Tuesday, April 9, 2019

“Learning to read is the process of acquiring the several types of statistical knowledge that support rapid and efficient comprehension starting with phonological structure, orthographic structure, the mapping between orthography and phonology, vocabulary, and grammar” (Seidenberg, 2017).

All teachers want their students to master the skills that will allow them to enjoy reading books and writing their own texts. There is little disagreement on the goal, but teachers can have very different beliefs about the best ways to help their students accomplish that goal. This post explains the two most common approaches to literacy instruction, how they differ, and why one approach currently is the more promising means of preventing reading difficulties.

Diversity of Two Approaches

Structured Literacy instruction is the umbrella term used by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) to unify and encompass evidence-based programs and approaches that are aligned to the Knowledge and Practice Standards (KPS; Cowen, 2016). IDA defines KPS as “the knowledge and skills that all teachers of reading should possess to teach all students to read proficiently.” Structured Literacy approaches are effective at helping students with learning disabilities in the area of reading, such as dyslexia, learn to read and write (Spear-Swerling, 2019). Put simply, Structured Literacy is explicit, systematic teaching that focuses on phonological awareness, word recognition, phonics and decoding, spelling, and syntax at the sentence and paragraph levels.

Balanced Literacy is a “philosophical orientation that assumes that reading and writing achievement are developed through instruction and support in multiple environments using various approaches that differ by level of teacher support and child control” (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996). Although phonics, decoding, and spelling may be taught in word study lessons, the skills typically are not emphasized and rarely taught systematically (Spear-Swearling, 2019). Rather, students are encouraged to use word analogies and pictures or context to identify words. Balanced Literacy instruction is focused on shared reading (e.g., the teacher reads aloud to students and asks questions about the text), guided reading (e.g., students read texts at their current ability level and discuss them with the teacher in homogeneous groups), and independent reading (e.g., students self-select books to read on their own).

Often at the heart of an argument about learning to read is the question, “Which comes first: sounds (phonemes) or letters (graphemes)?” Balanced Literacy focuses students on grapheme representations combined with context or imagery to teach beginning literacy skills. As part of Balanced Literacy instruction, exposing early learners to high-quality children’s literature is intended to expand their understanding of text and comprehension of concepts (Hoffman et al., 2000). The repeated, varied, and expanded exposure to children’s literature, in turn, is meant to increase prosody (the ease and expressiveness of reading) and fluency. Conversely, Structured Literacy is deeply rooted in the sounds from which our spoken language is composed (phonemes) and systematically introduces the letters or letter combinations (graphemes) that correspond with each phoneme.

Critics of Structured Literacy believe that limiting students to phonemes initially and then to decodable texts stifles the development of fluency and prosody. Whereas, critics of Balanced Literacy believe that if children cannot encode and decode naturally, then exposure to unfamiliar text will only lead to practicing compensatory strategies, such as relying on picture cues, while valuable instructional time passes by. A weak foundation of decoding strategies compromises reading comprehension (Gough & Tunmer, 1986).

So which instructional approach is best? Although many young learners would master expressive and receptive language skills from repeated exposure alone as suggested by Balanced Literacy, there is a population of students for whom this is not sufficient (McCardle, Scarborough, & Catts, 2001). Therefore, utilizing a Structured Literacy approach is best because it avoids making potentially erroneous assumptions about what students are naturally capable of implicitly learning. By explicitly teaching all concepts, students who readily internalize the patterns of language will learn quickly and easily, and those who otherwise may struggle will get the instruction they need for success. Moreover, these students are more likely to be identified if specific weaknesses arise in their foundational language skills.

Recently, a school district in the Pacific Northwest conducted a 3-year study comparing the implementation of a program built on Balanced Literacy principles with a program built on Structured Literacy principles (Robinson, Lambert, Towner, & Caros, 2016). The students receiving Structured Literacy instruction outperformed their peers. Investigations of Structured Literacy go back decades and offer evidence that class-wide implementation of the approach can produce results comparable to costly one-on-one interventions for all students, including those with reading disabilities (Center & Freeman, 1996). The sections that follow describe the kinds of lessons that would be taught in classes implementing the preferred approach of Structured Literacy and how those lessons would be organized.

Structured Literacy in Application

English is complex and, at times, seemingly illogical. Consider the following sentence: When the bough breaks the baby will fall, though, when he falls we hope he doesn’t fall through the floor onto the rough ground and develop a cough. There are five different pronunciations of the grapheme “ough” in this one sentence. Knowing which to use requires an awareness of the different sounds that can be represented by this grapheme, an understanding of the context in the sentence, and knowledge of the “ough” word meanings. Because it follows a systematic sequence or progression from easier to more difficult skills, Structured Literacy will first ensure mastery of the phonemes /ŏ/ and /ŭ/ followed by /ew/ and /ow/, before students are taught alternate grapheme combinations such as “ough.” 

