What is Orton-Gillingham?

Feb 20, 2024

When I first entered the world of dyslexia as a parent, the words "Orton-Gillngham" came up again and again.  It was clear this needed to be a part of our learning plan, but I didn't know enough about it to understand how to ask for it from the school.  My hope is this blog will give you some background information, and at the end I'll lay out some specific talking points for your next school meeting.

If you would prefer this info in video form:  What is Orton-Gillingham? A Quick Guide for Parents


We know that early intervention is important in dyslexia, but what kind of intervention? When it comes to learning to read, the intervention should be STRUCTURED LITERACY.

One of the first structured teaching approaches developed for the struggling reader was the Orton-Gillingham Approach, named after Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham.

 Samuel Orton, a Neuropsychiatrist,  wrote a book called Reading, Writing and Speech Problems in Children. Anna Gillingham, a psychologist and educator, and Bessie Stillman created the Gillingham Manual: Remedial Training for Children with Specific Disability in Reading, Spelling and Penmanship. In their separate works they both developed systematic, sequential, multisensory strategies to teaching children with “word blindness” as it was called in the 1930’s, to read.  They then worked together to create what is now called the Orton-Gillingham Manual .


Let’s take a step back for a moment and talk about how children have been taught to read in the last few decades.  There are hundreds of reading programs/curricula that exist but a lot of them in recent history have been based on something called Balanced Literacy.  I’m not a reading specialist, but here’s my non-educator take on it.  It seems that Balanced Literacy, while sprinkled with little bits of phonics here and there, was mostly based on the premise that children will achieve the ability to read if they are exposed to reading often, learn a lot of sight words, and learn to use context to figure out words they don’t know.  If you haven’t listened to the podcast, Sold a Story, then I highly recommend you check that out (but prepare to feel mad and sad). It talks about the Whole Language model of reading instruction, how it assumes kids will learn to read if they are just exposed to enough books, and the damage that's been done over time using this model for children with dyslexia.  Dyslexic kiddos are masters using pictures and context to figure things out, which is why some can mask their inability to read from adults for a few years when being taught with a Balanced Literacy model.  But then in later elementary, when they start to encounter words that aren’t in their vocabulary,  they can’t guess it correctly, and people finally start to realize they can’t decode or sound out a word (so heartbreaking 💔. 

Over the last several decades, experts have conducted research on HOW the brain learns to read, and there is a movement in place called the Science of Reading (SoR). This movement emphasizes the use of research to create teaching strategies that are evidence-based.  If you are interested in learning more about this:

Science of Reading - National Center of Improving Literacy

Why More U.S. Schools Are Embracing a New 'Science of Reading' - PBS News Hour

What is the Science of Reading? -Institute for Multi-sensory Education

Because of the emerging research from SoR, many school systems are shifting to a curricula and reading programs based on Structured Literacy, rather than Balanced Literacy..


OK but back to intervention for dyslexic children specifically. 

The Orton-Gillinghanm approach is an “approach”  - not a specific program.  The fundamentals of the OG approach have been used to develop a variety of different intervention programs like Barton Reading & Spelling System or Wilson Reading System.  They are all effective programs so no need to be too bogged down by the names. It’s  just important that, when talking to your child’s school, you know to asked for Structured Literacy support by someone specially trained in an OG approach.

Here are the 5 components of OG-based programs:

DIRECT AND EXPLICIT - This means that the teacher will be very intentional with focusing on teaching a certain skill - such as decoding -er words - and then gives many examples and chances to practice to clear instructions on how to do so.  

SEQUENTIAL - Covering topics in a specific order. Many OG- based programs have their preferred sequence to do things in. Some instructors might tweak the sequence based on the needs of the individual child, but in general they follow specific sequences.

MULTISENSORY - I think this is the one I was most baffled by initially. Doesn’t reading just need your eyes?  And sometimes your mouth if reading allowed? The OG approach aims to have a child use their ears (listening), eyes (seeing), tactile (fine motor) and kinesthetic (body movement). 

DIAGNOSTIC and PRESCRIPTIVE - Instructor should be frequently assessing and adjusting the instruction accordingly.

INDIVIDUALIZED - You can imagine it would be very challenging for a teacher or instructor to be diagnostic and prescriptive for multiple kids at the same times which is why 1:1 is best. However, if you are getting your literacy tutoring through a public school system, this may not be feasible.  But now you understand the reason why you should push for the smallest group possible - hopefully no more than 3 kids. 

So here's a list of of questions for your next meeting:

1. Who will be my child's literacy tutor and what level of OG training have they had?

2. Does the school use a specific structured literacy program (ie Wilson, Barton or other)? 

3.  If there is no specific program named (which is often the case), check to see that their structured literacy program contains the above components.

4. What will be the teacher:student ratio for structured literacy intervention? (ideally 1:1, but advocate for no more than 3)

5. If there is no literacy tutor with OG training in the school, you should ask the school pay for an outside literacy tutor to provide this evidence-based intervention. 



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