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Let’s get real—six strategies for implementing structured literacy

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Insights from Laura Stewart

We spoke with Laura Stewart, Chief Academic Officer, about the relationship between the science of reading and structured literacy, and strategies for the successful implementation of structured literacy. Laura shared six essential strategies to help you implement and sustain structured literacy instruction in your district or school.

Laura Stewart Headshot

When it comes to reading instruction, I always encourage educators to follow the science of reading as well as the implementation science.

Laura Stewart

Chief Academic Officer, 95 Percent Group

To begin, I’d like to clarify the relationship between the science of reading and structured literacy—because I think the difference between these terms is not always understood.

Many people have asked me, “How do I do the science of reading?”

Here’s my answer: You can’t really do the science of reading because the science of reading is a body of research that informs our practice. But structured literacy is a collection of practices that are designed to enact the science of reading research. So let’s talk about six key strategies for implementing structured literacy.

1. Diagnostic assessments

Effective, reliable, valid, diagnostic assessments are essential. Because the thing about structured literacy is that you have to know where the students are at any given moment. Universal [screening] is important and valuable of course—but universal screeners offer a broad stroke approach to assessment. Universal screening allows us to know who is at, above, and below benchmark, but there is not enough data to show why and what to do about it. In other words, universal screeners answer the “who” but diagnostic assessments tell us the “why” and “how.”

But I think to enact a structured literacy approach, you have to be really diagnostic about where kids are at. Ongoing, finer-grained diagnostic assessments let you monitor student progress in order to provide additional practice and scaffolding to close gaps quickly when they are identified.

2. An explicit approach to lessons

The second strategy is to utilize an explicit approach to lessons. I would say one tip on that explicit approach is this: frame your lessons around the “I do, We do, You do” gradual release—direct instruction (I do), followed by guided instruction or practice (We do), and then independent practice (You do). When you think about learning in general, a gradual release model makes sense. We need to understand what we are learning in a very direct way with modeling or demonstration (teacher “I do”), then we need time to practice the learning with a coach at our side (“We do”) before we tackle the practice ourselves. Take any learned skill and this model works.

3. A sequential approach to foundational skills

A third strategy is to utilize instructional resources that follow a sequential approach to the foundational skills because there really is a predictable progression that kids go through as they develop as readers. For a simple example, you don’t teach long vowels before short vowels. You want to go from least complex to most complex.

Here is an example of this strategy. I always tell kindergarten teachers to focus first on basic CVC words. It gives students a reliability on which to trust decoding, because with all CVC words you can go left to right through the word; the vowel is short (with the exception of the irregular words). You’re teaching your kindergartners: Yes, you can look at the word, sound out the word left to right, and there’s a reliable system. Once that’s internalized, then you can add the more complex systems like a long vowel pattern—you can’t always go left to right through a long vowel pattern word, right? So, I think it’s important to utilize resources that follow a sequence that matches that predictable progression that students go through in their development as readers.

4. Frequent progress monitoring

Another key strategy is to progress monitor frequently—ideally, every one to three weeks—because progress monitoring is less about students and more about our instruction. Frequent progress monitoring allows you to monitor if your instruction is getting the desired results. And if your students are not exiting out of intervention, then you know your instruction has to change. You need to progress monitor frequently because we want to keep kids out of what I call the “cul de sac of intervention” where there’s no exit because they’re just going around and around.

5. Strategic coaching to improve teachers’ practice

A fifth essential strategy is to constantly reflect on and improve your own practice. The best way to do that is with strategic coaching. I like to remind people that teaching is only one of the professions in which coaching is required. Coaching is for anybody in any profession that involves a routine of practices. You really need a coach to get better at it. And so, employing strategic coaching is a powerful way to reflect on and improve your practice.

Here is an example of what that looks like. The coach is someone who can either model a lesson, or co-teach, or observe you doing a lesson, and then provide feedback for you. The coach can also help you establish your standards of practice. I think it’s always a red flag if someone just comes in and says “Here’s a broad checklist and here’s what I’m going to be looking for,” as opposed to sitting down with a teacher like a coach would and attentively asking, “What are areas that you want to improve upon? Let me help you reflect on your practice. And then let’s come together and think about what are some steps that I can help you to enact.”

Ideally, teachers would have in-district or even in-building coaches and many places do. They have in-building coaches who are reflecting, not just on product implementation, but specifically about instruction. And they are looking for things like clarity of language; they’re looking for things like student response and engagement. We need kids to have a lot of responses every hour. So those are instructional coaching points rather than product coaching. Product coaching is important too, but these are two different things. In an ideal world, you would have a building level or district level coach who would come in quite frequently, and just help you reflect on and improve your instructional practice.

6. A culture of continuous improvement

For a successful and sustainable implementation of structured literacy, you have to build a culture of continuous improvement. What’s that look like? I think you have to build a culture that emphasizes “We’re all in this together.” And frankly, I think that starts with having courageous conversations around data. I think one of the most critical elements for managing change and continuous improvement is to have fearless conversations about data—where we are looking at our data and confronting any gaps we discover in the data.

Confronting gaps in data is not about pitting teacher against teacher. It’s saying that we as a community within our schools have to have conversations around our kids. I’ve never met a leader who hasn’t been able to move the needle with teachers when he or she starts talking about how “These are our kids. This is what we want for our community, our future community members. Right now, let’s be honest—we’re not reaching all of our kids. So let’s collectively come together and think about what we need to do to help all our kids to succeed.”

Sometimes that courageous conversation about confronting data is not about looking at the data as a whole because there are a lot of districts that look great if you look at the average. But we need to go deeper and get specific by looking at ALL students, all subgroups. When we say we want literacy for ALL, we really mean ALL.

Let’s get real.

Resources from 95 Percent Group

We have worked with school districts and educators across the country to unlock the power of literacy for every child. We look forward to sharing with you what we’ve learned, along with best practices and resources you can bring to the classroom. Stay up to date on the latest research, insights, and resources in our field at

Here are a few related resources to help you take the next steps in implementing structured literacy.

Structured literacy

Insights from thought leaders and resources to help you bridge knowledge and practice as you bring structured literacy to your school or district.
Explore here.

Science of Reading 2.0: Implementation made easy

The next generation of the science of reading connects research about reading and learning to help educators implement effective literacy instruction.
Download this easy-to-use guide here.

Diagnostic screeners

Diagnostic screeners help pinpoint skill deficits and personalize instruction to meet each child where they are. Our screeners map to specific lessons to efficiently group students and close skill gaps.
See the Phonological Awareness Screener for Intervention™ (PASI) and the Phonics Screener for Intervention™ (PSI™).

Professional learning services

Explore professional learning courses and workshops, science of reading symposia, and webinars here.

Learn more

This is part of our Insights from Laura Stewart series. Read her previous insight here. Are you interested in learning about how you can bring an effective and efficient structured literacy approach, grounded in the science of reading, to your school or district? Contact 95 Percent Group today.

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