to materials. Research shows that explicit literacy instruction coupled with appropriate practice has significant, positive effects for beginning readers and writers, even those considered at risk for later struggles.
Diagnostic teaching entails assessing students’ learning strengths and gaps to personalize instruction and continuously measuring students’ progress to adjust instruction to meet their needs. These assessments can be administered informally through observations of students working or through conferencing and formally using valid and reliable standardized measures. (Check out HMH Growth Measure, the adaptive benchmark assessment that delivers reliable data to drive instructional next steps.)
When educators use systematic, cumulative, explicit, and diagnostic instruction, students receive instruction that is appropriate to their development, are provided the time required to master skills, and make substantial growth in their literacy skills.
Structured Literacy in Action
To yield the most effective reading instruction, try these recommended teaching strategies based on each structured literacy component.
- First, show students that sentences can be broken into individual words.
- Demonstrate that words can be broken down into smaller words or syllables.
- Move from initial, final, and medial sounds to letter-sound blends, segments, and rhyming words.
- Count syllables and identify the vowel sound in each syllable.
- Manipulate sounds in words and segment onsets from rimes.
- Connect sounds and symbols auditorily by seeing the symbols that make the sounds and by reading each sound aloud.
- Write the symbols while hearing the sounds as writing helps support students’ reading.
- Word building: Provide students with a set of letter tiles or magnetic letters and have them add or remove letters to create new words.
- Word sorts: Give students word cards to sort into word families.
- Decodable readers: Have students read controlled texts that contain words with the letter(s) clusters and sounds that have been taught.
- Explicitly teach the six different syllable types.
- Cover the various vowel patterns so students understand the syllable division rules.
- Have students break down words into their suffixes, prefixes, and roots and provide the meanings.
- Combine word parts to create words or manipulate the word parts to create new words with different meanings.
- Word analysis strategy: Teach students how to decode complex words through a word-analysis strategy where students identify the word parts and vowels, say the different parts of the word, and say them again fast to make it a real word.
- Read aloud a sentence to see if the sentence is grammatically correct.
- Combine two short sentences to form a longer sentence.
- Use sentence trees to break down and identify the components of a sentence.
- Expand students’ background knowledge.
- Define academic vocabulary words and use them in sample sentences.
- Relate words or concepts to students’ own experiences.
- Generate and answer questions based on the text.
Structured Literacy Dos and Don'ts
Have students sound out unfamiliar words letter by letter, syllable by syllable
Have students guess unfamiliar words using pictures or context
Provide early readers with decodable texts that control for phonics patterns that are systematically introduced
Rely solely on leveled texts that do not control for phonics patterns
Correct students when they misread words; even one letter (e.g., major and mayor) can change the meaning
Ignore misread words, even if the word fits the context (i.e., a student misreads mother as mom)
Utilize small groups and personalized instruction for targeted teaching as needed
Focus on extensive independent activities during class, particularly for early readers or those needing additional support
Decades of research show the effectiveness of the structured literacy approach. That’s why it’s critical for district leaders and educators to review programs to ensure they are aligned with the best practices supported by that research. With structured literacy in place, students will not only gain the skills they need to be good readers but be equipped for future success.
All graphics are based on Cowan’s (2016) International Dyslexia Association infographic “What Is Structured Literacy?”
From core curriculum, to intervention, to enrichment, HMH has the reading programs to help you reach all learners. See how our research-backed programs align with structured literacy and learn more about how HMH can support a dyslexia curriculum.
Dr. Sue Chapman
Professional Learning Consultant, Heinemann