Understanding Multi-Sensory Instruction
According to research, multi-sensory instruction should be utilized in the classroom. All children need to learn the same skills to become proficient readers.
Multi-sensory instruction, such as Orton-Gillingham, typically refers to visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic pathways (VATK).
According to the research of Dr. Samuel Orton, strengths or preferences will vary from student to student but using more than one method will help students better retain information.
3 Components of Multi-Sensory Instruction
Multi-sensory instruction can be broken down into these three components:
- Visual Learning
- Auditory Learning
- Tactile/Kinesthetic Learning
The most critical aspect of multi-sensory instruction, such as Orton-Gillingham, is having students use more than one of their senses. The most effective strategy for children with difficulties learning to read has proven to be using multi-sensory techniques.
However, multi-sensory instruction is not just for students that have learning disabilities. According to The Ladder of Reading (Nancy Young, 2017), only 40% of learners can learn to read effortlessly or with relative ease and comprehensive instruction. That leaves 60% of all learners to benefit from instruction like Orton-Gillingham.
Orton-Gillingham helps you to tap into your students’ sensory learning pathways. That’s why multi-sensory learning and explicit instruction are the most concrete methods for teaching a new concept.
Multi-Sensory Instruction: Visual Learning
When we think about the visual component, we think about the sense of sight. Students should see visuals that represent the meaning of what is being taught.
Showing written-out directions is an example of a visual modality. Teachers can provide students with handouts, a slideshow, or other visual aids to help them follow along during a lesson.
Other visual aids include:
- Visual cues
- Written summaries
Multi-Sensory Instruction: Auditory Learning
When we think about the auditory component, we think about the sense of hearing. Students should hear the explanation of directions out loud.
Lesson plans should include social elements like:
- Paired reading
- Group work
- Oral reports
- Mnemonic devices
Rhymes, beats, or songs can reinforce information. Providing recordings of lessons can also be beneficial, so students can go back and listen to the lesson more than once.
Multi-Sensory Instruction: Kinesthetic/Tactile Learning
When we think about the tactile and kinesthetic components, we think about the sense of movement and touch. Tactile instruction incorporates using hands to do something, such as manipulating objects representing a concept. Kinesthetic instruction involves moving to focus and learn.
The main difference between the two strategies is tactile components focus on fine motor movements while kinesthetic components focus on whole-body movements. So, while arm tapping would be a kinesthetic strategy, finger tapping is a tactile strategy.
Methods that support kinesthetic and tactile instruction include:
- Providing hands-on tools
- Giving breaks to allow students to move around
- Using the outdoors
- Teaching concepts through games and projects
Even if you’ve already taught a lesson using auditory and visual elements, it can be highly beneficial to reinforce that information through dance, play, or other activities.
Phonogram Review: Review sound-symbol correspondence with a rapid phonogram card drill
Simultaneous Oral Spelling: Repeat words, sound or spell words out using finger tapping, write words while saying letters, and read the completed word
Reading Words: Read a series of words and sentences that use the new pattern, as well as review words targeting skills that need particular practice
Everyone Benefits From Multi-Sensory Instruction
Our brains have developed to learn and grow in a multi-sensory environment. When teachers and educators introduce new material using multisensory learning, like Orton-Gillingham, they effectively cater to a more expansive audience of learners.
Multi-sensory instruction is used to teach all students effectively, especially those with learning differences. By using multiple senses, all learners have more ways to connect with what’s being taught.
“Reading and writing have been thought of as opposites – with reading regarded as receptive and writing regarded as productive. Researchers have found that reading and writing are ‘essentially the same process of meaning construction’ and that readers and writers share a surprising number of characteristics” (Carol Booth Olson, 2003).
The Orton-Gillingham methodology supports progress toward mastery of reading, writing, and spelling as one body through the explicit instruction of encoding and decoding strategies.
Is Explicit Reading & Writing Instruction Necessary?
Speaking, otherwise referred to as an oral language, is a more natural process in human development, whereas reading and writing, referred to as written language, must be taught.
Seeking opportunities for incremental success through Orton-Gillingham instruction proves incredibly motivating for students who find learning to read, write, and spell challenging. This is especially true for EL students and individuals with learning disabilities.
