Structured for Success: the Orton-Gillingham Approach

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Many modern systems of reading instruction share an approach to reading and language mastery founded in the 1930s, the Orgon-Gillingham Approach. The brainchild of a neuropsychiatrist and a psychologist, this phonics-based philosophy takes students on a journey from word-formation fundamentals to advanced language decoding. Named after early pioneers in the field, Samuel Torrey Orton (1879-1948) and Anna Gillingham (1878-1963) and commonly employed to support learning disabilities like dyslexia, this structured, sequential, multisensory approach to teaching phonemic awareness leads to reading success.

As the first to specifically target struggling readers, this pioneering approach underpins contemporary science-based methodologies. Systematic, cumulative, and prescriptive, the approach breaks language down into its smallest parts (sounds and letters), ensures students understand those, then builds them back into language, with students mastering one level before moving to the next.

What is reading success?

Before we can talk about how this approach helps young readers succeed, we should make sure we know what success looks like. For educators working to build literacy, reading success in any student looks like the ability to read independently with fluent comprehension, a remarkable intellectual feat for any child. For students with learning disabilities or other difficulties, reading success also looks like continually overcoming those challenges and learning to read despite major additional impediments.

Who were Orton and Gillingham? What is the Orton-Gillingham Approach?

Created jointly in the 1930s, the Orton-Gillingham Approach is not a system or program; rather, it’s an approach that’s been proven to succeed with struggling readers. Now famous for supporting the needs of dyslexic students, the Orton-Gillingham Approach (OG) is named after Dr. Samuel T. Orton, a neuropsychologist who recognized dyslexia and other language processing difficulties as an educational issue in 1925, and Anna Gillingham, a psychologist and educator who trained teachers. Their combined work resulted in the publication of instructional materials and the foundation of an approach that has helped countless students overcome huge challenges to become successful readers.

Both sequential and cumulative, Orton-Gillingham provides a uniquely intensive intervention for students struggling with fluency or comprehension. Instruction is broken down into smaller skills involving specific sounds and letters; building these small skills over time leads to success.

The Orton-Gillingham Approach
  • Sequential: simple concepts give way to more complex concepts
  • Cumulative: when skills are mastered, new skills are taught
  • Repetitive: repetition promotes word recognition, fluency, and comprehension
  • Multisensory: visual, auditory, kinesthetic (movement), and tactile (touch) modalities
  • Phonetic-Alphabetic: the connections between sounds and symbols in language
  • Synthetic-Analytic: break words into parts via phonemes (smallest unit of sound) and graphemes (written symbol for each phoneme)
  • Cognitive: understanding the rules of language
  • Diagnostic: an instructor continuously monitoring each student’s performance
  • Prescriptive: an instructor targeting each student’s needs
How does the Orton-Gillingham Approach work?

As a highly structured approach, Orton-Gillingham works by helping students break reading down into smaller pieces and slowly building skills cumulatively over time. Orton-Gillingham also spearheaded a multisensory approach to reading instruction, which has been proven to be effective for students with dyslexia, so it works by giving students what they need to be successful.

Specialists or teachers who are trained in Orton-Gillingham first meet with and assess each student’s reading skills to learn more about their strengths and challenges. Teaching then occurs in a specified order, so students must master a skill before they can continue to the next one. Lesson time typically ranges from 30 minutes to an hour, utilizing prescriptive lesson plans designed to meet the needs of each student. By the time they reach completion, repeating any skill until it’s mastered, students are able to decode words independently by using the abilities they’ve cultivated in their practice.

The approach is characterized by systematic, personalized, multisensory instruction leading to a confident understanding of phonics. Ideal for learning disabilities like dyslexia, Orton-Gillingham works just as effectively for all students who struggle with reading, comprehension, or vocabulary for any reason. Reading difficulties related to ELL issues, socioeconomic problems, physiological challenges, inadequate previous instruction, and more can all be overcome with Orton-Gillingham.

Fun fact: While it was created to be used for reading, writing, and spelling, Orton-Gillingham works well with math instruction too!

What is Structured Literacy?

Structured Literacy refers to programs that teach according to the Science of Reading. Structured Literacy guides students through the mechanics of reading, from decoding, sound-letter correspondences, and word recognition to vocabulary, spelling, comprehension, and fluency. When students develop fluency through Structured Literacy, they’re becoming competent readers. Essential for struggling readers, beneficial for all students, and scientifically proven to be effective, the Orton-Gillingham approach is an example of Structured Literacy.

Whether one-on-one, small group, or whole class, a true Orton-Gillingham session must include systematic multisensory phonics instruction.
What are the benefits of the Orton-Gillingham approach?
  • One of the primary benefits of Orton-Gillingham is derived from its multisensory variations, which engage the senses through kinesthetic, auditory, and visual techniques.
  • The adaptability of this approach to instruction means it’s flexible and can meet the needs of any student.
  • Because of its incredible versatility, OG works effectively in one-on-one instruction, small groups, or whole-class lessons.
Are there any Orton-Gillingham Intervention Programs?

Struggling readers who need intensive teacher-led instruction to succeed academically will benefit from an OG-based program called S.P.I.R.E. Available both in print and digital formats and designed to help all struggling readers achieve success, the program features a spiraling curriculum to improve all the critical areas of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Not only do students master one concept before beginning the next, but since S.P.I.R.E. is cumulative, students are continually reviewing and utilizing previously mastered concepts.

School Specialty, a leader in education for decades, delivers customized instruction including everything from screening and intervention to progress monitoring and reporting.

Get More S.P.I.R.E. Information.

The Quest for Reading Success

The Orton-Gillingham Approach continues to be relied upon for a reason: it works well, for all ages and reading levels. Instead of memorization, Orton-Gillingham approaches language acquisition intellectually, helping students understand the language as they learn it. By building a solid foundation, Orton-Gillingham helps educators ensure that each student has the skills they need to succeed.

Do you want all your struggling readers to gain fluency, vocabulary, and confidence in their reading and writing abilities? Just focus on phonemes, employ multisensory techniques, and apply the Orton-Gillingham philosophy, still the gold standard for supporting all struggling students in their quest for reading success.

S.P.I.R.E. helps ensure reading success with the Orton-Gillingham Approach. Learn more about S.P.I.R.E. and share it with your educators today!

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