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Structured Literacy
Structured Literacy

What Is Structured Literacy?

The research-based approach ensures students get the skills they need with no gaps.

In many subject areas, there are countless effective ways for a teacher to help students develop their skills. 

That's where early reading is distinctive.

Decades of cognitive research have shown us that proficient readers know our alphabetic code, and that there's one approach to teaching the code that's more effective than others. That method is popularly known as structured literacy.

Structured literacy is a way of organizing and delivering reading instruction to ensure students get all the skills they need in an efficient timeframe – and without any gaps. With this approach, teachers use explicit or direct instruction. There's no discovery or exploration when students are learning new skills – the teachers give them the information directly. 

Teachers have a scope and sequence, an order in which they teach reading skills. Here's what the instructional cycle looks like for a whole-group lesson:

Explicitly model a new skill, guide student practice in small groups before students practice independently Assess skill mastery and apply feedback as necessary.

Structured literacy is in contrast to other approaches to reading instruction, including balanced literacy, whole language, and guided reading, which focus less on decoding words in a systematic way and have proved less effective for early readers. Some of these approaches tell emerging readers to look at picture clues to figure out what a word says. Experts say that takes students' attention away from the letters, and is not what good readers actually do. 

Here are five important characteristics of the structured literacy approach.

Structured literacy is … 

  1. Systematic and sequential. Skills are introduced in a logical sequence (based on difficulty) and build on one another. For example, we teach short vowel sounds before we teach vowel teams. We teach one-syllable words before multisyllable words. The instruction utilizes routines, so students can focus on the skill and aren't distracted by a shifting delivery method. 
  2. Explicit and engaging. New skills are modeled and explained when introduced. Many teachers are familiar with a form of explicit instruction known as "I do, we do, you do." The explicit part is the "I do" portion of this cycle. Explicit instruction is always followed by teacher-assisted and independent practice to help students build accuracy and automaticity. Instruction should also be engaging and fun as students learn how to unlock the code.
  3. Cumulative with positive corrective feedback. Previously taught skills get continuously reinforced. Students receive prompt, corrective feedback to address errors and avoid developing skill gaps.
  4. Diagnostic. Teachers constantly monitor students' progress and pinpoint misunderstandings and gaps.
  5. Adaptive. Teachers are flexible and ready to adjust strategies, intensify interventions, or change their student groups to better meet the needs of all students.

If the five characteristics explain how to teach, then the next big question is what to teach.

In 2000, the National Reading Panel identified five key pillars of effective reading instruction. They are:

  1. Phonemic Awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Fluency
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Comprehension

Reading Universe offers resources and instructional materials for all of these literacy areas, including writing – and beyond. We have scope and sequences, skill explainers, lesson plans, assessments, and videos that can guide you through teaching reading with the structured literacy approach. And our taxonomy can lead the way, laying out all the skills and showing how they're connected. 

Jump in to find what you need on your journey toward research-based reading instruction.

Reading Universe is made possible by generous support from Jim & Donna Barksdale, the American Federation of Teachers, the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, and three anonymous donors.

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