It’s easy to dismiss something when it is challenging to learn. “Is this really necessary?” or “I can make it without knowing bigger words because I already know a basic word which means the same thing.”
We should always push students to continue their literacy journey towards being proficient readers, writers, and spellers.
Spelling is essential when completing job applications, establishing credibility as a writer, using a literal or online dictionary, or recognizing the best choice when using spell check (Liuzzo, 2020).
According to Marcia Henry (Unlocking Literacy, 2004), to be an accurate reader and speller, one must have knowledge of:
- Phonology: the study of sounds
- Orthography: the study of writing systems and sound-letter correspondences
- Morphology: the study of word parts that shape word meaning
- Etymology: the study of the history of words
Peter Bowers (2009) states, “Explicit instruction about the role of phonology and etymology is not optional if we accept the challenge of offering students accurate, comprehensive instruction.”
“The development of automatic word recognition depends on intact, proficient phoneme awareness, knowledge of sound-symbol (phoneme-grapheme) correspondences, recognition of print patterns such as recurring letter sequences and syllable spellings, and recognition of meaningful parts of words (morphemes)” (Moats, 2020) and (Ehri, 2014).
As students use phonology, orthography, and morphology to identify how to spell words, the knowledge of spelling patterns and rules knit together the layers of the English language. For example, understanding why suffix -ed makes each of its three sounds, /id/, /d/, or /t/, hinges on determining the final sound of the base word. Students must first hear the past tense verb and isolate the base word.
In the past tense verb asked, the base word is ask, which ends in the unvoiced sound /k/. Therefore, in the past tense verb asked, the suffix -ed will make its unvoiced sound /t/. As the student encodes the word, they must apply their knowledge, as, “I hear /t/, but I write -ed.” Ensuring mastery of phonological awareness skills as a foundation upon which students build phonetic knowledge is critical.
A fluent writer is born when the students’ segments to spell the phonemes in monosyllabic and polysyllabic words with increasing automaticity.
Decoding (de / co / ding)
In Reading Reasons, Gallagher notes many ways reading is valuable, including building a mature vocabulary, making you a better writer, more intelligent, providing financial rewards, and helping develop your moral compass while arming you against oppression.
Beginning readers can become intimidated by long words. However, Orton-Gillingham instruction teaches these readers that they can decode or “break the code” to tackle the increasingly complex patterns.
Decoding these words causes the students to broaden their vocabulary, a critical piece to better writing and deeper comprehension. The knowledge of syllable patterns and syllable types increases students’ ability to sound out unfamiliar phonetic words.
“If reading skill is developing successfully, word recognition gradually becomes so fast that it seems as if we are reading “by sight.” The path to that end, however, requires knowing how print represents sounds, syllables, and meaningful word parts; for most students, developing that body of knowledge requires explicit instruction and practice over several grades” (Moats, 2020) and (Ehri et al., 2001).
To apply decoding strategies, students employ knowledge of individual phoneme/grapheme relationships, including identifying vowels and consonants. Next, they discover the syllable division pattern(s), which indicates how to cut the word into syllables. Then, students look at each syllable and determine the syllable type, which indicates how to pronounce the vowel sounds.
There are four-syllable division patterns in English listed by frequency:
- VC/CV (harbor)
- V/CV (heaven)
- VC/V (cabin)
- CV/VC (labor)
There are seven syllable types in English:
- Closed syllables (hat)
- Open syllables (to)
- Magic-e syllables (bake)
- Vowel team syllables (heat)
- Bossy r syllables (curb)
- Diphthong syllables (howl)
- Consonant-le syllables (bubble)
Eventually, these techniques are systematically applied to phonetic multisyllabic words in a multi-sensory method to read the entire word. Over time, the brain develops automaticity (fast, accurate, and effortless word identification at the word level) and fluency (automatic word recognition plus the use of appropriate prosodic features of rhythm, intonation, and phrasing at the phrase, sentence, and text levels) to decode and comprehend efficiently.
A small percentage of English is always irregular. However, irregular words will vary from student to student based on the phonetic concepts learned. Sounds used to pronounce these irregular words are not as clearly linked to their spelling. Therefore, students must memorize the letter strings to spell and read the words.
