Inside: Learn what Orton Gillingham is, how it helps kids learn to read, and I’m answering important questions about OG IEP Goals. (yikes!)

If your child has dyslexia or is a struggling reader, you may have had someone suggest Orton Gillingham to you.

Or perhaps suggested that your child needs to be “in an Orton Gillingham program.” I find that few parents understand what Orton Gillingham is and how it helps children learn to read.

Orton Gillingham

So I’m going to answer some of the common questions about Orton Gillingham that come up in our chat group. Such as “How do I know if my child’s teacher is certified in Orton Gillingham?” “Is Orton Gillingham right for my child?” and “How do I get my child in an OG program for dyslexia?”

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child reading after using orton gillingham

Being on the learning curve is never fun, especially as an adult. I’m going to try to make this as simple as possible. As an IEP advocate, I believe that if more parents dealing with dyslexia understood what OG is, there would be fewer misunderstandings about it in IEP meetings.

For the purposes of this article, I may use OG, O-G, Orton Gillingham or Orton-Gillingham. You will see many variations online and in print.

History of Orton Gillingham

The term “dyslexia” first appears in texts beginning in the 1870s. Though, it is thought now that there was no distinction at the time between dyslexia and ADHD.

Dr. Samuel Orton was a neuropsychiatrist who focused his professional research and attention on reading struggles and related language processing difficulties. (Side Note: I personally think we need to rethink how we define dyslexia as a society, because it goes way beyond reading difficulties, but anyway….)

 As early as 1925, Dr. Orton identified the syndrome of dyslexia as an educational problem. During this same time frame, Anna Gillingham was an educator and psychologist with a superb mastery of language.

Encouraged by Dr. Orton, she compiled and published instructional materials as early as the 1930s which provided the foundation for student instruction and teacher training. This collaboration became known as the Orton-Gillingham Approach.


Bessie Stillman and Anna Gillingham

In the mid-1930s Bessie Stillman and Anna Gillingham wrote what has become the Orton–Gillingham manual: Remedial Training for Children with Specific Disability in Reading, Spelling and Penmanship 

What is Orton Gillingham?

This is where there seems to be a communication gap between parents and schools.

OG is not a program, course or curriculum. There is no official “Orton Gillingham certification” for teachers.

Your child does not get pulled out of their classroom an hour a day and taken some place else to learn OG.

So what is OG then? First, it’s usually called the Orton Gillingham Approach.

And that’s what it is–an approach, or way of teaching.

Orton-Gillingham places an important emphasis on multi-sensory approaches to learning. But it is more than that.

Orton-Gillingham is a highly structured approach that breaks reading and spelling down into smaller skills involving letters and sounds, and then building on these skills over time. OG was the first approach to use multi-sensory teaching strategies to teach reading.

This means that educators use sight, sound, touch, and motor movement to help students connect and learn the concepts being taught.

Important to note: Orton-Gillingham refers to an instructional approach, not any particular program or curriculum. 

This multi-sensory approach helps students understand the relationship between letters, sounds, and words.

father and son reading together using orton gillingham approach
Orton Gillingham can support children becoming successful readers.

For example, an OG teacher a student to learn a letter by:

  • seeing it
  • saying it out loud
  • sounding it out
  • singing it
  • writing it with pen or pencil
  • writing it with fingers in shaving cream or sand
  • forming it with clay or play-doh
  • making the letter with your body or blocks

Why is Orton Gillingham good for Dyslexia?

Students with dyslexia lack phonemic awareness. Per Wikipedia: Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness in which listeners are able to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes, the smallest mental units of sound that help to differentiate units of meaning. Separating the spoken word “cat” into three distinct phonemes, and, requires phonemic awareness.

Time and time again, studies have show that learning reading skills through a phonics-based approach that incorporates all the senses is very effective.

Now that we are about 100 years past Dr. Orton and Gillingham, we know that this approach works well for all students, not just those with dyslexia.

There’s a misconception that Orton-Gillingham is only a one-on-one tutoring program for children with dyslexia. A multi-sensory approach makes reading easier for all children, not only those with dyslexia. 

