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Comparing Structured and Balanced Literacy Approaches and Understanding the Role of Orton-Gillingham

In the 1980s and 1990s, a debate existed revolving around the question: What is the best approach to teaching reading?

For many years, there has been a debate in general education classrooms about the most effective approach to teaching literacy. On one hand, there is the whole language approach, which assumes that students can learn to read and comprehend by being exposed to rich literature without systematic instruction in phonics, spelling, and decoding. On the other hand, there is phonics instruction, which emphasizes the importance of teaching the relationship between letters and sounds, but was largely abandoned in the face of the whole language approach.

The whole language approach relied on a "three cueing system," which encouraged guessing based on semantics, syntax, and graphophonic cues. While this system may have some benefits, it should not be promoted as an effective strategy for word identification, as context clues alone cannot fully help students understand the meaning of words.

As the number of struggling readers increased and dyslexia intervention became more widely advocated, structured literacy programs like Orton-Gillingham came to the forefront. Structured literacy is an umbrella term that refers to programs based on the Science of Reading and that teach students how to read explicitly and systematically, emphasizing the relationship between letters and sounds.

Structured literacy programs have been shown to be effective not just for struggling readers, but for all students. The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) has adopted structured literacy as a framework that incorporates both the principles of effective reading instruction and the specific elements that should be taught.

In contrast to the balanced literacy approach, which blends phonics lessons with the cueing system and emphasizes independent reading, structured literacy programs like Orton-Gillingham provide a more explicit, systematic, and comprehensive approach to teaching reading. This can help struggling readers catch up to their peers, and can also benefit all students in developing strong literacy skills.

The need for effective reading instruction is more important than ever, as evidenced by the 2019 report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showing that 38% of fourth-grade students were reading at a "below basic" level. Structured literacy provides a research-based approach to teaching reading that can help improve literacy outcomes for all students.

How to Teach Structured Literacy

Structured Literacy is an approach to reading instruction that is gaining popularity as a more effective way to teach all students, not just those with identified reading disabilities. The approach is based on the Science of Reading and emphasizes a systematic and cumulative approach to teaching phonics, decoding, and other related skills. In order for teachers to effectively implement Structured Literacy, they must have a strong knowledge of its principles.

The principles of Structured Literacy instruction include explicit, systematic, cumulative, diagnostic/responsive, and multi-sensory teaching strategies. Teachers who use Structured Literacy provide clear and direct explanations for each new concept, using multi-sensory strategies to enhance learning through visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic senses. They also provide guidance and feedback during student application to promote proper learning.

Instruction follows a well-defined scope and sequence that provides a logical advancement of skills that progress from simple to more complex. New concepts are layered on top of previously learned concepts, and the foundation of phoneme-grapheme relationships, generalization of rules, and reliable spelling patterns is continuously reevaluated to build automaticity.

Progress monitoring is an important part of Structured Literacy instruction, allowing teachers to identify and make decisions for prescriptive teaching and differentiation. The Gough and Tunmer’s Simple View of Reading is a helpful model for understanding the two processes required for students to achieve reading comprehension through Structured Literacy: decoding (word recognition) and language comprehension.

Dr. Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope provides a research-based analogy that breaks these two processes into sub-processes and skills, which are woven together to clearly represent how these decoding skills and comprehension strategies are intertwined to lead to skilled reading. By following the principles of Structured Literacy, teachers can help all students achieve reading success.

What to Teach to Support Decoding

Phonemic Awareness is a crucial aspect of reading, as it has been found that over 90% of students who struggle with reading have difficulty processing phonological information, particularly at the phoneme level. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) identified phonemic awareness as a strong predictor of future literacy learning. To improve phonemic awareness, teachers should introduce oral exercises or listening activities to preschool children that help them identify sounds and syllables in spoken language. As they become more adept at identifying these smallest parts of language, they can progress to more complex exercises that enhance their ability to manipulate sounds and syllables automatically and accurately.

Phonics is another essential aspect of reading that involves teaching students to recognize the sound-symbol correspondence. Orton-Gillingham instruction provides explicit guidance for students to learn that graphemes (letters) and letter combinations represent phonemes (sounds). Through structured literacy instruction, students can progress from recognizing letter sounds to blending letter sounds sequentially, moving from the sound level to the syllable and multi-syllabic word levels in decoding.

