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Students with dyslexia need structured reading instruction

A dyslexia expert puts the “reading wars” to bed and explains the how and why behind the most effective way to build a foundation in reading.

6 min read

Voice of the Educator

Students with dyslexia need structured reading instruction


This is part one of a six-part series revolving around how to improve the classroom experience for students with dyslexia.

The history of reading instruction in the United States is surprisingly well-documented. This history includes the various theories and practices for teaching reading that have existed over the last century.

There are podcasts, radio, and print pieces on what have been called the “reading wars,” an ongoing debate among educators, researchers, politicians, and more about the best way students should be taught to read. Much of the debate centers on the teaching of phonics—connecting the sounds of speech to the letters that represent them in order to decode words that are unfamiliar—versus a whole language approach that relies on exposure to text rather than teaching the components of the language.

Mark Seidenberg’s book Reading at the Speed of Sight offers a drop-the-mic description of the reading wars. He explains that while educators shouldn’t be blamed for implementing the whole language approach over the last several decades, continuing to make the claim that whole language is the best way to teach reading should be faulted because research has contradicted this assertion beyond a reasonable doubt. Educators have a responsibility to know and practice the reading instruction approaches that are best for their students.

With all of the confusion surrounding the science of reading and what we have learned about how we learn to read, a unifying term has finally been born to explain the best practice in reading instruction for students with dyslexia. Here’s why Structured Literacy is the most effective approach to reading instruction for students with dyslexia and how you can implement it in your classroom.

Why Structured Literacy?

Structured Literacy is a trademarked term used by the International Dyslexia Association to describe the best approach for reading instruction. This approach is based on the science of how the brain learns to read and supports the methods of instruction known as Orton-Gillingham. Many research-based reading programs are based on the principles of Structured Literacy. The guiding principles of this approach are:

  • Phonology: The sound structure of spoken words

  • Sound-symbol association: The mapping of letter sounds to symbols

  • Syllable instruction: A unit of oral or written language with a vowel sound

  • Morphology: Teaching the meaning of words by breaking them down

  • Syntax: Appropriate order and use of words

  • Semantics: Making meaning from language

Once we understand what students with dyslexia must be taught to be successful readers, we need to be equally attentive to how it is taught. Structured Literacy instruction is systematic and cumulative, explicitly taught with constant assessment to guide instruction.

Stanislas Dehaene, a French cognitive neuroscientist, is conducting some groundbreaking research into how humans learn language. His latest book, How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine…for Now, includes recent fMRI data providing insight into just how innate language is for most people.

In fact, Dehaene says babies prefer listening to their native language rather than a foreign one right from birth. He goes on to say that babies can tell the difference between most vowels and consonants in every language in the world—also right from birth.

This insight into the infant brain and the ability to distinguish spoken language should provide the direction we need to improve reading instruction and dispel once and for all the erroneous idea that reading remediation is a game of wait and see. Rather, armed with the science of how we learn, educators can be prepared to provide appropriate and systematic instruction in the critical sound development needed as a foundation for reading instruction—as soon as possible.

Building Phonemic Awareness

As Dehaene has pointed out, infants are “hardwired” with the ability to acquire language. Since a person with dyslexia may display a weakness in phonemic awareness and rapid automatized naming, covering all of the areas from phonemic awareness to semantics will help them gain the skills they need to be competent readers. Because sound is so vital to learning language, phonemic awareness taught to the advanced level is critical for students with dyslexia.

Perhaps the greatest example of how important it is to understand the components of Structured Literacy, as well the science of how we learn, is when an adult student, who has struggled for most of his life, is able to hear the different sounds within a word for the first time. I watched one adult student in particular as he worked to gain advanced phonemic awareness skills as part of a Structured Literacy program called Reading Horizons.

After working for several months, he was finally able to distinguish the individual units of sound within a word, dropping and adding sounds as instructed. This was a revelation for him. “Imagine what I could have done with reading and spelling if I had been able to hear and work with the sounds,” he stated at the end of a tutoring session. He had been drowning in sounds his entire life, and now he was finally swimming.

Making the Switch to Structured Literacy

Making sure that your literacy program aligns with the components of Structured Literacy begins by reviewing the components of Structured Literacy carefully in order to understand each element and its role in instruction. Then confirm that your program teaches all of those elements, with a special emphasis on phonemic awareness to help students with dyslexia.

Since there is evidence that Structured Literacy not only benefits students with dyslexia but every student, it makes sense to closely examine reading instruction for all students, regardless of age. The clear message is it’s never too late to intervene when it comes to reading. We know it’s much easier to improve reading the earlier we intervene, but we shouldn’t dismiss intervention for older students and adults. As educators, our responsibility is to build a strong foundation in reading for all of our students.

Donell Pons is a reading and dyslexia specialist in Salt Lake City, Utah, with a master’s degree in education and teaching from Westminster College, along with a certification in special education. She started her career in education when her youngest son was diagnosed with dyslexia. She uses Reading Horizons in her one-on-one work with students. Connect with her at [email protected].


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