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  • Brittany Zucker

Not All Reading Approaches Are Created Equal - Which Is In Your Child's Classroom?


Reading isn’t natural. Our brains aren’t wired to learn how to read. In order to read, children must learn how words are broken up into sounds and how those sounds are connected to letters on the page. Hundreds of studies show that children – those who struggle and those who don't - need explicit, systematic phonics instruction, called Structured Literacy, to become proficient in reading. However, this effective reading approach isn't in most classrooms.


According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a third of children can't read at a basic level. There are different reading approaches - Structured Literacy, Whole Language, and Balanced Literacy - however, they aren't all created equal.


The Winner - “Structured Literacy”

Structured Literacy (also known as Orton Gillingham, phonics-based reading instruction, and systematic reading instruction) prepares children to decode words in an explicit and systematic way. This means that skills are introduced in a logical order, build upon one another, and are deliberately taught. Children are taught the "why" behind the way our language works. Since this approach was originally created to support struggling students, many educators and parents assume this approach is only for remedial intervention. However, research shows that this approach helps ALL readers.


What's included?

Structured Literacy integrates listening, speaking, reading and writing. It teaches the structure of language (phonology), the writing system (orthography), the structure of sentences (syntax), the meaningful parts of words (morphology) as well as the relationships among words (semantics). Phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition skills (i.e., syllable types, syllable division rules) are taught explicitly. Children are taught how to decode while instruction focuses on reading fluency, comprehension, and written expression. Instruction is best supported by the use of decodable texts, which are texts that only include letters, phonemes and grapheme patterns that have already been taught to the reader. Each and every word is decodable for the child and so the child is able to rely on the skills and patterns he has been taught to read unknown words.


Structured Literacy teaches children to decode so they can read every word they will ever encounter.


The 'Others' - Whole Language and Balanced Literacy


The “Whole Language Approach”

Whole Language” is a method of teaching children to read by recognizing words as whole pieces of language, rather than breaking down words into letters and sounds. It’s the idea that children will learn to read, just by being exposed to reading. Phonics skills are not taught. While some children learn to read this way, most don’t.


“Balanced Literacy” and “Guided Reading:"

These approaches evolved from the whole language approach and involves a combination of whole language and some phonics instruction. However, it is still rooted in the idea that children learn to read by reading and phonics instruction is not usually explicit or systematic. Children are given “leveled readers” that increase in text complexity and sentence length, which include phonetic and morphological structures and patterns they haven’t been taught yet. These classrooms often have “word walls,” which are based on the idea that we learn to read visually rather than as a process of understanding how letters represent sounds. Children are frequently encouraged to guess on words they don’t know based on context and pictures rather than systematically teaching children how to decode unknown words. While many of these children will read just fine, many begin to struggle once pictures are removed and words in texts become more complex.


Let’s Sum It Up –

Although Structured Literacy is essential for struggling readers, it is also the most effective way to teach ALL beginning readers in the classroom. Research shows that classrooms using a Structured Literacy approach have fewer students who require more intensive literacy support and intervention.


For more information on Orton-Gillingham, the type of approach I personally use, please read my post "What Is the Orton-Gillingham Approach?" and feel free to reach out if you have any questions!





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