The Science of Reading: Structured Literacy vs. Balanced Literacy

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It is estimated that dyslexia impacts about 20% of the general population. It begins with children, and if it is not identified and remedial steps have not begun by the time a child is 5, they can develop such issues as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem that last well into adulthood. The method of reading instruction that has typically been taught up until now is known as the “Whole Language” style. The results of scientific research demonstrate that a dyslexic student needs a different approach, one that is explicit, systematic, sequential, multi-sensory and intensive. A leading example of this is the Orton-Gillingham method.

Not all reading education is alike.

Reading is not a skill we are born with; that ability must be taught. So how do we go about doing that? The Whole Language approach to reading immerses students into the world of literature available at their fingertips. But what good is this if they get stuck on the first page, unable to decode the sometimes confusing intricacies of the written language? The Structured Literacy method helps students to comprehend what they’re reading from that first page onward. Structured Literacy is an explicit method where each step in understanding a word or phrase is addressed systematically, step-by-step.

Educators have arrived at a compromise between these two techniques, known as Balanced Literacy. Through various teaching methods, it works to achieve the “five pillars of reading instruction”: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

Approaching reading as a science, we can break it down into steps like basic word decoding, recognition of the word, comprehension of what is being read, and phonological skills to voice it.

To a great degree, the incumbent system still practiced in many schools just hands books to students and assumes they can read them and learn from them. But what if there’s a breakdown in the student’s reading capability? This can go undetected through the early schooling years. As well as the student failing the course, the course can dramatically fail the student. Reading abilities can have a pronounced impact on the student’s life prospects in the future. So much so that correctional systems often use reading scores to plan for increases in the prison population.

Should we leave students guessing?

The way children are taught to read has changed little over the past century. It has been looked on as a mechanical system of “guessing” what the text may mean through context, patterns of language and sounding out words. These are all valuable tools but by no means represent the entire picture. 

This approach is based upon an assumption that has been proven invalid by research in the last few decades. The assumption is that reading is a mechanical skill, and all children (and even grown people) read in the same way. This could not be further from the truth.

When skills like phonics are added to the mix, we arrive at something more related to Balanced Literacy. Over the years, we have come to realize that people need a balance to be struck between life and work, physical and emotional wellbeing. Applying this concept earlier in life, when a child is beginning a relationship with the printed word, can bring a world of benefits into the process.

Not all brains function alike.

With an improved understanding of learning differences and increasing statistics involving neuro-atypical conditions such as dyslexia, many educational jurisdictions are leaning toward a Structured Literacy model.

As different learning styles are acknowledged, more emphasis is being applied to phonemes (the sounds of speaking the words) to accompany and give better comprehension cues than just the graphemes (letters on the page) alone. The ambiguous nature of the English language where spelling or pronunciation can differ within what looks to be the same word ― and sometimes be completely arbitrary ― doesn’t help, either.

Orton-Gillingham is one approach to Structured Literacy that can teach the reader to break down the words into syllables in order to identify patterns that can help decode tricky words. Applying morphology (incorporating roots, prefixes, suffixes and other components) can help make sense of text that might otherwise baffle a young reader. When combined with studying phonics, the orthography of language, morphology, semantics, syntax and text structure, all within the umbrella of a student’s own background of knowledge, a more well-rounded reading skill should emerge, along with a more well-rounded student who is ready to approach life outside of the school. 

The learning landscape is changing. 

Our next step is to teach our teachers and awaken our education system to the existence and needs of learners who are not neurotypical. New legislation in the planning stage will help to support the acceptance of Structured Literacy in the nation’s classrooms.

The success, or lack thereof, of a student’s reading skill makes a profound impact on that student’s success in life. Learning is not a purely academic process but is inextricably bound with the student’s social and emotional wellbeing. Successful learning programs are those that integrate all of these aspects. As Aristotle once noted: “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

At The Learning Lab, we address the whole student. We can give the right support to your child who is struggling to succeed because of challenges such as dyslexia and ADHD. We let students learn, each in their own way, whether in small groups or a one-on-one setting. Talk to us today and find out how we can help you and your children achieve success with (not in spite of) their own unique learning style.