The words become recognizable on sight once they are memorized and orthographically mapped in the brain. Students observe the order of the letters and state the word. Understanding the impacts of morphology and etymology helps students bridge the gap between the expected and unexpected letters in irregular words.
What Should We Read?
Decodable books contain roughly 80% decodable text, leaving only 20% of words irregular or recognizable on sight. Controlled, decodable readers follow a sequence of instructions, allowing students to apply decoding strategies independently. Decodable texts provide motivation and encouragement for developing readers.
These texts encourage students to layer strategies to become strong readers when they are partnered with fluency instruction. Even when one has the capability to read, they choose not to. Why is it that some students not find reading rewarding?
When reading books or passages at a frustration level, students spend too much time and mental effort on decoding at the word level, leaving little room for fluency and understanding. Decodable texts provide opportunities for the application of learned skills. This is empowering to students – and empowered readers become naturally motivated.
The development of decoding skills must be accompanied by fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies. Decodable poems are naturally phrase-cued texts which encourage students to group words into meaningful phrases. When purposeful illustrations accompany texts, it supports the development of visual imagery linked to deeper meaning. Similarly, decodable passages and books with illustrations serve as stepping stones toward chapter books.
Inspire Readers & Writers
Irregular words and phonetic words have the opportunity to become sight words, which is the goal of explicit instruction like Orton-Gillingham – students’ brains function so proficiently, allowing cognitive functions to focus on fluency and comprehension. Ultimately, explicit, systematic, cumulative, multi-sensory instruction in encoding and decoding phonetic and irregular words inspires and encourages readers and writers.
Syllabication and decoding strategies can provide the keys to reading and the road map to navigating increasingly complex and engaging texts. Syllabication is the process of dividing words into syllables while decoding is the ability to utilize letter-sound relationships to pronounce those words. These a some of the strategies learned through the Orton-Gillingham methodology. Orton-Gillingham is a step-by-step learning process involving letters and sounds that encourages students to advance upon each smaller manageable skill learned throughout the process.
To decode phonetic words, readers need prior knowledge of the individual syllable types, perhaps taught in monosyllabic (single-syllable words) prior to reading them in longer words. As readers approach an unfamiliar multisyllabic phonetic word, they may apply strategies to break the longer word into manageable chunks, called syllables. Syllable division patterns guide readers in this process and they’re taught in order of their frequency of use in English. Once words are cut into syllables, the six syllable types will help readers identify how to pronounce each syllable.
Syllable Type 1: Closed
A closed syllable contains a single short vowel closed in by a consonant in the same syllable. These syllables are extremely common in English, and the short vowel sounds are the first vowels taught. In words, such as cat, dog, red, and cup, the vowel is closed in and, therefore, is pronounced with a short vowel.
Syllable Type 2: Open
An open syllable is when the single vowel stands alone and occurs at the end of a syllable. Every single vowel in English says its name in an open syllable, as in go, hi, we, and she.
Syllable Type 3: Magic E (VCe)
Magic E is a silent “e” that magically empowers the preceding single vowel to say its name. In words like bike, pole, cute, and bathe, the Magic E jumps back over a consonant sound, and the word (or syllable) is pronounced with a long vowel sound.
Syllable Type 4: Vowel Teams
A vowel team is a vowel sound represented by two to four letters, including ‘ea’ as /ē/ in meat (long vowel sound E) or /ĕ/ in bread (short vowel sound e), ‘ow’ as /ō/ in grow (long vowel sound O) or /ow/ in town (a diphthong vowel sound), or “igh” as /ī/ in night (long vowel sound I). Teachers empower students to efficiently read and spell by introducing the most common vowel teams first, such as the six VTs which spell long vowel sounds: ea, ee, ai, ay, oa, & oe. Then, once students demonstrate mastery, teachers may introduce additional vowel teams.
It is imperative that teachers continually discuss how to articulate phonemes (sounds) because vowel teams can spell long vowel sounds, short vowel sounds, and most diphthong vowel sounds. A diphthong (Greek for “two sounds”) is a gliding monosyllabic vowel sound, and students may feel the diphthong’s gliding movement by placing their fingers on the cheek next to the corners of their mouth to feel the slight muscle “glide” as they say the sound, like /ow/ as heard in out. Some programs pull out diphthongs as an additional syllable type.
