Structured Literacy and Typical Literacy Practices: Understanding Differences to Create Instructional Opportunities

By Louise Spear-Swerling


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Have you heard of the term ‘structured literacy’ before? Do you know how it compares to typical literacy practice (TLP) or non-SL approaches when it comes to the teaching of reading? What practices commonly appear in your classrooms?

Structured Literacy (SL) approaches are often recommended for students with dyslexia and other poor decoders (e.g., International Dyslexia Association, 2017). These approaches are well supported by research evidence (e.g., Brady, 2011; Fletcher, Lyon, Fuchs, & Barnes, 2007; Foorman et al., 2016; National Reading Panel, 2000). Examples of SL approaches include the Wilson Reading System (Wilson, 1988), Orton-Gillingham (Gillingham & Stillman, 2014), the Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing Program (Lindamood & Lindamood, 1998), and Direct Instruction (e.g., Carnine, Silbert, Kame’enui, & Tarver, 2009). Although these programs vary in some ways, they all share several key features.

Key Features of Structured Literacy Approaches Key features of SL approaches include (a) explicit, systematic, and sequential teaching of literacy at multiple levels— phonemes, letter-sound relationships, syllable patterns, morphemes, vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and text structure; (b) cumulative practice and ongoing review; (c) a high level of student-teacher interaction; (d) the use of carefully chosen examples and non-examples; (e) decodable text; and (f) prompt, corrective feedback.

Key Features Explicit means that important skills and concepts are taught clearly and directly by the teacher; students are not expected to infer them simply from exposure or incidental learning (Archer & Hughes, 2011). Systematic and sequential means that skills and concepts are taught in a logical order, with important prerequisite skills taught first (Torgesen, 2006). For example, before teachers expect students to decode two-syllable words, they teach decoding of common one-syllable word patterns as well as how to divide two-syllable words to facilitate decoding them. The sequential nature of SL means that teachers require students to practice only what they have been explicitly taught. Again, before teachers expect students to practice decoding specific phonics word patterns (e.g., short vowel words with consonant digraphs) in reading text, or to recognize specific irregular words in text, they directly teach those skills in isolation first. SL approaches also build in cumulative practice and ongoing review of previously learned skills so that students retain these skills and develop automaticity.

An additional feature of SL, and of explicit teaching approaches in general (Archer & Hughes, 2011), is a high degree of teacher-student interaction, with considerable time spent in direct teaching. In these approaches, instruction requires frequent responses from students, and the teacher provides immediate feedback with clear correction as needed. The teacher provides step-by-step demonstrations of skills and leads students in guided practice. Explicit instruction also uses non-examples as well as examples. For instance, if teachers want students to learn the vowel-r (VR) syllable pattern (words that have a vowel followed by an r, which changes the vowel sound), they present both VR words (e.g., barn, short, urn) and non-VR words (e.g., trip, rag, brush) for students to distinguish from each other. Examples and non-examples would be carefully chosen to ensure that students learn the concept being taught, in this case, that the r in a VR syllable must come immediately after the vowel, not before it.

In the early stages of instruction, when students’ decoding skills are relatively limited, most SL approaches have students read decodable texts, those constrained mostly to the specific phonics patterns that students have been taught (e.g., consonant-vowel-consonant words with a, i, and o). Just as when students read words in isolation, SL teachers would provide prompt corrective feedback to students’ decoding errors during oral text reading. Table 1 provides some examples of the kinds of explicit instructional activities that are common in SL programs.

Fit for Students with Dyslexia SL is especially well suited to students with dyslexia because it directly addresses their core weaknesses in phonological skills, decoding, and spelling (Moats, 2017). Although most students with dyslexia do not have core weaknesses in higher levels of literacy, such as vocabulary, text comprehension, and broad language aspects of written expression (Fletcher et al., 2007), their weaknesses in phonological skills, decoding, and spelling often have secondary negative effects on these higher-level areas. For example, inaccurate or nonautomatic decoding may affect students’ reading comprehension, resulting in poor comprehension of text that students would easily understand if it were read aloud to them. Likewise, poor or effortful spelling can inhibit students’ ability to translate a strong knowledge base about a topic into their written expression. Explicit teaching of higher levels of literacy may, therefore, benefit students with dyslexia (as well as other students) even when they do not have an intrinsic learning problem in those areas.

