Structured Literacy – Where do I start?

Structured Literacy – Where do I start?



The term structured literacy has gained significant attention in the media, and featured in political discussions leading up to the 2023 election. When your kura | school starts to navigate what this looks like in your setting, it is important to keep a learner-focused perspective as you look for professional development and pathways to implement these changes. I’d suggest you begin by stopping and taking stock of what works in your learning environment, then consider what is most essential to achieve the outcomes you hope to see. Initiating a structured approach does not need to be daunting or expensive, and nurturing an equitable approach can help to guide your journey effectively.

Structured literacy is an approach to teaching literacy, not a one-size-fits-all programme.

It’s important to stress that structured literacy is an approach to teaching literacy, not a one-size-fits-all programme. Two essential elements in this approach are teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge, and having the understanding to teach with fidelity and flexibility. 

Louisa Moats discusses the importance of fidelity and flexibility throughout her research. The distinction she makes is that knowledgeable teachers who have pedagogical content knowledge who teach with fidelity and flexibility teach children to read, not programmes. It is these teachers who succeed at meeting the individual needs of their learners. This is an underlying premise of  Russell Bishop’s mahi of ensuring the fidelity of relationship-based learning throughout Leading to the North-East. To listen more about his kaupapa of the importance of implementing the Common Practice Model with fidelity, The Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero has produced two podcasts: Part 1 and Part 2.


Structured literacy and the science of reading

Structured literacy is a term coined by the International Dyslexia Association to describe a specific approach to the  teaching of literacy (reading and writing). It goes hand-in-hand with the science of reading. The Reading League describes the science of reading as “a large interdisciplinary body of scientific-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing.”

Science of reading is not a new field of research; researchers and scientists have been studying this field for decades!  Some of the science is now well understood and some is still emerging and quite contested. Using teaching approaches based on what we do know about how the brain learns to read and write IS best practice. The pedagogies described in Te Mātaiaho and the Common Practice Model are firmly based on the ‘settled science’ and there are bibliographies in both documents that detail key sources of this understanding.

It is essential for all teachers to understand the science behind learning. If you know how the brain works and how learning happens, you can take the resources from ANY programme or approach and utilise them well to support the needs of specific groups or individuals. There are real risks for educators when they choose to simply purchase the popular or recommended programme as a knee jerk reaction to adopting new frameworks. For long term and effective implementation you want your whole team to gain a comprehensive understanding of their role in the changes – with facilitators working alongside you that have extensive experience adapting to changes and supporting teachers from design to implementation of the new frameworks such as structured literacy.  


Here are three fundamental understandings you can explore that will deepen your pedagogical content knowledge around structured literacy.

#1 Understanding language acquisition

Having an understanding of how ākonga learn language, along with what biologically primary knowledge and biologically secondary knowledge are, will fundamentally strengthen your literacy teaching. We are born with the brain circuitry and drive to communicate through oral language - we do not need to specifically be taught how to communicate by speaking and listening. This is biologically primary. Learning that our society has come to value and needs to be taught, like much of what we learn in school, is biologically secondary learning, and this requires explicit teaching.

#2 Phonological and phonemic awareness

Unfortunately, learning about language acquisition, and phonological awareness in particular, didn’t feature in my teacher training in the 1990s but I wish it had. Developing my knowledge of phonological and phonemic awareness was a game changer for my teaching practice and for ākonga I’ve taught. Identifying areas of strength and difficulty in oral language enables teaching to be a lot more targeted to meet the exact needs of students. Phonological awareness is part of any quality systematic and explicit approach to teaching literacy, it is the foundation of learning. Language makes sense of our learning and learning is connected to language.

Te Whāriki expresses phonological awareness as the ability to recognise and work with the sounds of spoken language. The skills of phonological awareness develop in a predictable progression, including rhyme, syllable awareness, onset and rime manipulation, and phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness, the most complex element of phonological awareness is the ability to work with individual speech sounds of words. Phonemic awareness tasks get ākonga to analyse or manipulate the units of speech, eg: /s/u/n/ “sun”, rather than focusing on meaning (Yopp, 1992). The skills of blending, segmentation and manipulation of sounds is what confident and able readers and writers do naturally  when decoding texts (reading)  and encoding their thinking via spelling and writing.

There are many ways kaiako can enhance the use of phonological and phonemic awareness in their practice. Moats and Tolman (in Reading Rockets) describe phonological skills from basic to advanced, along with developmental ages of typical students of when they achieved the phonological skill. These skills and sample tasks are well worth having saved or printed for quick reference.

#3 Cognitive load theory and the importance of handwriting

Imagine you are learning to write again and consider all of the skills that you need to master: gross motor skills, fine motor skills, pencil grip, sound to grapheme correspondence, letter formation, position on the page … the list goes on. 

The theory of cognitive load, which emerged in the late 1980s by Sweller et al., builds on Geary’s biologically primary and secondary knowledge theory. Cognitive load theory describes three resources for learning – environment, long-term memory, and working memory (also known as short-term memory).

Handwriting impacts the cognitive load of ākonga who are learning to read and write. Sweller described cognitive load as anything that detracts from our working memory capacity.  Working memory is limited to working with four to seven pieces of information at the same time. If ākonga are having to concentrate hard on simply forming letters and keeping them on the line, or their hand is getting tired from a poor pencil grip, there is less working memory left to concentrate on getting their message across in a clear and coherent way. Conversely if their handwriting is something they don’t even have to think about and it is automatic and fluent, then their working memory can be devoted to improving the quality of their written work.  A structured approach to teaching literacy includes deliberately teaching handwriting alongside and as a part of reading and writing instruction.


Being conscious, observant and knowledgeable about language acquisition, phonological and phonemic awareness, and the importance of handwriting to reduce cognitive load for our students are key understandings for all teachers of literacy. These are some of the key areas we support schools in developing in the pedagogical content knowledge of their teachers at all levels.  If you would like support  in understanding the literacy pedagogies and practices that align with Te Mātaiaho and the Common Practice Model our facilitation team are equipped to implement curriculum changes and can support teams to integrate structured literacy into your classroom curriculum. Adopting an evidence-informed structured literacy approach in your setting doesn't have to be a daunting experience. Instead, strive to gain a thorough understanding of the science behind how the brain works and learns. Then, consider how you can effectively apply this knowledge to your specific setting. Strategic implementation ensures your entire team is on the waka with you by prioritising a deliberate, thought-out and well-informed approach.

For support through this process or more information about how structured literacy can be incorporated into your setting enquire with our professional learning services team today.

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