Syllable Type 5: Bossy R
When an “r” follows a vowel sound, as in verb or far, it attempts to control the preceding vowel’s sound. In doing so, readers and spellers encounter an entirely new vowel sound. Teachers must clarify the sound of the “r” in isolation compared with the bossy r, or r-controlled, vowel sounds.
Syllable Type 6: Consonant-le
The final syllable type, consonant-le, occurs at the ends of words in English. Because every syllable has a vowel sound, the silent e at the end of this syllable signals readers to its pronunciation. For example, when table is enunciated, the -ble syllable may be reflected as /b(ǝ)l/ with an unpronounced schwa vowel sound. When reading a word that ends in a consonant-le syllable, readers may circle the syllable.
Syllable Pattern #1 VC/CV
The most common syllable division pattern is recognized by two or more consonants between two vowel sounds, including VCCV, VCCCV, VCCCCV. Consider the following words:
- parrot – The two vowels are ‘a’ and ‘o’, and there are two consonants between the vowels. Pattern #1 cuts the word apart as par / rot.
- hundred – The two vowels, ‘u’ and ‘e’, have three consonants between them. Pattern #1 cuts the word apart as hun / dred.
- construct – The two vowels, ‘o’ and ‘u’, have four consonants between them. Pattern #1 cuts the words apart as con / struct.
Syllable Pattern #2 V/CV
The second most common syllable division pattern is recognized by VCV, with only one consonant between two vowel sounds in a word. Because of its frequency in English multisyllabic words, when readers encounter a VCV pattern, this pattern directs them to cut the word apart after the first vowel. Consider the following word:
- final – The two vowels, ‘i’ and ‘a’, have one consonant between them. Pattern #2 cuts the words apart as fi / nal.
Syllable Pattern #3 VC/V
Readers may attempt to read a word using pattern #2 and not recognize it in their oral language lexicon. When pattern #2 doesn’t result in a familiar word, perhaps something else is happening. Often, the “something else”, is pattern #3 where the word cuts apart after the consonant between the two vowel sounds. This pattern is the second choice because, in English, it’s less common. Therefore, readers should have ample opportunity to apply patterns #1 and #2 before this pattern is introduced. Consider the following word:
- salad – The two vowels, ‘a’ and ‘a’, have one consonant between them, so the reader tries pattern #2, initially, and reads sa / lad. While searching for words known in their oral language and prior listening, reading, and speaking experiences, the word doesn’t make sense. Then, the reader suspects pattern #3 could be at work, and they adjust how the word is cut apart and reads sal / ad.
Syllable Pattern #4 V/V
This final pattern used to cut words apart in English has two vowels with no consonants between them, and it is the least common of the four patterns. Typically introduced once diphthong vowels sounds are taught, readers continue to test the pattern and resulting pronunciation against known words in their oral language. Consider the following words:
- science – The two vowels (vowel sounds), ‘i’ and ‘en’, do not have any consonant sounds between them, and the reader cuts pattern 4 and reads sci / ence.
- gradual – The first two syllables cut apart using pattern #2, and the second and third syllables cut apart using pattern 4. The reader decodes gra / du / al.
Once syllable division patterns (ways to cut words apart) and syllable types (guides to pronunciation) are learned, it’s as if every reader has the map to discover reading longer phonetic words. When syllabication strategies are applied more skillfully and automatically, the landscape of reading is widened, varied, and accessible. Readers are able to focus on fluency strategies and vocabulary which support reading comprehension.
In Equipped for Reading Success, Dr. David Kilpatrick emphasizes the far-reaching effects of reading on academics, behavior, self-confidence, and future opportunities.
He notes that “rarely do weak readers catch up.” According to research, many reading challenges can be prevented, and if educators are able to recognize the critical skills that build a strong foundation from the start struggling readers are capable of making more significant progress.
One of these critical skills and a strong predictor of future reading success is phonemic awareness. It’s an area of essential skill development that deserves our full attention. To better understand the importance of this skill, Kilpatrick looks to the overarching goal of reading: comprehension.
