Literacy Instruction Spotlight: Structured Literacy

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Literacy Instruction Spotlight: Structured Literacy

This spotlight series aims to share the leading approaches to reading instruction. 

The research is clear that students learn best when reading interventions are explicit, systematic, intensive, and multisensory. However, traditional reading instruction (like Guided Reading and Balanced Instruction) have failed to meet the needs of those diagnosed with dyslexia. And since the majority of university programs for educators do not teach the science of reading (how children learn how to read) our students in many places in the world are not achieving proficiency in their reading skills. 

Dyslexia is a language-based learning challenge that is characterized by a lack of decoding (the ability to sound out words with ease and automaticity) which leads to difficulties in fluent word recognition and ultimately comprehension. Structured literacy is an explicit and systematic approach to teaching children how to decode words. The International Dyslexia Association outlines the structured literacy approach as focusing on these six elements:

Element 1 – Phonology refers to the study of sounds within a language. Central to this study is phonemic awareness, which is a person’s ability to identify and manipulate words, syllables, onsets (the first consonant or cluster of consonants in a word) and rimes (the vowels and consonants that follow the onset). These are important concepts to understand in order to teach children to blend and segment letters and syllables while learning how to read.  

Element 2 – Sound-symbol association refers to the ability to connect letters to their respective linguistic sounds.  

Element 3 – Syllable instruction explicitly refers to teaching the six main types of syllables in the English language. It is important for young learners to understand that words can be broken down into “chunks” and that there are rules that help us identify what those “chunks” sound like. This is critical to helping students learn to decode, or sound out words with greater automaticity over time. 

Element 4 – Morphology refers to the study of the linguistic roots of words and affixes, which can be used to change its meaning. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in language. It is central to student’s decoding skills that they are able to identify the base elements of a word (morpheme) and its affixes, which when used at the beginning of a word is known as a prefix and when used at the end of a word is known as a suffix. 

Element 5 – Syntax refers to the way we order words and phrases in a sentence, paragraph or larger body of text so that it conveys the meaning we want. Grammar plays a key role in sentence structure. 

Element 6 – Semantics refers to the meaning of words, phrases, sentences and larger bodies of text. It is very important to understand semantics within the context of dyslexia because reading is one of the primary ways that we develop our vocabulary. A key concern for our dyslexic population is that if the students’ reading is impaired, they are likely to fall further behind in both their spoken vocabulary and their reading comprehension. This is a good example of why we have to think about the dyslexic profile in terms of many parts of language. Explicit instruction in semantic reasoning and vocabulary development is necessary in order to close the gap between struggling readers and proficient readers.  

Teaching strategies, like structured literacy, that focus on the whole range of language skills necessary to support effective reading are proving more successful than traditional methods that are typically referred as balanced literacy which focuses on words as “whole pieces of literature” without explicit instruction of the foundational skills for decoding. A good example of an organization that uses the structured literacy approach for teaching the whole range of language skills is Literacy How. The founder and executive director Dr. Margie Gillis has spent over 40 years developing an intervention model that encompasses the full range of language instruction necessary for our dyslexic learners.

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