The Structured Literacy Approach

Implications for Multilingual Learners

Jill Kerper Mora, Ed.D.

Recently, at a California Department of Education meeting about consideration of revisions of the English Language Arts Framework and the English Language Development Standards, a representative from a school district made the following statement: “I’m concerned that, while there is clear evidence that balanced literacy is ineffective and phonics works.”

The proponents of the Science of Reading are telling literacy educators that literacy instruction that is “balanced” is ineffective but that literacy instruction that is “structured” is effective. The purpose of this web page is to analyze the claims of SoR regarding approaches to literacy instruction that are allegedly made in the name of science and scientific research.

We literacy educators must understand that the notion of the “effectiveness” of an approach to instruction is a qualitative judgment. In any research study that claims to produce qualitative judgements about effectiveness, the term must be clearly defined as to how it is determined in a particular study, based on specific criteria and measurements, which are generated and analyzed as empirical data.  The instructional approach must be clearly defined and carefully articulated so as to justify how the criteria and measurements of its fine-grained, observable components are measured. When measured in terms of student outcomes, the methodology used must produce data that indicate how the observed teacher practices relate specifically to the student outcomes used as criteria for effectiveness. See for example the methodology employed in their studies of a Balanced Literacy Approach by Bitter el al. (2009) and O’Day (2009). These studies of the implementation of a Balanced Literacy Approach in the San Diego City Schools using a literacy observation tool adapted from prior research and Hierarchical Linear Modeling to analyze student outcomes and correlate these data with teachers’ practices. Consequently, these research studies may in fact be implicit studies of teacher effectiveness in implementing an approach to instruction rather than the effectiveness of the approach to instruction itself. 

How the Science of Reading Movement defines the Structured Literacy Approach

“All too often, children are expected to indirectly learn word structure through exposure to text. Instead of being directly taught, the instruction that is provided on word structure is incidental. That is to say that while engaged with a text a teacher might have a child focus on some aspect of a word that he or she struggles to understand. Or the teacher might ask the child to guess what the word might be based on the context of the word in the passage. Or the teacher might direct the child to look at a picture on the page and attempt to guess what the word might be based on the picture. This indirect, incidental approach to reading is indicative of varied approaches, one of which, Reading Recovery, is highlighted in this issue. These indirect, incidental approaches to reading instruction are not in alignment with Structured Literacy.” (p. 23)

Spear-Swirling (2019) defines the key features of Structured Literacy this way: 

Key features of SL approaches include (a) explicit, systematic, and sequential teaching of literacy at multiple levels—phonemes, letter–sound relationships, syllable patterns, morphemes, vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and text structure; (b) cumulative practice and ongoing review; (c) a high level of student–teacher interaction; (d) the use of carefully chosen examples and nonexamples; (e) decodable text; and (f) prompt, corrective feedback… Explicit means that important skills and concepts are taught clearly and directly by the teacher; students are not expected to infer them simply from exposure or incidental learning. … Again, before teachers expect students to practice decoding specific phonics word patterns (e.g., short vowel words with consonant digraphs) in reading text, or to recognize specific irregular words in text, they directly teach those skills in isolation first. The teacher provides step-by-step demonstrations of skills and leads students in guided practice.

I suggest that Structured Literacy advocates’ concerns about literacy instruction that is direct, explicit and systematic can be addressed through theoretical frameworks and research in multiple disciplines that examine components and characteristics of effective literacy instruction from different perspectives, with attention to features of instruction that advance literacy learning for diverse populations of learners. In fact, it does not matter that advocates of Structured Literacy believe that Reading Recovery is not aligned with Structured Literacy. Reading Recovery is aligned with the theoretical framework and empirical research that undergirds the program, which may or may not be aligned with the cobbled-together Structured Literacy approach.  This evidence base includes neuroscience research (Marks. et al., 2022). Fletcher et al. (2021: 1249) propose the following: 