Skilled readers are fluent readers. They can focus on what they are reading because they have developed the ability to recognize words automatically. Unlike struggling readers, skilled readers are not faced with the laborious process of sounding out words or guessing. Regular and irregular words are distinguished effortlessly, known as “sight words.” How is this possible? Skilled readers store words through a process called orthographic mapping.
Orthographic mapping is an active and instant recognition process that allows us to see a word and instantly map the parts of the whole. The process does not occur in a left-to-right progression but rather as a string of letters in a unit.
When we map, we recognize, discriminate, and activate meaning all at once. Our brain retrieves this information from stored “files” that have developed over time and exposure and begin in early childhood with phonological awareness.
What Is Phonemic Awareness?
Phonemic awareness is the awareness that words are composed of sounds, and those sounds have distinct articulatory features. People with dyslexia lack the basic phonemic awareness that most individuals have, and they may have a hard time with reading comprehension, spelling, writing, vocabulary, and fluency.
Structured Literacy utilizes the Orton-Gillingham approach along with other structures such as phonemic awareness, morphology, orthography, semantics, syntax, and text structure to improve reading skills.
Consider phonemic awareness an umbrella term that describes three essential skill levels that are the foundation for reading: syllable level, onset-rime level, and phoneme level.
- Syllable Level – Teaching students to hear the parts of the whole word and identify them as syllables will assist with syllable division and decoding multisyllabic words in reading.
- Onset-Rime Level – Activities can expose students to word families and practice the segmentation of the onset (initial phonological unit before the vowel) and the rime (a string of letters that follow). Examples are p-an, s-at, st-all.
- Phoneme Level – Children acquire phonemic awareness when they can identify beginning sounds in words, blend sounds to make a word, and count the individual sounds within a word.
Students who do not develop phonemic awareness skills are at risk of struggling with reading in their future years. The Orton-Gillingham approach is made up of components that ensure that students are not only able to use learned strategies, but can also explain the how and why of phonological strategies. Phonemic awareness is one of these components that all teachers should become familiar with and consider a critical skill for developing readers.
With Orton-Gillingham, students learn skills that become progressively more complex, usually beginning with instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness. Once students exhibit phonemic awareness, Orton-Gillingham based programs address which letters or groups of letters represent different phonemes and how those letters blend together to make simple words.
What Are Phonemes?
Phonemes are the smallest units in our spoken language that distinguish one word from another. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate phonemes in a spoken word.
The Orton-Gillingham approach translates the spelling of sounds into phonemes. Structured Literacy is deeply rooted in phonemes and systematically introduces the letters or graphemes corresponding to each phoneme. Once students exhibit phonemic awareness, Orton-Gillingham based programs address which letters or groups of letters represent different phonemes and how those letters blend together to make simple words.
For example, a child can identify the phonemes in mad when he understands that there is a phoneme at the beginning, middle, and ending of the word that makes up the whole word and that each of these sounds can be manipulated individually. To support young readers, teachers should have a good understanding of the sequence of specific phonemic awareness tasks that will prepare students for success in reading.
Early, explicit, systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, like Orton-Gillingham, increases a child’s attending to sounds according to research. In grades K-2, teachers can make phonemic awareness activities a highly anticipated part of the daily schedule. Phonemic awareness activities should:
- Include enjoyable, enriching activities that provide opportunities for children to engage in language play,
- Provide multi-sensory exposures (10-20 minutes per day) using auditory, visual, and tactile learning modalities,
- Incorporate songs, chants, poetry, and rhymes to support metalinguistic awareness
- Use data to inform instruction, and
- Vary complexity for different learners.
Examples of Classroom Activities to Facilitate Phonemic Awareness
Nars from Mars (Rhyming)
This activity helps to model rhyme generation to students in the classroom. Make a puppet from a sock or paper bag and give the puppet antennae to represent “Nars”. When Nars visits the class from his planet, the students will help him learn the English language. As Nars approaches various objects in the classroom, he will identify them incorrectly by rhyming. For example, when Nars selects a book, he will label it as a “nook,” a pen as a “chen,” a table as a “lable,” and so on. Each time, the students will help him by stating the correct (rhyming) word. Students will look forward to visits from Nars.
