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Orton Gillingham – It’s Complicated – Part 1 & 2

Mar2015 NF

Orton-Gillingham: It’s Complicated – Part 1

This is a two-part post. Their purpose is to argue that better language is necessary to describe what research has shown to be truly effective reading instruction. Science has shown that effective reading instruction can 1) prevent reading difficulties in most young children, even those with naturally weak phonological systems, and 2) build real reading skill in struggling readers rather than offering tricks, strategies, and “work-arounds.” Many believe that an Orton-Gillingham Approach is the best way (some believe the ONLY way) to do this. In part 1, we would like to argue that, while programs that take an OG approach are not precluded from being effective as reading instruction, it does not guarantee effectiveness. There must be better language to describe what constitutes effective reading instruction.

From Research to Approach

Mar2015 NF

Almost a century ago, teacher Anna Gillingham applied the research completed by neuropsychiatrist Samuel Orton on the development of language and reading skills to her plans for reading instruction. The result, an instructional approach now called “Orton-Gillingham,” was something quite revolutionary at the time. The contribution they made to the advancement of literacy skills can’t be understated.
Now, many decades later, the trail they blazed has become what practitioners describe as an “approach.” While each of these elements has a foundation in research, their exact application is not specified. Orton-Gillingham, in its current form, is neither a program nor a method. The primary characteristics of the Orton-Gillingham approach are:

  • Multi-sensory: Incorporates 2 or more senses involved in language skill acquisition (vision, sound, and touch-motion).
  • Structured and systematic: Begins with simple concepts and proceed in a logical progression to more complex tasks.
  • Diagnostic and Prescriptive: The instructor continuously monitors the performance and understanding of the student and creates lessons designed to address the needs of the student.
  • Direct: Instruction is presented in a way that the student understands what they are doing and why they are doing it.

There are other elements, but these are most fundamental and critical.

Not a Program? The Pros and Cons of an “Approach” to Reading Instruction

Labeling “Orton-Gillingham” an approach is beneficial in some ways. Not being prescriptive in how these elements are applied allows for variance that could, theoretically, lead to improvement of instruction. Maintaining a loose set of principles allows for “Orton-Gillingham” practitioners to (once again, theoretically) allow for their knowledge and skills to flex and adapt with current research.

Results May Vary

On the other hand, not all programs apply the approach in the same way. Reason dictates that not every program will be equally effective. The current mindset of “every child learns differently” aside (we will deal with this topic in a future post), the label of “Orton-Gillingham” now applies to a wide swath of different programs with varying degrees of success. The words “multi-sensory” and “structured” are very broad. We’ll talk about this more in the next post, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to say claim that such a spectrum of programs will be equally effective at building reading skill.

Individual Programs Lack Evidence

Another shortcoming is in the area of reportable research. There really is no way for scientific research to truly validate the effectiveness of “Orton-Gillingham” as an approach. Each program has to be tested independently and the results must be verified by independent peer review. A specific program can be tested. A philosophical approach is far more difficult to test.
The International Dyslexia Association (formerly the Orton Society and, later, the Orton Dyslexia Society) admits that there is little in the way of peer-reviewed, published research to confirm the effectiveness of Orton-Gillingham as an approach, as do other practitioners of the approach. The few studies that have been done faced questions as to the validity of the methodology. Most are only quasi-experimental, meaning that their results are not generalizable because the participants were not randomly selected. The studies that have been done have had mixed outcomes. While many report success with students when using an Orton-Gillingham program, scientifically speaking, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of any “Orton-Gillingham” program for the general population.

From Broad Suggestion to Specific Application: Research Must Be Applied Properly

Current scientific research supports many aspects of OG as an approach. Yet, how individual programs apply the different OG elements will differ. The words “multi-sensory” and “structured” are very broad. Will they all yield the same results?

Not All Multi-Sensory Instruction Yields the Same Results
Research tells us that inefficient wiring in the brain, likely caused by prenatal neural ectopias (brain cells that, when migrating during development in the womb, either didn’t quite make it to their destination or went too far) leads to skill deficits in two specific areas:

  • A lack of awareness about the multi-sensory features of speech sounds (what it looks and feels like when someone makes a speech sound).
  • A weak phonological system with a diminished ability to process and order speech sounds correctly.

So it makes sense that instruction that seeks to improve reading in people with these skill deficiencies would need to be multi-sensory. Properly integrating what a student feels, sees, and hears when making speech sounds would require use of all of those senses.

However, what is the scientific rationale for how individual programs attempt to provide “multi-sensory” instruction? Classrooms of children tapping on their arms or shaking their legs while spelling words looks like fun, and is probably very engaging for students. The same could be said for drawing in glitter or tracing letters on sandpaper. Engaged students will get more out of instruction, so we can see why teachers would find these methods appealing and how they might even lead to some increase in knowledge. The question, however, remains: How do these methods build skill in the specific areas of weakness for struggling readers?

The Structure Matters

Similarly, there is an overwhelming amount of research to support a structured, systematic program. Few would argue this. But how should it be structured? Popular OG-based programs begin with letter/sound associations. Yet research tells us that the main skill deficits that are likely to cause reading struggles are based in SPOKEN language. These language skills, strong or weak, develop before a child is ever introduced to letters, and common sense dictates that spoken language happens prior to print knowledge. Why, then, would we begin structured, systematic instruction building skills that develop those in need of building?

The intention of the article is not to discredit the Orton-Gillingham approach or argue the merits of the many powerful methods that have been developed over the last 60+ years of educational practice. It is to focus the conversation on what research verifies as effective instruction. Doing so will help further best-practices in our clinics and classrooms. We wish to raise further awareness of the practices which help both students and their instructors understand what they are doing and why they are doing it.

