Structured Literacy – busting myths

Our Head of Junior School, Bridget Compton-Moen busts some myths about Structured Literacy, following the recent announcement that this will be rolled out across all primary schools in Aotearoa New Zealand, based on our Junior School teachers’ experiences transforming how literacy is taught over the past few years.

The roll out of Structured Literacy (SL) in all primary schools in New Zealand is an enormous undertaking that has been described as “possibly the biggest workforce upskilling we’ve seen in New Zealand.”

St Margaret’s Junior School is well along in our journey to embed SL throughout Year 0-6. Sadly, we’ve noticed many misunderstandings about SL being reported in the media since this announcement. No, SL is not “old school” or simply adding phonics instruction to what’s already happening!  It is not “drill and kill” and it definitely doesn’t mean we don’t value real literature.

Parents often ask me for the quick version of what SL is. My answer is often to ask them how they remember being taught how to read. If you were taught to read in a New Zealand primary school in the 1980s, 90s or early 2000s, you might remember being given long lists of sight words which you had to rote learn. When you came across an unknown word, you may remember that to work out what that word was, your teacher encouraged you to do one of the three things:

  • Look at the picture and then ask yourself, what would make sense here?
  • Look at the words on either side of the unknown word and ask yourself, what would make sense here?
  • Look at the first letter (and possibly the very last letter) and of course, ask yourself, what would make sense here?

So there was a great deal of guessing! And this was highly problematic because as we know, lots of words can make sense in many contexts. This approach, called Balanced Literacy, did not teach us to understand spelling patterns and rules that make learning to read, write and spell much more effective. Strong readers learned a lot of this by osmosis but many of us did not.

So how is SL different? Well, first of all it is based on the science of how children learn to read, referred to as The Science of Reading. This approach is designed to help children “crack the code” of language, from sounds (phonemes)  and letters (graphemes) to words and sentences. We teach these components in a systematic, cumulative and most of all, explicit way.

In the past, under Balanced Literacy, if a learner came across the unknown word “bright” in their reading, they’d have used one of the three strategies outlined above, essentially guessing. Now they are taught the spelling pattern -igh and recognise it in many words. They’d use this knowledge and their existing knowledge of beginning and ending sounds to work out the word bright. Furthermore, they are taught the sounding out or decoding alongside the writing so not only can they read the word, they can also spell it.

The greatest myth around structured literacy is that it is simply a return to old school phonics instruction when there are in fact, many key parts to a quality structured literacy programme. Here are some of the Structured Literacy elements you’ll see in all St Margaret’s Junior School classrooms.

  • Phonological Awareness: We start with the basic sounds of language and help the girls understand how sounds blend together to form words.
  • Phonics: The girls learn the relationship between letters and sounds, allowing them to decode words and read more confidently.
  • Fluency: This year we’ve introduced fluency routines in most classes and we’re seeing fantastic results in the girls’ development as fluent readers.
  • Vocabulary: We introduce new words in context and encourage students to explore their meanings, origins, and usage. Classes explore morphology (the study of the structure of words)
  • Comprehension: As the girls read and write, we teach them to understand and engage with the text, ask questions, and make connections.
  • Writing: We explicitly teach spelling and writing by teaching the girls the patterns and rules of language, making them more Effective Communicators. Writing lessons look quite different from the “inventive spelling” days of Balanced Literacy.
  • Quality Read Alouds- Girls are read to every day from a wide variety of texts: poems; picturebooks; novels; nonfiction. We love books!

The Junior School is seeing great results as SL has been embedded into every classroom. It’s just one of the important changes currently being discussed in education that St Margaret’s is already far along the track with, from our PreSchool through to our Senior School, providing our girls with the strongest foundation for their future.