Structured Literacy: Applying Evidence-Based Practices from the Science of Reading

Savvas Insights Team

What is structured literacy? Discover the components of structured literacy.

The Science of Reading is an ever-evolving body of cognitive research that helps to inform effective instructional strategies for teaching reading, writing, oral language, and reading comprehension. But how does all that research get translated into teaching? How do we apply those studies to the actual instruction taking place during the school day? One approach for bridging the research to the classroom is Structured Literacy.

In this blog post, we’ll take a deep dive into each of the six foundational components of Structured Literacy, as well as the principles used to effectively teach those elements. We’ll also help you understand why Structured Literacy matters in the context of the Science of Reading and the classroom.

What Is Structured Literacy?

Structured Literacy creates a framework for how to apply pieces of Science of Reading research. It is not a program — it is an instructional approach that focuses on teaching the following six foundational components of literacy: phonology, sound-symbol association, syllables, morphology, syntax, and semantics in a systematic, explicit, cumulative, and responsive manner. This approach to instruction can help learners — including individuals with dyslexia or other language-based learning differences — understand the relationship between letters and sounds in order to equip them with the skills needed to be able to decode effectively and comprehend written language.

Why Does Structured Literacy Matter?

Literacy instruction in general matters because it is an imperative and foundational step for students to become successful readers, especially since studies show that 23 percent of third graders with below-basic reading skills will not graduate high school by age 19.

All children deserve to be proficient readers with access to a world of knowledge. Structured Literacy matters because it is grounded in evidence-based practices supported by the Science of Reading, which have been shown to be effective for a variety of learners. When implemented with fidelity in the classroom, Structured Literacy can positively impact student reading outcomes.

Structured Literacy can benefit all types of learners, especially those students who have been identified as having Dyslexia or other language-based needs. Students who struggle with reading need strong foundational literacy instruction that is systematic, explicit, and accompanied by clear teacher feedback and opportunities to practice — these needs can be met with a Structured Literacy approach.

Due to the diagnostic and responsive attributes of the Structured Literacy approach, instruction can be individualized to the needs of each learner. Teachers are able to use data to inform instructional decisions and provide targeted instruction and reinforcement of skills as necessary. Individualized support allows more students to become successful readers.

Diagram showing the six foundational components of structured literacy and three evidence-based instructional principles.

The Six Foundational Components of Structured Literacy

Structured Literacy is made up of six foundational components that, when used together, can help students decode words effectively and can lead them to a better understanding of the words they read. Here is a breakdown of those six components.


In the context of Structured Literacy instruction, phonology is the study of sound patterns within language and contains two critical subcategories: phonological awareness and within that, phonemic awareness.

Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize, and manipulate the spoken parts of language. It is an umbrella term that covers a variety of skills, for example: rhyme recognition, identifying syllables within words, and blending and segmenting words into onset-rimes. It also includes work with onset-rimes, both blending and segmenting them. For example, let’s segment (break apart) the word sock into onset and rime, s-ock. The final skill under the phonological awareness umbrella is phonemic awareness — an extensive category of its own with many sub-skills.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate individual phonemes (sounds) in words. Think about phonemes as being the smallest building blocks in language; in English, there are 44 phonemes. Phonemic awareness skills progress from the simplest to most complex and include the ability to isolate, blend, segment and manipulate phonemes (add, delete, and substitute).

In Structured Literacy, Phonological Awareness is an umbrella term comprising several skills, including Phonemic Awareness.

Sound-Symbol Association

Sound-symbol association refers to the connection between phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (symbols/letters). In Structured Literacy, students are systematically introduced to the sound-symbol association through a strong emphasis on phonics instruction and the patterns governing phoneme-grapheme relationships. Students learn how letters and combinations of letters map to specific sounds. This ability to map phonemes to graphemes is a critical step in the process of students learning to not only decode fluently, but also encode accurately (spelling).

Sound-symbol diagram mapping the phonemes (sounds) to the graphemes (letters / symbols) for the word dog.


Syllables are units of sound within words that, in English, contain a single vowel sound. Structured Literacy incorporates instruction of the six syllable types in order to help students break apart multisyllabic words into smaller, more manageable parts to assist with decoding and spelling. The six syllable types are: closed (ending in a consonant), open (ending in a vowel), vowel consonant e (VCe; long vowel sound and end in a final silent e), vowel team, r-controlled, and consonant -le. Structured Literacy also includes explicit instruction in syllable division, which can also assist students with multisyllable words.

Chart with examples of the six syllable types in English to help students with decoding, encoding, and multisyllabic words.


Morphology is the study of morphemes, or the smallest unit of meaning in a word. Structured Literacy includes instruction in morphological awareness in order to help students recognize prefixes, suffixes, and roots. Understanding morphology supports vocabulary development and word comprehension, and assists students in their ability to decipher meanings of unknown words.

Puzzle piece visualization of how morphemes such as prefixes, roots, and suffixes fit together in morphology study.


Syntax refers to the rules and structures that control sentence formation. In Structured Literacy, students are explicitly taught sentence structure, grammar and syntax rules. For students, syntax knowledge can improve reading comprehension by providing insight as to how words and phrases function within the larger context of sentences and paragraphs.