There are similar challenges to understanding how to encode sounds when writing the sentence: He wished for a very special fishing vacation. Here, the phoneme /sh/ is represented with the graphemes “sh,” “ti,” and “ci.”  The speller must know particular morphological structures (e.g., the “–tion” suffix indicating a word is a noun) and spelling patterns (e.g., when the letters “ci” can represent /sh/) to produce the correct form of each word. One may not naturally deduce that this sentence should not be written as: He purchased a very speshal fishing vacashun. Structured Literacy approaches this problem by first ensuring that learners have completely mastered the relationships and applications of /sh/ (the phoneme) with “sh” (the grapheme). Only after a student has proven complete mastery of this basic application will alternate spellings of the grapheme be introduced.

Beyond grapheme-phoneme correspondences, Structured Literacy also explicitly teaches syllable structures. Again, without knowledge of syllable structures and the pronunciations of different spelling options, there would be no means to decipher this sentence: The members of the Agape Church stood with mouths agape and entranced as the crowd shoved through the entrance of the sanctuary. Mastery of syllabication teaches flexibility in pronunciation as well as reasonable approaches to spelling that can complement students’ understanding of morphemes (i.e., prefixes, roots, and suffixes). This skill allows the reader to discern dual meanings and pronunciations of the words “agape” vs. “Agape” and “entrance” vs. “entranced.”

Start at the Very Beginning

Structured Literacy instruction is built around a scope and sequence. This may vary somewhat among curricula, but the scope and sequence always dictate the order in which educational concepts and content are taught. Adhering to the instructional sequence encourages skill mastery, minimizes confusion and incorrect attempts, and gradually builds the complexity of students’ knowledge and skills. Sequences typically are designed to give students the easiest path to mastery, while simultaneously giving them access to as many words as possible to begin building fluency and prosody. Some Structured Literacy programs begin with sounds only, opting not to confuse the issue of phoneme manipulation with the presence of letters. Once phonemic awareness and proficiency are in place (ideally midway through kindergarten), graphemes are introduced systematically. This typically begins with short vowels, or vowel-consonant (VC) structures, giving students immediate access to a wide array of words they will see in their environment as well as in books.

A VC structured syllable is more commonly referred to as a “closed” syllable, and is considered one of the six syllable types. The term “closed” refers to the fact that the syllable contains a vowel followed, or “closed in,” by a consonant. This structure dictates that the vowel is presenting with its traditional “short” sound. For example, if we look at the word hat, there is one vowel (“a”) and that vowel is followed by a consonant (“t”), creating a closed syllable. Understanding the closed syllable structure allows instant recognition of the sound the vowel will make in this word. Because we hear the short vowel sound followed by a consonant sound, we can then read and spell the word correctly. If we can spell the word hat correctly, then we also should be able to spell and read an unlimited number of VC structured words. Soon thereafter, students will be prepared to read longer unfamiliar words like hobgoblinbombasticAtlantic, and pandemic. These words are simply closed syllable structures assembled to make larger words. Mastery of each of the six syllable types in turn similarly builds students’ strategic approach to word identification and confidence in reading and writing successively more complex vocabulary.

Finally, high fidelity Structured Literacy can be diagnostic and explicit in nature. Because no assumptions are made about what students can do, no lessons are skipped or considered unimportant. Language learning is cumulative, so glossing over or skipping keystone lessons eventually could erode students’ abilities as they move into more advanced texts. Explicitly teaching content empowers an educator to teach diagnostically as error patterns become obvious and can be addressed in real time. This both minimizes incorrect practices and assists in forging vital neural pathways that are essential for reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

No single approach to teaching reading is “right” or “wrong.” Certainly, immersing students in rich literature is beneficial to fostering a habit of reading and exposing students to a variety of vocabulary, ideas, and uses of language. However, the strongest evidence currently available suggests that Structured Literacy prevents students from struggling unnecessarily when they are trying to develop a reading and writing habit and appreciate all that books have to offer them.


Center, Y., & Freeman, L. (1996, July). The use of a Structured Literacy program to facilitate the inclusion of marginal and special education students into regular classes. Paper presented at the 10th Annual World Congress of the International Association for the Scientific Study of Intellectual Disabilities, Helsinki, Finland. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED405673.pdf

Cowen, C. D. (2016). What is structured literacy? Baltimore, MD: International Dyslexia Association. Retrieved from https://dyslexiaida.org/what-is-structured-literacy/

Fountas, I. C. & Pinnell, G. S. (1996). Guided reading: Good first teaching for all children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education7, 6-10. doi:10.1177/074193258600700104

Hoffman, J. V., Baumann, J. F., Afflerbach, P., Duffy-Hester, A. M., McCarthey, S. J. & Ro, J. M. (2000). Balancing principles for teaching elementary reading. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

McCardle, P., Scarborough, H. S. & Catts, H. W. (2001). Predicting, explaining, and preventing children’s reading difficulties. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice16, 230–239. doi:10.1111/0938- 8982.00023.

Robinson, L., Lambert, M. C., Towner, J., & Caros, J. (2016). A comparison of Direct Instruction and Balanced Literacy: An evaluative comparison for a Pacific Northwest rural school district. Reading Improvement53(4), 147–164.

Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many cant, and what can be done about it. New York: Basic Books.

Spear-Swerling, L. (2019). Structured literacy and typical literacy practices: Understanding differences to create instructional opportunities. Teaching Exceptional Children51, 201–211. doi:10.1177/0040059917750160