Structured Literacy: How Results and Research Support This Approach

Here’s a simple yet powerful point that bears repeating: “All teachers want their students to master the skills that will allow them to enjoy reading books and writing their own texts.” This line comes from a 2019 blog post by Dr. Deborah K. Reed, director of the Iowa Reading Research Center, and Nina A. Lorimor-Easley, co-founder of an Iowa-based learning center for students with dyslexia called True Potential Education. In the post, Reed and Lorimor-Easley sketched out a framework for how teachers can turn this common wish into a classroom reality using a Structured Literacy™ approach to reading instruction. 

Reed and Lorimor-Easley insisted that all sides are not equal in the long-simmering reading wars⁠—a conflict centered on whether students are more likely to become literate through an immersion approach (often called whole language) or a phonics-based, explicit instruction method (such as Structured Literacy). The duo specifically focused on the contrast between Balanced Literacy, which contains many elements of the whole-language approach, and Structured Literacy.

Defining Structured Literacy

First, a definition: As Reed and Lorimor-Easley explained, the phrase "Structured Literacy" was coined in 2016 by the International Dyslexia Association and is intended to serve as an umbrella term for the various forms of reading instruction (for example, Orton-Gillingham) that are built around what researchers at the University of Michigan described as “phonological instruction, phonemic decoding, and sequential instruction.” This instructional approach, which is rooted in teaching explicit skills to students, has proven to be especially effective with learners who have dyslexia or other potential barriers to literacy, as acknowledged in the following statement from the International Dyslexia Association:

The most difficult problem for students with dyslexia is learning to read. Unfortunately, popularly employed reading approaches, such as Guided Reading or Balanced Literacy, are not effective for struggling readers. These approaches are especially ineffective for students with dyslexia because they do not focus on the decoding skills these students need to succeed in reading.

What does work is Structured Literacy, which prepares students to decode words in an explicit and systematic manner. This approach not only helps students with dyslexia, but there is substantial evidence that it is more effective for all readers.

Echoing the IDA's statement, Reed and Lorimor-Easley also attributed the strength of Structured Literacy to its potential to reach all students—especially, but not exclusively, those who are struggling readers. Although a more immersive, less explicit approach to reading instruction might work for some young children, the duo contended that “utilizing a Structured Literacy approach is best because it avoids making potentially erroneous assumptions about what students are naturally capable of implicitly learning.” In other words, it is better to be safe than sorry by casting a wide net in the form of Structured Literacy to ensure the highest student literacy success rate.

It is also important to note that Structured Literacy is not just phonics-based, as it includes the explicit, systematic, cumulative, and diagnostic instruction for all language structures—phonology, orthography, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics—and the organization of spoken and written discourse. 

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Research supports Structured Literacy


Structured Literacy proponents seeking research to back up their support for this instructional practice need look no further than post on the University of Michigan’s Dyslexia Help website that describes a 2014 article in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness. The article details a study done on 150 early elementary school students who were identified as being in need of reading support and sorted into three groups based on various instructional strategies: Structured Literacy, Guided Reading, and “typical classroom instruction.” The results indicated that Structured Literacy's emphasis on explicit, skill-building instruction had a significant impact on the struggling students—especially in the area of comprehension, where “results revealed that participants in the Explicit Intervention group had positive score results nearly 4 times the gains of participants in the Guided Reading group.” 

Reed and Lorimor-Easley also cited a three-year study that zeroed in on a comparison between Balanced Literacy and Structured Literacy approaches. Taken in tandem with findings from an earlier study, the results provided what Reed and Lorimor-Easley described as “evidence that class-wide implementation of the approach can produce results comparable to costly one-on-one interventions for all students, including those with reading disabilities.” This is reason for hope, indeed.

An approach that is a solution 

However, writing for the online education resource site Edutopia in 2018, English Language Arts teacher Jessica Hamman cautioned against using Structured Literacy as a cure-all for struggling readers in a general classroom setting, noting that “teachers may find … 5 to 10 percent of students will still struggle to master the concepts and need to be referred to intervention to intensify instruction.” 

Hamman went on to describe what Structured Literacy is and how it can work for both children and adult students struggling with reading, making it clear that the approach is grounded in the science of teaching and learning:

In Structured Literacy instruction, teachers review previously taught concepts in each lesson and introduce new material to keep the student stimulated and engaged. Built into this design is the understanding that while a student who doesn’t struggle with reading difficulties can master a concept in one to five exposures, a student who struggles with reading difficulties may take upward of 25 exposures to master a concept.

While the methodology requires a careful eye and strong diagnostic skills from teachers, it just might help more educators achieve the common goal identified by Reed and Lorimor-Easley, which, although previously stated, bears repeating: “All teachers want their students to master the skills that will allow them to enjoy reading books and writing their own texts.”

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