Recently, there has been a great deal of buzz and confusion about the “Science of Reading” and related terms, such as Structured Literacy and reading instruction that is explicit, systematic, sequential, cumulative, and diagnostic. When terms are misused or misunderstood, whether intentionally or not, our students may be “instructional casualties,” as they may continue to miss out on the opportunity to experience evidence-based instruction. In order to support learning for all students, it is time to join forces and have agreed-upon definitions and frameworks based on the Science of Reading.

Informed educators understand that a label stating “systematic and explicit” or “based on the Science of Reading” may not actually be accurate. For example, materials may be mislabeled as “explicit,” the way a room is arranged and chairs are moved may be misdefined as “systematic instruction,” and the “Science of Reading” is often misconstrued to mean teaching only phonics. The reality is that books are not explicit simply because they have the label, being systematic is not just about moving chairs around in the room, and the Science of Reading is not just about phonics.

If instructional practices aligned with the Science of Reading, such as Structured Literacy, are not understood and used appropriately by all stakeholders, our education system will continue to fail our children. A commitment from all educators, parents, leaders, publishers, and stakeholders to understanding key terms will ensure evidence-based approaches to teaching reading are not minimally or inappropriately applied.

Structured Literacy: What is it and How Does it Look in the Classroom?

Teacher and students

Structured Literacy is a way of teaching reading and writing that uses explicit, systematic, sequential, cumulative, diagnostic instruction that is delivered to mastery. It is not a curriculum or a program, but a systematic approach that is based on years of research. Structured Literacy is clear, intentional, and engaging reading instruction that directly and explicitly teaches students how to work with written language. The term was first introduced in 2016 by the International Dyslexia Association as an umbrella term to describe scientifically-based, highly effective instructional practices to support students with reading challenges. However, research has demonstrated that Structured Literacy can benefit all students because it recognizes and supports the multiple brain processes involved in reading. Structured Literacy is supported by science and equips teachers to meet the needs of all students.

The five instructional practices in a Structured Literacy approach are: explicit, systematic, sequential, cumulative, and diagnostic.

Explicit: A characteristic of teacher-directed instruction that explains and models each individual concept.

What does explicit reading instruction look like in a classroom?

Explicit instruction is teacher-directed. The teacher demonstrates skills or concepts and provides opportunities for students to practice, beginning with guided practice and corrective feedback, then moving to independent practice once students are ready. It is the “I do,” “We do” “You do,” model; the teacher models the skill first, then the students practice the skill with the teacher, and finally, the students practice the skill independently. Targeted materials, such as decodable texts, provide the additional repetition needed for mastery of the skill that has just been taught.

Explicit reading instruction is not ambiguous or vague and does not encourage students to guess or use pictures or context clues to read words or comprehend text. Using highly effective, explicit instruction, the teacher does not assume the students will be able to discover new learning or deduce concepts on their own.

Systematic, Sequential, & Cumulative: A methodical, daily structure that includes instructional routines and sequencing that are predictable for students and planned in a logical way. Skills and concepts are taught in a logical order from easy to difficult. Concepts are consistently reinforced and practiced over time as the content builds and leads towards mastery and fluent reading.

What does systematic, sequential, and cumulative reading instruction look like in a classroom?

The content is broken into steps or pieces and follows an appropriate scope and sequence of skills to be taught. When introducing letters and the sounds they make, the sequence begins with letters that occur most frequently in text so that students can begin to build real words early on (i.e., m, s, a, t). When teaching how to read words, teachers introduce skills and concepts in a methodical and developmentally appropriate order, beginning with what is easiest and moving to what is more complex. The prerequisites are laid out and scaffolding is provided to allow students to master the concepts and skills. Students are taught to apply the spelling pattern first at the word level, then at the sentence level, and finally to transfer the skill to connected text (several sentences related to each other). Students are given multiple opportunities to practice previously taught concepts, and with explicit instruction, teachers build on what has come before as new concepts and skills are introduced. Texts and materials are selected based on the skills to be taught or reinforced, and the teacher provides multiple opportunities to respond to instruction throughout the lesson.

Systematic, sequential, and cumulative reading instruction is not random. Teachers do not base the selection of texts on thematic units or reading level or focus on strategies that encourage readers to predict words using cues. During highly effective systematic, sequential, and cumulative instruction, the teacher does not leave learning to chance.

Diagnostic: A characteristic of reading instruction where the teacher monitors the progress of their students, being alert to where skill gaps exist, and adjusts instruction based on students’ immediate needs.

What does diagnostic reading instruction look like in a classroom?

Teachers use formal and informal data to inform instruction. When working with students in small or large groups, the teacher is consistently monitoring the progress of students in order to measure effectiveness towards the specific target. Educators are also able to intervene appropriately so students can achieve automaticity and mastery of a skill or concept. Information about a student’s understanding and mastery is used to inform how a teacher plans explicit instruction in a thoughtful manner. Teachers can look for patterns in student errors to pinpoint specific deficits in reading skills or concepts and determine if a change in instruction is needed.

Structured Literacy teaches children the structure of language in an explicit and direct manner. Encompassing all of the elements for a student to become a proficient reader, Structured Literacy is grounded in research and designed to meet the needs of ALL learners, including those who struggle with reading and those with dyslexia.

The Buzz About Science of Reading and How To Learn More

So, what is all the buzz about? Let’s make it about making a commitment to understanding and appropriately using terms that are aligned with the Science of Reading and ensuring evidence-based instructional approaches such as Structured Literacy are understood and used widely when teaching reading and writing.

If you would like to dig deeper into Structured Literacy, the Big Dippers Science of Reading Short Course makes it easy for all educators who want to learn more about the Science of Reading and instructional practices aligned with cognitive science. This one-of-a-kind course was developed by a coalition of reading experts and allows teachers to learn about reading instruction at their own pace. The knowledge of evidence-based reading instruction gained through this course can complement any curriculum, be applied in any classroom, and help support struggling readers at all grade levels. Learn more about the course and contact us for more information.


Defining Movement. (2021, April 8). The science of reading. A defining guide.

The Big Dippers Science of Reading Short Course. (2021, April 9). Module 2: Structured literacy.

International Dyslexia Association (2021, April 10). What is structured literacy: A primer on effective reading instruction.