Going to Grandma’s (Rhyming)
Have the students sit in a circle on the floor and get ready to pack a basket full of rhymes to take to Grandma’s house. The teacher will start the string of rhymes by saying, “We are going to Grandma’s, and I am packing a ________.” The basket will be passed to the next student, who will say, “We are going to Grandma’s, and I am packing a (word that rhymes with the former word).” As an example, if the teacher said “skirt,” then the next student might add “shirt,” and then “dirt,” and so on. This will leave the students in giggles, and the round will end when no other rhyming words can be generated. The basket can get passed again with a new starter word.
1, 2, 3, 4 Syllables are on the Floor (Syllable Counting)
Place four hula-hoops on the floor and place a number 1, 2, 3, or 4 in each hoop. Place various objects in a box and model the first turn. Take the object and label it (example = elephant). Clap the syllables in the word and place the object in the hoop marked with a 3.
Sort the Sound (Phoneme Categorization)
Using sets of four pictures (or objects) per sound, the teacher will model how to complete the sound sort. If the target ending sound is /t/, the teacher will name each picture and select the three pictures in the set that ends with /t/ while removing the one picture that does not fit. This activity may be done with beginning, medial, or ending sounds.
Sound Boxes (Phoneme Segmenting and Blending)
The teacher will provide students with tokens (cubes, chips, stickers) and a sound box template. The child will listen to a spoken word and move a token to represent each sound. For example, if the teacher dictates the word “step,” the student will move four tokens, one for each individual phoneme /s/-/t/-/e/-/p/.
Stretching or Repeating (Phoneme Deletion and Substitution)
The teacher will dictate a word while stretching one of the sounds “/s/-/a/-/a/-/a/-/t/” and ask the student to identify the word. The student is then asked to replace the stretched sound /a/-/a/-/a/ with another sound /i/-/i/-/i/ and identify the new word. For phonemes that cannot be stretched, the teacher may repeat the target sound “/h/-/o/-/t/-/t/-/t/.” Once the student identifies the word, the teacher may have him replace the repeated ending sound /t/-/t/-/t/ with /p/-/p/-/p/ and state the new word.
Make a Change (Phoneme Manipulation-Deletion and Substitution)
The teacher will lead the class in a series of phoneme manipulation tasks, which will, in turn, activate the other phonemic awareness tasks. (From Kilpatrick’s book, Equipped for Reading Success)
- Say enter. Now say enter but don’t say ter. Student: en
- Say pin. Now say pin but don’t say /p/. Student: in
- Say smile. Now say smile but don’t say /s/. Student: mile
- Say club. Now say club but don’t say /l/. Student: cub
Kilpatrick hails phoneme manipulation tasks as superior to all other phonemic awareness tasks, as they require students to utilize other skills such as isolation, deletion, segmentation, and blending.
The Importance of Phonological Awareness Assessment
While phonological awareness skills are addressed in the Orton-Gillingham methodology, assessment data should be continuously monitored to effectively inform instruction, track progress, differentiate lessons, and identify students who may be at risk for future reading challenges.
The Phonological Awareness Screening Test (PAST), adapted and revised by Kilpatrick in 2018, can be used as a whole class screener or a component of a comprehensive, formal assessment. It evaluates a child’s understanding of the syllable, onset-rime, and phoneme levels using skills that develop in sequence from kindergarten to second grade.
Although this tool can be a powerful screener in the prevention of future reading challenges, it can also be used to identify older students who failed to develop these skills in earlier years. Regardless of age, the goal is for students to develop to the level of automaticity.
Orthographic mapping is a permanent storage system for written words that builds gradually and involves developing phonological awareness and word-level reading skills. This skill can be built up by utilizing the Orton-Gillingham methodology.
Simply put, when you can read a word instantly without putting any effort into decoding it, you know that word has been orthographically mapped into your brain’s storage system. This way, the ability to store words makes reading seem magical because it means we can listen to the story with our eyes and escape into the world of a great book.
What Is Orthographic Mapping?