In part 2, we will focus on how to more effectively describe the methods that research has shown to be truly effective at building real reading skill in struggling readers and preventing reading difficulties in young children.To read part two of this series, click here.

Orton Gillingham – It’s Complicated – Part 2

To Read Part One of this series – click here.

This post follows up on the previous post about the Orton-Gillingham “approach.” We suggest that the term “neuro-developmental” best describes reading instruction that will effectively build reading skill and prevent reading difficulties. It must be done in a way that mimics typical language acquisition, addresses the foundations of language, and is consistent with the science of skill-building. This post will describe how a neuro-developmental program of reading instruction differs from other methods.

What teaches all children to read?

The statement that “Orton-Gillingham teaches all children to read” has been making its rounds on the internet, particularly in dyslexia advocacy circles. As an “approach”, this might be true, though there has yet to be verifiable research to support the claim. Many questions remain unanswered.

  • Which specific Orton-Gillingham based program is being referenced?
  • Do they all have equal effectiveness at teaching all children, even those with developmental dyslexia, to read?
  • Will they remain effective if instructors select parts of different programs they like rather than instruct in one program with fidelity?

When carefully examined, the language in the statement “Orton-Gillingham teaches all children to read” is so vague as to be unhelpful at best and untrue at the worst. It’s like making the statement, “All drinks quench thirst.” This might be true for many drinks, as there are likely many Orton-Gillingham programs that will help a number of children to read. Others may get different results. How are we to know whether the statement applies to a specific O-G program? When these questions come up in almost any other field, whether it be food safety or medical treatment, people look to scientific research for support. When in doubt, we debate the scientific research available for making informed decisions. Essentially, we want proof.

We contend that it defies logic for all the various programs with such differing methods to claim equal effectiveness. Yet this is what they are allowed to do when we claim that “Orton-Gillingham” as an approach, with wide and various programs included under its umbrella, teaches all children to read.

We would like to propose more productive and accurate language to parents, teachers and policy makers, especially as the issue of dyslexia is gaining steam as an advocacy issue:

“Neuro-developmental reading methods teach all children to read.”

A neuro-developmental program is one that, like Orton-Gillingham, is multi-sensory, structured, direct, diagnostic and prescriptive. However, a neuro-developmental method of reading instruction will follow the path of language acquisition in a typical reader, building necessary skills along that path using principles consistent with what science tells us about building neural connections (brain plasticity). This is an element left unaddressed in descriptions of Orton-Gillingham based programs. The following elements characterize a neuro-developmental approach:

  • Moves from the perception of language sounds to their production
  • Moves from simple to complex skills, and from concrete to abstract
  • Follows the typical path of language skill acquisition and reading fluency development
  • A multi-sensory awareness of spoken language skills and phonological processing are addressed and strengthened prior to written language skills
  • Is engaged in a manner consistent with the principles of brain plasticity. Engagement must be appropriately frequent, intense, and specific to the targeted skills, and done for a sufficient duration to insure skill acquisition.

As an approach, NOW! Programs® fit the description of an “Orton-Gillingham” program (even though our methods were developed during NIH-funded research studies, independently from any association with the Orton-Gillingham approach). But neuro-developmental methods, like those in NOW! Programs®, do so much more because they take modern neuroscience into account, specifically the science of language skill acquisition.

Language to Fit the Evidence

Will Orton-Gillingham teach all children to read? It depends on what you mean. A program that is neuro-developmental and that also follows the elements of an Orton-Gillingham approach would teach almost all children. Research done in the 1990’s showed that 97% of kindergarten children who showed early signs of weak language skills were prevented from experiencing severe reading difficulties when given neuro-developmental, multi-sensory, systematic, structured instruction. These children were in the bottom 12th percentile in their early reading skills, and by the second grade, most were reading on or above grade level. When compared to other groups in the research (a control group that received no treatment, a group that received extra classroom help, and a group that received explicit phonics instruction), only the children who received neuro-developmental methods showed a statistically significant improvement over the control.


The research tells us that these methods would teach ALMOST all children to read, since they follow the same path of skill development that typical readers follow. Children with strong skills find their skills even stronger, and children with weak skills get the appropriate early intervention needed to develop their skills right along with their peers. Imagine if 97% of students bound for ESE services and IEPs were able to develop their skills in such a way that they were ready for regular classroom reading instruction and never needed remedial services. Imagine if students identified in kindergarten as “at-risk” no longer qualified for Response to Intervention [RtI] services by the end of grade 2. Imagine the resources and planning time that could then be dedicated to instruction. Imagine the caliber of instruction that could take place in classrooms if 97% of the student population were accurate readers at or within 6 months of grade level expectations. Sound research has shown us this is possible with neuro-developmental methods.

What Science Says Works

If we want to provide reading instruction that will truly help all children learn to read, there must be something more solid than tradition and anecdotes to guide us in deciding how to accomplish this. We can no longer continue to randomly test methods on students because of a misguided notion that we won’t know what works until we try it. Scientific research has told us what works. It is no longer acceptable for us to continue to waste time and resources on methods that we HOPE will work, continually trying new things to see what sticks. Additionally, we need a better understanding of how language is acquired in order to better assess the skills in need to remediation, to avoid losing time on misplaced intervention. Time doesn’t stop for our children, and every year that we spend trying new things is a year of instruction that they do not get back. It’s time that we put into practice what research has shown us is possible. It’s time not just for multi-sensory instruction, but neuro-developmental instruction that is specific and intensive in nature. It’s time to teach all children to read.