Dyslexia: The Importance of Structured Literacy

As October represents Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, we want to address the importance of Structured Literacy (SL) intervention for students with dyslexia and other related reading challenges.  Many of the principles of SL instruction are key for all developing readers as well.  As parents, we want to ensure that our children are making progress in their academic skills, and being able to read is the foundation for other higher-order skills.  While there are a number of programs that schools or tutors may utilize to improve reading, Structured literacy focuses on teaching oral and written language skills in an explicit, systematic manner.  There are two key areas which differentiate Structured Literacy Intervention from other programs:  the Content and Principles and Methods of SL Instruction.  An overview of both as well as examples is provided below:

Content of Structured Literacy:

  1. Language – We know that reading disabilities are closely associated with language processing challenges. As such, SL instruction focuses on language in multiple ways, including sounds, spelling, patterns and conventions of the writing system, as well as understanding the meaning of words, sentences, and paragraphs.
  2. Phonemic Awareness – Understanding the link between the sounds of words (e.g., phonemes) and the symbols is critical in the foundation of reading. In preschool and early kindergarten, children learn the foundation of phonemic awareness through rhyming, counting spoken syllables, and reciting phrases beginning with the same sound.  By the end of kindergarten, children should be able to identify speech sounds by ear and be able to separate out the sounds of simple words within two and three sounds.  More advanced phonemic awareness skills include segmentation, blending, and deleting speech sounds.  A significant number of individuals with dyslexia have challenges with phonemic awareness and need repetition of practice.  Phonemic awareness is also critical for writing.  In an alphabetic writing system like English, letter and letter combinations represent phonemes.  If a child has an accurate mapping of the speech sounds (both visually and orally), they will be able to decode print.
  3. Sound-Symbol (Phoneme-Grapheme) Correspondence – In the English language system, phonemes are represented by graphemes (e.g., letters and letter combinations in print). Our writing system consists of the correspondence between phonemes and graphemes.  Other terms for this system include the phonics code, alphabetic code, or the written symbol system.
  4. Orthography – Orthography refers to the set of conventions for writing a language, including spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, word breaks, emphasis, and punctuation. Children need explicit instruction for learning and remembering the patterns of letter use.  SL programs typically teach six types of written syllables including closed, open, vowel-consonant-e, vowel team, vowel-r, and consonant-le patterns.  Such instruction helps children understand the sequence of spelling rules for our complicated English language.
  5. Morphology – Morphemes, the smallest unit of meaning in the language system, include prefixes, roots, base words, and suffixes. As children learn to recognize morphemes, they can remember the meanings of new words.  Understanding morphemes is the foundation for the end goal of comprehension.
  6. Syntax – Syntax refers to the system for ordering words in sentences so meaning can be conveyed. Syntax includes understanding parts of speech and conventions of grammar and word use.
  7. Semantics – Semantics involves understanding the meaning of language. Children learn to comprehend oral and written language through direct teaching of word meanings (vocabulary), interpretation of phrases/sentences, and understanding the organization of text.
  8. Reading Comprehension – Comprehension results from both word recognition and language comprehension. Children should be exposed to multiple kinds of texts, including stories, informational text, poetry, and drama.  Being able to dig into factual text, learn to make inferences, and understand metaphors, similes, idioms help children develop their overall comprehension

Principles and Methods of Structured Literacy

The following are critical components of what makes SL instruction work, which ultimately helps children develop literacy-based skills.

  1. Explicit – The teacher explains concepts directly and clearly, providing guided practice. Examples include quick practice drills to build fluency or use of fingers to tap out sounds before spelling words.  The teacher then gives immediate feedback and guidance.
  2. Systematic and Cumulative – The teacher introduces language concepts systematically, explaining how the specific content fits into the whole. Instruction follows a clear scope and sequence of skills, with one concept building on another.
  3. Multimodal – Instruction is hands-on and engaging, typically involving multiple senses to consolidate learning. Examples include moving tiles into sound boxes as words are analyzed, building words with letter tiles, creating sentences with words on cards, color-coding sentences in paragraphs.  The connection between listening, speaking, reading, and writing is made to promote multimodal language learning.

At the Portsmouth Neuropsychology Center, we offer comprehensive evaluations to diagnose learning disabilities such as dyslexia as well as other learning, attentional, and mental health concerns, and help inform teaching strategies to maximize your children’s learning.

Additional Resources

Learning Disabilities: An Overview | Reading Rockets

Learning Disabilities and Dyslexia Awareness Month | Reading Rockets

Who Can Diagnose LD and/or ADHD | LD OnLine

It Took Me Too Long to Decode My Daughter’s Dyslexia | Reading Rockets

Structured Literacy: Effective Instruction for Students with Dyslexia and Related Reading Difficulties – International Dyslexia Association (dyslexiaida.org)