What Is Structured Literacy? The Basics of Reading Science

Reading & Literacy

Literacy is more than just reading and writing. It’s narrative, interpersonal relation, information processing, categorization, knowledge, competence, and even a source of power. So it may be surprising to learn that the complexity of literacy is only a recent concept.

Until the 1990s, reading instruction was considered to be a simple combination of decoding written words and comprehending language. And, at face value, it may seem as if that holds true. However, if the only two inputs are decoding and comprehension, the avenues available to help a struggling reader are limited to phonics and comprehension practice. If a student couldn’t seem to improve in these tasks? Well, perhaps they just weren’t “cut out” to be a good reader.

This oversimplified analysis of literacy allowed for many cracks through which a young reader might slip. Imagine math instruction stopped at number sense and arithmetic practise, but expected children to continue “naturally” accumulating skills to arrive ready for grade 11 trigonometry? It’s almost comical to simplify mathematical or language literacy to such a degree. Happily, the science of reading has come a long way in the last thirty years.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope

In 1992, Dr. Hollis Scarborough created the visual of a rope to explain the complexity of reading skill for her seminar attendees. The rope in cross-section showed reading to be an aggregate of fibres (skills) which bundled into two main strands reminiscent of the Simple View of Reading which came before: Word Recognition and Language Comprehension. Where Scarborough’s concept of reading expands is in the “fibres” which make up each strand.

Word Recognition, the lower strand of the rope, consists of phonological awareness, decoding, and word recognition. These are the skills we typically think of when we imagine reading instruction, and with practice these skills will become more automatic. This automaticity presents as reading fluency.

The upper strand of Scarborough’s rope is made up of the background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge which form Language Comprehension. These are the skills and knowledge which allow a reader to understand the words they are decoding, and to use language as a tool for their own purposes and for learning.

When explicit, gradual instruction in these skills is combined with many years of practise, these strands come together to form the “rope” and produce a highly skilled reader who can process, comprehend and produce a variety of written texts. 

Decoding Becomes Orthographic Mapping Becomes Fluent Reading 

According to reknowned expert David Kilpatrick, skilled readers can instantly recognize between 30,000 and 70,000 words known as their “orthographic lexicon.” This instant recognition means energy previously used for decoding can be used for comprehension, but also that a reader can process texts much more quickly. Faster reading with good comprehension means knowledge can be accumulated more quickly, and in this way reading skill and knowledge go hand-in-hand.  

How does one go from decoding the souds in “C-A-T” to processing words so quickly it seems like instantaneous recognition.? This “orthographic mapping” is simply the final stage of decoding skill development. After basic letter sounds comes phonics instruction, followed by orthographic mapping, which combines learned phonemic awareness with pronunciation memory.

A database of all learned words and pronunciations is thus formed in our long-term memory: the orthographic map. This map stores both regular words which follow spelling conventions and irregular words. It’s estimated that average readers need to decode a word 1 to 4 times for it to be stored in their orthographic memory. Students with dyslexia will typically need to practise decoding a word more frequently than this in order to store it in long-term orthographic memory.

Structured Literacy Creates Skilled Readers

The International Dyslexia Association coined the term “Structured Literacy” as an umbrella for the many programs (Orton Gillingham based) which developed to teach the Science of Reading. These structured programs stood in contrast to the “whole language” theories which eschewed explicit, rote instruction.

The IDA defines Structured Literacy as: “an approach to reading instruction that is beneficial for both general education students at risk for reading difficulties… and for students with disabilities. This approach is characterized by the provision of systematic, explicit instruction that integrates listening, speaking, reading, and writing and emphasizes the structure of language across the speech sound system (phonology), the writing system (orthography), the structure of sentences (syntax), the meaningful parts of words (morphology), the relationships among words (semantics), and the organization of spoken and written discourse.”

Structured literacy teaching stands in contrast with approaches that are popular in many schools but that do not teach oral and written language skills in an explicit, systematic manner.” 

Structured Literacy Is Science-Based Instruction

While phonics and decoding is a major component of such, Structured Literacy is not just phonics instruction. There are 6 elements of Structured Literacy instruction:

  • Phonology: the ability to distinguish, segment, blend and manipulate sounds (phonemic awareness)
  • Sound-symbol association: understanding how to map sounds to letters/graphemes.
  • Syllables: knowing the 6 types of syllable/vowel grapheme conventions and how to distinguish syllables for decoding.
  • Morphology: the knowledge of the smallest language units (morphemes) including affixes and root words which form complex words.
  • Syntax: understanding the grammar and mechanical principles which relate to and determine word function.
  • Semantics: the skills to convey, comprehend and appreciate language meaning.

To be effective, the IDA states that Structured Literacy instruction must be guided by these 3 evidence-based principles: Explicit, Systematic & Cumulative, and Diagnostic.

  1. Structured Literacy instruction must be explicit. It requires direct teaching of concepts with guided practice and continuous student-teacher interaction. The teacher does not assume the student has deduced any concepts or skills. 
  2. Structured Literacy instruction must be systematic and cumulative. The instruction must follow a logical and methodical sequence of skills which build upon one another.
  3. Structured Literacy instruction must be diagnostic and responsive. Teachers must use careful, continuous assessment to individualize instruction. Reading skills should be automaticized so energy can be freed up for higher level comprehension and composition.

Since the 1980s, research into the science of reading has proliferated and Structured Literacy is now widely considered to be the gold standard of reading instruction. The IDA states: “Evidence is strong that the majority of students learn to read better with structured teaching of basic language skills, and that the components and methods of Structured Literacy are critical for students with reading disabilities including dyslexia.” 


The Reading School uses a Structured Literacy Approach to assist readers of all ages and abilitiy levels. If you suspect your child is struggling to read and/or may have dyslexia, reach out to discuss the benefits that private Structured Literacy support can provide for your child. The first step is reaching out to book a friendly chat here.

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