Of all the reading programs specifically designed to help struggling readers by explicitly teaching the connections between letters and sounds, Orton–Gillingham was the first. Today—decades later—many reading programs include Orton–Gillingham ideas.
The highly structured program introduced the idea of breaking reading and spelling down into smaller skills involving letters and sounds, and then building on these skills over time. It also pioneered the “multisensory” approach to teaching reading, which is considered the gold standard for teaching students with dyslexia. This means that instructors use sight, hearing, touch and movement to help students connect language with letters and words.
What Orton–Gillingham Focuses On
Orton–Gillingham focuses on teaching kids to read at the word level. While it can help develop reading comprehension, that is not the program’s primary goal.
This approach uses multiple pathways to help kids learn. For example, students might learn the letter s by seeing it, saying its name and sounding it out while writing it with their fingers in shaving cream.
“Of all reading programs, Orton–Gillingham has the most research to support its approach.”
Orton–Gillingham also puts a strong emphasis on understanding the “how” and “why” behind reading. Students may explore why the letter s sounds one way in the word plays, and another way in the word snake. Once they know consistent rules and patterns, they’re better able to decode words on their own.
Where to Find Orton–Gillingham
Orton–Gillingham has the most research of any program to support its approach. That’s why many classroom teachers choose to use strategies from the program in their reading instruction. Having students walk around the floor in the pattern of a letter, for instance, is an activity inspired by Orton–Gillingham.
But reading specialists use the program more comprehensively with students who have dyslexia and other reading issues. Many schools provide instruction based on Orton–Gillingham through a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) or response to intervention.
Orton–Gillingham is the basis for numerous other reading programs aimed at struggling readers. These include Lindamood–Bell and the Wilson Reading System. These programs vary somewhat. But they all use a highly structured, multisensory approach.
Schools may use any one of these programs to teach struggling readers. The program they choose may depend upon a teacher’s training or whom the school is partnered with. What matters most is that the program is based on Orton–Gillingham.
How Orton–Gillingham Works
The first step is assessing a student to determine his reading skills and areas of strength and weakness. This can be done by any specialist or teacher trained in the Orton–Gillingham approach.
Students are then taught in small groups with others at similar skill levels. Instructors follow a highly structured approach that teaches skills in a particular order. This order is based on an understanding of how children naturally develop language.
For example, the group may first work on making the connection between sounds and the letters that represent those sounds. The next step will be recognizing those sounds in words. Students must master each skill before they move on to the next. If a student is confused, the instructor will reteach that skill from the beginning. The goal is for students to use the skills they’ve learned to decode words independently.
Effective help is available for struggling readers. It’s important to know what program your child’s school uses, and how the different programs work. That knowledge can help you see if the school is meeting program goals. And it will give you a better idea of how to help your child at home.