Academic Quarterly

Reading Expert Fall 2018

Structured Literacy and High Leverage Practices

In 2017, the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) developed an umbrella term to characterize various but similar approaches to teaching students with reading difficulties and dyslexia. This term, known as Structured Literacy is described here, here and here on the IDA’s website. In addition, Louise Spear-Swerling wrote a superb comparison of Structured Literacy and Typical Literacy Practices that will appear in an upcoming edition of Teaching Exceptional Children. Spear-Swerling (2018) states that a key feature of structured literacy includes, “explicit, systematic, and sequential teaching of literacy at multiple levels—phonemes, letter–sound relationships, syllable patterns, morphemes, vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and text structure” (p. 2). Although the article is not widely available for download, it is available for a cost to download at the Sage Journals website. Click here if you are interested in purchasing the article.

Also, in 2017, the Council on Exceptional Children (CEC) in partnership with the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform Center (CEEDAR) published a set of high-leverage practices in special education. The publication High-Leverage Practices in Special Education (McKleskey et al., 2017) can be downloaded for free here. These high- leverage practices (HLPs) in special education are an extension of the high-leverage practices in general education, developed by Deborah Ball and her colleagues at the University of Michigan’s Teaching Works. These practices are currently receiving more widespread attention. Structured Literacy shares features with high-leverage practices, especially in relation to explicitness, the use of active engagement, the provision of constructive feedback, and the use of diagnostic teaching to meet students’ needs.

Given that this is Dyslexia Awareness Month, the purpose of this edition of the Reading Expert is to describe Structured Literacy as the type of reading instruction that will prevent reading problems from developing but is especially vital for students with reading difficulties and dyslexia.

Structured literacy curricula are designed with lessons that are systematic, sequenced, and that build on each other. Skills and concepts are taught in a logical order, with important prerequisite skills taught first. Students practice only what they have been explicitly taught. Included in the curricula is cumulative practice and ongoing review of previously taught skills so that teachers do not have to design it themselves. Two simple examples of a systematic and sequenced approach are when students are taught short vowels before long vowels or when students are taught to read single syllable words before being taught to read multisyllabic words. In writing, teaching the basics of writing a sentence before writing a paragraph is another example of a systematic and sequenced approach.

Structured literacy curricula present instruction in an explicit format where the teacher provides step-by-step demonstration of skills and leads students in guided practice. Explicit instruction also uses nonexamples as well as examples. Many examples of explicit instruction can be found in the model lessons in CORE’s Teaching Reading Sourcebook, Third Edition. One Sourcebook lesson on story structure (p. 651) has the teacher explicitly defining each story structure element. After defining each element, the teacher reads a story with the students while they write examples of each story element on a story map. The teacher uses a Story Structure Questions chart to guide this process. Once the chart is almost filled out (excepting the Theme), students work in partners to orally retell the story. Then the teacher guides students to identify the theme using a Theme Identification Questions chart. Students will continue to practice story element identification by reading other stories and mapping the story elements with the teacher providing immediate and corrective feedback.

Structured literacy curricula incorporate scaffolded supports (another high-leverage practice) by using clear instructional routines that gradually reduce support over time. Two examples of this scaffolded support are shown in the above description of the story structure elements where the two question charts were made available to students. Blending routines to explicitly teach how to “sound out” or decode words is another form of scaffolding. Sound-by-sound or continuous blending are the most supportive types of blending routines. As students become more proficient at blending, the teacher can release some of the support and move into a whole word blending routine. Sometimes, however, the teacher may need to temporarily provide extra support by moving back to previously used instructional routines. Going back to more supportive scaffolds when needed implies that scaffolds should be used in a flexible manner. For more information on the specifics around these blending routines, see CORE’s Teaching Reading Sourcebook, 3rd edition (pp. 181-182).

A high degree of teacher-student interaction is an important feature of Structured Literacy (Spear-Swerling, 2018). “Active student engagement is critical to academic success” (McKleskey et al., 2017, p. 24). Instruction requires frequent responses from students which comes via choral responses or response cards. In this way, all students have the opportunity to respond and the teacher has an opportunity (if the group is small enough) to monitor these responses closely and provide immediate feedback.

Providing positive corrective and immediate feedback is critical to the success of special education students in particular, but it benefits all students. In Structured Literacy, teachers should use specific correction routines that provide this positive and immediate feedback. These correction/feedback routines minimize teacher talk and require students to think through the correct response. For example, if students are reading the two-syllable word robot the teacher can break the word into the two syllables and have students read each syllable before putting the two together. In robot the syllable ro– is an open syllable where the vowel makes its long sound because it comes at the end of the syllable. The second syllable, -bot, is a closed syllable because the vowel does not come at the end; thus, the vowel makes the short vowel sound. The teacher would have previously taught this open and closed syllable generalization. If a student reads the second syllable as “boat” rather than “bot,” the teacher asks questions to have students think through the correct vowel sound for that syllable. Rather than calling out the student individually, she asks students to identify where the vowel is and whether the vowel is long or short. If these question prompts don’t generate the correct choral response, then the teacher tells students the correct answer or she may have a visual prompt (a scaffolded support) that reminds the students of the wording to the generalization if they are having difficulty remembering. Finally, the teacher prompts the students to reread the word correctly.

Finally, Structured Literacy embodies the high-leverage practice of using assessment to provide diagnostic teaching. While teachers are providing the instruction, they should be consistently progress monitoring formally through curriculum-based measures (CBM) and informally through observations and other classroom assessments to identify which students are making progress and which ones are not. The progress monitoring data may require more “drilling down” using diagnostic assessments to pinpoint the exact issue. Teachers can then adjust instruction by reteaching prior skills, provide additional practice, teaching new skills, or speeding up instruction.

This edition of Reading Expert connects several of the high-leverage practices in special education with the IDA’s definition of structured literacy. Although structured literacy is an approach to teach children with reading difficulties and dyslexia who may be receiving special education services, many experts, including Spear-Swerling (2018) and CORE consultants advocate for this approach to be taught in all general education classrooms to prevent reading difficulties in the first place.


Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

McLeskey, J., Barringer, M-D., Billingsley, B., Brownell, M., Jackson, D., Kennedy, M., Lewis, T., Maheady, L., Rodriguez, J., Scheeler, M. C., Winn, J., & Ziegler, D. (2017). High-leverage practices in special education. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children & CEEDAR Center.

Spear-Swerling, L. (in press). Structured literacy and typical literacy practices: Understanding differences to create instructional opportunities. Teaching Exceptional Children


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