Structured Literacy

Structured Literacy is an instructional approach to teaching students to read that encompasses all of the elements of language and has key principals that guide how it is taught. The International Dyslexia Association came up with this "umbrella term" to unify popular methods, such as Orton Gillingham, Expicit Phonics, and Multisensory Structured Language. I have been studying Structured Literacy, applying it to my reading instruction, and reflecting on its effectiveness for a couple years now. I wanted to form my own opinion based on experience before writing this post. I have to say, I am a believer! (Scroll down to learn more about dyslexia.)

What to Teach

These are the key components of Structured Literacy. Each is equally important to building a strong foundation for our students. These elements work together and even overlap in some ways. I admit, I'm still learning myself! I have loved phonics instruction for a while now and started doing more syllable instruction a few years ago. Both yield great results.  Now I am really digging deeper with morphology, syntax, and semantics! Morphology has been big missing puzzle piece for me. More about each later!

How to Teach the Elements of Structured Literacy:

No one can become an expert over night. That is have learned from experience. There is still so much to learn and I have been so impatient- I want to know it all! ;) BUT if you want to do something now, looking at how you are teaching reading skills should come first. These guiding principals have helped me so much. This was my step one. I became very reflective about how I was teaching my students. I now have a clear sequence. I always review concepts before introducing new ones. I teach each new concept in a direct way and then allow for plenty of opportunities for my students to practice in a guided setting. I make it multi-sensory.  Like with anything in teaching, ongoing assessment is key.  

Why Structured Literacy
For our dyslexic readers, Guided Reading and Balanced Literacy are not enough. Structured literacy explicitly and systematically teaches decoding strategies that are necessary for our dyslexic readers. BUT, it doesn't just benefit them! It benefits all students. Although I am a huge fan of Guided Reading and Balanced literacy, I have come to learn it doesn't focus enough on word analysis and decoding strategies for our struggling readers. Since 1 in 5 of our students has dyslexia, it is important that we adjust our teaching to meet the needs of our students. 1 in 5 is a lot! 

This infographic below is super eye-opening! It was created by Nancy Young, who is a member of the International Dyslexia Association.  I can literally picture every class of first graders that I've had and this fits pretty well. We have those few who seem to just teach themselves to read, right? Then you have those kids who seem to pick up easily and advance without a lot of extra effort. Then there are those kids that are always at benchmark, but do have to put in a lot of work. And finally, the 10-15% who struggle and who have us scratching our heads as to why. These are the kids that get stuck at level one of the lower guided reading levels and they can't seem to move on. That's because they need more systematic, explicit instruction with decoding. 

You can read more about this infographic HERE.

More about Each Element of Structured Literacy: 

I also include fluency in this because fluency begins with automaticity at the word level. As students progress, fluency becomes rate, accuracy, and prosody (phrasing and intonation). Teaching, modeling, and practicing fluency is incredibly important. I also think fluency ties in with syntax because understanding syntax helps our readers with accurate phrasing and visa versa. So, just because fluency is not one of the official elements, doesn't mean it's ignored. It is an essential part of reading.  

Click here to read more about how to teach phonics.
 Click here to read more about fluency with phonics.

Click HERE to read a blog post about Open and Closed Syllables. 
(More posts on the other syllable types coming soon!)

I hope to do a full post on Morphology soon!

(I have a few ideas for this post, but I need to do more research and practice before I do a full post.) 

One thing I do now for my early readers is a Sentence Scramble and Sentence Building. This is syntax at the most basic level but it's a start, right?

I love both of those comics because they illustrate how context and background knowledge affects our understanding of words and concepts.

Here is my understanding of what semantics entails:

I have so far to go with my vocabulary instruction. I know this is an area that I do not do enough! 

At a super basic level, an activity like this focuses on phonics, syntax, and semantics. Students are decoding the words, looking for meaningful phrases that go together, and seeing basic syntax. 

I found this in my studies and thought it was super interesting. I ordered the book so I'll hopefully have a better understanding soon! Notice how the symbol cannot directly go to the referent. We must have conceptual understanding first (for a cat, that might be fury, pet, mammal, tail, cuddly, whiskers).

There are so many people out there who have more expertise in this area than I do. If you're interested, look up Semantic Maps and you'll find some great info. There are some great resources on TPT as well. My friend Miss Decarbo has excellent vocabulary resources for our young readers. 

What about Balanced Literacy?
Personally, I feel like there is room for both. First off, I would never ever get rid of read aloud. That is beneficial and enjoyable for everyone and that is where you can teach and model some major comprehension skills. Secondly, I cannot imagine getting rid of shared reading and interactive writing! These two things are SO beneficial for students. However, these types of instruction can become more random and implicit, therefore are not enough for our dyslexic readers. That doesn't mean I would ever give up on them! I think they are still important and our dyslexic readers can and do benefit from it as long as they get enough from the components of structured literacy. I also love guided reading. However, our dyslexic readers need to a more systematic approach with skills taught sequentially, cumulatively and explicitly. They need phonics and morphology! Our more skilled readers can translate skills pretty easily and make those connections. Their brains are free to use context to figure out a word because they are not struggling on every single word. Our dyslexic kids don't  have that luxury. They need the time and guidance to learn and practice specific skills. That doesn't mean that they will never be able to transfer over to guided reading.  Obviously at some point, they need/want to be reading real books in a guided setting. It just can't come before/at the expense of those foundational skills. Honestly, until my dyslexic students know a grip of sight words and have solid phonics skills through silent e, I don't even think about pulling a leveled reader. It's so frustrating for them! Some of them are smart enough to guess through level C and D, but I've learned they are not actually reading and are not making real gains. The first grade teachers at my school would pull a reading group for "guided reading" and it would be "guided" and it would be "reading" but not the leveled readers "guided reading". It would be structured literacy lessons. So maybe we should call it "guided literacy" so there isn't any confusion. ;) 

I would love to hear your thoughts. This is a lot to take in and a lot to figure out. I do believe we can incorporate Structured Literacy without saying goodbye to parts of Balanced Literacy.

I hope this post was helpful.  The more we learn and grow, the more our students benefit. I began this journey slowly. I never just throw something out the window and start something brand new. I encourage you to study Structured Literacy and/or specific principals and elements of it and think about how you can start to incorporate that into your daily instruction. :)



  1. I absolutely loved reading your post! Last year, I began teaching syllablication rules to my 2nd graders, and it made a big difference! I am in awe of the ideas you shared about teaching morphology and syntax. They are very powerful and I am inspired to begin teaching this way. If you ever decide to bundle up the posters from this blog post and put them on TpT, I would get them in a heart beat. Thank you so much for all the research and thought you put into this post. It truly inspired me.

  2. Wow! Great post. I learned a lot and will be referring back to this as I look at how I teach reading and how i can be better at it.

  3. This is such a great post with so much information! Thank you for sharing.

  4. Thanks a lot for this information. I loves to read this blog. Keep it up
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  5. I'm so glad I got lost in an instagram rabbit hole that led me here!! I have been teaching growing readers for 25 years and this - structured literacy makes SO much sense for all our kiddos! Thank you for these resources. I am looking forward to reading more! Your presentation is amazing and incredibly accessible!

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  7. What book are you referring to when you say you ordered the book?

  8. As a new teacher, I struggle with finding how to fit this all in to my schedule. Do you have a plan for how you touch on all of this throughout a week? I'm teaching first grade and have kids who still don't know their alphabet up to kiddos reading at a third grade level. It's overwhelming!

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