What is Orton Gillingham?

Orton Gillingham (O. G.) was started in the 1930s by Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham, a neurologist and a teacher- psychologist who identified the neurological sources of reading disabilities.

Together, they developed a methodology to help children learn to read, focusing specifically on children and adults diagnosed with the newly identified diagnosis of dyslexia.

Their approach systematically teaches reading, explicitly breaking down the 26 letters (graphemes) and 44 sounds (phonemes) of our language into their patterns and parts. O.G. Is called a “multi-sensory approach” because educators and neurologists have discovered that information is coded into the brain much more effectively when we use more than one sensory system to make neural connections. This means that during every O.G lesson you will see children using multiple modalities of learning: auditory, visual, and tactile/kinesthetic.

Why does it work?
O. G’s repetitive, systematic, multi-sensory approach is especially helpful for younger children and children who struggle with reading, spelling, writing, and listening because it re-routes the information through the strongest and most developmentally appropriate areas of their brains. This helps to leverage each child’s individual strengths to master the many challenging linguistic tasks involved in literacy.

The English language is incredibly rich and complex. Although 85 percent of English words follow phonetic rules, many of the patterns within our language don’t seem to have much rhyme or reason to them, partially because modern English has been derived from so many contributing languages over a long period of linguistic evolution. Although children do have great capacity to memorize words and sounds, memorization is not enough, and it doesn’t build the true building blocks of complex language awareness. By the time children reach the end of third grade, if they haven’t truly consolidated letter and word patterns in multiple areas of the brain and made the connections between them, there is often the potential for their writing, spelling, and reading to break down.

Why is Language Development so Complex?

There is so much more to reading and writing than just voicing words on a page, or “word calling.” Although we often identify challenges with literacy in a child’s reading or writing, the root cause can be elusive because so many distinct neurological processes are involved in language development.

We acquire language first through listening. If a child struggles with any of the steps of auditory processing, we will see impacts in the child’s communication – both receptive and expressive. (How they receive communication from others, and how they communicate to others). For example, if you can’t hear the subtle difference between vowel or consonant sounds, how are you supposed to make meaning of different words utilizing these sounds?

Next, we acquire language through speaking, mirroring the sounds we hear in the speech patterns around us. If a child struggles with any of the steps involved in producing speech, this will impact communication as well. For example, if a child can’t pronounce a word correctly, they often struggle to read, write, and spell it.

After listening and speaking, our visual system begins to kick in with language development. Our recognition of symbols that represent sounds, called graphemes, begins in our visual cortex, and then must be connected to other areas of the brain to make sense of the written symbol. If a child struggles with any of the steps involved in visual processing and interpretation, it can intervene in language production as well. For example, while dyslexic individuals can see letters accurately, as the brain transposes that information from the visual cortex to other areas of the brain, the symbol or order of information is often flipped, causing children to easily mistake similar letters.

Next, our small and large motor systems come on line to write a letter or word. Not only must the brain retrieve the correct symbol or set of symbols to reproduce on the page, it must then control all the small and large muscle groups to produce the letter on the page. If children struggle with either of these neurological systems, we’ll see an impact in letter production or writing. For example, children with dysgraphia struggle mightily to produce the letter they can identify and see in their “mind’s eye” on the page because they lack control of the many, tiny muscles involved in letter production.

Once language has been encoded and practiced in the hearing, speaking, seeing, and kinesthetic parts of the brain, we must then put it all together! If a child struggles with any executive functions, this is yet another area where receptive and expressive language can break down. For example, a child with ADD/ADHD may struggle with the focus required to persevere through all the steps mentioned above to simply produce writing on paper. Considering all the neurons firing and brain systems synchronizing, our brains must be alight with fireworks of activity to produce language. Considering all those steps, It’s truly amazing to watch a child develop as they master one exhilarating step of the process after another.

Leveraging Multiple Modalities:

It is precisely because our brains must do so much to read and write that makes O.G. such a well-designed program. For each step of the process described above, there is at least one way to practice a listening, speaking, reading or writing skill. Additionally, O.G. leverages students’ other strengths to re-enforce that new information. This is why you’ll see children practicing skills in many ways, some of which look like play! For example, in the language dictation step of an O.G. lesson, you’ll see children writing the sounds they hear in sand or some other tactile. This seemingly simple step utilizes thousands of nerve endings in the finger tip to encode the phoneme (sound) and corresponding grapheme (letter) into the language center in the brain, leveraging our kinesthetic intelligence to help with the complex task of reading and writing. To an outsider, an O.G. classroom might look like child’s play, with its chorus of voices practicing sounds aloud, bodies up and down spelling words in the air, finger tapping, letter tracing, and color coding with red and green crayons on a variety of surfaces. However, what you are seeing is really a well-orchestrated series of steps that gives a student practice with a concept that bridges many areas of the brain which must integrate to perceive and produce language.

What Does this Mean in the Classroom?

In my eleven years of teaching, I have worked with many children who have had great strengths in many areas, but for some reason have had trouble with some aspect of reading or writing. Oftentimes, we made progress together, but a part of the reading or writing recess would remain a struggle and I wouldn’t know why. By the time a child reached my 4th or 5th grade classroom, I took it for granted that the building blocks of phonemic awareness (kinder through third grade skills) were solidly in place. When a break down did occur, I often didn’t have tools to determine where the breakdown was taking place or how to address it. Without tools, teachers are left guessing or inventing strategies that are uninformed by trials and research. The Orton Gillingham method gave me the tools I was previously lacking to bridge the gap between distinct language deficiencies and the rich, beautiful and exhilarating world of reading and writing.

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