“We conclude that there is consistent evidence in support of explicitly teaching phonics as part of a comprehensive approach to reading instruction that should be differentiated to individual learner needs. The appropriate question to ask of a twenty-first century science of teaching is not the superiority of phonics versus alternative reading methods, including whole language and balanced literacy, but how best to combine different components of evidence-based reading instruction into an integrated and customized approach that addresses the learning needs of each child. Rather than minimizing the effects of phonics instruction, we should be thinking more about how individual learners are responding to the methods that are used and be prepared to change instructional approaches based on their response to instruction…

Although the term systematic phonics is widely used, it is instructive to think about what systematic really means and whether the NRP question of systematic phonics versus less systematic phonics is outmoded. In general, systematic refers to an organized structure—in this case, the organized structure for teaching the grapheme-phoneme correspondence rules. It is presumed that these rules are prescribed and often taught in an accepted sequence. However, the necessary sequence is not well established through research but rather derived from practices that provide ready access to reading words. Some students inferentially learn the pattern and rules through exposure to common word types; other students need more explicit instruction that is facilitated by an organized set of lessons. However, this organized sequence of lessons does not require that particular sound units be taught in any particular order as long as they are taught in ways that readily allow children to access print, words, and text.”

Of particular concern regarding the Science of Reading Movement that is promoting Structured Literacy is the condemnation of what is popularly termed “cueing” or “three-cueing.” This is a reference to the language cueing systems, also known as language subsystems, that are identified and describe in the common parlance of linguistics (Briceño & Klein, 2019; Halladay. 1978; Noguerón-Liu, 2020). Click here about the research base from applied linguistics, psycholinguistics and neuroscience regarding the role of the language subsystems in language and literacy instruction and assessment.

Approaches Do Not Teach: Teachers Teach

The notion that the Science of Reading favors certain approaches to reading instruction, or one particular approach over others is patently false. The Science of Reading Movement promotes an approach that is cobbled together based on multiple theoretical frameworks, most of which have been studied using experimental research methodology. See Paris (2005) for an explanation of the issues surrounding experimental studies of reading instruction. However, despite the limitations of certain research methods, many different approaches to literacy instruction based on legitimate and credible theoretical frameworks. These theoretical frameworks can be identified in the research literature according to their underlying cognitive constructs. Most importantly, certain instructional approaches may be more effective for different student populations with different characteristics and factors that impact their learning. This is what is called population validity of research studies. This reality raises the question of why the Science of Reading promotes a particular approach to instruction, claiming that this approach is “scientifically-based,” while marginalizing and attempting to delegitimize other approaches to literacy instruction. 

The Science of Reading Movement tends to frame the so-called Reading Wars around a debate about the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of three identified approaches: Whole Language, the Balanced Approach, and the Structured Approach. Consequently, the theoretical frameworks and research base for these three approaches have been placed under the scientific microscope. However, the narrowing of the attention paid to the wider range of approaches to literacy instruction has had the unfortunate effect of obscuring the productive discussion in education research of the population validity of different approaches. This is especially problematic for education of multilingual learners. It is also problematic that the Science of Reading Movement is fixated on discrediting the Whole Language approach. Whole Language is an approach that integrates multiple theoretical frameworks and research bases that are recognized as scientific in the academic education research community. In order to discredit Whole Language as an approach to literacy instruction, it would be necessary to discredit each and every one of the theoretical frameworks that are the foundations for the approach’s theoretical and empirical scientific research base. 

Dual language researchers and educators have no problem with having approaches such as Structured Literacy competing on equal footing in the marketplace of pedagogical knowledge with other approaches for adoption as the theoretical orientation of teachers. However, justifiably, we object when Structured Literacy is falsely claimed to be the only “scientifically-based” or “evidence-based” approach to literacy instruction for all students equally without regard to their linguistic and cultural characteristics. It is disingenuous and counter-productive for proponents of Structured Literacy to claim that other approaches and the strategies they support are not “research-aligned” or are not based on a credible theoretical framework, as do the critiques of Whole Language. (See quotations from Odegard (2020) and Spear-Swirling (2019) above.) 

