Demystifying Orton-Gillingham Instruction

In this article, the DVFriends language remediation specialists explore the key components of Orton-Gillingham (OG) reading instruction and the differences among the various OG programs which are available to schools, tutors, and special programs. In addition, there is in-depth information about the Delaware Valley Friends School’s Adolescent Literacy Program -- an Orton-Gillingham based teacher training program developed at DVFriends to address the needs of older students with language-based learning disabilities.  This training program is accredited by the International Multisensory Structured Language Education Council (IMSLEC) and recognized by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA).

  1. What is multisensory instruction?

Multisensory instruction uses visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile strategies to engage students in learning. Teachers have many options. Visual components can be colors, symbols, images, written words - anything a student processes with their eyes. Auditory instruction includes both hearing and responding verbally as well as songs and rhythms. Kinesthetic methods require students to move their body; this can include using manipulatives, puzzle pieces, coloring, constructing something, and even handwriting. Tactile methods involve the sense of touch. For really young learners, this can mean tracing letters in a sand table or using cards with raised letters that the students trace with their fingers.  Tactile methods with older students are closely tied to kinesthetic methods and might include making letter shapes with their body or moving to different parts of the room to represent different concepts. Multisensory instruction engages different parts of students’ brains. This is critical because the more students use different areas of their brains simultaneously in learning, the better those concepts stick. For example, it is ideal for a student to trace the letter, say the letter name, and say the sound all in sequence. This is true multisensory instruction and it is the best instruction for all learners but it is especially important for students with learning disabilities.  Evidence-based scientific research has shown that the brains of students who receive OG instruction will actually restructure as they learn to read and spell. 

  1. What is Orton-Gillingham?

Orton-Gillingham is an approach to reading instruction developed in the early 20th century by Samuel T. Orton and Anna Gillingham. Dr. Orton, a neuropsychologist and pathologist, was studying children who, during that time, were deemed intellectually deficient. They were institutionalized and removed from their families. As he studied these children, he found that their intellectual capacity (IQ) was normal; they were able to learn and process concepts like any child, but they could not learn to read. Unfortunately, during that time period, the ability to read was linked to intelligence; however, Dr. Orton knew these children were bright. In 1925, his work with these students led him to be the first to identify the syndrome of dyslexia which he called word blindness.

Determined to harness the intellectual potential of these students, Dr. Orton worked to help teach them to read. Dr. Orton worked with Anna Gillingham, an educator and psychologist, to develop the multisensory approach which was published in 1930. This approach became known as the Orton-Gillingham approach. It includes seven integral instructional strategies:

  1. Direct, explicit instruction
  2. Systematic and structured
  3. Sequential and cumulative
  4. Synthetic and analytic
  5. Multisensory
  6. Diagnostic and prescriptive
  7. Individualized  

  1. When you say that O-G training allows teachers to teach the students not the program, what do you mean?

A key feature of Orton-Gillingham instruction is being diagnostic and prescriptive, which means being able to diagnose where students’ weaknesses and challenges are and creating curriculum that can remediate those challenges. To be truly diagnostic and prescriptive, the instruction must be tailored to a specific student rather than being beholden to a sequence of instructional lessons. For this to happen, the teacher must have the knowledge to recognize where the student is in their learning and the training to know how to adjust the instruction accordingly. This may mean deviating from a lesson plan to refocus on a sub-skill that the student has not mastered, or it may mean speeding up instruction in a particular area because the student quickly grasping a concept.  Effectively teaching a student requires a teacher to be aware of where a student is,where they’re headed, and managing instruction that constantly adjusts to review, revisit, and reinforce what that student needs -- not what the program is scripted to teach. This diagnostic and prescriptive teaching is difficult and only well trained teachers who have developed (and continue to develop) robust knowledge and toolboxes of strategies can really be effective practitioners of this approach. Certification as a language practitioner ensures that a teacher has reached this level of training.

  1. When a doctor recommends Orton-Gillingham instruction for a student, what are they recommending?

When a doctor recommends Orton-Gillingham instruction for a student, they are not only recommending a research and evidence based approach that has been proven to effectively teach students to read but also a program which has been proven to change the wiring in a student’s brain. To accomplish this, the instruction must include each of the seven integral instructional strategies highlighted by Dr. Orton and Anna Gillingham delivered by a certified teacher. Using these strategies, certified teachers introduce and practice sound-symbol correspondences, decoding, spelling, comprehension and fluency. Instruction for older students also includes more advanced decoding strategies for multisyllabic words and Latin and Greek derivatives.

