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Gaining A New Outlook Through Structured Literacy

Young girl with curly hair resting her arms on a book. Her chin is resting on top of her hands.


Female teacher with long brown hair and a red Tshirt sitting at a table explaining something to a child who is out of the frame.

Seeing struggling students become confident, independent readers encourages many teachers as they deliver systematic, explicit Structured Literacy instruction. Literacy changes lives, and Sammy S. had the honor of helping a student change her outlook on school and explore the possibilities that the world of reading offers.

Sammy, a reading specialist in a suburban school district in southeast Pennsylvania, decided to pursue Wilson Reading System® (WRS) Level I Certification because some of the parents at her school requested the WRS curriculum for their children. With the support of Wilson® Certified Trainer Lakesha C., Sammy began delivering WRS instruction to her practicum student, a fourth grader named Mia.

“When I think of a model WRS student, I think of Mia,” Sammy said.

In first and second grade, Mia’s reading struggles weren’t easy to spot or address due to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her reading benchmark tests showed that her overall reading composite score was in the second percentile. Her reading comprehension ranked in the fifth percentile and her vocabulary was in the first percentile.

Learned Helplessness, Not Laziness
Learned helplessness is not laziness or expecting others to do things for you. It’s the mindset that trying to perform well in a situation (e.g., school) is useless because you’ve experienced repeated failure in the past. Learned helplessness may appear as apathy or a lack of motivation.
Learn more about learned helplessness

By third grade, Mia had fallen behind her peers academically and felt singled out. She lost confidence and showed signs of learned helplessness—not wanting to try because her efforts had only been met with failure. To avoid stressful reading and writing tasks, Mia made frequent visits to the nurse’s office.

A Reason to Try

Mia began WRS lessons with Sammy in place of her usual English Language Arts (ELA) block. She also received an individualized education program (IEP) with accommodations to help her succeed, including an aide who helped Mia talk through and plan writing assignments.

Mia thrived with Sammy’s support and instruction.  She gained confidence in her reading skills and was inspired to give her best effort at school.

“She’s raising her hand in class now. She’s participating!” Sammy enthused.

The reading strategies Mia learned weren’t limited to the WRS classroom; she also applied them in other classes and on standardized tests.

Mia was and continues to be a model student during lessons, working hard without giving up. She pushes herself and constantly tries. Sammy said, “Now instead of shutting down when it’s difficult, I hear her saying, ‘Ms. S. would never give me anything I couldn’t do.’”

Achieving Mastery

What is a Percentile?
Many academic assessments report results in terms of percentiles. A student’s percentile rank indicates that the student scored as well as or better than that percentage of students in the norm group. So, if you score in the 95th percentile, you scored as high as or higher than 95% of students who took the test.

One-on-one Structured Literacy instruction encourages practice to ensure that students reach mastery before moving on to more complex and advanced concepts. Mia found it helpful to repeat Step 3 of WRS before moving on to Step 4. With the extra reinforcement, she continued to flourish.

After fifteen months of WRS instruction, Mia is reading at the fifth-grade level along with her peers. Having met her IEP goal of reaching grade level, she has returned to the mainstream ELA class.

“When the IEP team decided to put her back into regular ELA class, she started crying with joy,” Sammy remembered.

Mia’s most recent reading benchmark scores showed the rewards of her hard work and Sammy’s excellent instruction. Her overall reading composite score was in the 35th percentile, with her reading comprehension score reaching the 42nd percentile.

“I think now that she has the reading piece, her mindset on school and life in general has changed,” Sammy said. “WRS truly changed her life.”

Sammy also mentioned that school staff members tell her how much more confident and mature Mia has become since learning to read. Now that she can keep up with her peers academically, Mia finally likes being at school and has the confidence to make friends. She participates in her ELA class with minimal adult support, and she no longer feels the need to frequent the nurse’s office.

Mia told Sammy she wants to be a teacher.

“And I can see it happening,” Sammy said.

Structured Literacy Helps Teachers Too

Sammy found that professional learning helped her understand not only WRS but also how the English language works and the brain processes words. In learning to help students become better readers, Sammy also gained new skills to be an even better teacher.

“Now that I’m invested, I get it. I get how Wilson® works. I was never taught to teach reading like this in college,” Sammy said. “We all need this.”