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Overcoming reading difficulties with Orton-Gillingham

October 22, 2009

Guest author Adria Karlsson writes about teaching children with language-based learning disabilities how to read.

There are many different types of learner in the world. Within any given classroom a teacher is likely to encounter a myriad of learning styles, skills, special talents, and learning differences. Although this can create an exceptionally enriching environment for the students, it requires a teacher that can encourage students to shine in areas where they are strong, and to learn in areas where they struggle.

As a teacher of student with language-based learning disabilities, I encounter students with very different learning styles each day. I work with students from first through seventh grade, and it is remarkable the ways in which each student’s profile is unique. The common strand throughout though is their difficulty in learning how to read, spell, and write. Commonly referred to as dyslexic, these students in fact have very different learning profiles, but none of them are disabled. Without proper instruction, they quickly fall by the wayside and often descend to the title of “trouble student.”

To tackle language-based learning disabilities, you need an approach which provides structure and positive feedback while allowing for the differences in each child’s learning style. My fellow teachers and I follow the Orton-Gillingham approach for reading instruction. Their method is “language-based, multisensory, structured, sequential, cumulative, cognitive, and flexible” (ortonacademy.org). This means that we teach students using their eyes, ears, and fingers. We teach them using a process that draws on their ability to problem solve and use logical reasoning. We do not make huge leaps in instruction and expect them to intuitively understand how language works. They always progress even as they constantly review the basics. It is clearly acknowledged that our students are capable, and we draw on their strengths as thinkers to enable them to learn. Lastly, we teach them in a way that works for each individual student – not in the way that works for the “normal” learners in the world.

Each lesson follows the same progression but with a new focus each day:

Orton-Gillingham picture 1When the student comes in, the first thing they encounter is some type of listening exercise. For example, the student may have to recognize the sounds in a word, just the first sound of words, find rhyming patterns, or recognize which vowel teams are present.
Orton-Gillingham picture 2This is followed by practice using the “O-G Cards”. These are cards with different letters and letter combinations written on them. The student says the letter, the sound it makes, and a key word that helps them remember the sound, while “writing” the letter in sand, the air, or in some other way. This way they are really experiencing the letter in as many ways as possible.
Orton-Gillingham picture 3Part three is reading words – using what they know from working with the cards to blend the sounds together and really read. In Orton-Gillingham, though, we never mix these decodable words (words that can be sounded out), with “sight words” (words that have to be memorized). Sight words and fluency would generally be practiced after this.
Orton-Gillingham picture 4The last part of the decoding piece of the lesson is reading actual connected text. No matter how low the reader is the teacher or tutor will make sure they have sentences or a short story to read. This is good practice and also reinforces for them why they are working so hard!
Orton-Gillingham picture 5After that, it is on to the “encoding”, or writing, part of the lesson. This always comes second, because really, by writing, the student is practicing what they just learned to decode. The first part is very straight forward- just “What says” and then a sound. While this is simple at first, it gets very complicated as kids advance, for example, there are nine different things that say the long e sound!
Orton-Gillingham picture 6Then the child spells words – by separating them into sounds, assigning each sound a letter, and then writing the word. Then they read each word back. This may seem simple, but for many dyslexic kids this is very different than writing the word!
Orton-Gillingham picture 7The last official step is the dictation. When the student has to string together words and spell out a whole sentence or paragraph. Like with reading- this gives them a chance to see what they are aiming for; it is also an excellent time to practice capitalization and punctuation, which many struggle with.
Orton-Gillingham picture 8Even though that is the last official part of the lesson, because the student has worked SO hard, many tutors end each lesson with a game. Of course, one of the nice things about teaching O-G is how many of the preceding parts of the lesson can be turned into games, but that is an article in and of itself!

That is how an Orton-Gillingham lesson looks. It is highly structured and, due to that particular structure, it is also highly effective. Although no approach is right for every student, the Orton-Gillingham approach has proven successful over and over again for students that struggle to learn the symbolic systems of our language. With a knowledgeable tutor that can tailor the process to an individual learner, these “disabled” students have shown how able they really are. They grow into confident people with an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. As a teacher, there is nothing like seeing a severely dyslexic student crack a piece of the code and realize that “hop” can be turned into “hope” by adding the “Magic E”. I credit the Orton-Gillingham approach for making that happen.

Parents who are interested in learning more about Orton-Gillingham can visit their web site at www.ortonacademy.org. Here are a few other useful links:

Guest author Adria Karlsson is an elementary school teacher and Associate level Orton-Gillingham tutor. She received her undergraduate degree from Rice University and her Master of Arts in Teaching from Brown University. She is continually amazed by what her students accomplish and credits them with turning her into a true “O-G” devotee.


