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Understanding What Structured Literacy Is—And Isn’t

by Louise Spear-Swerling, Ph.D. on Dec 1, 2021

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  • Structured Literacy
Louise Spear-Swerling, Ph.D.

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I do a considerable amount of consulting work for various school districts in my state, mostly involving struggling readers in grades 1–10. Frequently, I hear from educators, parents, or advocates who are interested in Structured Literacy. Although I certainly welcome this interest, I am troubled by the fact that sometimes Structured Literacy is equated with a particular program or instructional method that is supposedly the “gold standard,” especially for dyslexia. According to this view, only the so-called “gold standard” is most effective for all students with dyslexia, and other instructional approaches are by definition inferior.

No single instructional program, method, or approach is ideal for all students with dyslexia, let alone for all struggling readers. There are, however, broader types of instruction that tend to be most effective for these students. The term Structured Literacy was introduced by the International Dyslexia Association® to describe these kinds of approaches.

Characteristics of Structured Literacy Approaches

Structured Literacy (SL) approaches share a focus on certain types of content, and they exemplify specific instructional features. The content of SL involves key components of language and literacy that research has shown to be central in reading development and reading problems. The key components include areas such as phonemic awareness, phonics, morphology, syntax, and semantics. Instructional features that are central to SL include (but are not limited to) explicit, systematic teaching; attention to prerequisite skills; prompt, targeted feedback; and purposeful selection of instructional examples, tasks, and texts.

Many instructional approaches for teaching reading do not involve Structured Literacy. Unfortunately, most children are initially taught to read with these non-SL practices, which include the use of predictable texts that encourage guessing at words based on pictures or sentence context, instead of careful attention to letter sequences in words; an emphasis on inducing important concepts and skills from exposure rather than an emphasis on explicit teaching; the use of activities involving word configuration cues (word shapes), which are useless in developing reading skill; and ignoring contextually appropriate errors such as a for the and mom for mother in children’s reading, which can provide a misleading picture of children’s performance on informal assessments.

Do some children learn to read well with non-SL approaches? Yes, of course. However, these approaches are a poor fit for many children, including struggling readers and those with an underlying vulnerability to reading difficulties.

Myths About Structured Literacy

As my introduction suggests, there are some common myths about Structured Literacy. These include the idea that SL involves only one “best” instructional program, that SL is only for students with dyslexia, and that SL is only about teaching foundational skills such as phonemic awareness and phonics. To the contrary, Structured Literacy is an umbrella term that encompasses multiple instructional programs and methods, all of which share the content and features described in the previous section. SL approaches can certainly benefit children with needs in the area of decoding, including those with dyslexia, but they can benefit other types of poor readers as well.

What’s New About Structured Literacy?

The value of explicit, systematic teaching for at-risk and struggling students has been recognized for many decades—since at least the late 1970s, when I was receiving my own preparation as a special educator and my professors assigned reading by authorities such as Siegfried Engelmann, Barbara Bateman, and Isabelle Liberman. Nevertheless, an enormous volume of research about reading difficulties has emerged since the 1970s. While this research has confirmed the value of explicit, systematic teaching approaches for at-risk and struggling readers, it has also added greatly to our understanding of reading development and reading problems.

For instance, more recent research over the past decade or two has shown that some reading problems emerge only in the later grades, after third grade. These later-emerging reading problems are often connected to comprehension-related weaknesses in areas such as vocabulary, syntax, background knowledge, and inferencing—weaknesses that tend to impact reading comprehension more significantly as students advance in school and the reading demands become more challenging. If properly implemented, the content and instructional features of SL approaches can benefit these kinds of students, as well as those whose problems center upon decoding.

Soon, I’ll be presenting a webinar about SL activities for teaching students with difficulties in various areas of reading, including phonemic awareness and basic phonics skills; decoding long words, beyond the one-syllable stage; text reading fluency; vocabulary; syntax; and comprehension. These activities can be helpful for a range of struggling readers, and for the elementary teachers, special educators, and reading specialists who teach them. Please register for Structured Literacy Interventions for the Elementary Grades.

I hope you will join me.

Louise Spear-Swerling, Ph.D., is professor emerita in the Department of Special Education at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, CT. She has prepared both general and special educators to teach reading using Structured Literacy approaches for many years. She is the author of The Power of RTI and Reading Profiles: A Blueprint for Solving Reading Problems, published by Brookes, and the editor of a forthcoming volume from Guilford Press, Structured Literacy Interventions: Teaching Students With Reading Difficulties, K–6. She also is a member of several journal editorial boards, including those for Annals of Dyslexia, Teaching Exceptional Children, and Reading Psychology. She consults often for school districts in Connecticut, mostly for cases involving students with severe or persistent literacy difficulties and ways to improve their achievement.

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