Structured Literacy in Writing Instruction: Part I

It’s no secret—we do not do a very good job teaching kids to write. Writing scores have been stagnant for decades, and when writing is included in reading assessments, the written components receive lower scores than the multiple-choice or short answer components do. Why? And what can we do to improve?

Why is Writing so hard?!

Writing, like reading, requires the integration of dozens of distinct cognitive processes seemingly all at once. The Writing Rope (Sedita, 2019) details strands of skills necessary for effective writing. The Writing Rope, similar to the Reading Rope (Scarborough, 2001), groups skills into two main categories. The first is Composition, which is focused on the meaning-making side of writing. The second is Transcription, which is the encoding side of writing, in other words getting the words on the page.

However, writing is more complex than reading in at least three main ways.

  1. Writing is an expressive language task, whereas reading is a receptive language task. Expressive language is inherently more demanding. As evidence, consider the fact that every speaker of every language at every point of language development is able to understand more words and language structures (the receptive side) than they are able to use themselves (the expressive side).
  2. Writing involves graphomotor skill, the fine motor skills used to represent written language, skills not used in reading. Graphomotor skills tend to refer to those used in handwritten writing, but there are also motor skills involved in keyboarding and mousing to create digital texts.
  3. Writing is cognitively demanding due to the integration of many executive functions, such as working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-regulation. If you have never thought about everything involved in writing even just one sentence, all you need to do is work with a young child just learning how—you will see every single move made visible in the effort they extend to accomplish this task!

If you could hear inside that little head, it would sound something like,

“What do I want to say? Swimming…I like swimming. I…how do I write I? Remember sight word, it’s just an I, a capital I. What does that look like? Look at my letter line. Look back at paper. Hold pencil like this, start at the top, pull down, stop here. Leave a space here, that was a word all by itself. Like, how do I write Like? Sound it out. /l/. What letter says /l/?…”

and on and on. You can feel the mental exhaustion just reading this! It’s no wonder beginning writers forget words and even forget their intended message by the time they go through all this processing.

Of course, over time, writers build automaticity and fluency in some of these skills, such that they no longer have to sound out each word and think about how to form each letter. But by that time, the complexity of the writing tasks take over that freed cognitive space. More developed writers have to consciously consider things like purpose, audience, word choice, organization, as well as advanced writing conventions.

Clearly writing is difficult. So, how can we improve?

Improvement #1: Instructional Time

One of the easiest changes we can make is to increase the amount of time spent on writing instruction. Across all grades, students spend very little time in school writing (as summarized below by Literacy Leadership State Team in partnership with the Oregon Department of Education, 2011):

  • Primary grade students spend ~20 to 30 minutes per day actually writing, with even less time actually teaching students how to write (Gilbert & Graham, 2010);
  • Intermediate grade students spend ~25 minutes per day writing and ~15 additional minutes directly teaching writing across all subjects (Gilbert & Graham, 2010);
  • Secondary students spend little time writing in any of their academic subjects, including English (Applebee & Langer, 2006).

Experts agree—we need to drastically increase the amount of time spent on writing instruction in schools, in all grades and content areas. Recommendations include:

  • Writing time should be at least doubled, across all grade levels (National Commission on Writing, 2006)
  • Writing should be assigned, taught, and practiced across the curriculum (National Commission on Writing, 2006)
  • Elementary grade teachers should spend at least 35-40 minutes on daily writing instruction and related student writing activities beginning in first grade and the amount of time should increase across grade levels as writing demands become more complex (Graves, 1994).
  • Secondary students should spend at least one hour engaged in writing-specific tasks each day, to be distributed across content areas intentionally and systematically. E.g., 15 minutes of writing in Chemistry related to scientific method, and 20 minutes of argument writing in History (Graves, 1994).

The most effective use of this increased instructional time is for teachers to increase actual instruction in writing, not merely increase student practice.

