The Orton-Gillingham Approach to Learning Differences

For some young people, reading and writing come naturally. But thousands of children are diagnosed each year with learning differences like dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, and other reading, language, and auditory processing disorders. Many others struggle with learning difficulties that go undiagnosed and unsupported, often resulting in academic failure, low self-esteem, frustration, anxiety, and acting out. Neurological conditions like Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD), autism, and Asperger’s syndrome can also make learning difficult.

In order to teach students in the way they need to learn, some of the best private schools in the country are utilizing the Orton-Gillingham approach. When used by a trained and experienced teacher, this approach can significantly moderate the learning and processing problems that stem from dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

Origins of the Orton-Gillingham Approach

The Orton-Gillingham approach was developed by neuropsychiatrist Dr. Samuel Torrey Orton and his colleague, educator Anna Gillingham, to remediate the language processing problems of dyslexic students. Their methods were described in Remedial Training for Children with Specific Disability in Reading, Spelling and Penmanship, a book that has served as a primary method of teaching reading and writing in schools.

This multi-sensory, structured language approach has improved the lives and learning of dyslexic students for more than 70 years and has been validated by studies by the National Institutes of Health and numerous universities. For many children, sustained exposure to this approach to learning has diminished or eliminated notable reading and writing problems.

Teaching in Accordance with Learning Style

Why has the Orton-Gillingham approach been so successful? In part because it is multi-sensory and simultaneously uses the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic pathways of learning to appeal to every child’s unique way of learning. Much more than a simple reading approach, the Orton-Gillingham approach teaches reading, spelling, and written language at the same time. Each lesson is carefully structured, introducing the elements of language systematically so that students’ learning experiences are predictable and orderly. As students learn new material, they continue to review old material until their understanding becomes automatic.

Starting with teaching the sounds that letters make, and then the sounds that make words and syllables, and the words that make sentences and then paragraphs and stories, language is taught from the simple to the more challenging. Students begin with the concrete and progress to understanding the abstract; from basic, regular forms to multi-syllable words and irregular forms as well as the study of Greek and Latin roots. Orton-Gillingham teachers offer instruction at the student’s pace, requiring comprehension of basic forms before moving on to more complex ones.

In the Orton-Gillingham approach, students learn phonics (the alphabetic symbol-to-sound and sound-to-symbol relationships) and follow a careful learning sequence. In addition to copying a letter down, students are asked to speak it aloud and visualize the letter drawn in the air, reinforcing their memory of the letter or word.

Finding an Orton-Gillingham Specialist

Private schools with small class sizes and direct access to learning specialists most commonly utilize the Orton-Gillingham approach. Stone Mountain School, a therapeutic boarding school in North Carolina for boys ages 11-17 with emotional, behavioral, and learning issues such as ADD, ADHD, and nonverbal learning disorder (NLD), offers Orton-Gillingham multi-sensory language instruction to its students.

Taught by Karen O’Rourke, a language specialist with 15 years of experience as an Orton-Gillingham multi-sensory language therapist, Stone Mountain students receive intensive one-on-one sessions at least three times a week, and on a daily basis in more severe cases, in addition to attending core curriculum classes and participating in daily extracurricular activities.

Because 85 percent of reading and spelling is based on predictable rules and patterns, O’Rourke approaches language as a puzzle. “With 10 to 15 common Latin roots, students get a vocabulary of about 100,000 words. When students know the recognizable roots and source of words, they gain confidence as well as fundamental skills,” says O’Rourke. “That’s one of the selling points that makes learning feel achievable. For the first time, school can be a rewarding and even enjoyable experience.”

Often students come to Stone Mountain School with very basic skill sets that O’Rourke works to expand and enhance. Her first goal is to understand how the student learns and devise a teaching strategy around the individual’s needs, talents, and current cognitive level.

“These boys come in so drained and damaged from having a learning disorder that went undiagnosed or was improperly dealt with,” O’Rourke explains. “At the same time I’m working with them on reading, writing, and language, they’re working with a therapist to address all of those feelings that are tied to not being able to read or write at the same level as their peers at home.”

O’Rourke works in collaboration with the teachers at Stone Mountain and observes classroom interactions to gain an understanding of each student’s needs and struggles. In one-on-one sessions, she guides students through writing, reading, touch typing, using a dictionary or thesaurus, and other strategies to access and process information.

“As a team, we are constantly brainstorming and seeking out more knowledge and information,” states O’Rourke. “The more minds we put together to tackle a student’s learning difficulty, the more chances our students have to excel.”

Though particularly beneficial for students with language processing problems associated with dyslexia, the Orton-Gillingham approach has also been successful with students with other learning differences and conditions like ADHD. As with all learning issues, early intervention is key, though O’Rourke has achieved remarkable results with her adolescent clients.

“There’s no package deal or one-size-fits-all approach to learning. Every day is a new learning experience and every student brings so much to me as a teacher,” she says.

With appropriate guidance and support, even the most discouraged and oppositional children can achieve academic success. The one-on-one attention and specialized learning tools provided by private schools and therapeutic boarding schools open new doors for previously under-achieving youth, and show every child he is smart, talented, and inherently valuable.