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Structured Literacy-Why it Matters

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

Over the last twenty-five years that I have been an educator, there has been a flurry of studies and reports that clearly show that we are not doing a good job of teaching children how to read. On the heels of each of those reports has come just as many initiatives to “fix” the problem. However, here we are in 2020 and the number of children who don’t read on-time or at a proficient level continues to grow.

The arguments as to why this continues to occur are diverse; some of them are steeped in science and some of them are not. Equally as frustrating, no one seems to be able to agree about what to do about it. One promising and research-based approach is structured literacy.

Structured literacy is an approach to teaching reading that is diagnostic, prescriptive, explicit and systematic. Each of these four elements is equally important in helping struggling readers finally “break the code” and become proficient. The most famous methodology based on this approach is the Orton-Gillingham method and the programs that were built on it which include Slingerland, Wilson, Barton, and Language!.

This approach explicitly teaches phonemic awareness (sounds only), phonetic relationships (sound-symbol correspondence), syllabication (how we divide words into syllables), morphology (roots, base words, prefixes, and affixes), syntax (word order), semantics (word meaning) and sight word spelling (words that have irregular spelling). Students are not expected to be exposed to something and then magically absorb it; each skill is discretely taught in isolation and practiced until mastered.

In a structured literacy approach, students are assessed to determine exactly what they can and can’t do, to what extent, how accurately, and how automatically. For example, if I ask a student to tell me the sounds in “bat” and they say, “hmmmmm. Is it /b/?” with a long pause before the /a/, then that is not automatic and the child needs more practice. Once the assessor knows what a child needs, then instruction begins with explicit instruction, one skill at a time in isolation with mounds of practice until the skill is mastered. Each skill is taught in a logical order and previous skills are maintained in the new instruction.

Why does structured literacy matter? The International Dyslexia Association currently reports that 1 in 6 children have some form of dyslexia. That is 15% of our school population. This doesn’t include students who struggle with reading for other reasons like visual or auditory processing deficits, autism, attention difficulties, poor instruction, etc. It matters because we are failing our children on a massive scale. Using a “whole language” approach which has now been reskinned as “balanced literacy” does not work for a very large number of our students. Children with language-based learning differences do not acquire written language easily. It must be explicitly taught.

I’ve heard many arguments about it being unrealistic to expect whole classrooms to operate this way. However, it can be done. I’ve done it with 35 high school students simultaneously, one-on-one with young children and in small groups with middle-schoolers. It is absolutely doable. The real issue is being intentional in your lesson planning and groupings. If the original instruction is explicit and systematic, there will be less need for intervention. If the intervention groups are based on solid assessment and interpretation of those assessments, children will respond more quickly. Teachers and parents have to approach reading as diagnosticians on a fact-finding mission.

There is much more to be said on this topic but the core issue is that by and large, our educational system is failing our children because we refuse to use and apply decades of research in education and neuroscience about how children learn to read. Structured literacy matters because our children matter.

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