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What is Structured Literacy? Getting Started with SoR

Text reads "Getting Started with the Science of Reading: What is Structured Literacy" on the left with a tray with colored letter tiles on the right.

Structured literacy is what’s at the forefront of elementary education topics right now. There’s been a growing push for improving our reading instruction and results for students, especially those with dyslexia and other reading challenges. The focus has been on ensuring all children learn to read. My post discussing the need for phonics instruction dives into this topic more. Structured literacy has many of the same components of other literacy programs, but the shift is in the explicitness and intentionality behind instruction.

What is Structured Literacy?

Structured literacy is an umbrella term designed to describe all of the programs that teach reading in a similar way. It’s rooted in the Science of Reading and was developed by the International Dyslexia Association. It emphasizes highly explicit and systematic teaching of each of the key components of reading, with a focus on language. The aim of structured literacy is to provide the necessary instruction so that all children learn to read, including, and especially, those with dyslexia. Up to 20% of the population may have symptoms of dyslexia (International Dyslexia Association), so structured literacy is designed to ensure these students’ needs are met. In structured literacy, teachers carefully and strategically structure literacy skills, concepts, and the sequence of instruction to facilitate learning and progress. It addresses both the “what” and the “how” of our literacy instruction.

What are the Components of Structured Literacy?

The components of a structured literacy program include:

Phonology – Phonology is the study of the sound structure of spoken words. This includes phonological and phonemic awareness. In a structured literacy program, phonemic awareness is a critical component of early literacy instruction. For some students, their ability to articulate sounds can be challenging and can interfere with their development. This is especially true for multilingual learners whose native language have differing sounds than English. For other students, especially those with dyslexia, hearing the differences between two sounds that are similar can be a challenge.

Sound-symbol association – This refers to the connecting of phonemes to graphemes known as phoneme-grapheme correspondence, or phonics. This is the ability to map the sounds that are heard in words into their printed form. This is also referred to as the alphabetic principle. Sound-symbol associations must be taught and mastered in two directions: visual to auditory (reading or decoding) and auditory to visual (spelling or encoding).

Syllable instruction – This goes beyond identifying, orally, the syllables in a spoken word. Syllable instruction includes knowledge of the six syllable types and division rules. This is to support readers in determining the sound of the vowels in a multi-syllable words.

Morphology – Morphology includes the study of base words, roots, and affixes (prefixes and suffixes). this will obviously be more relevant in the upper grades, but even kindergarten and first graders can learn some of the most basic prefixes and suffixes (such as plural “s”, and “ed”)

Syntax – Syntax encompasses the rules that tell us the sequence and function of words in a sentence in order to convey meaning. This includes grammar and sentence structure as well as the mechanics of language.

Semantics – Semantics is the aspect of language concerned with meaning. This is the component that includes reading comprehension instruction.

You may notice that 4 of these areas have a focus on word recognition. Structured literacy, while absolutely includes language comprehension, has a foundational focus on accurate word recognition skills. That is not to say that it’s lacking in language comprehension; but this is why so many people think structured literacy, and SOR in general, is “just phonics”.

A note on syllable instruction

I have heard a lot of mixed thinking on syllable instruction. The research isn’t clear on instruction on syllable types. However, many programs, especially those based on the Orton-Gillingham method, do teach them. Many people have stated that by teaching the syllable types, it’s just more rules for students’ to learn. And those students often struggling with reading, also have struggles with various executive function skills that makes remembering, retrieving, and applying those rules more difficult. These are very valid points. I’ve also heard the point that we didn’t learn those rules as part of our instruction, therefore it’s not needed.

With that said, I have seen strong benefits for my weakest readers from some basic syllable division work. Through practice, students have begun able to independently apply that work into reading multi-syllable words without first dividing them. I don’t expect my students to be able to identify each syllable type, and we don’t focus on labeling each of the syllable types, because I’m not yet sold on that need. However, I have found value in teaching some flexible syllable division strategies alongside vowel flexibility and set for variability.

Key Principles of Structured Literacy

In addition to the components of a structured literacy program, there are some critical principles of structured literacy that address methods of instruction. These principals drive the “how” of literacy instruction.

Explicit instruction: Teachers are intentional, clear and direct in what is said. Models have strong examples, and there are opportunities for supported, guided practice after explicit instruction. Students have many response opportunities with clear, corrective feedback on errors.

Systematic, sequential, and cumulative: Instruction has predictable routines and a clear scope & sequence building from easier to more complex sills. Concepts are reinforced and practiced over time. There is a lot of built in, intentional review.

Diagnostic: Progress is consistently monitored and instruction is adjusted based on student needs. This data comes from both formal assessments and informal observations.

Teaching is an art. While it’s incredibly important that teachers know best practices and keep up to date with scientific research on evidence-based practices, they have to craft that knowledge into the most effective instruction for specific scenarios. Some students need additional time with phonemic awareness. Others need additional fluency practice. These kinds of judgments will differ between students, and even with the same student over time as needs shift.

Multisensory learning: While not an official component of structured literacy due to the lack of extensive research and evidence, the IDA does promote a multi-sensory approach to instruction.

A personal note on Structured Literacy

For many years, I was navigating my way with balanced literacy, as that was how I had been taught, while also still supplementing with things I knew my kids needed. I kept asking my district for a strong phonics curriculum because I could see that what I was doing wasn’t working for many of my kids. I knew I needed to target their needs, and I knew I needed to build their decoding skills. I gave phonics assessments and tracked my students’ progress. I supplemented my guided reading time, especially with my readers at a first grade level, with a lot of additional phonics and word work. But I wasn’t intentional enough, and I didn’t do enough instruction beyond one syllable words. Many of my students still learned to read. But, some of my students were behind their peers. Because I had the unique experience of a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade loop, I was the one responsible for all of the early foundational instruction for a large pocket of my students. Their lack of progress and their struggles were entirely the result of my lack of intentional instruction. I have seen, entirely, the need for explicit decoding instruction for many students.

Every school teaches beginning reading with phonics. Heck, just teaching letter sounds is phonics. But, many approaches and programs aren’t intentional enough for our neediest students. Those students need a phoneme-grapheme association approach that is explicit and responsive to their needs.

Structured literacy explicitly teaches systematic word-identification, or decoding, strategies. These strategies benefit most students. More importantly, they are vital for those with dyslexia. With that said, structured literacy isn’t only decoding and phonics.

Further Reading on Structured Literacy

Structured Literacy Instruction: The Basics by the International Dyslexia Association hosted on Reading Rockets

What is Structured Literacy? by the International Dyslexia Association

Structured Literacy Brief by the International Dyslexia Association


What Is Structured Literacy?

Further Information on the Science of Reading

I am sharing helpful information on the Science of Reading throughout this blog series. Each post has a different focus and includes links to relevant posts of my own, from time to time. The topics have been carefully chosen to include the background information needed to understand the science and help you learn more about some of the large, underlying research in the field. The first three up in the series include The National Reading Panel’s 5 Pillars of Reading, the Simple View of Reading, and Scarborough’s Rope.

Want to get each post in your email so you don’t miss it? Sign up below. I will email you the posts, beginning with the first ones in the series, and continuing with each post throughout.


Text reads "Getting Started with the Science of Reading: What is Structured Literacy" on the top with a tray with colored letter tiles on the bottom. The letter tiles have the vowels and consonants separated into two of the quadrants.


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