The Power of Structured Literacy

Published January 19, 2024

In recent years, structured literacy has gained recognition as a highly effective approach for teaching children how to read and write, with research showing that the most successful method is systematic and explicit instruction. This has formed the strategic focus for the Junior School – to empower students with the specific skills and strategies they need to read, spell and write effectively.

An extensive body of research on reading instruction has concluded that there are five essential sets of knowledge and skills for reading – Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary and Comprehension, and that a high-quality literacy programme should include all five components. These components are inter-related – the development of each is dependent on the others.

Structured literacy focuses on systematically teaching the foundational skills necessary for reading and writing. By providing a structured approach to learning, children can build strong foundations in these critical areas. As children develop strong literacy skills through structured learning, they gain more confidence in their reading and writing abilities.

Fe Tomich, Head of Junior School says “It’s not a small number of children that find reading difficult, and as teachers we feel so strongly the need to address this. We have invested a significant amount of time and resourcing into building our knowledge and skill base in this area. There is an overwhelming body of research that supports the effectiveness of a structured literacy approach.” Fe adds, “We now know through this latest research what is actually happening inside people’s brains when they are reading, and what’s been particularly exciting about this research is that it enables us to change our teaching to methods that are proven to be effective in growing or developing the neural pathways, for those readers that struggle, so that the activity that happens inside their brains when they are reading more closely mirrors capable or fluid readers”.

By having all of this research, the Junior School teachers are drawing upon the very best of what they know about how children learn language, and are tailoring their teaching to meet these needs.

Emily Fisher, Year 0-3 Dean says “The way in which we are now teaching students to read and write is very different to how we ourselves were taught and trained as teachers. There has been so much new learning for not only our students but for us teachers as well, with plenty of a-ha moments along the way. I think the most exciting part of it all is seeing the difference it is making to our students’ learning. The way our youngest students can articulate spelling rules and apply this to their learning is amazing. They are like sponges, and we are seeing that this systematic and structured approach really does work.”

Unlike walking, talking and moving, reading is not a skill that we learn naturally, and is an incredibly complex process. Reading requires connecting the visual systems in the brain to the shapes of letters, and then connecting them to speech sounds. We know that the English language is predictable and highly structured with set rules and patterns. This has led to significant changes in the way we teach young children to read, helping them learn the relationship between sounds and letters in a very structured way.

“In the early years we use the Little Learners Love Literacy (LLLL) resources. The LLLL programme is more than just learning to read, it encompasses reading, spelling, handwriting and dictation. Through this Structured Literacy programme, we are creating stronger links between reading and writing. Previously, there was often a gap between a child’s ability to read and their ability to write. Structured Literacy is bridging that gap and equips students with the knowledge and skills to not only be able to read words, but to be able to spell them as well”. Emily adds, “In the early stages of learning to read and write, students move from sounds (phonemes), to letters (graphemes), to words, to sentences, to books. This sets them up for success and minimizes the cognitive overload that comes with learning to read and write.”

Once students have completed the Little Learners programme, they move onto The Code, which, like Little Learners is also a very systematic and structured way of teaching. Jude Griffiths, Year 4-6 Dean says “The Code uses the idea of “I Do, We do, You do”. That means that as teachers, we are explicitly showing the students how to perform a task, then we give them a chance to test it out with our support, then finally move through to where they are able to embark on doing this independently. Having this lesson structure, means for the students, there are no surprises; they know exactly what is going to happen in a lesson, and their cognitive load can go into the lesson, not worry about what is going to happen next.”

The Code also supports the teaching of spelling through a very structured approach, also working on correct pronunciation, so this translates into more accurate spelling. Jude comments that students are typically stronger readers than they are spellers, which is why we continue to use a systematic approach to spelling. She says “Parents probably remember when we were at school, we’d be sent home with a list of spelling words on a Monday that we would have to memorise for a test on a Friday. Think how many words are in the English language you need to learn, versus actually learning spelling rules that you can apply to a multitude of words across the English language. This is where you start to see the benefits of this Structured Literacy approach”.

Targeted learning is an important part of this approach. At the start of the year, all students in Years 3-6 are assessed so teachers can see what level they are at, where their areas of strength are, and where their gaps are; and from using this data, students can be put in a group specifically addressing their individual needs. “The beauty of the programme is that we are so deliberate in what we are teaching and I think that is the key difference in a lot of ways – that we are very conscious and know what the girls need at specific moments in time, and we are always assessing to find out what those needs are,” Fe Tomich says. This means that students who are struggling, can receive targeted support, while more advanced students can be challenged, ensuring that no child is left behind.

Fe states “One of the best things about teaching is that we are constantly learning, and when you know better, you do better, and that’s a huge part of what we are doing here when we are being adaptive with our practice. We’re moving with the girls and that’s the beauty of it. We are incredibly fortunate that not only do we have the resources to roll this out properly, we also have the entire teaching team on board, so the change has happened very quickly. It’s so exciting that there is so much scope in this approach.”