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More Than Just Phonics: 6 Areas of Study in Structured Literacy

Structured literacy is a term developed by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) to describe approaches to literacy instruction that have similar areas of study and instructional methods. Though often associated with phonics, structured literacy includes explicit teaching in other key areas of language as well!

The IDA explains that reading difficulties such as dyslexia originate with language processing difficulties. As a result, language skills at all levels can present a challenge, not just individual word reading. Structured literacy seeks to provide explicit, systematic instruction in all levels of language, oral and written, from phonology to sentence and paragraph composition.

A red telephone or whisper phone sits on top of an orange spiral notebook and both a yellow and green two pocket folder. In the background, rainbow Crayola markers stand in a clear container, and rainbow crayons are also displayed in a container next to a small green plant in a white pot. In the background, a rainbow striped bulletin border is seen.

Though the categories for the areas of language studied in structured literacy programs may vary slightly depending on the source, below is a summary of six key components associated with structured literacy.


Phonology is the study of sounds in spoken words. Developing phonological awareness and phonemic awareness falls in this category of instruction. Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness (more on this in an upcoming blog post!) Students with strong phonemic awareness skills are able to segment, blend, and manipulate individual phonemes in words. Phonemic awareness is considered a precursor to developing sound-symbol associations, and reading difficulties are often associated with deficits in phonological processing.


Phonics is another term for this area of instruction. There are many other terms used to describe it as well: phoneme-grapheme association, letter-sound association, alphabetic code. Phonemes are the individual speech sounds, and graphemes are the letters (b, t, a) or groups of letters (tch, ng, ai) that represent those sounds. English has around 40 phonemes and over 250 graphemes to spell them! Structured literacy programs teach students these associations in a sequential, systematic, and explicit way.


A syllable is a speech unit that contains one vowel sound – it can be a whole word or part of a word. Teaching syllable types can help students break down longer, unfamiliar words into more manageable pieces. Many structured literacy programs also teach systematic steps for syllable division. The six syllable types are based on the vowel unit within the syllable and include:

  • Closed (big, hat)

  • Open (go, me)

  • Vowel Consonant E (bike, made)

  • Vowel Team (boat, loud)

  • R-Controlled (bird, perch)

  • Final Stable Syllable (-ble, -tion)


Morphology is the study of morphemes, or the smallest meaningful units of language. Prefixes, suffixes, and roots are all types of morphemes. Examples of morphological awareness skills include the ability to identify and manipulate morphemes, using morphemes to determine word meanings, and being able to build words with 2 or more morphemes. Morphological awareness skills are associated with improved outcomes in spelling, vocabulary, word identification, and reading comprehension!


Syntax provides us with rules for how words and phrases can be arranged to convey meaning. Studying syntax can include learning about parts of speech, sentence structure, and sentence mechanics like capitalization and punctuation. Syntactical awareness, which is the ability to understand and apply grammatical rules, supports reading comprehension because students are better able to understand complex sentence structures. Syntactical awareness also supports writing composition skills.


Semantics refers to the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences, as well as words’ relationships to one another. Understanding meaning is dependent on skills of accurate word identification, morphological awareness, syntactical awareness, vocabulary, and background/world knowledge. According to the Simple View of Reading, language comprehension is a key piece of reading comprehension as well (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). Read-alouds with varied, complex texts that encourage critical thinking are present even in the earliest stages of structured literacy programs.

Now that we have covered the “what” of structured literacy, next week we will look more closely at the “how” – or the principles of instruction. If you haven’t already, click here to sign up for our email list so you never miss a new post!


Written by: Rachel Draper & Taryn Quaytman

Copyright © 2023 SparkEd LLC



Birsch, J.R., & Carreker, S. (2018). Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills (4th ed.). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Gough, P. and Tunmer, W. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.

International Dyslexia Association. (n.d.). Structured literacy: Effective instruction for students with dyslexia and related reading difficulties.

Moats, L. C. (2020). Speech to print: Language essentials for teachers (Third Edition). Paul

Brooks Publishing Co.


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