What’s Missing in Public School Literacy Instruction?

What's Missing in Public School Literacy Instruction?

With so many children across the nation struggling to acquire beginning reading skills, one might ask: "What's missing in public school literacy instruction?

Across the nation, approximately 34% of 4th grade children cannot read at the Proficient Level for their grade (NAEP, 2017). That is more than one third of our 4th grade students! What's going on?

Some disadvantaged children may be poor readers because they live in poverty, and don't have the foundational language and pre-reading skills to move forward with formal reading instruction. When they get to public school, the curriculums are often too vague to teach reading foundations. Some children (about 15-20%) are dyslexic, and will struggle to learn to read with the inappropriate curriculums offered in today's schools. However, a large percentage of public school children will struggle to learn to read because schools don't often have the correct curriculums for teaching the mechanics of reading in an appropriate manner for the English Language - also known as the alphabetic principle.

The English language is an alphabetic one - meaning that the alphabet letters and letter clusters make sounds that can represent spoken language. Children need to learn how to map those sounds to the letters and the letter clusters - the symbols that we use to read and spell - in particular sequences, in order to be able to efficiently read and spell.

In Kindergarten, children need to learn and thoroughly master the alphabet letter names and sounds, so that they are ready to use those sound/symbol relationships for reading and spelling instruction in first grade. It takes most children a full year to learn the basic alphabet sounds (A-Z) automatically, and after that task has been mastered, it takes children another two to three years to learn the advanced letter clusters that make unique sounds (ex: digraphs such as /sh/; chunks such as /ong/; double vowels such as /ou/, and advanced letter clusters such as 'tion').

The basic alphabet letter sounds (A-Z) should be taught to mastery in Kindergarten. Then, in first through fourth grades, the advanced letter cluster sounds should be taught - also to mastery. This alphabet sound knowledge provides the foundation upon which all reading and spelling instruction rests.

Instead, schools are focusing heavily on the teaching of sight reading skills, and failing to adequately link the alphabetic principle to reading instruction. Children in kindergarten and first grade are being asked to memorize many words by sight, and are not being taught the decoding skills that English Language is built around. The human brain is incapable of visually memorizing all of the words in English. As a result, when these same students get to third or fourth grade and encounter new subject content words, they don't have the decoding skills to sound them out. And ultimately, many of our students are feeling inadequate about their ability to learn. This is a tragic instructional mistake!

It is a gross mistake that the majority of the current Common Core State Standards in grades K-3 focus heavily on high level critical thinking skills in the Literacy Strands. These advanced standards crowd out the time required for teaching the alphabet principle knowledge that our students so desperately need, to form a literacy foundation in an alphabetic language.

What is missing in public school literacy instruction is a commitment in the early grades to teaching the foundational mechanics of reading and spelling in our alphabetic language, called English.

Public school are currently utilizing a method of literacy instruction called "Balanced Literacy". All of the Core Curriculum State Standards currently revolve around the Balanced Literacy Approach. Although some phonics instruction is taught within a Balanced Literacy curriculum, the phonics instruction is usually not thorough enough, nor explicit enough, nor systematic enough, to breed success for most students. Balanced Literacy does NOT work for all students. Many are left behind, floundering, at the early elementary levels, and never really master the code to reading. These are the students that end up struggling throughout their school careers, unless they are lucky enough to receive timely, targeted intervention that is research based, and is taught by an informed and trained instructor. Targeted intervention is called Structured Literacy, and it works for ALL children.

The period WHEN children learn phonics is just as important as HOW they learn it. Children have a window of opportunity within which to easily absorb phonics instruction (4-8 years old). Beyond that window of opportunity, the task becomes much more laborious, and bad habits used as compensatory strategies need to be broken. The brain actually needs to be re-trained!

But there is a method of literacy instruction that works for ALL CHILDREN, and it's called Structured Literacy. Structured Literacy is a scientifically proven method that teaches children the structure of the English Language, and moves sequentially, systematically, and is taught explicitly, through the hierarchy of the skills inherent in English. Structured Literacy is a research-based approach, and it can be taught in large groups in the regular classroom setting, in small group for more intense instruction, and in one-to-one settings for children who need a highly individualized instructional format.

Structured Literacy, also known as the Orton Gillingham Approach, teaches the structure of English - the sounds of the alphabet, the rules for syllable division, the 6 types of syllables, the process of decoding and encoding while utilizing the alphabetic principle, and the rules that underlie an alphabetic language. Structured Literacy instruction begins with the basic foundational skills, and moves forward in a hierarchy of skills. Decodable text is utilized, as a way to build skills and student confidence. Students are taught each skill to the point of mastery, through a diagnostic teaching approach.

With 34% of our fourth grade students struggling with the processes of reading, it is time to take action, to provide them with a valid, research-based method of reading instruction. The infusion of Structured Literacy into our public school classrooms is on the horizon. Will you be ready?

What the Research Says.....

"The most difficult problem for students with dyslexia is learning to read. Unfortunately, popularly employed reading approaches, such as Guided Reading or Balanced Literacy, are not effective for struggling readers. These approaches are especially ineffective for students with dyslexia because they do not focus on the decoding skills these students need to succeed in reading". (International Dyslexia Association)

"What does work is Structured Literacy, which prepares students to decode words in an explicit and systematic manner. This approach not only helps students with dyslexia, but there is substantial evidence that it is more effective for all readers". (International Dyslexia Association)

"Structured Literacy is distinctive in the principles that guide how critical elements are taught:

*Systematic and cumulative: Structured Literacy is structured and cumulative. Systematic means that the organization of the material follows the logical order of the language.

*Explicit Instruction: Structured Literacy instruction requires the deliberate teaching of all concepts with continuous student-teacher interaction.

*Diagnostic Teaching: The teacher must be adept at individualized instruction. That is instruction that meets the student's needs. The instruction is based on careful and continuous assessment, both informally (for example, observation), and formally (for example, with standardized measures)". (International Dyslexia Association)

To learn more about the Structured Literacy Approach, see the International Dyslexia Website at

Jenelle Erickson Boyd, M.Ed., CDP, author of this blog, is a Certified Reading Specialist and a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner, with 35 years experience in the field of education. She is the Author of the Lil' Reading Scientists Literacy Solutions TM Structured Literacy Curriculum, an avid advocate for children with reading issues, a Teacher Trainer, a speaker at educational conferences, and a literacy consultant for schools. She can be reached at

To view the Lil' Reading Scientists Literacy Solutions TM curriculum, please visit our website at