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What Is the Orton-Gillingham Approach to Teaching Reading?

The Orton-Gillingham (OG) method is a direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive way to teach literacy when reading, writing, and spelling don’t come easily to individuals, such as those with dyslexia. Actually, it’s most properly understood and practiced as an approach, not a method, program, or system. In the hands of a well-trained and experienced instructor, it is a powerful tool of exceptional breadth, depth, and flexibility. The OG approach is brilliant. Have we found a “cure” for dyslexia?

History of the Orton-Gillingham approach

The Orton-Gillingham approach of teaching reading was developed by Anna Gillingham and is based on the theoretical work of the American neurologist Samuel Orton (Gillingham & Stillman, 1968).

Photos of the Orton-Gillingham creators: Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham
Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham

Orton cultivated a special interest in dyslexic children. He studied over 1,000 children, and his observations persuaded him that children with dyslexia were especially prone to left-right confusions and reversals, such as mistaking b for d or was for saw. Orton thus concluded that dyslexia was due to a failure to establish a left-right sense, which was in turn caused by incomplete cerebral dominance. Gillingham translated these theories into a highly structured reading method that stresses the repeated association of individual phonemes with their sound, name, and cursive formation.

Initially, individual letters are taught using drill cards and a carefully structured question-answer format focused on the letter sound (introduced by keywords), the letter name, and the letter formation (first traced, then copied, and finally written from memory). After mastering all these aspects of the first group of letters (a, b, h, i, j, k, m, p, t), the student is taught to blend them into simple consonant-vowel-consonant words (e.g., map, hit, Tim). Instruction then focuses on the spelling of these same simple words, again in a structured format that requires repeating the word, naming and simultaneously writing the letters, and reading the word after it is written.

The similarly structured introduction of subsequent single letters, blends (e.g., st, cl, tr), and other letter combinations (e.g., sh, ea, tion) are meticulously sequenced. Later stages in the sequence include sentence and story writing, syllabication, dictionary skills, and advanced spelling rules.

Often referred to as a multisensory approach (Oakland et al., 1998), the Orton-Gillingham method is one of several reading methods that emphasizes the phonetic regularities of English in its instructional sequence. It differs from other code-emphasis approaches by teaching letter sounds in isolation and requiring a considerable amount of individual letter blending (e.g., m-a-p = map). Its instructional format is highly repetitious. Within this method, the teacher repeatedly combines reading with writing activities and relies heavily on drill techniques. The instructional materials include phoneme drill cards, phonetically regular word cards, syllable concept cards, little stories, and a detailed manual (Gillingham & Stillman, 1968).

Brilliant, yet the outcomes not statistically significant

Ritchey and Goeke (2006) reviewed 12 studies that included elementary students, adolescents, and college students. Of the 12 studies, 5 reported that the OG instruction was more effective than were comparison or control interventions for all measured outcomes, 4 reported that the OG instruction was more effective for at least 1 (but not all) outcomes in comparison to other intervention(s), 2 reported that the alternate instruction was more effective than the OG instruction, and 1 reported no significant differences once covariates were included. The largest effects were reported for word attack or nonword reading outcomes, with a mean effect size of .82, and comprehension outcomes, with a mean effect size of .76. Other mean effect sizes were in the small to medium range.

Stevens et al. (2021) conducted a meta-analysis to examine the effects of Orton-Gillingham reading interventions on the reading outcomes of students with or at risk for word-level reading disabilities (WLRD). The purpose of a meta-analysis is to systematically combine and analyze data from published research studies to better understand what that body of research says about a particular question.

The findings of Stevens et al.’s meta-analysis suggest Orton-Gillingham reading interventions do not statistically significantly improve foundational skill outcomes (i.e., phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, spelling; effect size = 0.22; p = .40), although the mean effect size was positive in favor of Orton-Gillingham-based approaches. Similarly, there were no significant differences for vocabulary and comprehension outcomes (ES = 0.14; p = .59) for students with or at risk for WLRD.

Solari et al. (2021) summarize the results of the above-mentioned studies:

These findings are … consistent with published reports from the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), an agency within the U.S. Department of Education that independently reviewed several studies of both branded and unbranded OG programs. The WWC found that the evidence in favor of OG programs is limited, either due to a mix of positive and negative effects or, more frequently, because available studies of such programs do not meet WWC quality standards.

To our minds, the Orton-Gillingham approach remains brilliant, and Edublox’s live online tutoring for dyslexia and reading difficulties is aligned with OG practices. So why does research not back it up completely? Is some piece — or pieces — perhaps missing from the OG puzzle?

Our live online tutoring services are offered to students based in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs.

References and resouces:

Gillingham, A., & Stillman, B. (1968). Remedial teaching for children with disability in reading, spelling, and penmanship. Cambridge, MA: Educator’s Publishing Service.

Oakland, T., Black, J. L., Stanford, G., Nussbaum, N. L., & Balise, R. (1998). An evaluation of the dyslexia training program: A multisensory method for promoting reading in students with reading disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 31(2), 140–147.

Reynolds, C. R., & Fletcher-Janzen, E. (2007). Encyclopedia of special education (vol. 1, 3rd ed.). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Ritchey, K. D., & Goeke, J. L. (2006). Orton-Gillingham and Orton-Gillingham-based reading instruction. The Journal of Special Education, 40(3), 171–183.

Solari, E., Petscher, Y., & Hall, C. (2021, March 29). What does science say about Orton-Gillingham interventions? An explanation and commentary on the Stevens et al. (2021) meta-analysis. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/mcw82

Stevens, E. A., Austin, C., Moore, C., Scammacca, N., Boucher, A. N., & Vaughn, S. (2021). Current state of the evidence: Examining the effects of Orton-Gillingham reading interventions for students with or at risk for word-level reading disabilities. Exceptional Children. https://doi.org/10.1177/0014402921993406