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Orton-Gillingham: It’s Complicated – Part I

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.