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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?

June2015When 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.

June2015The 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.