  1. When would this approach be needed?

There are various indicators at different ages that suggest an O-G based reading remediation program might be needed for a student. In early childhood, toddlers with delayed speech are often more likely to be diagnosed with dyslexia later in their development. In the early elementary grades indicators include: struggling with the memorization of sound-symbol correspondences, difficulty memorizing sight words and basic words despite repeated exposure, confusion of letters, difficulty following oral directions, difficulty discriminating between sounds in spoken words, and the inability to rhyme. Older students who struggle to read are typically no longer receiving direct reading instruction at school. If their reading continues to lag behind their same age peers, they typically will require specialized intervention. Specific signs might be difficulty sounding out words, struggling with reading comprehension, and refusal to read aloud or complete reading homework and classwork.  Adolescents may be diagnosed with Late Emerging Reading Difficulties (LERD). LERD refers to students who often lagged behind in language skills acquisition in early childhood. In adolescence, they present primarily with comprehension difficulties.

  1. What's the difference between Orton-Gillingham and a curriculum like Wilson, Project Read, Take Flight, or the DVFS Adolescent Literacy Program?

Orton-Gillingham is an approach to instruction that is proven to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities. Programs like Wilson, ProjectRead, Take Flight and the DVFS Adolescent Literacy Program are curriculums that use the seven integral O-G instructional strategies highlighted above. These curriculum should include:

  1. Phonemic Awareness (manipulating the sounds within words)
  2. Decoding (sounding out words)
  3. Encoding (spelling)
  4. Fluency  
  5. Comprehension (understanding what is read)
  6. Vocabulary
  7. Morphology (study of the units of meaning in words)
  8. Grammar
  9. Writing (at the sentence, paragraph, and essay level)

There are many different curriculums that use Orton-Gillingham instructional strategies, but they vary significantly in their curriculum and instructional practices.  These variations may include: the pace at which students move through the content, the amount of information introduced in each lesson, the types of materials used, the emphasis on basic skill practice without exposure to materials appropriate for a student’s chronological age, and the amount of focus on decoding versus reading comprehension. Some programs include cursive writing, while others don’t include it at all; some emphasize mouth shape for phonemic awareness, and others don’t.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of O-G programs are targeted toward very young learners which limits the choices for the struggling adolescent student.

Teacher Training

Another major difference between programs is the level of teacher training required to deliver the program with efficacy. Some are a packaged curriculum that you can purchase, read the guidebook, and deliver. Others require the teacher to receive direct instruction from credentialed trainers and to complete a certification process. The certification process includes intensive instruction, hundreds of hours of instruction and observations, and the passing of a certifying exam. All of these requirements need to be completed before they are considered certified and ready to deliver the program independently. Three organizations that ensure instructional standards and oversee this certification process are the Academic Language Therapy Association (ALTA, 1986), Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators (AOGPE, 1991) and the International Multisensory Structured Language Council (IMSLEC, 1994). 

Adaptability to student needs

Perhaps the most significant difference among the different Orton-Gillingham programs is the level of diagnostic and prescriptive flexibility the programs allow. Some, like Wilson, are scripted, requiring the teacher to strictly follow the curriculum in a specified order and pace using assessment scores at the end of each section to determine whether the student is ready to move to the next skill. The delivery of this curriculum does not depend on the teacher’s ability to make adjustments when the student is struggling or excelling with a particular skill. Others, like the DVFriends Adolescent Literacy Program, rely on the trained teacher to be more diagnostic and prescriptive - using a variety of tools and materials to speed up, slow down, or shift course and try a different approach based on the individual student’s needs. In this type of program, the depth and breadth of the teacher’s training, experience, continuing education, and access to a mentor and support system are critical to their ability to individualize instruction.

  1. Why did DVFS decide to create its own O-G based Adolescent Literacy Program?

Delaware Valley Friends created the Adolescent Literacy Program because we saw the need to create a curriculum that was focused on the adolescent learner. Adolescent students who are still struggling with basic reading but are intellectually capable of grade-level content work have very specific and challenging needs. In the classroom, adolescents need to be able to read to learn in science, history and math. This reading has much more advanced vocabulary and challenging reading comprehension. We were seeing middle and high school students who were resistant to the reading instruction because it was geared towards the younger students. This was alarming because these students need intensive remediation to close the gap in their skills. Remediating their reading difficulties while engaging these students in developmentally appropriate ways became our challenge and the DVFriends Adolescent Literacy Program was the answer to this challenge.

