Structured literacy is the new buzzword for systematic phonics instruction. Numerous attempts across decades have failed to get systematic phonics instruction into classrooms. As a result, systematic phonics instruction has been repackaged and marketed as “structured literacy.”
There is ample research showing that kids learn best with systematic phonics instruction. Many children will fail to learn to read without research-based reading methods. “Structured literacy” is the new attempt to get science-based reading practices into classrooms.
There’s also a lot of confusion with the term “phonics instruction.” Many parents erroneously believe their child is receiving research-based methods because they see phonics instruction in the classroom. However, phonics is not enough. In order to be effective, phonics instruction needs to be systematic, leveled, explicit, interleaved and used with leveled texts. There’s also numerous activities that need to be included in every lesson.
What are the features of structured literacy?
Just like systematic phonics instruction, structured literacy uses explicit, systematic, leveled phonics instruction.
Explicit means the teacher directly tells the students what each phonics sound says. There is no guesswork on behalf of the student. Let’s say the teacher is going to teach the /ea/ and /ee/ long e sounds. He’ll write a sentence on the board: “The bee sat on a leaf up in the tree.” The teacher will underline the /ea/ and /ee/ sounds in bee, leaf and tree. Then he’ll say something like “Ee says e as in bee and tree. Ea also says e as in leaf.” Then he’ll add the /ee/ and /ee/ sounds to a sound chart and flashcard and have the student practice the sound daily.
Essentially, explicit instruction means the teacher tells the student each phonics sound. The child is not supposed to “pick up” on the sound implicitly.
Systematic instruction ensures that the teacher introduces one sound at a time. If instruction is systematic, kids gradually learn new phonics sounds. They are not supposed to learn them all at once, as this could bombard them with too much information. In one week, the teacher could introduce the short a sound a_ as in apple, allowing the student to read cat, map, cap, tan…etc. The second week, the teacher could introduce short i, allowing the student to read words like kit, pit, fin, hip… etc. (along with the previous short a words). This progressive instruction allows kids to master new content and review old content.
In sum, systematic means the child learns one sound at a time.
Leveled means the lesson is at the child’s level, not too hard and not too easy. This, like all elements of structured literacy (or systematic phonics instruction) require extensive training. For mixed reading lists with decontextualized words (ex. 1. bike 2. hop 3. save 4. get 5. hope…), the child should read approximately 50-80% of the words correctly. If the student is too accurate, the list is too easy and is not progressing their reading skills. If the student is making too many errors, the list is too hard and is causing frustration.
Accuracy rates are used to level each activity. They are also different for each activity. For book reading in which the child is reading with a partner, for example, the student’s accuracy rate should be between 92-97%.
Accuracy rates help guide teachers and allow them to provide leveled lessons.
Activities in a structured literacy lessons are the same as any research-based systematic phonics lesson. These include:
- leveled book reading
- explicit sound introduction– If the student is ready for a new phonics sound, the teacher explicitly introduces the sound. For example, if the child is learning /ai/ the teacher writes a sentence like, “Gail will take a train home.” The teacher underlines “ai” in Gail and train, reads the sentence while pointing to the words and asks the students what /ai/ says. The teacher then has the class practice the /ai/ sound and place the sound on a sound chart.
- sound chart practice– Every good phonics lesson includes a sound chart. On this chart, students can see the sounds they’ve learned thus far.
- phonemic awareness activities– The student practices manipulating phonemes (the smallest unit of sound). For example, the child could practice dropping the first or last sound in a word and identifying what sounds remain (as in cat without /c/ is at). The student can also practice saying each distinct sound in order (as in cat broken apart says c-aaaa-t). Later, older kids begin to identify syllables in words (as in hibernation can be broken into hi-ber-na-tion).
- decontextualized mixed list reading– The student is presented with a list of 10-20 words. The list is comprised of words with phonics sounds the child has learned during explicit sound introduction. The child practices old sounds as well as new and the list is mixed so the child cannot guess.
- sound cards– These are flashcards that contain the phonics units the student has learned so far. Sample flashcards might have the following sounds for Kindergarten: a_, e_, i_, o_ u_, sh, th, ch, _tch, _ng, _ang, _ing, ph, _ink, _ank. The sound cards are shuffled every lesson so the child does not memorize the order.
- spelling– These are NOT words the student has memorized (later the child can spell sight words, which do require memorization). First, the teacher says the phonetic spelling word and puts it in a sentence. For example, he might say, “Fish. The fishermen caught a lot of fish today. Say the sounds in fish.” The student should say f-iiiii-ssshhh, elongating the continuous sounds. Then the student writes the word “fish” sound-by-sound. The student should spell about 5-8 words and one sentence per lesson.
Reading Elephant offers progressive printable phonics books that help kids practice the most common phonics sounds.