How We Teach ReadingThe Seven Elements of Structured Literacy
Structured literacy is an instructional approach that focuses students on the sounds of our language and the ways those sounds are represented through letters and letter combinations. In a structured literacy classroom, the teacher provides direct, explicit, systematic instruction to help students “unlock the code” of written language. Students read books made up of only words they can decode, allowing them to read with a high rate of accuracy, fluency, and confidence. This stands in contrast to a balanced literacy approach, where students engage with texts that are far beyond their decoding skills, including many words they don’t know. Students in a balanced literacy classroom are taught to guess at words they don’t know using context clues and reread texts to memorize new words. This may work initially for students when they can rely upon clues, but as content evolves, the strategy is no longer viable.
Within a structured literacy classroom, teachers provide daily, explicit, systematic instruction in seven key areas to ensure that bright students with dyslexia and other reading challenges become proficient life-long readers.
Students need to develop a large listening and speaking vocabulary, which requires even young children to gain skills in phonology, semantics, and morphology. Teachers plan opportunities for extended conversation and text talk where they expand on the language children use, introduce sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structure, and help students express ever longer and more complex thoughts. Students with dyslexia generally have advanced vocabularies, and tend to shine in this area of structured literacy.
Being able to hear, distinguish, and manipulate the sounds in spoken words is the next key area. Using reading tools like slinkies, cubes, and tiles, and games like ‘first sound/last sound’ or ‘smash ‘em’, teachers provide daily practice and ongoing feedback to students in blending, isolating, segmenting, adding, deleting and substituting the sounds in spoken words to prepare them for interpreting and manipulating the meaning in written words. Most schools provide no instruction in this element, but McLean teaches this skill to all students who need it, regardless of the student’s age or grade level.
Students must understand that any word can be broken into speech sounds and any speech sound can be represented with a letter or collection of letters from the alphabet. When children understand how letters capture speech sounds, they have the foundation for all reading and writing in English and other alphabetic languages.
Students must also learn the 44 phonemes (sounds) in English and all their spelling patterns. Most schools begin their reading and writing instruction here (after skipping the first three crucial reading skills) and proceed to teach the sounds in a haphazard, disorganized way. We teach decoding systematically, proceeding through a prescribed sequence of sounds that has been proven through research to ensure reading proficiency for students with dyslexia. It starts with the most simple, common sounds (c, o, a, d) and continues through blends and digraphs (st, cl, th,ph), r-controlled vowels (ar, er, ir, ur), and endings like (-le, -ed, -tion, -sion). This decoding work begins in kindergarten alongside instruction in oral language, phonemic awareness, and the alphabetic principle, and continues for as long as the child needs support, typically 1-2 years after they’ve started at McLean.
Understanding the patterns of regularity in English that span the alphabetic (m=/m/), syllabic (tion=/shun/) and morphemic (we write definite not defanite because the root word is define) levels sets students up for success in reading and writing. It’s common to hear that English is difficult to read and impossible to spell, but word patterns help readers with dyslexia see the patterns in our language, and pattern recognition is one of the many strengths of a dyslexic brain. To support students in this area, teachers introduce the most common sound for a given letter, digraph, or dipthong first, and introduce less common, alternate spellings later, after students have demonstrated mastery.
Another key element of our intensive instruction is supporting students’ recognition of thousands of words automatically, on sight. For most adults, democracy is a sight word because it is recognized instantly, while lemniscus (which also has 9 letters) is not. A reader’s sight word inventory includes both words that are phonetically regular (like bank) and irregular (like know). At most schools, only irregular words are taught as sight words for automaticity. We teach students to automatically recognize the most common words for their age and reading level, whether they are spelled regularly or irregularly. This means McLean students learn approximately twice as many sight words as their peers in other schools.
Lastly, students must be able to break apart longer words into manageable segments that can be used for reading or spelling. Reading words with several syllables is a major stumbling block for students who have not had strong instruction in oral language, phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle, decoding, and word patterns, and is a major reason that older students come to us as vulnerable readers after initially keeping up with their classmates in the younger years. Through daily practice, we show students how to break down multi-syllable words that they encounter when reading stories and articles, making them more successful when reading across the content areas.
Recognizing Early Warning Signs of Dyslexia
McLean’s expert teachers take a strategic approach to grouping children and delivering instruction. At the beginning of each year, students are assessed to determine where they are in their progression towards mastery of each of the seven elements of structured literacy. Some students may present with early warning signs of reading challenges, and some may not. Based on the results, vulnerable readers in K-8 are placed in small reading groups and assigned a highly trained teacher who delivers a structured literacy program individually tailored to each reader. Every day, students practice phonemic awareness drills, sound-symbol drills, spelling and dictation through a variety of routines, games, and texts designed to keep them engaged, excited, and motivated. These lessons directly address the deficits in phonology and orthography that hold students back, allowing them to unlock the code of reading and experience success.