Structured literacy is a new term (but not a new method) for systematic phonics instruction. This type of reading instruction includes teaching phonics sounds systematically (one at a time), phonemic awareness activities, mixed lists of decontextualized words for children to decode sound-by-sound and spelling activities that emphasize writing words sound-by-sound (not memorization).
Structured literacy, systematic phonics and researched-based phonics instruction are interchangeable terms. These programs help kids build a solid decoding foundation. They also help children develop reading comprehension.
After all, a child cannot understand texts if she cannot decode them. Many education academics have hurled criticism at systematic phonics programs: they claim these programs do not teach reading comprehension. Some education professors fear children will robotically decode without understanding the content.
This fear is ungrounded. Humans are naturally adept at language. In Story of the Human Body by Dan Lieberman, he notes that the indigenous populations he’s visited know, on average, 5 languages, and they know them well. For most of human history, people needed to know multiple languages for daily living.
In general, humans are gifted in listening comprehension. Children hear thousands of words every day and without any structured lessons in listening comprehension, they usually understand these words quite well.
What is listening comprehension?
When we discuss reading comprehension, we should also discuss listening comprehension.
Listening comprehension involves understanding spoken language. You can test a child’s listening comprehension by reading aloud to him. Some children, for example, can understand Harry Potter even though they cannot decode the text themselves. They simply need a more advanced decoder to read Harry Potter aloud to them. Then, they can enjoy the story without the cognitive burden of decoding.
Reading comprehension involves decoding written words to understand the concepts, ideas and storylines in the text. In this case, the child would have to decode Harry Potter himself without the assistance of a more advanced reader. Many young children would simply be unable to decode the difficult orthography in Harry Potter. Thus, their reading comprehension of Harry Potter would be very poor.
In reading, ultimately, educators want a student’s reading comprehension to match his listening comprehension. Later, consistent leveled reading can even improve a child’s listening comprehension.
To test for listening comprehension, the teacher reads a passage out loud to the child and then asks reading comprehension questions. Listening comprehension tests a child’s ability to comprehend texts without the added burden of decoding. Since the teacher reads aloud to the child, if the child struggles with decoding words, he can still perform well and even exceed his peers in listening comprehension.
In contrast, to test for reading comprehension, the child reads a passage himself. This tests the child’s ability to understand texts with the added burden of decoding the words. With this test, a child must be adept in decoding to perform well.
Unfortunately, listening comprehension and reading comprehension often don’t match, even in later grades. If a child doesn’t learn how to decode early on, then he will likely struggle with reading comprehension. Children who don’t learn how to decode in k-2 encounter fewer words and have fewer opportunities to build their vocabularies.
K-2 decoding ability and high school reading comprehension are tightly linked.
The research overwhelmingly proves that children who learn decoding skills (phonics) in k-2, develop better reading comprehension later on. If children learn to decode in k-2, then their reading comprehension is more likely to match their listening comprehension in later grades, which is the ultimate goal.
Furthermore, if children can decode and read fluently, they read more: this allows their listening and reading comprehension to improve. They begin to understand more nuanced, sophisticated content.
Explicit, systematic phonics instruction improves reading scores in later grades (Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997). Kids who learn how to decode in k-2 read more, encounter more words, become faster readers and develop higher vocabularies—all of this contributes to a virtuous cycle that makes the child enjoy reading and thus want to read even more. Reading researchers call this cycle the Matthew Effect, a term taken from the bible: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In reading, the good reader gets better, while the poor reader falls further behind.
Reading research shows that early decoding abilities correlate with later reading comprehension. For example, Dykstra (1968), in a study of 960 children, found that:
“Reading achievement at the end of second grade correlated with reading at the end of first grade at values ranging from .60 or higher, showing that reading achievement is the best predictor of reading achievement” (McGuiness, Diane, 2000, p. 103).
Kids who learn the code in k-2 encounter more words. This increase in text exposure amounts to significant lasting benefits. Stanovich and Cunningham (1997) found that 1st grade decoding ability predicted 11th grade reading volume. They adjusted their data to account for intelligence. In sum, intelligence does not predict how much a high schooler reads, but 1st grade decoding ability does. They write:
“This is a stunning finding because it means that students who get off to a fast start in reading are more likely to read more over the years” (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997).
Their findings are elucidating, as they explain why some high school students read more, have more knowledge, and have higher vocabularies. Few entertain the idea that first grade is important, much less the most important grade in education. Most people believe first grade is the year kids “get used to” school, learn to wake up early, turn in homework, organize their desks and other trivial tasks. Yet, the research shows that first grade, again and again, appears to be the most pivotal, crucial year in a child’s educational life—determining if they learn to decode, how fast they read and how much they read all throughout their academic careers.
There are several reasons reading comprehension can become problematic. Here are a few:
-The child did not learn with systematic phonics instruction. Therefore, he doesn’t know how to decode the words. Since he doesn’t know the words, of course he cannot understand them.
-The child learned to decode late, thus, her fluency (reading speed) is lagging. In speech, we talk quickly at 160- 200 words per minute. When we converse, we do not pause in between words or elongate sounds. Thus, when a child reads slowly, it can be difficult for her to understand the text: she’s simply not getting access to the words fast enough to string them together into a sensical sentence.
-The child can decode and read quickly, but she has poor vocabulary. It’s nearly impossible to understand a text when you’re unfamiliar with the terms. Open up a manual on airplane engines, and you’ll find, even if you’re an avid reader, you’ll understand next to nothing. If you knew all the terms, the text would make sense, but these terms would take a long time to commit to memory and fully understand. To ameliorate this, teachers can perform exercises that help kids acquire vocabulary words before reading a passage.
-The child can decode, can read quickly, has a good vocabulary, but he doesn’t know reading comprehension strategies. There is some evidence that a short (approximately 6 week) reading intervention in comprehension strategies can boost a child’s ability to understand texts. The intervention would help the child connect what he already knows to the text and help him learn how to identify unknown terms to look up.
In sum, even if we don’t think of decoding as essential to reading comprehension, it is foundational. If a child cannot read the words or access them fast enough, he will not be able to understand the text.
Reading Elephant offers printable phonics books that can help kids practice sound-by-sound decoding.