The Metalinguistic Transfer Facilitation Approach

A perspective that is often overlooked in the knowledge base for educating multilingual learners is the research on metalinguistics: metalinguistic awareness and metalinguistic knowledge development. A metaphor for a metalinguistic view of language in that language is like a ray of sunshine passed through a glass prism. The “science” of language has for centuries examined and analyzed language by studying its subsystems, which can be compared to the different colors that comprise a ray of sunlight. The prism separates the ray of light into its different colors. Click here for a metaphorical depiction of a linguist’s view of language This is how we know that the color white is comprised of seven different colors. The language subsystems are phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax and pragmatics. Orthography or spelling, which is based on the relationship between phonology their graphic representations, is also considered by some linguistics to be a subsystem of language. The knowledge base for literacy instruction for multilingual learners draws heavily from metalinguistic research and is often identified with the Metalinguistic Transfer Facilitation Approach (Ke, et al., 2023; Koda, 2007). 

Louisa Cook Moats’ book Speech to print: Language essentials for teachers (2001). In her introductory chapter one, titled “Why study language?” Dr. Moats says this on p. 1-2: 

“Seldom has language study been required for teachers… Literacy is an achievement that rests on all levels of linguistic processing, from the elemental sounds to the most overarching structures of text. … To help the teacher deliver successful instruction, this book of necessity contains a great deal of information about the lower levels of language (unis smaller than the word, such as sounds, syllables, letters, and some morphemes) from which the higher levels (units larger than the word, such as phrases sentences, and paragraphs) are constructed. Language itself is the substance of instruction. Students without awareness of language systems will be less able to sound out a new word when they encounter it, less able to spell, less able to interpret punctuation and sentence meaning, and less able to learn new vocabulary words from context.”

On p. 21, Dr. Moats “metalinguistic skill, or awareness of language structure itself.” In a column titled “Level of language” in a Table 1.1 on p. 2, Dr. Moats lists the subsystems of language: phonology, orthography, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and discourse structure. Based on these statements in her book, it is difficult for me to imagine that Dr. Moats would oppose teachers providing direct, explicit, individualized feedback to emergent readers on all these levels of language during students’ oral reading. This is why we all need to be concerned about teachers’ confusion and possible misunderstandings about  “cueing” coming from Science of Reading advocates.

Dual language educators who implement biliteracy instruction and English medium teachers of students classified as English Language Learners know that there are many methods and approaches to literacy instruction that are effective for multilingual learners. One of the most widely implemented approaches is the Metalinguistic Approach. This approach is based on multidisciplinary research in applied linguistics, psycholinguistics, second language acquisition, second-language reading, cross-linguistic transfer and literacy learning and teaching research from Spanish-speaking countries. See Ke, Zhang and Koda (2023) for a comprehensive review of the research literature on metalinguistic awareness in second language reading development. 

The reality is that any research that supports an instructional approach to literacy must be evaluated for its population validity (Artiles, et al., 2005; Moore & Klinger, 2014; Thorius & Sullivan, 2012). Thorius and Sullivan (2012:67-68) find that there is insufficient research evidence that bilingual learners language acquisition and literacy learning needs are addressed in general education and Tier 1 interventions. These authors describe the problem this way: 

“Several other concerns underscore the importance of this issue: (a) a lack of research attention to the role of culture and language in learning and instruction for ELLs (Artiles, Rueda, Salazar, & Higareda, 2005), (b) large variation in instructional approaches implemented with ELLs in general education classrooms (August & Shanahan, 2006), and (c) discrepancies between research on English language acquisition and these varied instructional approaches (August & Shanahan, 2006). These concerns necessitate consideration of the following question: When RTI is implemented with ELLs in ways that diverge from its fundamental principles, to what extent is this related to inadequate applied research?… This includes attending to the ways in which evidence-based, context-informed practices are considered within all tiers of intervention as opposed to decontextualized interventions that fail to account for local population, organizational, and community factors, or the quality of the curriculum and instruction provided in general education.”