In the early stages, listening to children read can be frustrating for an adult. Young readers approach words letter by letter, sounding out each with varying degrees of accuracy. Thankfully over time, reading skills improve, and children become more fluent. But how do they move from slowly decoding word by word to being able to read words quickly and easily? Thank orthographic mapping, the process competent readers use to store written words, so they can automatically recognize them on sight. The more words we have stored in this sight word bank, the easier reading becomes, allowing our brains to focus on comprehension rather than decoding because the words simply jump off the page and can’t be stopped.
Oral language comprehension provides the foundation for understanding written text. The term “orthographic” comes from Greek, meaning to have correct writing. This mapping process makes a connection between the correct spelling sequences and the words we know. To understand the relationship, let’s look at brain processes used in learning to read.
Learning to Read is Complex
Learning to read is a complex process that involves connecting spoken language to the written code through four different processing systems in the brain. This Four-Part Processing Model (Seidenberg & McClelland, 1989) includes the phonological processor, a mental dictionary that stores all the words we’ve heard and use orally, which is utilized for sounding out the words we see. These words are taken in through the orthographic processor, and then we use our meaning and context processors to make sense of the text. For example, when a child sees the word “bat,” they can say the sounds /b/-/ă/-/t/ and determine the word’s pronunciation if it is in their phonological dictionary. But is it an animal or sports equipment? Putting the word into context allows the correct meaning to be established.
Speaking comes naturally for most children, and words learned along the way are stored for fast, easy retrieval in that phonological processor. Within those words are units of sound called phonemes, the smallest speech sound differences that are important for word recognition. Phonemes help us distinguish between “save” and “safe” – You can save for a rainy day, but money should be stored in a safe place. Although phoneme sequences are stored in the brain along with the words, unlocking them is not intuitive. Yet phoneme awareness is key to reading success because it’s needed for orthographic mapping.
Unlike speaking, reading is not a natural process and must be taught. English is an alphabetic writing system where the letters represent the speech sounds. Most children need instruction in the connection between the letters and the phonemes, and for many, this link needs to be explicitly taught. But the connection is not simply one letter to one speech sound. There are about 44 speech sounds in English, and our alphabet only has 26 letters, so we end up with letter combinations like ‘ch’ and ‘sh’ to spell words like ‘chip’ and ‘ship.’ English is also morpho-phonemic, meaning that spellings represent both sound and meaning. For example, ‘people’ and ‘population’ are related in meaning, and although the ‘o’ isn’t sounded in ‘people,’ it is there to mark that connection.
These types of irregularities in spelling are not a problem for reading once our brains become skilled at orthographic mapping. We aren’t born with this orthographic mapping system; our brains need to be taught how to do it. The sounds or phonemes become connected to the letter sequences in a word. They are permanently bonded and stored for instant access after one to four exposures in typically developing readers. The words stored in our phonological memory bank, which are built up naturally as we learn to speak, attach to the printed letter sequences by orthographically mapping them together. Once the system is started, our brains learn to do this automatically when we encounter new words. But how do we get this system started?
What Do We Need for Orthographic Mapping?
To become good at orthographic mapping, children need to develop phonological awareness and word-level reading skills. Learning to read requires that children understand the alphabetic principle, that words are made of sounds and can be written with the letters of the alphabet. To do this, they need an awareness of the phonemes in spoken words and proficiency in using phonics to decode words. This involves using the four processing systems: phonological, orthographic, meaning, and context when needed for word meaning.
Phonological skills build along a continuum. Early skill development begins with larger sound chunks in words, such as being able to rhyme and segment syllables. Next, individual sounds can be noticed in shorter words, starting with the first sound, then the last, and finally the middle sound. Once children develop basic phoneme awareness, they can learn to blend and segment words for reading and writing. This process paves the way for our brain to learn that ALL the words stored in our phonological dictionary can be broken apart this way, which is critical for permanent written word storage. The phonemes in spoken words become the metaphorical glue that attaches to the written representations. But children need other tools to develop word reading skills that lead to orthographic mapping.
As early phonological skills develop, children need to learn letter names and basic letter sounds. Learning that letters are used to write the phonemes will open the door to decoding words for reading. In our example with the word ‘bat,’ knowing that these letters represent the sounds /b-ă-t/ allows the connection to be made to this word that is already stored in our phonological dictionary. The reverse can be done for encoding, or spelling, to write words. As more letter-sound relationships are learned, more words can be unlocked.