More than Multi-Sensory Approach

A multi-sensory approach to anything for anyone is a great way to learn. We know that using a multi-sensory approach in a classroom helps everyone, not just the kids with dyslexia.

However, this is where a lot of schools get “stuck.” Because OG is much more than a multi-sensory approach.

How Reading is Taught with OG

The OG Approach always is focused upon the learning needs of the individual student. Orton-Gillingham teachers design lessons and materials to work with students at the level they present. (get it? present levels?) Instruction and introduction of new materials is paced to their individual strengths and areas of need.

Concepts of Orton Gillingham Approach

Orton and Gillingham (and Stillman) were very specific about the following concepts as well.

Direct: The rules and patterns of decoding and encoding are explicitly taught. While many learners can pick up these rules and patterns naturally, students with dyslexia need to be taught every rule and pattern directly or explicitly. Dyslexic Students also need to be taught exceptions to the rules and patterns and be explicitly taught methods for learning non-phonetic words. 15% of words in the English language do not follow the standard phonetic rules.

Systematic and Structured: Systematic instruction teaches new concepts in the exact same way every time. This way the brain is not expending energy trying to figure out a new method, rather expects the routine of learning and can focus on the new concept being taught. Structured, systematic instruction means that information is presented in an ordered fashion that shows the relationship between what was previously learned and the new material being taught.

Sequential and Cumulative: There should be specific steps and a clear plan to teach all the rules one at a time. One step builds from the previous step, building from the simple to the complex.

Individualized to the Student: Although there are specific techniques and the program must be followed as it is presented, a student should move through the program at an individualized pace that allows for developing fluency and automaticity for each step. Students only move from one step to the next as they build fluency for each level of language skills.

Diagnostic and Prescriptive: The teacher monitors skill development with each step. The instructional practices are built upon what was observed in the previous lesson and what is judged to be necessary to move the student forward in the next lesson.

Students with dyslexia need to master the same basic knowledge about language and its relationship to our writing system as any other reader. However, because of their dyslexia, they need more help than most people in sorting, recognizing, and organizing the raw materials of language for thinking and use, both expressive language and receptive language.

Language elements that non-dyslexic learners acquire easily must be taught directly and systematically to dyslexic learners. When used in the classroom, Orton-Gillingham makes all children better readers.

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What the Orton-Gillingham Approach Can Teach

The O-G Approach can teach:

  • Decoding: break words into their syllables and phonemes (the smallest unit of sound) to be able to read the word.
  • Encoding: break down words orally into their syllables and phonemes to be able to spell the word.
  • Develops automaticity and fluency at the word level.

However, an OG program requires supplemental programming to teach fluency and composition.

Orton Gillingham IEP Goals

I get a lot of requests about why I don’t have a list of Orton Gillingham IEP Goals. Seriously, there is an awful lot of reader traffic coming to this post, looking for that. A frightening amount–because it tells me that we have folks out there writing IEPs who don’t understand the process.

Ugh! So frustrating. Folks, IEP goals are based on the child’s areas of need–related to their disability.

OG is a support/service/intervention, and that is where it should appear on the IEP. NOT as an IEP goal!

You don’t make goals around the intervention–you help the child reach their goals using interventions. The appropriate IEP goal for a struggling reader will be about decoding, comprehension and other reading skills.

I have lists of IEP goals for Reading Comprehension and many other sub-skills of reading in the IEP Goal Bank.

Orton Gillingham Certification

As I stated above, there is no OG certification from OG itself.

However, many programs have evolved and call themselves “OG influenced.” Many of these programs offer certification programs.

For example, Barton Reading is a specific program that parents and teachers can take to become a Barton teacher. Barton, on its own website, says it is “OG Influenced.”

Unlike in many professions, there isn’t an industry-wide curriculum with a cumulative exam that officially “certifies” someone in Orton Gillingham. Training programs vary tremendously and there are significant differences in the results. A struggling reader’s progress is all about the teacher. Training and experience are paramount.

