top of page

The Origin of Structured Literacy: What Is It, and Where Did It Come From?

Over the last several years, the term “structured literacy” has become increasingly mainstream. Professional development surrounding structured literacy has made its way into more and more school districts, and many teachers have adopted a structured literary approach to teaching reading. However, just ten years ago, the term “structured literacy” as we know it today did not exist. Where did this terminology come from, and what does it refer to?

A hand holds a yellow pencil upon a spiral notebook. In the background, the base of a lamp, colorful pink, turquoise, green, yellow, orange, and red books, and a white container with black text saying "Create" sit. Behind these items, there is some kind of bulletin board or wall display with black and white polka dotted trim.


The term “structured literacy” was created by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) in July of 2014. IDA’s Board of Directors selected “structured literacy” as an umbrella term to encompass all approaches to reading instruction that align with IDA’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading (KPS). The KPS were designed by IDA in 2010 and specifically outline and define the knowledge/skills teachers must have in order to teach their students to become proficient readers.

It may surprise you to learn what selecting this umbrella term entailed. According to an article written by Hal Malchow, the president of IDA from 2014-2016, IDA contacted 300 professional members and asked for their insights regarding the new name. A list of ten names was ultimately compiled, and over 700 people were asked to select their top three names from the list. Then, the three names with the highest ranking were discussed in a board meeting in April. Finally, at a board meeting held on July 1st, a unanimous vote selected “Structured Literacy” as the umbrella term to describe approaches aligning with KPS.


But what prompted IDA to go through all of this effort in the first place?

In another article written by Malchow, he described a problem. He explained how there are numerous programs aligning with the KPS. Teachers trained in these programs often referred to them by organization name (e.g., Wilson, Neuhaus, etc.) Essentially, teachers were familiar with the one particular program they had learned, but they weren’t necessarily aware that this program belonged to, as Malchow described, “one family of reading instruction.” There was a need for a term to unify these different programs and approaches rooted in very similar principles (think Orton-Gillingham, Multisensory Reading Instruction, etc.). This quote from Malchow below describes his thinking:

“If we want school districts to adopt our approach, we need a name that brings together our successes. We need one name that refers to the many programs that teach reading in the same way. A name is the first essential step to building a brand… ‘Structured literacy’ will help us sell what we do so well.”


So what do structured literacy programs have in common? Structured literacy instruction involves specific areas of study and key principles – both the “what” and the “how” of teaching reading. We have outlined these areas and principles below.

Areas of Study

  • Phonology

  • Sound-Symbol Association

  • Syllables

  • Morphology

  • Syntax

  • Semantics

Key Principles

  • Systematic

  • Sequential

  • Cumulative

  • Explicit

  • Diagnostic

Note: Depending on the source, the areas of study and key principles may vary by one or two points listed. The list of principles above is synthesized from two posts published directly by the IDA.

In our upcoming blog post, we will take a closer look at each of these areas of study and key principles. If you haven’t already, click here to sign up for our email list so you never miss a new post!


Written by: Taryn Quaytman & Rachel Draper

Copyright © 2023 SparkEd LLC


Check out these additional free resources below!



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. (2018, April 3). Knowledge and practice standards for teachers of reading.

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

International Dyslexia Association Ontario. (n.d.). Structured literacy instruction.

International Dyslexia Association Oregon. (n.d.). What is structured literacy?

Malchow, H. (n.d.). From the desk of the president…DyslexiaIDA.

Malchow, H. (2014, July). Structured literacy: a new term to unify us and sell what we do. International Dyslexia Association.


bottom of page