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The science of reading and structured literacy

The science of reading and structured literacy

By Annelize Clark, Occupational Therapist and Remedial Teacher Bellavista School

Structured literacy, the science of reading and evidence-based literacy practice have become buzz words in literacy education. However, they are often used quite flippantly and without proper understanding of what they entail. Often when parents ask about the literacy programmes used within the curriculum, they have these buzz words confidently thrown at them, leaving them with very little understanding and more overwhelm. 

When we talk about the science of reading, we talk about teaching well-researched, evidence-based strategies that work well for all learners. It means going step by step, being explicit, systematic and direct in how we teach literacy skills. It means that we teach in the same way that the reading brain processes information, and if a child’s brain processes information in a different way, that we are able to support them. 

40% of all learners will learn literacy and reading skills regardless of teaching methods, but the other 60% of learners require structured literacy instruction to be able to read successfully and with good understanding. This means that 60% of learners require explicit, systematic teaching of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. 

Structured literacy refers to both the content and methods of instruction. It can be divided into two categories: the principles/methods of structured literacy instruction, and the content of structured literacy (describing what is being taught within the methods of literacy instruction). 

Principles of Structured Literacy 

  1. Explicit teaching. This means that lessons embody instructional routines and the learners apply each new concept to reading and writing words and text.
  2. Systematic and cumulative teaching. Concepts and sounds are taught systematically, and learners understand how each element fits into the whole.
  3. Hands-on, engaging, and multimodal teaching. This refers to multisensory learning where the auditory, visual and kinaesthetic elements are all integrated to assist the brain in processing information accurately.
  4. Diagnostic and responsive teaching. This refers to the teacher using learner response patterns to adjust pace, presentation, and amount of practice given within the lesson framework. 

The Content of Structured Literacy Instruction

  1. Phoneme awareness. This is the process of becoming consciously aware of individual speech sounds that make up words. Phoneme awareness forms a critical foundation for learning to read and spell, and is a strong predictor for reading success. 
  2. Sound-symbol correspondence. This is embedded in all good phonics programmes. For each sound, there are letters or a combination of letters that can be matched to the sound, and these require explicit teaching.
  3. Patterns and conventions of print. This refers to letter patterns or rules within the writing system, often known as spelling rules. 
  4. Morphology. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in language. Morphemes include prefixes, roots, base words, and suffixes. Recognising morphemes helps learners understand and remember the meanings of new words.
  5. Syntax. This is the system for ordering words in sentences so that meaning can be communicated. We often think that this skill comes naturally, but for many learners it has to be taught explicitly. 
  6. Semantics. This refers to the aspect of language concerned with meaning. It is one of the highest skills of spoken and written language and takes the longest to learn.

Research tells us that our brains were never wired to read. From the above information it is evident that literacy development and reading does not happen naturally for all learners, or through exposure only. For many it is a complex processing skill of identification, correspondence, integration and understanding of language structure that helps them to navigate literacy constructs and the reading process. If reading is taught using the science of structured literacy, it will become automatic, giving the brain some processing space for comprehension and enjoyment. For more information, visit 


Birsh, J., & Carreker, S. (2019). Multisensory teaching of basic language skills, 4th ed. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Kelly, Kathleen  , & Phillips, Sylvia. (2016). Teaching Literacy to Learners with Dyslexia (1st ed.). Sage Publications Limited.

Moats. L (2020). Structured Literacy: Effective Instruction for Students with Dyslexia and Related Reading Difficulties. IDA Factsheet. 

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