What Is Structured Literacy?

By Nancy Williams
Clinical Director, CCI

Why is structured literacy important?

Why is it essential that we teach students the structure of our language in order for them to be successful as readers? It’s because language is structured. Many people think English is a complex language that is unpredictable and there is no pattern – that it’s a language of exceptions.

And yet, greater than 90% of English is patterned and predictable, if we teach students the patterns that exist. That is what structured language is. It’s all about the patterns that happen and how we teach kids not to memorize words but to understand language.

How do we get from a word like cat to a word like catastrophe?

Kids could memorize cat but they can’t usually memorize something as long as catastrophe. How do we teach them how to go about that process?

Well, how would we do it in math? In math, we would teach in a structured and sequential pattern just like we need to do with language. We lay a foundation that is sound-oriented where students understand sounds. Then we move to more complex concepts just like with Algebra.

We may do something like 3+x=8. How do we solve for x? Many people will already tell you that x=5. Why? It’s because they have memorized that 3+5=8, or they’ve memorized that 3, 5, and 8 is a family of numbers that go together, much like we can understand cat and memorize it quickly and easily.

But what happens if our problem is a little more complex? If our problem is: 5x+6(4x-17)=14, we can’t just immediately solve for x. We need to know the process – how to solve for x. What are all the steps? That’s the same thing we need in something like taking apart language. If we follow all the steps to this more advanced math problem, we find that x=4.

If we teach kids how to take apart a word, it gives them the ability to go from cat to catastrophe and understand the process. Part of the process is knowing the sounds of letters. The letter o makes a different sound in mom, go, and dog. But it could also appear with other letters like oa in boat, ow in how, or in porch, oi in coin, or ou in found?

How do we teach kids what to predict a certain vowel will say?

It’s about teaching them the different syllable types – teaching them what happens in a word and what a vowel will say and do in specific syllable types. When we do that, kids can predict with greater than 90% accuracy exactly what a vowel is going to say in a word. That’s essential to their process of language.

Just like with math, language gets more complex. So, let’s take a look at our language. If we think of it in terms of a pyramid, at the bottom we see that 60% of our language is Latin in its roots. On top of that, another 12-15% is Greek. And then we have about 20% that is actually English. We have a little bit up at the top that is going be French or Spanish or something like that.

Let’s take a look specifically at the bottom two components of our language pyramid.

They are not sound-based; they are meaning-based. Latin and Greek have roots that carry meaning like struct. It’s a root that means to build. Kids need to understand struct means to build whether they see it in structure or construction or destruct. Every time they see that root, if they associate it with the meaning to build, it develops fluency, but it also builds comprehension and the ability to understand words they have not encountered before.

We move from things like sounds, like o says /ŏ/ to things like struct means to build or port means to carry, and we go up into things like micro means small and scope means to see. We build a continuous structure of language for kids to understand the simple to the complex.

And if we don’t build that structure for them, they don’t have the ability to understand, read, and comprehend at the levels we need. Through evidence-based best practices and years of success, we have found that structured literacy is the answer!

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