Orthography refers to the spelling patterns in the English language, which is a complex structure of 26 letters that represent 44 sounds. Cumulative instruction is a beneficial way for students to build spelling knowledge by focusing on letter and word patterns. Structured Literacy provides students with strategies to break down multi-syllabic words into syllables, which is particularly helpful when decoding unfamiliar words.

Morphology, which includes prefixes, suffixes, roots, and combining forms, plays a crucial role in reading, spelling, and vocabulary. Morphemes are the fundamental parts of words and are essential for word-level reading and spelling. Instruction in morphological knowledge begins early in a child's language development and helps them transition into third grade, where Latin and Greek-based roots are commonly presented in texts. Orton-Gillingham provides explicit, systematic, and sequential instruction in morphological knowledge, which prepares students to understand and use words that they have not yet encountered.

What to Teach to Support Language Comprehension

In order to predict reading comprehension, a student's knowledge of syntax is an important factor. As students progress through the grades, the structure of sentences becomes more complex, making it important for students to recognize concepts such as the use of connective words, pronoun referencing, clauses, agreements, and more. To support their development in this area, teachers can provide instruction and practice in recognizing and understanding the different parts of speech.

Another critical factor in reading comprehension is a student's vocabulary development. One way to help students improve their vocabulary is through repeated exposure to Tier 2 words and more sophisticated language used in teacher-read text. Additionally, students can benefit from learning strategies to enhance their understanding of word meaning, such as the use of synonyms, context clues, visualization, and lessons in figurative language.

A student's overall comprehension is also highly influenced by their background knowledge. When teachers model metacognition during reading, comprehension can be improved. This can be achieved by consistently modeling skills such as predicting, questioning, inferencing, clarifying, and summarizing. Teachers can also provide opportunities for students to focus on cause/effect, compare/contrast, and various text structures. By doing this, students can develop a better understanding of the content and context of the text they are reading.

It is important to note that students with learning differences, such as those with dyslexia, may struggle with aspects of syntax, semantics, and discourse. Therefore, it is crucial for teachers to be trained in Structured Literacy instruction, which provides explicit, systematic, and cumulative instruction in these areas to support all students' reading development.

Who Should Teach Structured Literacy?

Structured Literacy is an approach to reading instruction that focuses on teaching students to recognize the building blocks of language and how to use them to read and write with ease. As with any approach to education, it is important for teachers to be well-equipped to deliver this evidence-based approach effectively.

The International Dyslexia Association has taken a leading role in promoting Structured Literacy, developing Knowledge and Practice Standards (KPS) that can help teachers understand and deliver this approach in their classrooms. These standards provide a broad knowledge base for teachers, covering the key principles and strategies that are essential to effective Structured Literacy instruction.

One of the key benefits of adopting Structured Literacy as an application of the Science of Reading is that it provides a clear and evidence-based framework for teaching reading. This is particularly important for students with language-based learning disabilities, as well as those in the general education classroom who may struggle with reading.

By providing a unified and certified approach to teaching reading, the International Dyslexia Association is helping to ensure that all students have access to effective instruction that can help them succeed. Teachers who embrace Structured Literacy and the KPS can feel confident in their ability to deliver high-quality instruction that is rooted in research and designed to meet the needs of all learners.

Why Teach Structured Literacy?

The debate over which teaching method is most effective for reading instruction has raged on for years. However, with the advent of Structured Literacy, it seems that this debate may finally come to an end. Structured Literacy is a research-based approach to reading instruction that is designed to help students with language-based learning disabilities, as well as those in general education classrooms, become successful and engaged learners.

To help teachers feel equipped to deliver this evidence-based approach, the International Dyslexia Association has developed Knowledge and Practice Standards (KPS) for Structured Literacy. By adopting Structured Literacy as an application of the Science of Reading, teachers are empowered to diagnostically teach and monitor students’ progress, and customize the learning experience for each individual student.

Structured Literacy is a powerful tool that ensures students are exposed to important foundational literacy skills that are sequential, systematic, and cumulative. This can alleviate the need for wide variations of reading approaches and provide a smooth transition to more advanced concepts every year. Teachers who are skilled in Structured Literacy can help their students achieve significant changes in their reading abilities.

As more and more programs fall under the Structured Literacy umbrella, and more teachers become skilled in this approach, significant changes will fall into place. This means that schools can have a positive and collective impact on the number of students who can read at or above grade level in the future. Therefore, it is essential that teachers seek out training opportunities and resources, such as the Teach with Koala platform, to become skilled in Structured Literacy and help their students become successful readers. You can find and book those classes at this page.

Happy Learning!

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