Many commercial programs exemplify SL and research has generally focused more on effective features of instruction than on comparing specific commercial programs. For example, Kilpatrick (2015) reviewed evidence suggesting that SL programs that emphasize development of phonemic awareness to an advanced level (e.g., programs that train students to manipulate, delete, and substitute phonemes rather than only to blend and segment phonemes) may be more effective than other SL programs in helping poor decoders attain automatic word recognition. In any case, all SL programs have marked differences from the type of reading instruction that is common in Tier 1 general education instruction and, often, even in tiered interventions (Moats, 2017).

In her readings on SL, Ms. Rowe found studies showing that SL interventions clearly improve the reading achievement of students with dyslexia (e.g., Simos et al., 2002; Torgesen et al., 2001). She also visited a special education class in a neighboring district in which an SL program was being used. Student data showed significant benefits to students’ reading skills after implementation of the program. Ms. Rowe’s reading, as well as her observations of the class, convinced her that SL differed in fundamental ways from the Tier 1 literacy instruction at her own school. Moreover, even the tiered interventions that Curtis had previously received did not generally use SL activities, such as the ones shown in Table 1 or described in research studies. Although Curtis’s tiered interventions had all addressed phonics to some extent, they did so in ways very different from SL. It was evident to Ms. Rowe that continued use of these types of programs was not likely to benefit Curtis. She went to her school principal, Ms. Watkins, and asked to participate in professional development in an SL approach. Ms. Rowe pointed out that this professional development would enable her to help both Curtis and other students in her class more effectively. Luckily, Ms. Watkins had the funds for Ms. Rowe’s professional development and approved the request.

Typical Literacy Practices (TLP) Just as the SL approaches described previously vary from each other in some ways, so, too, does the TLP commonly used in schools. Examples of these non-SL literacy approaches include Guided Reading (e.g., Burkins & Croft, 2010), Reader’s Workshop (e.g., Calkins, 2000), Balanced Literacy, Four Blocks Literacy (Cunningham, Hall, & Sigmon, 1999), Reading Recovery (Clay, 1994), and the Leveled Literacy Intervention (Fountas & Pinnell, 2009). TLP do not include most of the key features of SL. Table 2 summarizes some important differences between SL and the ways that literacy skills are more commonly taught.

TLP for Reading In TLP for general education, classroom time focused on partner activities and independent reading is often prioritized over classroom time spent in direct interaction with a teacher. Although some phonemic awareness and phonics skills are often taught in TLP, they are not generally emphasized even in kindergarten or Grade 1. For example, in one popular approach to Tier 1 literacy instruction (Cunningham et al., 1999), “word work” is just one of four components of the program; in another popular approach (Fountas & Pinnell, 2017), it is one of eight. Also, in TLP, phonemic awareness and phonics are rarely taught in highly explicit, systematic ways with attention to important prerequisite skills, use of examples and non-examples, and ongoing review. In TLP, beginning readers would usually read predictable or leveled texts that do not control for different phonics word patterns and therefore are challenging to decode. These types of texts are common even in interventions (e.g., Clay, 1994; Fountas & Pinnell, 2009). Especially for struggling decoders, such texts often lend themselves more to guessing at words based on pictures and sentence context than to application of decoding skills. Teacher feedback to oral reading errors often does not emphasize the application of decoding skills and does not include immediate correction and explicit teaching when students cannot decode a word. Rather, the emphasis is frequently on using meaning in conjunction with print cues and having students “problem-solve” with teacher guidance (e.g., Burkins & Croft, 2010).

More of this article can be found at

by Louise Spear-Swerling, Professor, Department of Special Education and Reading, Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven.

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