Practice Makes Automatic
The more practice our brains get with this sound-symbol relationship pattern, the more automatic the process becomes. One key to the orthographic mapping of words into our permanent memory system is the proficiency with which we have access to the phonemes in spoken words. Children can sharpen this skill through phoneme manipulation practice, such as saying the word ‘bat’ and then repeating it but changing the /b/ to /m/ for ‘mat.’ A more advanced version of this practice would be to say ‘slip’ then repeat it without the /l/ sound, ‘sip.’ The ability to do this type of wordplay makes the phonological processer stickier and better able to attach to text.
Phonics is essential to reading and is best learned when explicitly taught. Proficiency with letter-sound relationships is another key to orthographic mapping. Beyond basic letter sounds, good phonics instruction should include common spelling rules and patterns in English along with basic syllable types.
The ability to decode a word with phonics knowledge provides children with the skills to unlock new words they encounter. This knowledge helps children become familiar with the allowable letter sequences that make up words. Only one to four exposures are needed for typically developing readers before a word’s spelling is locked together and permanently stored for instant recognition.
Although listening to children learn to read by painstakingly decoding each word can be tedious, it is precisely this process that makes orthographic mapping possible. It is the combination of phonemes and phonics that begins to build the orthographic mapping storage system. Once activated, reading begins to transition into the magical process of making the words on the page speak. This opens the door to new worlds.
In the 1930s, neuropsychiatrist and pathologist Dr. Samuel T. Orton and educator, psychologist Anna Gillingham developed the Orton-Gillingham approach to reading instruction for students with “word-blindness,” which would later become known as dyslexia. Their approach combined direct, multi-sensory teaching strategies paired with systematic, sequential lessons focused on phonics.
Orton-Gillingham is a step-by-step learning process involving letters and sounds that encourages students to advance upon each smaller manageable skill learned throughout the process. It was the first approach to use explicit, direct, sequential, systematic, multi-sensory instruction to teach reading, which is effective for all students and essential for teaching students with dyslexia. Today, the Orton-Gillingham approach is used around the world to help students at all levels learn to read.
- Multi-Sensory – The teaching of new concepts incorporates visual, auditory, and kinesthetic pathways. With this approach, students learn language by ear (listening), mouth (speaking), eyes (seeing), and hand (writing).
- Structured, sequential, and cumulative – Through direct, explicit instruction, it progresses logically at the primary level and progresses to more advanced concepts that build upon the previous skill learned, with practice and review.
- Flexible – Through assessment, differentiation, and grouping, teachers can instruct students based on their needs.
- Language-based – Directly teaches the fundamental structure of language, starting with sound/symbol relationships and progressing to more complex concepts such as higher-level spelling rules and Greek and Latin Bases.
- Sequential – Lessons are presented in a logical, well-planned sequence. This sequence allows children to make easy connections between what they already know and what they are currently learning.
- Incremental – Each lesson builds carefully upon the previous lesson. This helps students move simple concepts to more complex ones, ensuring that there are no gaps in their learning.
- Cumulative – Through direct, explicit instruction, it progresses logically at the primary level and progresses to more advanced concepts that build upon the previous skill learned, with practice and review.
- Individualized – Anna Gillingham once said, “Go as fast as you can, but as slow as you must.” Curriculums that follow this approach make it easy to teach students based on their individual strengths.
- Phonograms-Based – By teaching the phonograms and the rules and patterns that spell the vast majority of English words, the Orton-Gillingham approach takes the guesswork out of reading and spelling.
- Explicit – Students are taught exactly what they need to know in a clear and straightforward manner. Students know what they are learning and why they’re learning it.
Where Orton-Gillingham Fits
While Orton-Gillingham has long been associated with dyslexia, teachers have been advocating for years that the Orton-Gillingham method be utilized in every classroom.
Orton-Gillingham places a strong emphasis on systematically teaching phonics so that students understand the how’s and why’s behind reading. Word recognition is best taught through a phonics-based approach, wherein students develop knowledge and skills about how the alphabet works to become expert decoders. Children can then apply the knowledge they learn to decode and encode new words.