How Orton-Gillingham Can Support Struggling Readers

The key to promoting reading success is helping students overcome their apprehension. 

According to neuroscience, both the cognitive and affective parts of the brain are affected by reading. Students become discouraged and frustrated when they struggle to develop reading skills shown through a lack of confidence, low self-esteem, and anxiety progression. This produces young learners who have the potential to give up and shut down as the downward spiral evolves. Unpleasant feelings of inadequacy and frustration become associated with reading, impacting the potential for essential literacy skills to advance. This progression adversely sets a climate for the unfolding of impairments and further learning obstacles as the child develops. 

Teachers and parents should address not only the academics but also the emotional and mental aspects that arise from educational deficits when supporting struggling readers

Educators can commit to creating a safe environment that fosters a sense of achievement by instilling techniques that turn a culture of positivity and success into learning. All the while, supporting struggling readers with effective approaches, such as the Orton-Gillingham approach, that explicitly teaches phonological awareness, phonology, syllabication, syntax, semantics, and morphology. Through such an environment, negative feelings turn into positive ones as comprehension expands and reading becomes an enjoyable experience. 

Establish Realistic Expectations

While success leads to success, it’s impossible to ignore that failure leads to more failure. Struggling readers can become discouraged and overwhelmed when the learning targets feel out of reach. Educators can have the tools to construct achievable goals that enhance the unique strengths of a student. With the right help, the path to supporting these struggling readers can start heading in the right direction. Highlight these strengths by breaking tasks up into small incremental steps that focus on mastery and not on memorization. That way, there are opportunities being created for intermediate and authentic successes. 

The Orton-Gillingham Approach engages the visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic pathways simultaneously. That, accompanied by attainable daily and weekly outcomes, will have struggling readers feeling motivated and ready to learn. Practice, practice, practice! Repetition is key until the learners progress and master the intended skill.

Anna Gillingham once said, “Go as fast as you can, but as slowly as you must” to build confidence and encourage reluctant readers.” 

Focus on the Positives

It’s proven that, when a child believes they can’t read, then they won’t read—it’s simple. When supporting a child through educational difficulties, it’s important to meet them “right where they are ” through the type of instruction that celebrates their abilities and provides the right opportunity to learn. Focusing on readers’ strengths gives them encouragement even during tough times.

Hasbrouck (2020) calls on underscoring the positives in the face of challenges without overpromising a certain outcome by emphasizing the importance of expressing total confidence in the ability of the child to learn.

She stresses, “The time struggling readers spend reading independently, without the opportunity to have errors corrected or to receive encouraging support and feedback, can often serve to deepen their mis-learnings and reinforce common, frequent errors.”

Providing honest, immediate, and specific feedback in order to build reading esteem will help learners to adjust their mindset, see the growth, and become aware of what they CAN do. 

Encourage and Reward Risk-Taking

When struggling readers are unclear about expectations, stumble on words, make incorrect responses, or don’t understand a text, they feel their weaknesses are exposed, and their confidence crumbles.

Failure is a necessary component of success, and reading is unquestionably risky. A supportive and safe learning environment allows students the assurance that mistakes are not only expected but are welcomed. The bumps along the road are a vital component in the learning process and lead to some of the greatest periods of growth. 

Miscues should be addressed through scaffolded instruction and become teachable moments. Support students using an “I do, We do, You do” approach or a gradual release of responsibility model to strengthen understanding by first modeling, then guiding practice, and finally giving independent practice.

Questions are always encouraged when getting through a difficult passage, along with letting them know that if they can not read and understand it now, that doesn’t mean that won’t change in the future. Praise struggling readers’ endurance as they advance through increasingly challenging texts.

Make progress visual by logging improved speed and accuracy on a rapid word chart or reading passage or by highlighting growth on a phoneme/grapheme chart. Redefine success as the perseverance to stick with a task and the resilience to accomplish a goal, and change the focus away from needing to have the right answer.  

Build Positive Relationships

The relationships with students matter and will prove to be an integral piece of the puzzle in helping reluctant, struggling readers overcome the obstacles that hold them back! The old adage “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” holds weight within every struggling reader and teacher interaction.

Hattie’s research reveals the power of developing positive relationships with students, ALL students — to ensure they read, write, communicate, and think at high levels (Fisher, Frey & Hattie 2016). Having a network of teachers and parents that truly want to help and will be a support each step of the way is vital to building the courage that turns struggle into a journey of success.

Genuine connections built on trust and respect mold students who understand they are not alone. With that trust, they are motivated to step out of their comfort zone, dig their heels in, and take uncomfortable risks in order to succeed. 

Recognize students’ efforts, by acknowledging that having difficulty learning to read is not their fault, but it is their challenge to overcome and that improvement will take time and hard work. Be sure to instill a sense of ownership and responsibility for their own learning. Offer decision-making opportunities that will give your students a sense of control in order to engage their interests.

“One of the most rewarding experiences I can imagine is seeing a child who once was sad and defeated transformed into one who glows with an eagerness to learn” (Shaywitz, 2003).

Safety nets are in place to make struggling readers feel good about their reading achievements and themselves. The encouragement will likely motivate them to take risks that lead to skill growth and progress. Within this supported and trusted environment, they can learn to push aside their apprehensions and embrace reading tasks.

With more accurate reading and spelling and increased fluency, perseverance and motivation levels steadily rise, and a confidence is built that can dissolve butterflies in the stomach, overpower fear, and conquer the obstacles that once seemed impossible. A determined “I AM A READER” attitude will soon emerge, forging continued success and, ultimately, lifelong learning.