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  1. Howard Margolis 

    Dear Mrs. Karlsson,

    In the Press of Atlantic City, a relative of yours recommended your post. She was right: It’s an excellent post that clearly explains Orton-Gillingham (O-G), a method that has strengthened the word recognition of many struggling readers, especially in tutorial situations.

    O-G, however, has not worked with many struggling readers, which leads to two questions:
    1) What do you do when O-G does not produce significant progress?
    2) With struggling readers with reading comprehension problems, how do you compensate for O-G’s weakness in teaching comprehension?

    Thank you for a clear, practical explanation of O-G. I’m looking forward to your response.

    Howard Margolis, Ed.D.
    Professor Emeritus of Reading Disabilities and Special Education, CUNY

  2. Adria Karlsson 

    Dr. Margolis,

    Thank you for responding to my article! Your questions are interesting and I think are two that many people that have interacted with O-G have pondered. I can only speak from my own experience, but I will do my best to answer them.

    1) What do you do when O-G does not produce significant progress?
    I think the first step would be to look at why it is not producing the desired progress. In my experience, there are a few reasons that immediately jump to mind:
    – The student. Some students are not well suited to O-G. It is a program designed for students with specific language learning differences. However, it requires a student who has great strengths in other areas. O-G relies on a student’s ability to see the logic and order behind language once they are exposed to the system. It also requires students that have a great capacity to memorize (with a lot of support), letters, key words, sounds, and rules. Finally, it relies, to some extent on a student’s desire to read. As a teacher, I believe every student wants to learn how to read, but this can easily be extinguished through years of failure. A tutor needs to be able to rekindle that flame. However, it takes a very talented tutor to teach O-G to a student that is not generally bright, logical, and has a good memory. This is not a program for every remediated student.
    – The tutor. The beauty of the Orton-Gillingham approach is that it is just that- an Approach. It is almost always used in a one-on-one tutorial environment and the success of the child is totally dependent on the skills and knowledge of the tutor. However, tutors are trained all over the country and operate, for the most part, independently. Some come from backgrounds as teachers, but many come from vastly disparate fields and have found O-G through a dyslexic son or daughter. Many of these people make fantastic, dedicated, and skilled tutors, but sometimes people complete the initial training and try to operate independently, without support from the get-go and this is not always successful.
    - The teacher-student combination. Simply stated, some students and tutors are not good matches. Students that are highly distractible will drive some tutors crazy, while other tutors find them to be challenging and endearing. This is just one example of when the system falls apart.
    - Now to your actual question- What do you do? I see two answers… One is to find a new tutor for your student (although please give the tutor the benefit of the doubt and take a look at what they have done and the work so far, first!). The second is that O-G simply might not be the right approach and they need something that either is not quite as complex or does not have the same memory requirements. This is not the right approach for every child- it is a program for generally able children that have been unsuccessful in learning to read through traditional approaches.

    2) With struggling readers with reading comprehension problems, how do you compensate for O-G’s weakness in teaching comprehension?
    Firstly, it is important to remember that Orton-Gillingham is not a reading comprehension program and does not have a built in structure for teaching comprehension. This is not its goal. O-G is purely a encoding/decoding program (although it has grown in many places to incorporate fluency, morphology, some vocabulary, and very occasionally some comprehension). Some tutors, with additional background in teaching reading, may incorporate a lot of comprehension but this should not be an indication of what the program is designed to teach.
    However, it is, of course, an important aspect of these children’s learning. This is especially true given that many of them come in with great deficits in vocabulary and comprehension due to their lack of reading experience. In the schools that I have worked in, the curricula have included a second language program that focused on these areas. These were programs that were designed for students with language-based learning differences and followed the same concrete, structured approach to teaching them. These included the school’s own designs and, additionally, both used the Project Read (www.projectread.com) Reading Comprehension curriculum (with which it seemed the kids were experiencing success). I would be interested, though, to know what other solutions to this you have encountered.

    Thank you again for your comment. I look forward to seeing your response!

    Adria Karlsson, M.A.T.

  3. Howard Margolis 

    I appreciate your thoughtful and insightful answers. What you wrote has a great deal of merit.

    When children struggle with reading, I’m a big believer in conducting a functional evaluation that includes observation of instructional and environmental variables and diagnostic teaching (and ongoing monitoring). If it’s helpful, please e-mail me at hm08043 @ yahoo.com and I’ll send you a few of my articles that describe my recommendations, including a brief overview of Lipson and Wixson’s diagnostic process. Many of my views on these topics are available on my blog: http://www.reading2008.com/blog.

    Again, many thanks for your thoughtful and insightful answers.
    Howard Margolis

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