Whether you are a homeschooler looking for curriculum or an educator interested in learning the most effective strategies for helping all children learn to read, you have no doubt heard the phrase “Orton-Gillingham” (or OG) floating around. In this article, we will identify what Orton-Gillingham Instruction is and whether it is enough on its own to help a child learn to read.
What is Orton-Gillingham?
Orton-Gillingham is an instructional approach and methodology that teaches explicit and systematic letter-sound correspondences and phonics principles. While this approach is often associated with instruction for children with dyslexia, it is thought to be highly effective for helping all children learn to read. There is no one singular Orton-Gillingham program, rather Orton-Gillingham is a technique used by many educators, curriculum creators, and practitioners. As such, the application of Orton-Gillingham instruction can vary from program to program. Orton-Gillingham instruction incorporates:
- Systematic and Explicit instruction in Phonics
- Multi-sensory Learning (involving auditory, visual, tactile, and articulatory activities)
- Instruction in Syllable Types
- Cumulative Progress (each new skill builds upon previous lessons)
The name Orton-Gillingham is named for the two individuals who pioneered this approach to teaching reading many decades ago: Samuel Orton (1879-1948) was a physician and neuropsychiatrist who studied left/right brain connections and Anna Gillingham (1878-1963) was a psychologist and teacher who thoroughly studied the English language. Anna Gillingham co-wrote a book titled: The Gillingham Manual: Remedial Training for Children with Specific Disability in Reading, Spelling, and Penmanship which can still be purchased today.
What does the research say about the effectiveness of Orton-Gillingham instruction?
Practitioners, teachers, and home educators who utilize Orton-Gillingham instruction testify to its effectiveness. It has skyrocketed in popularity recently as it employs many of the same strategies being touted by Science of Reading experts. Proving its effectiveness in peer-reviewed research, however, has proven to be a bit complicated due to the fact that it is an approach and not a specific program and its application can vary greatly among educators. Although recent studies show small gains, these results are not large enough to be statistically significant and reveal limited evidence on the effectiveness of Orton Gillingham interventions and a need for more research. (This video is very helpful to understand this more fully).
Because children with dyslexia are often found to have a core phonological deficit (meaning that they have difficulty hearing, identifying, and manipulating individual sounds within words), critics of Orton-Gillingham instruction say there is too little emphasis on phonological awareness within a traditional Orton-Gillingham program.
In his book Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, David Kilpatrick states that due to the emphasis on phonics with Orton-Gillingham programs, students can often dramatically boost decoding skills (in isolation) but not necessarily real-word reading (p. 294). Children who see significant success with traditional Orton-Gillingham programs likely have adequate phonological awareness abilities. “For students with more moderate to severe phonological awareness difficulties, such intensive phonics instruction does not produce the more advanced phonemic proficiency needed to become skilled at orthographic mapping.”
In addition, most OG programs focus solely on the decoding component of literacy (sounding out words) and teach encoding (spelling) separately. Timothy Shanahan, a leading literacy expert, shares studies concluding that instruction integrating encoding into decoding instruction led to significantly higher reading achievement (source).
In short, Orton-Gillingham instruction is helpful and effective for teaching phonics but on its own does not teach phonemic awareness to the level needed to aid in the process of orthographic mapping and the development of a sight vocabulary.
What is Orthographic Mapping?
Orthographic mapping is defined as, “the process readers use to store written words for immediate, effortless retrieval.” Through the process of orthographic mapping, “readers turn unfamiliar written words into familiar and instantly recognizable sight words” (Kilpatrick, 2015, p. 81). Orthographic mapping is the reason you are able to read this article without having to decode the sounds in each individual word.
Studies in neuroscience have revealed in recent years that phonemic awareness plays a huge part in the process of orthographic mapping. Orthographic mapping requires: Advanced phoneme awareness, letter-sound knowledge, and phonological long-term memory.
What sets Pathways to Reading Homeschool apart from other OG programs?
Pathways to Reading Homeschool curriculum incorporates the principles of Orton-Gillingham instruction in our approach to phonics. The foundational reading skills taught in our program are done so explicitly and systematically (in a specific order). We incorporate multi-sensory learning into every lesson and place emphasis on mouth articulation for learning letter sounds. Each new skill introduced builds upon the prior foundation and we incorporate review into each lesson, which is especially essential for children with dyslexia. We also take a more gentle approach in introducing the syllable types in comparison to many other Orton-Gillingham programs. We front-load the vowels!
Pathways to Reading Homeschool simultaneously recognizes that phonemic awareness is an essential part of our program, especially for children with phonological awareness difficulties. We place a high emphasis on phonological and phonemic awareness skills beyond the basic level that will help lead to orthographic mapping and the development of a sight vocabulary. Advanced phonemic awareness concepts such as substituting and manipulating sounds in words have been shown to aid in the process of orthographic mapping but many OG programs either don’t include phonemic awareness or discontinue phonemic awareness training before getting to the most essential advanced level of phonemic awareness instruction.
Pathways to Reading Homeschool incorporates all five components of reading instruction and prioritizes instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics to help build foundational reading skills. In short, Pathways to Reading Homeschool offers the best of both worlds: Orton-Gillingham Instruction coupled with Advanced Phonemic Awareness along with instruction in fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension!
Finally, Pathways to Reading, the program that Pathways to Reading Homeschool is adapted from, has six research studies showing its effectiveness.
Gillingham, A., & Stillman, B. W. (2004). The gillingham manual: Remedial training for students with specific disability in reading, spelling, and penmanship. Educators Publ. Service.
Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. John Wiley & Sons, Inc: New Jersey.
Shanahan, T. (n.d.). Print-to-speech or speech-to-print? that is the question. Print to Speech or Speech to Print Phonics | Shanahan on Literacy. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/print-to-speech-or-speech-to-print-that-is-the-question-2#sthash.PyAdWuHc.dpbs
Stevens-Austin-2021. Dyslexia the Gift. (n.d.). Retrieved October 28, 2021, from https://www.dyslexia.com/reference/stevens-austin-2021/?fbclid=IwAR0MNCHkfJpmxW7M_K1f4ZXSzg0udQISOxQC4Lr0C_wp6FUKKIP7MediILc.
Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, August 19). Orton-Gillingham. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 27, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orton-Gillingham.