How to Find a Credible Orton Gillingham Program

The key here is that you’re want to look for reputation, endorsements as well as research and evidence that it works. Again using the example of the Barton Program, they have the International Dyslexia Association logo on their website.

I assume they are endorsed by them.

YouTube video
An example of the OG Approach being used school wide.

Network with other parents, agencies and groups that specialize in your child’s learning disability. If your child has more than one learning disability, say ADHD and dyslexia, you’re going to have to learn about both and prioritize according to your specific needs.

But, you want to look for strength in the key concepts of OG, and they are:

  • multi sensory
  • highly structured
  • highly individualized
  • starts at where the child currently is, present levels, not age
  • addresses strengths and areas of need
  • focused on growth as the student achieves skills
  • direct, explicit instruction

Chances are, you may have “multi sensory” listed in the IEP, but are lacking many of the other very important components.

Can a Parent Teach Orton Gillingham?

Well, in the loosest form of OG, anyone can teach OG. All you need is a multi-sensory approach and you can say you’re OG. But just like too many behaviorists say they are using ABA (when they’re really not), OG is not for everyone either. This is where you have to be careful.

I’m not a BCBA, but I can reinforce ABA principles and activities at home with my son. I would say for most parents, you can reinforce tasks and lessons your child gets at school or at private tutoring. But unless you are a teacher or reading specialist, I would leave it to the experts.

OG only gets you so far, as far as reading and decoding. Dealing with executive function deficits that help a child move to reading comprehension and teaching reading comprehension requires some training. OG was not developed to teach comprehension.

That being said, I have known parents whose school experience was so awful, they did take it upon themselves to do Barton or LindaMood Bell at home and their kids did learn to read.

As an aside, Lindamood Bell says it has a “sensory-cognitive approach” to learning to read.

Getting Orton Gillingham on your IEP

Ok, here’s where the troubles are, right? You asked for OG on your IEP, because you saw that it helps kids with dyslexia learn to read.

And let me guess, you were told “Well, it says right here that ‘a multi sensory approach to reading will be used, including ABC and XYZ…”

That’s what I find many parents are told, and schools will not use the actual Orton Gillingham Approach words. And, then parents get ticked off because they fear that then the program delivered to their child will not be done with fidelity.

But, here’s the thing. In this decade, I would say most teachers are using a multi-sensory approach to teaching.

This definitely happens in preschool and the younger grades. Older grades are starting to embrace the concepts of groups and projects instead of lecture, memorize, regurgitate. (which is how I learned in the 70s and 80s)

Orton Gillingham is not special education.

Orton Gillingham is not a curriculum or program.

Chances are, your child has already been taught to read using a multi-sensory approach in preschool through early elementary school. And, they are still falling behind.

Your child needs a specialty program or curriculum. Merely applying OG methods to a gen ed curriculum will not teach many dyslexics how to read.

And herein lies the problem. Parents ask for OG because they don’t know any better. They are then told that “multi sensory” is there and being used, and they accept that answer. Fact is, many reading programs designed for students with dyslexia are based on the Orton Gillingham Approach.

But the OG approach alone may not be enough to get them there.

Reading Programs for Dyslexia

As a parent, you’re going to have to do a deep-dive on this. We just know so much more than we did 100 years ago. Yes, absolutely Dr. Orton was a pioneer who laid the foundation for dyslexia teaching today. But we know more today than in 1925.

It’s important to note that Learning Disabilities have a very high co-morbidity rate with things such as suicide and incarceration. More than half of America’s prison population cannot read at a functioning level. Adults with learning disabilities have an almost 50% higher rate of attempting suicide.

I could tell you horror story after horror story of schools not teaching kids to read, and those kids end up in residential treatment centers or juvenile detention centers. Or just quitting school.

untreated dyslexia can lead to other problems

Go with your gut. If your child’s mood and demeanor or personality is changing, if they are resisting school, keep pushing for what your child needs.

One of our Facebook Group admins has a dyslexic daughter, and she has written a very thorough article on Dyslexia and Learning Disabilities, and how to do the deep dive on your child and their IEP.

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