Syntax diagram showing how sentence structure, grammar, and syntax rules add together to control sentence formation.


Semantics involves the meaning of words and sentences. Structured Literacy instruction addresses semantic awareness by focusing on vocabulary development, word meanings, and comprehension strategies.

Lightbulb diagram representing semantics, the study of the meaning of words and sentences, as part of structured literacy.

Now, let’s take a look at how to teach these components in the most effective way.

Structured Literacy: Teaching Principles

In order to ensure that students access those six components when learning to read, the Science of Reading research supports using the evidence-based teaching principles below.

Systematic Instruction

Structured Literacy is systematic because it is organized in a sequential manner, with skills in each component progressing from basic to more complex. Literacy skills are taught in manageable chunks, step-by-step and they build upon one another in a way that is cumulative. For example, Structured Literacy phonics instruction will follow a sequence that teaches letter-sound correspondences before CVC words — a logical progression dictated by language.

Explicit Instruction

Not only does Structured Literacy follow a specific sequence, it is also explicit, meaning that the teacher clearly and directly teaches literacy skills to students. The instruction starts with explicitly defining learning objectives, for example, the teacher will state what students are expected to learn, how they will learn it, and how they will show their understanding at the end of the lesson — providing clarity and purpose to each lesson. Structured Literacy instruction includes modeling, guided and independent practice (gradual release model), with immediate feedback and error correction. Explicit instruction provides a structured and supportive framework that can benefit all types of learners.

Diagnostic and Responsive Instruction

Structured Literacy instruction is both diagnostic and responsive. In order to meet the goal of building fluent readers who comprehend and apply information from a variety of texts, Structured Literacy must identify student strengths and instructional needs through thorough assessments. This process includes ongoing formal and informal assessments that pinpoint areas where students might struggle in the six components of Structured Literacy. Teachers can then respond to the identified needs of students, provide targeted instruction or additional scaffolding as necessary and progress monitor to ensure growth. Responsive instruction allows for flexibility and differentiation in order to meet the needs of all learners.

Now that we know the six foundational components and the ways in which they should be taught, let’s take a look at what all that looks like in a classroom setting.

Savvas Literacy Solutions

Aligned to the Science of Reading


What Does Structured Literacy Look Like in the Classroom?

Structured Literacy incorporates evidence-based practices supported by the Science of Reading. But what does that look like in the classroom? Let’s break down some examples of what the Structured Literacy components could look like when being implemented in a systematic and explicit way.

Lesson Objectives Are Clearly Defined

During a classroom lesson Structured Literacy will be evident in a variety of ways, including a clearly stated objective or skill at the beginning of the instruction. For example: Today we will read and spell words with digraph sh. Remember, a digraph is two letters that come together to make one sound. The digraph sh spells the /sh/ sound.

Phonics Is Taught Through Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping

Structured Literacy phonics instruction focuses on phoneme-grapheme mapping in order to support strong reading and spelling skills. To decode a word, students will identify the grapheme for each phoneme and then blend them together. For example, to read a word with the digraph sh in the initial position, students would say each sound /sh/ /ĭ/ /p/ and then blend them together into ship. To spell the word ship, students would segment the word into phonemes /sh/ /ĭ/ /p/ and write the letters (graphemes) that spell each sound.

A resource you might see being used in phoneme-grapheme is sound boxes, or Elkonin boxes, to help students visually make the connection between phonemes and graphemes. When using sound boxes for spelling, students count the number of phonemes they hear in a word and then write the corresponding graphemes in the correct number of sound boxes. To practice decoding, the teacher can write words (one phoneme per box) in the sound boxes for students to blend. An activity like this demonstrates how phonology and sound symbol instruction go hand in hand, and it is important to note here that in a Structured Literacy approach, decoding and encoding (spelling) instruction are explicitly taught together to reinforce the reading and writing connection.

 Elkonin boxes, or phoneme-grapheme boxes, can be used in Structured Literacy for phonics practice.

Decodable Readers Reinforce Learned Phonics Skills

A key piece of Structured Literacy during foundational instruction is the way in which students routinely apply the explicit phonics skills they have been learning to text using decodable readers. Decodable readers are controlled texts, meaning that the words contained in the reader utilize phonics patterns and high frequency words that students have been explicitly taught. These readers allow students extensive practice in applying their phonics knowledge to decode words and improve their word reading accuracy. Additionally, teachers listen to students read and provide explicit corrective feedback as needed in order to move students forward toward reading fluency.

Overall, Structured Literacy provides teachers with a way to put aspects of Science of Reading research into action by outlining a framework for both the critical components of literacy instruction, as well as effective evidence-based ways to teach them. As the conversation around literacy instruction continues to grow, it is important to acknowledge that Science of Reading research is constantly evolving and informing how to best teach kids to read. We must make a concerted effort to focus on bridging cognitive and instructional research (which has been rigorously vetted and repeated) with classroom application in order to provide all students with effective literacy instruction.

We’ll take a deeper dive into the teaching principles and foundational components of Structured Literacy, as well as what this approach looks like in the classroom, in our Structured Literacy blog series. Be sure to subscribe to the Savvas Science of Reading Newsletter and get each blog post straight to your inbox!