Artiles and Klinger (2006:2188) report the following observations about the state of research evidence for interventions with English Language Learners: 

Recent studies suggest that ELLs were overrepresented in districts that served a sizable population of ELLs, particularly older students who had, by district criteria, limited proficiency in their first language and English (Artiles, Rueda, Salazar, & Higareda, 2005). Nevertheless, it was not clear what shaped these placement patterns; for example, was it due to lack of first-language proficiency, child poverty, literacy in first language, assessment procedures, referral bias, or lack of opportunity to learn in general education? Unfortunately, the research knowledge base on ELLs with special needs is rather thin. … A recurrent question raised in these discussions relates to the diagnosis of disabilities with this population—that is, how can practitioners differentiate between ELLs who struggle to learn because of a disability and ELLs who struggle to learn because of language acquisition issues?

Although there is more research available currently than in 2006-2014, the issues with assessment of multilingual learners with literacy learning challenges remain the same. Claims that the Structured Literacy approach is most effective for identifying and addressing the learning needs of disabled multilingual learners are not necessarily supported by multidisciplinary research. 

Pedagogical Implications of the Attack on “Three-cueing”

According to advocates of the Structured Literacy approach to reading instruction (Odegard, 2020; Spear-Swirling, 2019), direct, explicit and systematic are the characteristics that instruction exemplify Structured Literacy. How much more direct, explicit and systematic can reading instruction get than when a teacher guides an emergent literacy learner as the student reads orally and is given immediate supportive and corrective feedback one-on-one as s/he encounters points of difficulty with a text? There is research evidence that students’ learning of orthographic knowledge (phonics) is both implicit and explicit (Apel, et al., 2019). There is little disagreement among literacy researchers that context of a text is important for resolving ambiguity (MacDonald et al., 1994; Parault Dowds et al., 2016). This occurs at different levels of text (word, phrase, sentence, discourse) as the reader extracts meaning from forms and features of the language of the text. Yet, Structured Literacy advocates appear to be opposed to teachers guiding and instructing emergent readers on strategies for meaning making from text when reading orally with them one-on-one. This posture is incomprehensible to the majority of literacy researchers, but most particularly, those of us who conduct research on literacy and biliteracy instruction with multilingual learners. Click here for further discussion of Structured Literacy from the perspective of literacy instruction for and with multilingual learners. 

Dual language researchers and educators have no problem with having approaches such as Structured Literacy compete on equal footing in the marketplace of pedagogical knowledge with other approaches for adoption as the theoretical orientation of teachers. However, justifiably, we object when Structured Literacy is falsely claimed to be the only “scientifically-based” or “evidence-based” approach to literacy instruction for all students equally, without regard to their linguistic and cultural characteristics. It is disingenuous and counter-productive for proponents of Structured Literacy to claim that other approaches and the strategies that they do not support are not “research-aligned” or are not based on a credible theoretical framework, as do the critics of Whole Language.


In this critique of the Science of Reading, I argue that Structured Literacy is found lacking in several of its foundational tenets and its research base as a preferred approach for literacy instruction with multilingual learners. I advise teachers who work with multilingual learners to avail themselves of the resources on the MoraModules website to deepen their understanding of the comprehensive scientific research base for biliteracy instruction. Do not accept ideological and ill-informed arguments that call into question the professional knowledge base of bilingual educators.


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Artiles, A. J., & Klingner, J. K. (2006). Forging a knowledge base on English language learners with special needs: Theoretical, population, and technical Issues. Teachers College Record, 108, 2187–2194.

Artiles, A. J., Rueda, R., Salazar, J. J., & Higareda, I. (2005). Within-group diversity in minority disproportionate representation: English language learners in urban school districts. Exceptional Children, 71(3), 283-300.

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Koda, K. (2007). Reading and language learning: Crosslinguistic constraints on second language reading development. Language Learning, 57(1), 1-44.

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