  1. How does DVFS train teachers in their O-G based Adolescent Literacy Program?

The teacher training in our O-G based Adolescent Literacy Program is an intensive two year commitment that leads to certification as an Academic Language Practitioner. Our program emphasizes helping teachers not only understand the theoretical background of multisensory instruction but also to implement it with efficacy. Through training and mentorship, teachers learn to develop lessons that respond to the needs of the students they have in front of them. Teachers learn to be diagnostic and prescriptive which enables them to respond to the needs of their students. This allows the teacher to work through the curriculum at a pace that is right for a child rather than following a prescribed pace. Individualization is key to meeting the needs of the adolescent learner.

  1. Now that DV has an elementary program, how are you approaching reading instruction in those younger grades?

The elementary program focuses on delivering instruction that uses all the fundamentals of O-G instruction and good curriculum.  To determine each student’s specific needs we use assessments and work samples. Our teachers are skilled at using this information to create instruction that is diagnostic and prescriptive. This enables our teachers to meet the students where they are and ensures that they are able to respond and adapt instruction and materials to meet the student’s needs. Our lower school teaching team is trained in multiple O-G based programs and they decide which program and materials best suit their group of students.

  1. What does DV's reading and writing instruction look like in practice? 

At the beginning of the year, we think carefully about our language arts groupings. These groupings depend on the needs of the students as determined by their psychoeducational testing and internal assessments. Each language arts class may have different focuses and DVFriends teachers will individualize materials, assignments, supports and scaffolding based on each student’s needs. Progress will be closely monitored and instruction will be continuously adapted based on how these needs change from skill to skill over time.

At DVFriends, there is a great deal of communication and coordination between the teachers to ensure that students’ needs are understood and supported across the curriculum. At many schools, students’ reading and writing support is delivered in a pull out class. The students are then expected to generalize these skills and strategies for use in their other classes. This doesn’t happen at DV.  In addition to the instruction they receive in language arts class, students receive direct instruction in reading and writing skills in science, history and math. These content area classes are very skills-based. Students also receive direct instruction on how to take notes, use audio and dictation software, and study tools. Our teachers are skilled at understanding students’ learning profiles and presenting content in ways that meet the students’ needs. Often this includes assistive technology which enables the students to access and engage in grade-level material despite their struggles. All of these supports are designed to help students harness their strengths while removing the burden of their learning challenges.

  1. Is all this scaffolding really good for the student? Aren’t they better off “toughing it out” in a mainstream school?

DVFriends focuses on determining what students are capable of developmentally. We meet the students where they are and develop instruction that challenges them and provides the support they need to be successful. Our ultimate goal is to create independent learners and we gradually remove the support as students develop the skills they need to be independent. Students need to experience success in a school setting. They need to see themselves as learners. Success build success. Our goal is to develop students who are curious learners with solid background knowledge who know HOW they learn. If we can do that, then they will be successful now and in their future academic and non-academic endeavors. This is developed from elementary school to middle school and through high school. When DVFS students go to college, they know what they need to succeed in the classroom and they didn’t need to fail or tough it out to learn how to do this.

  1. What questions should you ask your school about literacy/reading program?

There are a number of questions parents should ask when evaluating a reading/literacy program:

  • What are the training requirements for the program’s literacy instructors?  Are the faculty certified in any programs? Were they required to complete a supervised practicum to become certified? 
  • What kind of continuing education do you offer to faculty to increase their toolbox of strategies?
  • What kind of assessments are used to determine where a student fits in a particular program and why do they use that assessment?
  • What skills are highlighted or emphasized in this program? Do those targeted skills align with what a student really needs?
  • Once a student is assessed, how does the teacher decide what they are going to teach them?  Does the assessment indicate a particular starting spot in a curriculum or does the assessment indicate the skills the student hasn’t mastered, which then drives curriculum decisions? How are teachers trained to make these decisions?
  • What is the target age for this program and does it stop at a particular age level?
  • Does the school or program offer instruction that is developmentally appropriate through high school levels?