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Orton-Gillingham: From Dyslexia to Reading Mastery

By Melissa Katz, M.S.
The Benefits
If you are the parent or teacher of a child with dyslexia and/ or learning disabilities related to reading, you should know about Orton-Gillingham. Orton-Gillingham is an outstanding approach for teaching reading to individuals who have learning disabilities. It was developed over 70 years ago, but is still used today. Not only does it increase a person's reading skills, but it also increases his performance. As intervention progresses, he becomes increasingly more adept at skills related to reading, such as language processing, fluency, and vocabulary.

History of Orton-Gillingham: Dr. Samuel Orton
The history of Orton-Gillingham dates back to 1925. At that time, Dr. Samuel Orton, a neurologist,was influenced by Helen Keller. He became inspired by Keller's kinesthetic approach to helping the blind to read. While working with children who were stroke victims, he observed that many of them had impairments in language, which included complete or partial loss of their ability to read. He also noticed that one of his students, who was not a stroke victim, had similar difficulties related to learning to read. This led him to form the conclusion that there was a syndrome, not related to brain damage, which made it difficult to learn to read. He ended up calling the syndrome "dyslexia."

Dr. Orton's Collaboration with Anna Gillingham
This resulted in his collaboration with Anna Gillingham in the early 1930s. Anna Gillingham was an educator. Together they worked to combine his methods with her in- depth analysis of language. Finally, they developed a new system of teaching reading to children with dyslexia.

What is Taught
The system they devised is more explicit than prior approaches. It has several unique aspects. It is sequential in structure (builds upon itself). The structure is followed to teach specific language-based content. It begins with consonants, vowels, digraphs, and blends in isolation. It shows how sounds and letters (phonemes) are related and how they come together to make syllables and words, and explains how to break up a word into syllables and sounds. As words are learned, they are used to form sentences. It also builds upon earlier skills to more advanced structural elements. These include patterns, rules and generalizations, syllable types, prefixes, roots, and suffixes. The example below demonstrates how each skill expands upon the ones it proceeds.

How It's Taught
Not only is the content of what is taught unique, so is the way in which it is taught. People who are dyslexic learn best and retain information by using several of their senses together. This approach is multi-sensory. The senses involved are visual (sight), auditory (hearing), tactile (touch), and kinesthetic (motor).

Beginning Skills: Example

Phonemes and Graphemes
First, the student learns the meaning of vowels and consonants and how they are different. Then he learns how sounds and letters are related. Let's say a student is learning the letters c, a, t, n, and p. He learns how write graphemes ( letter or letters), along with making its corresponding sound (phoneme). He also develops the ability to connect each sound to a letter or letters. The short vowel sound for a is /a/, as in apple.

Once the student learns letter sounds, he is able to progress to learning syllables. Phonemes are blended together into syllables. There are six types of syllables. The first type of syllable learned is the closed syllable. This has the pattern vowel, consonant. In this kind of syllable the vowel usually makes a short vowel sound. Since the student knows the letters p, a, c, t ,and n; he can now be given closed syllables : ap, an, and at, to read and spell.

Words (one syllable)
Next, the student learns one-syllable words formed from the sounds/ letters he knows. In this case the words formed would be cat, can, cap, pan, and nap. In addition to presenting real words, nonsense words are formed. The advantage to using nonsense words is that the student will not have memorized them by sight, and must sound them out. An example of nonsense words that this student would be able to read and spell is: pap.

Sight Words
Sight words are words that should be memorized. After the student memorizes sight words, he then recites them, rather than sounding them out. He now knows sight words: are the, a, in, and took.

Once the student knows some one-syllable words and sight words they are put together to form sentences. Using what the student now knows he can read and write the sentence: The cat took a nap in the pan.

Multi-syllable words
Next, the student should be taught syllabication. Syllabication is the process of dividing words into syllables. There are rules about how to do this. These are called syllabication rules. Before dividing a word into syllables one must notice patterns. The first pattern is vowel, consonant, vowel, consonant. Since the student has formed the words cat and nap before, he can then write the word catnap. Then he can identify the vccv pattern. After that he can apply the first rule by splitting the word between the two consonants: vc/cv. This divides the word into two closed syllables (cat/nap). He now reads one syllable at a time. Finally, the student can say the whole word (blending).

Orton-Gillingham teaches the student how word meaning is formed from affixes. Affixes are prefixes, roots, and suffixes. As the student learns affixes he adds to his vocabulary knowledge. This increases his reading comprehension as well.

Since the student knows sounds for the letters: c, o, and l, he can be taught the prefix col. This means together.

Along with the prefix con, the root lect can be taught. This means to bring. If we put the prefix col with the root lect, we get the word collect. The student is beginning to learn how affixes build word meaning.

Now, if we take the baseword collect and add the suffix ing to it, the meaning changes. The suffix ing added to a verb means continuous action.

Spelling Rules and Generalizations
The student learns spelling rules or generalizations that coincide with the sounds and syllables he knows. An example of a generalization taught is the FLOSS rule. This generalization states that if a word is one syllable and ends with the letters f, l, or s, these letters often double. An example is the word fill. Since this is a generalization and not a rule, there are exceptions. The word of is an exception.

How It Works
The approach was originally designed for one-on-one use with children. However, it has been adapted for use with groups and adults. Orton-Gillingham instruction should be intensive. It is most effective when the student is provided with ample practice, at least two hours per week, on a regular basis. From the first step, the student begins to gain confidence as he masters skills. Once a student has learned all the skills, including the 6 syllable types, he should continue to be provided with opportunities to practice. This will ensure that a high level of reading performance is maintained.

Ms. Katz is a learning specialist in private practice who does reading therapy, educational therapy, teacher and parent training, and consulting in Long Island and NYC. Her training includes Orton-Gillingham and Wilson Reading in addition to multi-sensory writing, skill-building, and multi-sensory math. She can be contacted at Her website is".

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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