Wilson Reading System: What you need to know

At a glance

  • The Wilson Reading System uses an Orton–Gillingham approach to reading instruction.

  • It’s one of only a few programs with materials specifically designed for adolescents.

  • Many public schools use it in their special education reading classes.

The Wilson Reading System (WRS) is an instructional program used to help struggling readers. It’s one of several programs that uses the highly structured Orton–Gillingham approach. WRS is designed for students from second grade up to adulthood. But it’s most widely used with upper elementary students, middle-schoolers, and high-schoolers.

What it focuses on

Like other programs based on Orton–Gillingham, WRS is “multisensory.” It uses visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile senses to help kids make connections between sounds and words. But the materials may be simpler and more direct than the ones used in other programs.

For instance, WRS uses far fewer pictures than other programs. This can help students focus on decoding words without the help of visual cues. The pictures it does use are very simple and are only included in certain activities. 

WRS starts with very basic skills, like matching sounds with letters. Instructors then help students recognize different syllables and teach students how to use syllables to read and spell.

“Wilson uses a unique ‘sound-tapping’ system. Students are taught to break down and blend word sounds by tapping out each sound with their fingers and thumb.”

WRS reading materials are age-appropriate. A ninth grader who reads at a fourth-grade level, for instance, doesn’t have to use materials designed for younger students. The older students get, the more advanced the vocabulary becomes. Reading passages get longer. The subject matter is also in line with the interests of older kids.

Where to find it

WRS is widely used in both public and private schools. It can be part of response to intervention or used in special education reading classrooms.

Many private reading tutors also use it with their students. Wilson offers a training and certification program. It’s a good idea to ask any tutor who says they use this method if they are certified through Wilson to teach it. You can also contact Wilson Language Training to confirm an individual’s certification. A teacher or tutor who isn’t WRS-certified can still use the program. But having certification gives some assurance that the tutor is well prepared.

Who it’s for

Wilson is used to help students second grade and up and adults with and other reading issues. A large part of the program is geared toward middle-schoolers and high-schoolers.

How it works

Before kids start the program, a Wilson-trained instructor evaluates their skill level, strengths, and weaknesses using the company's assessment tool. (The specialist won’t make a diagnosis, however.) 

Students are taught in small groups with others at similar skill levels. Teachers write their own lesson plans, based on specific WRS guidelines.

As part of its multisensory approach, WRS uses a unique “sound-tapping” system. Students are taught to break down and blend word sounds by tapping out each sound with their fingers and thumb.

Sessions are usually longer than with other programs based on Orton–Gillingham. They typically last 60–90 minutes. WRS instructors need more time because they must cover 10 skill areas in each class. These include things like letter-sound recognition, , and spelling. Other programs tend to focus on one skill area per session.

Like the other programs, WRS builds skills over time in a particular order. Its curriculum is broken into 12 steps or units, which can take between two and three years to complete.

If your child is a struggling reader, it’s important to know why. Having your child evaluated for learning and thinking differences can help you understand. That’s also the only way your child may be entitled to services at school.

It’s also good to learn about other reading programs that schools use and how different approaches work. You may not be able to choose a particular program for your child at school. What matters most is that the program the school uses is based on Orton–Gillingham.

Key takeaways

  • Wilson Reading System materials are simple and straightforward by design.

  • Teachers create their own lesson plans, based on program guidelines.

  • The 12-unit WRS curriculum takes between two and three years to complete.


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