This is the second post from my colleague Lisa Hannum addressing the essential elements of Structured Language as the primary means of reading remediation, in contrast with Guided Reading which was discussed in the post from the previous day.
A structured language program teaches more than the sounds of the 26 letters of the alphabet. It teaches the concept of phonemes and graphemes. Phonemes are sounds in language. Graphemes are the letter or letter combinations that represent the sounds in words. For example, in the word cup there are three sounds, represented by three graphemes: /c/ /u/ /p/ (letters within / / refers to the sounds). In some words, there is a one-to-one relationship between sounds and letters. In other words, that relationship is not as simple. In the word chirp there are three sounds (/ch/ /ir/ /p/) These three sounds are represented by three graphemes, but five letters. Both letter and letter combinations can represent individual sounds. (Think of the complexity of a word like eight. There are only two sounds, /eigh/ /t/. The grapheme “eigh” is pronounced like the “a” in ape.)
Syllabic patterns of language are included in the scope and sequence of a structured language programs. There are six or seven syllable types, depending on what program you are using.
1. closed syllable, there is one vowel closed off by a consonant and that vowel makes a short vowel sound: at, bit, hen, log, hut.
*Notice structured language does not teach word families, but word patterns.
2. “magic-e” syllable, there is one vowel, followed by one consonant and the letter “e” making the vowel say it’s name, or long vowel sound: make, Pete, bike, home, cute.
3. open syllable, there is one vowel that is open (not closed off by a consonant, and the vowel says it’s name: be, hi, we, so
4. r-controlled syllable, the “r” influences the vowel and combines with the vowel to make one sound: star, turn, bird, born, fern.
5. consonant-le syllable, the syllable found at the end of a word, is made up of a consonant, plus the letters –le: rifle, puzzle, candle, crumble
6. vowel teams, a group of two, three, or four letters that group together to create a unique vowel sound. These words vary in complexity: tree, rain, bread, boil, night, shout, caught, etc.
Structured language training does not merely teach single syllable words, it also teaches decoding strategies for multisyllabic words by asking the child to identify these smaller patterns within words. This facilitates an understanding of how to pronounce the vowels, the letters that glue the words together. The position of the letters surrounding the vowels provides us with all the information necessary to decode. There are some words that we just have to know (was, the, of, there, etc.), but much of our language can be decoded correctly when we teach the predictable patterns. Instruction in the structure of our language and providing strategies for word attack are not a part of Guided Reading, balanced literacy, or what some schools like to call a “comprehensive reading curriculum.”
Lesson planning in structured language includes instruction in language concepts. It is cumulative and builds upon previous lessons and concepts taught. There is a scope and sequence, meaning there is an order in which things are introduced and taught. After the concept is taught in a multisensory way, the concept is practiced in single word reading and spelling, sentence reading and writing, and reading in connected text. The connection between decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling) is emphasized. The pace of instruction is crucial as concepts are taught to mastery.
Unlike Guided Reading and leveled books, the language in selected reading passages is controlled. The language patterns included in passages read are limited to words built from what has been taught. This reinforces instruction, provides generalization of instruction to text, works to increase fluency, and promotes success in the reading process for the student. Conversely, selected books in Guided Reading use high frequency words. High frequency words may combine a variety of patterns, include more non-phonetic words, and are more difficult to decode without the important foundational work provided in the design of all structured language programs.
The genealogy of all structured language programs can be traced back to Samual Orton and Anna Gillingham, O-G for short. Although Wilson is probably the best known of these commercially available programs, Concept Phonics, SLANT, and Project Read, are among the many that use the fundamental strategies of O-G instruction. There are many in the field who are not wed to a single program but rely on a thorough understanding of the research that supports these strategies to teach children who are failing to learn to read through traditional classroom strategies.
The sad news is that O-G instruction, or instruction in structured language, is rarely taught at the college and university level. Few teachers, including those with advanced degrees as Reading Specialists, have hands-on experience with O-G, or fully understand why Guided Reading doesn’t work for at least 20% of the students in their classrooms. Proactive, motivated teachers have to seek this type of training on their own, usually at their own expense, unless they are fortunate enough to be in a district that recognizes the value of training staff in a structured language program.
Although instruction in O-G is life-changing at any age, parents can be instrumental in requesting a different approach to reading as early as kindergarten. There’s no reason to wait until the third grade. There are assessments that can determine if the child is learning how to “crack the code” that can be administered in kindergarten. Don’t wait until your child is failing. The goal of kindergarten ought not to be learning a handful of what teachers call “sight words” taught with flash cards. Flash cards promote the idea that words can and should be memorized by the way they look. With early instruction in the concept that symbols can be coded to speech, we will catch these students before they fall.