Improvement #2: Structured Literacy Instructional Approach

What is considered writing “instruction” can vary widely, and not all approaches are equally effective. Beginning decades ago, and continuing to this day, many teachers began to use workshop models for writing that are loosely structured, mostly based on student choice and exploration, and without specific goals or instruction in specific skills. These models can certainly increase writing time, but they are unlikely to achieve writing growth, especially for students who are not already working at grade level (Adams, Wong Fillmore, Goldenberg, Oakhill, Paige, Rasinski & Shanahan, 2020).

What is Structured Literacy?

An effective instructional approach is known as the structured literacy approach. Structured literacy instruction is characterized by two features—it is both explicit and systematic. This approach not only helps students with reading and writing difficulties, but there is substantial evidence that it is more effective for all readers (International Dyslexia Association, 2018).

Explicit instruction is defined by the following:

  • Clear objective for instruction in skill(s) that is explained in student-friendly language
  • Teacher modeling of the thinking and processes necessary to use the skill
  • Student practice with teacher guidance and feedback targeted to the objective
  • Student independent mastery and application to other contexts
  • Ongoing assessment to differentiate instruction to ensure mastery for all students

This approach is also known as the gradual release model because teachers initially take more responsibility for the learning, and then transfer responsibility over time as students gain mastery. Explicit instruction aims to make invisible cognitive processes visible, teachable, and learnable. Teachers directly teach skills and processes; they do not expect students to become more skilled at a process simply by exposure or self-guided exploration.

Systematic instruction is intentionally organized in a sequence, with simpler or more foundational skills taught first, followed by incremental increases in complexity over time. For example, students are taught how to form simple sentences first, and then over time learn compound and complex sentence types and how to vary sentence structure to build interest and ease of reading.

Structured Literacy sounds too structured; won’t it stifle a love of writing?

Critics of a structured literacy approach sometimes describe it as too rigid, not allowing for student freedom or fostering a love of writing. However, a structured approach to literacy instruction actually builds freedom and motivation in writing for students. Here’s how:

Jocko Willink, author of Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual, explains,

While Discipline and Freedom seem like they sit on opposite sides of the spectrum, they are actually very connected. Freedom is what everyone wants — to be able to act and live with freedom. But the only way to get to a place of freedom is through discipline. If you want financial freedom, you have to have financial discipline. If you want more free time, you have to follow a more disciplined time management system. You also have to have the discipline to say “No” to things that eat up your time with no payback… Discipline equals freedom applies to every aspect of life: if you want more freedom, get more discipline.”

This adage holds true in education as well. We see it all the time in classrooms with highly engaged students. High functioning classrooms make it look like students are managing themselves with much autonomy; they look like they have fewer rules, and that everyone somehow just knows what to do and how to do it. But we educators know that the only way those classrooms got that way was through structured and intentional instruction in how to do virtually everything students need to do, with gradual release of teacher responsibility and guidance over time. Writing is no different.

Think of the students you know who upon hearing they can freely write, immediately put their heads on their desks in exhaustion and frustration. They’d rather do just about anything than write “freely”. This is because they do not have the skills in place to write freely. Writers who are taught explicitly and systematically in a structured (disciplined) approach end up with the true freedom to express themselves effectively and efficiently in writing. Our students need that civil right, that freedom, and they will achieve it through discipline in a structured literacy approach.

So what does this look like in practice?

Over the next two blogs, I will outline examples in practice at the High School and Elementary school level. For now, I have included several online resources for you to peruse. As always, you can do this! And we are here to help.


Structured Literacy:

Writing IES Practice Guides: 

These guides summarize decades of systematically reviewed research to outline the instructional practices with the best evidence of positive effect on student outcomes.

Publications about Writing:


Teacher Resources:

Jessica Hoffman, SST 13 Regional Literacy Specialist

I have been an educator for over 20 years--as a teacher, researcher, professor, coach, and consultant. My favorite work is in schools with administrators, teachers, and students. At home, I enjoy hiking, gardening, and traveling with my husband and two kids.