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Setting Your Child Up For Success With Structured Literacy

Is your child part of a Structured Literacy program at school, but you are not seeing results? Or is your child a candidate for the program and you are unsure about it?  This article helps with both of these questions.

What is Structured Literacy?

Structured Literacy is a systematic and explicit approach to teaching reading and writing. It heavily emphasizes phonics and language structure – including phonetics, phonemes, graphemes, and grammar.  It is based on the principle that all written language has a structure that can be taught and learned.
The goal of Structured Literacy is to help individuals, especially those with dyslexia or other reading difficulties, to develop a strong foundation in the mechanics of reading and writing and to become confident, independent readers and writers.
It is based on principles and practices from a variety of fields, including linguistics, psychology, and education, and has been influenced by a number of influential individuals and organizations. Key figures in the development of Structured Literacy include:
  1. Samuel Orton: An American neurologist who identified the relationship between language-based reading difficulties and brain function.
  2. Anna Gillingham: An American educator,  who developed a multisensory approach to teaching reading and writing based on Orton’s findings.
  3. Louisa Moats: a leading voice in the field of reading and language education for several decades.
  4. The International Dyslexia Association:  Promotes effective education and treatment for individuals with dyslexia and related reading difficulties.

Structured Literacy continues to evolve and change as new research and insights emerge. it is widely used in schools, particularly in special education and early intervention programs.

Why is it somewhat controversial?

Structured Literacy is controversial for several reasons:
  1. Limited evidence.  Some argue that more research is needed to establish its efficacy.
  2. Rigid approach. It is a highly structured and prescriptive approach. Critics argue that it fails to take into account individual differences in learning styles and preferences.
  3. Challenging to teach.  Multisensory teaching methods are hard to implement consistently.
  4. Reliance on phonics.  Structured Literacy is a response to the Whole Language approach, which emphasizes meaning-focused reading and writing instruction. Critics of Structured Literacy argue that it overemphasizes phonics at the expense of meaning and comprehension.

And so despite strong anecdotal evidence, these ongoing debates raise questions about the role it should play in education.

How does Structured Literacy work in the classroom?

It is a highly structured and explicit teaching approach, using these elements:
  1. Phonemic awareness. Students are taught to recognize and manipulate individual sounds.
  2. Phonics.  Students are taught to associate individual sounds with letters or groups of letters, and to use this knowledge to decode words in written text.
  3. Multisensory instruction. Students are taught through a combination of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modalities. This helps to solidify their understanding and makes the learning experience more engaging.
  4. Structured sequence. Instruction is sequential, with new skills and concepts being introduced and reinforced in a step-by-step process.
  5. Decoding and encoding. Students are taught both how to decode words in written text (i.e., to read) and how to encode spoken words in written form (i.e., to write).
  6. Fluency.  Students are encouraged to read text with increasing fluency and speed, which helps to build comprehension and overall reading proficiency.

In a Structured Literacy classroom, teachers use a variety of techniques, materials, and activities to support students in developing these skills and concepts. The goal is to help students become confident, independent readers and writers who have a strong foundation in the structure of language.

Why Structured Literacy Alone is Often Not Enough

Structured Literacy, like phonics and Orton-Gillingham approaches rely on a child being able to process well enough to hear the difference between sounds.  For many young children, |ba| and |da| sound the same.  Only once processing improves  – through natural maturation or with an intervention – do the sounds start to separate and the value of Structured Literacy instruction can start to accrue.
It is an effective approach, but only once a child can hear the sound differences. If |an| and |am| sound the same,  the impact of instruction is constrained.

Help Processing to Help a Child Get Started

Gemm Learning uses Fast ForWord to accelerate the development of the language processing skills needed for phonemic awareness, phonics and therefore Structured Literacy.  By speeding up processing, Fast ForWord adds “pixels” to how a child process language, making the sounds and syllables more distinguishable.
Gemm Learning provides Fast ForWord software at home with remote oversight.