A Guide to the Orton-Gillingham Approach

A Guide to the Orton-Gillingham Approach

Since its inception in the 1930s, the Orton-Gillingham Approach has pioneered instructional practices designed for students who struggle with reading, writing, and spelling. Informed by “time-tested knowledge and practice” along with the science of language learning, Orton-Gillingham provides a direct, straightforward way to assist those who have difficulty reading. By breaking words down into their individual letters and sounds, much of the guesswork is taken out of the process of learning to read—both for students with dyslexia and those without.

History lesson: Who were Orton and Gillingham?

Before diving into exactly what the Orton-Gillingham (O-G) Approach is, let’s take a look at who Orton and Gillingham were. Dr. Samuel Torrey Orton was a neuropsychiatrist and pathologist from Columbia University, and Anna Gillingham was an educator and psychologist at Columbia’s Teachers College.

Orton had a deep interest in focusing attention and research on students who had difficulty reading and showed symptoms that are now commonly associated with dyslexia. As early as the 1920s, Orton experimented with multisensory teaching methods to aid students who struggled with reading and language processing. He eventually collaborated with Anna Gillingham, an educator gifted with a strong mastery of the English language who introduced a systematic approach to categorizing sounds, phonograms, syllable types, morphemes, and spelling generalizations. The instructional materials that resulted from pairing Orton’s multisensory teaching research with Gillingham's system laid the foundation for the O-G Approach.

Fundamental features

A quick note on semantics: Orton-Gillingham is referred to as an approach rather than a program. As Understood.org explained, while a reading program will typically follow the same formula from student to student, an approach such as Orton-Gillingham is “an intervention that’s individualized to each child. It’s flexible, rather than prescribed, because it’s based on a problem-solving process. That process starts with identifying the child’s learning difficulty. The next step is to develop a plan to address that difficulty.”

Academic Language and School Success: Connecting Reading Research to Classroom Assessment and Instruction

While lessons based on the teachings of the O-G Approach will look different from each other based on individual students’ needs and teachers’ styles, they should all share the following fundamental characteristics:

 
  • Multisensory
    Students are taught reading skills by combining input from more than one sense modality at the same time, using a technique that typically involves the auditory, visual and tactile-kinesthetic modalities. When methods of teaching involve more than one pathway to the brain, children are more likely to stay engaged, retain information, and have a better memory of the skill than if just one pathway were applied. As we know, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to teaching students to read—nor to help them thrive in other subjects down the road—but by using all their senses, children are able to figure out the learning style with which they are most comfortable. For instance, seeing a word on paper may not resonate with a student, but the same individual might build an easier, deeper connection via active, tactile techniques such as using their finger to write out a word in the air while saying it aloud, tapping out the sounds, or taking part in a shared reading session.

  • Sequential and cumulative

Instructors using the O-G Approach teach skills in a structured order based on an understanding of the structure of language. Students start by learning to identify sounds in words and building the connection to the letters that make those sounds; after that, it’s time to connect what they’ve learned to put together syllables, words, and so on, with the beginning of a lesson signifying a mastery of previously taught skills. If there is any confusion, the educator will reteach a skill to ensure full comprehension before moving on to the next in the sequence. With each new skill, the preceding concepts are incorporated and reviewed to further connect and reinforce learning.

  • Direct and explicit

Critical to the O-G Approach is the need for direct, explicit instruction that will yield an understanding of not only what students are learning, but why. While some learners may succeed without understanding the connection between letters and sounds, a piece-by-piece breakdown of these phonics concepts can make a world of difference for the majority of students—and particularly for those who struggle. As Teacher magazine phrased it, “Systematic, explicit phonics instruction helps children to make the neurological connections between the areas of the brain that are devoted to visual (writing), phonological (sound), and semantic (meaning) processing.”

  • Prescriptive and diagnostic
    Student performance is closely monitored each step of the way to determine areas of both concern and progress. After careful analysis, the next lesson is designed to resolve any issues that still need improving, as well as to incorporate ideas or activities that address the student’s examined strengths.


Though the Orton-Gillingham Approach may not be familiar to some of us by name, its influence on the literacy programs of today are undeniable—in fact, our programs at Lexia Learning are based on the principles established by Dr. Orton and Anna Gillingham. The O-G Approach is often lauded not only for its ability to help students develop a new way of learning that can help them overcome their challenges, but for instilling confidence as learners continue forward in their educational journey—and that’s something worth celebrating.
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