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The "How" Behind Structured Literacy: 4 Key Principles to Guide Instruction

Defined by the International Dyslexia Association, “structured literacy” is a term used to describe approaches to literacy instruction that cover similar areas of study and adhere to several key principles. We recently dove into the “what” behind structured literacy in the blog post linked here. We described how structured literacy programs include instruction in phonology, sound-symbol association, syllables, morphology, syntax, and semantics.

Today, we will take a closer look at the “how” of structured literacy by examining the key principles that guide effective structured literacy instruction.

An aerial view above a spiral notebook. On top of the notebook, pastel uppercase and lowercase magnetic letters rest in various positions across the page. To the left of the notebook, there are two sharpened yellow pencils, and next to them is a container of white chalk pieces. There is a container of extra magnetic letters on the top righthand side of the spiral notebook, and beyond everything, there is a set of rainbow colored books.


Structured literacy instruction is systematic and sequential. This means instruction follows a clear and logical progression that makes sense given what we know about the English language. Instruction begins with basic concepts and moves to increasingly complex concepts over time. Structured literacy programs involve a clear scope and sequence, or progression, outlining the concepts students should learn and the order these concepts should be taught.

Most structured literacy programs begin by teaching students basic letter-sound connections (individual consonants and short vowels). During this time, students are also taught how to blend sounds together to form words following a consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) pattern. After this, students may be taught common consonant digraphs (e.g., sh, th, ch, wh), or how to combine and read words comprised of four sounds (following the CCVC or CVCC pattern). The scope and sequence from program to program will vary, and that’s okay! There is no research supporting one single scope and sequence that is the “best.” The most important aspect of a systematic and sequential structured literacy program is that the complexity of the concepts increases over time in a planned, intentional manner. The introduction to these more complex concepts should occur as students demonstrate mastery of previously learned concepts.

At SparkEd Literacy, we design structured literary resources following a clear, thoroughly outlined scope and sequence. Download our free Level 1 scope and sequence!

SparkEd Literacy's Level 1 Scope and Sequence
Download PDF • 26KB


Structured literacy instruction is cumulative. This means that new learning builds off of previous learning. As students are taught new concepts, they are given multiple, repeated opportunities to engage with concepts and skills they have previously learned.

Let’s consider an early reader structured literacy program that begins by teaching students the concepts: a, t, n, s, i, and p. After students have learned that p represents /p/, they can then read and write multiple words, including sat, pat, pin, tin, sip, nip, tip, tap, sap, nap.

Let’s suppose the next concept in the sequence says to teach students the letter-sound correspondence, m /m/. In a cumulative structured literacy program, students will have opportunities to read and write words that include the new concept (m /m/) in addition to the previous concepts listed. This means, when given opportunities to read and write new words, they’ll likely be engaging with words such as: mat, map, Sam, Pam, Tim. These words not only incorporate the new concept but also provide review of previous letter-sound connections students have recently learned. Cumulative instruction provides ample opportunities for previous letter-sound connections to be practiced and reinforced, with the ultimate goal of reaching automaticity.


Explicit instruction leaves nothing to chance. Students are directly taught new concepts and skills, and nothing is assumed. Continuous interaction between teachers and students is essential, and students are given direct, timely feedback regarding their performance. The language used to introduce new concepts and skills is clear and direct. In short, students are never left wondering, or needing to infer, the relationship between letters and sounds, or even why certain words are spelled the way they are. Students are taught about the English language directly, learning the relationships and rules that will equip them to become successful readers and spellers.


Structured literacy instruction is diagnostic. This means teachers are using both informal and formal measures to continuously monitor and assess student learning. Teachers are frequently adjusting their instruction based on the performance of their students. Informal measures involve ongoing observations throughout the course of a structured literacy lesson. Formal measures include larger-scale tasks such as standardized tests.

The systematic and sequential, cumulative, and explicit approach to structured literacy instruction is designed to set students up for success. Due to the diagnostic nature of this approach, if a student is only reading 75 percent of the concepts within a lesson with accuracy, teachers would not move on to the next concept. Student success is the driving force dictating the rate that teachers move through their progression. The ultimate goal of instruction is for students to become automatic and fluent readers, allowing students to read for meaning instead of focusing on effortful decoding.


We know that structured literacy instruction involves teaching students about phonology, sound-symbol associations, syllables, morphology, syntax, and semantics. It is important that we also feel confident knowing how to teach our students this content. Systematic and sequential, cumulative, explicit, and diagnostic instruction provides students with the tools they need to access the English language.


Written by: Taryn Quaytman & Rachel Draper

Copyright © 2023 SparkEd LLC



SparkEd Literacy was intentionally created as an organization with two primary functions:

  1. Teach students to read using a structured literacy approach to instruction.

  2. Design structured literacy resources for educators to teach their students to read.

Every resource that we have created and listed within our Teachers Pay Teacher store is one part of a larger whole - our resources follow a comprehensive, systematic scope and sequence. After students have directly learned letter-sound correspondences, we have a wide variety of cumulative resources (e.g., decodable passages, blending slides, fluency grids, dictation lists, decoding games, etc.) designed to provide students with enough practice and repetition to ultimately become fluent readers. Click here to check out our store and our structured literacy resources!

If you haven’t already, click here to sign up for our email list so you never miss another post. You’ll also gain access to our free resource library which we are continually updating with free structured literacy resources!





Birsch, J.R., & Carreker, S. (2018). Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills (4th ed.).

Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Cowen, C. (2016). What is structured literacy? DyslexiaIDA.

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


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