Balanced Literacy vs. Structured Literacy: Understanding the Key Differences

kids arranging letters

Reading development is a variety of cognitive processes that students acquire as an essential part of their academic journey. Balanced Literacy has been a widely accepted approach that educators have embraced over the past several decades. However, with a growing number of studies showing a steady decline in reading achievement among all student demographics, educators have looked to a science-based model that provides a more systematic approach to teaching reading skills.

In this blog post, we will explore Balanced and Structured Literacy, highlight the key differences between them, and examine why Structured Literacy has provided students with a better foundation for reading development.

What is Balanced Literacy?

Balanced Literacy is a reading approach developed in the 1990s as a response to the “reading wars” that pitted phonics-based instruction against whole-language instruction.

Balanced Literacy aims to provide students with a variety of reading strategies and skills to help them become competent and confident readers. The key features of Balanced Literacy include a combination of teacher-directed instruction and student-centered activities, a focus on phonics and whole-language approaches to reading, and a balance between reading comprehension and word recognition skills.

Balanced Literacy instructional models include shared reading, guided reading, independent reading, and writing activities that help students make connections between their reading and writing.

What is Structured Literacy?

Structured Literacy is a method of teaching reading based on systematic, explicit, and sequential instruction. It has its roots in the Orton-Gillingham approach and was developed in the early 20th century to teach students with dyslexia. The goal of Structured Literacy is to teach students the foundational skills they need to become proficient readers, including phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding, vocabulary, and comprehension.

The key features of Structured Literacy include the following:

  • Direct instruction
  • Explicit teaching of phonetic rules and patterns of language
  • Sound drills in which you show students a letter and ask for the sound
  • Learning new rules that are practiced at the sound level, the word level, and the sentence level
  • Word analysis exercises
  • Specific phonological awareness activities, spelling drills, spelling practice, and sentence dictation.
  • A cumulative and sequential approach to reading instruction.

SOR mockup phone kids science of reading

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The Key Differences Between Balanced and Structured Literacy

Balanced Literacy emphasizes reading instruction through various approaches, including word study, memorization of high-frequency words, and leveled reading texts using the three-cueing system. There is a greater focus on using pictures or context to identify meaning in the text. In contrast, Structured Literacy places a more significant emphasis on phonics instruction, practicing word patterns, and using knowledge of word patterns to decode text to understand the meaning of the text. 

Structured Literacy tends to focus more on the activities that facilitate instruction (read aloud, shared reading, guided reading, independent reading), while Structured Literacy focuses less on the activities and more on the structure of language (phonology, sound-syllable correspondences, syllables, morphology, syntax, and semantics).

table about balanced literacy

(Graphic by The Measured Mom)

Why Structured Literacy is More Effective than Balanced Literacy

Based on extensive research and validation over time, Structured Literacy is considered more effective than Balanced Literacy because it provides students with a clear, step-by-step approach to developing the foundational skills they need to become successful readers, including phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding, and spelling. This approach ensures that students master each skill before moving on to the next, which is critical for building a solid foundation in reading.

Additionally, Structured Literacy instruction is designed to be multisensory, engaging all senses in the learning process, which is especially effective for students with dyslexia and other learning differences. While Balanced Literacy incorporates many different strategies for teaching reading, it can lack the specific guidance and structure necessary for students to develop strong foundational skills.

Overall, the research indicates that Structured Literacy is a highly effective approach to teaching reading and can be a powerful tool for ensuring that all students achieve reading success.

Related Blog Post: Exploring the Science of Reading: How the Brain Acquires Literacy Skills

Examples of Structured Literacy in the Classroom

There are a variety of activities and teaching methods that can be used in the classroom to implement Structured Literacy. Three examples include sound drills, phoneme manipulation exercises, and multisensory instruction.

  1. Sound Drills: Sound drills involve the direct teaching of phonemes, where the teacher models the correct pronunciation of sounds and asks students to repeat them in unison. Previously taught sounds are practiced during whole group instruction using modeling, cueing, and visual prompts.
  2. Phoneme Manipulation Exercises: Phoneme manipulation exercises include phoneme isolation, blending, segmentation, addition, deletion, and substitution. Students can practice these skills in whole group activities that are modeled and led by the classroom teacher as well as independent tasks and partner games with monitoring and opportunities to receive teacher feedback.
  3. Multisensory Instruction: Students receive opportunities to build phonemic awareness by engaging multiple senses in structured literacy classrooms. Teachers guide students to practice the sounds by saying the sounds, hearing the sounds, and writing the sounds.

Structured Literacy Resources

Structured literacy resources are a powerful asset in the classroom. The on-site and virtual teacher training we offer at Strobel Education provides teachers with an arsenal of materials to fuel their instruction – from lesson plans to planning templates for phonics and reading, as well as invaluable articles for professional growth.

With these tools, educators can craft a learning atmosphere where all students’ literacy development is nurtured with resources our team of experts has vetted and curated.

Structured Literacy Professional Development

At Strobel Education, we provide various professional opportunities to support teachers in incorporating Structured Literacy practices in their instruction. Through live virtual workshops and on-site and virtual staff training, we step teachers through the Science of Reading, incorporating the latest research and evidence-based practices.

Our professional development offerings also include digital resource bundles that include structured literacy resources, lesson plans, and activities for classroom instruction.

Contact us to learn more about our Science of Reading professional development opportunities.


Drawing on evidence from the Science of Reading, Structured Literacy is a powerful approach that empowers teachers to foster strong reading skills in their students. Students gain confidence through developing phonemic awareness and word recognition capabilities alongside fluency and comprehension practices – enabling each student to reach their highest potential as readers.

By creating equitable learning environments with Structured Literacy at their foundation, we can move closer toward true educational equality for all learners.

mockup pc science of readingWant to learn more about Structured Literacy? Grab this FREE Training from the Science of Reading Online Course

“*By requesting this free training you are also subscribing to the Strobel Education email list and Joy Drop emails from Kim Strobel.”

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