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Orton–Gillingham: What You Need to Know

By Peg Rosen

At a Glance

  • Orton–Gillingham is a teaching approach designed to help struggling readers.

  • Orton–Gillingham teaches the connections between sounds and letters.

  • It pioneered the multisensory approach to teaching reading.

Orton–Gillingham is a teaching approach specifically designed to help struggling readers by explicitly teaching the connections between letters and sounds. Today—decades after it was introduced—many reading programs include Orton–Gillingham ideas.

This structured literacy approach 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 a common component of effective literacy programs. This means that instructors use sight, hearing, touch, and movement to help students connect language with letters and words. Orton–Gillingham is widely used to teach students with dyslexia.

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’s not the primary goal.

This approach uses multiple pathways to help kids learn. For example, students might learn the letter by seeing it, saying its name, and sounding it out while writing it with their fingers in shaving cream.

Orton–Gillingham also puts a strong emphasis on understanding the hows and whys behind reading. Students might 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’ll be better able to decode words on their own.

Where to Find Orton–Gillingham

Orton–Gillingham is a well-regarded approach to teaching kids who struggle with reading. That’s why many teachers use Orton–Gillingham-type strategies 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 approach and programs influenced by it more comprehensively with students who have dyslexia and other reading issues. Some schools provide Orton–Gillingham-type instruction through a student’s or .

There are a number of reading programs influenced by the Orton–Gillingham approach. These include the Barton Reading Program and the Wilson Reading System. These programs vary somewhat, but they all use a structured, multisensory approach.

How Orton–Gillingham Works

The first step is assessing students to determine their reading skills and areas of strength and challenges. Any specialist or teacher trained in the Orton–Gillingham approach can do this.

Students are then taught in small groups with classmates 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 phonological awareness—making the connection between sounds and the letters that represent those sounds. The next step would 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.

Knowing what program your school uses and how different programs work can help you see whether the school is meeting program goals. And it will give you a better idea of how to support kids in a way that aligns with the program.

Key Takeaways

  • Orton–Gillingham is a well-regarded approach to teaching kids who struggle with reading.

  • Orton–Gillingham’s step-by-step approach is based on how children learn language.

  • Students must master one reading skill before moving on to the next.

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