The Science Behind Orton-Gillingham: Why It Works

When it comes to effective literacy education, the search for impactful teaching methodologies is on the rise. A popular approach that is helping educators everywhere address all instructional tiers is the Orton-Gillingham (OG) approach. Based on the science of reading (SoR), OG is a widely recognized methodology focused on a systematic, sequential approach that utilizes multimodal instruction for teaching reading and spelling.

Understanding Orton-Gillingham: A Methodology Rooted in Science

Developed in the early 20th century by Samuel T. Orton and Anna Gillingham, this structured, multisensory approach has become synonymous with effective remediation for individuals with dyslexia and other reading challenges.

At its core, the Orton-Gillingham methodology recognizes that language is a complex system and tailors instruction to the unique needs of each learner. The evidence-based approach focuses on teaching students the connection between phonemes and graphemes through the use of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic pathways. Using multiple pathways to teach and review concepts helps solidify the connection between what students hear, say, see, and write.

Orton-Gillingham isn’t just a methodology; it’s a testament to the power of research-driven strategies in unlocking the door to literacy for every individual, regardless of their learning profile. As we delve into the intricacies of Orton-Gillingham, we discover a methodology that not only stands the test of time but continues to evolve, grounded in the ever-advancing landscape of scientific understanding in literacy education.

Neurological Alignment: It Starts in the Brain

The magic of OG lies in its alignment with the brain’s neurological processes. The evidence-based approach focuses on teaching students the connection between phonemes and graphemes through the use of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic pathways. Using multiple pathways to teach and review concepts helps solidify the connection between what students hear, say, see, and write.

Multisensory Learning: The Key to Success

At the core of OG is its multisensory approach. Engaging multiple learning pathways simultaneously—visual, auditory, and kinesthetic—ensures a deeper, more comprehensive understanding and retention of language concepts. Learners who hear, see, write, and speak a word or phrase create stronger neural connections, reinforcing learning and retention.

Consistent Corrective Feedback and Individualized Instruction

One of OG’s hallmarks is its adaptability. OG focuses on a prescriptive-diagnostic teaching methodology. OG-trained educators diagnose their students’ academic abilities and/or limitations, then prescribe an appropriate course of action through tailored lessons to suit each learner’s unique strengths and challenges. With an emphasis on corrective feedback, students must master each skill before they move on to the next. By identifying specific areas of difficulty and employing targeted strategies, OG fosters a supportive learning environment where students can thrive.

The Efficacy of Orton-Gillingham in Practice

Its integration of neuroscience, personalized instruction, and multisensory techniques signifies a progressive stride toward inclusive and effective literacy education. Numerous success stories stand as a testament to the transformative power of the Orton-Gillingham approach. Students who once struggled with reading, spelling, and language comprehension have deveoped confidence and proficiency through this method. By building a solid foundation in phonemic awareness, morphology, orthography, semantics, syntax, and more, learners equipped with the power of OG are sure to become more adept readers and writers. 

Check out IMSE Impact Structured Literacy Professional Development and begin your journey toward unlocking the potential of every learner and revolutionizing literacy in your classroom with Orton-Gillingham.

Top Orton-Gillingham Resources for Educators and Parents in 2024

The journey of learning to read and write can be a challenging road for many individuals, especially those with dyslexia or other language-based learning differences. The Orton-Gillingham (OG) approach has proven to be a beacon of hope, providing effective strategies to teach reading and writing skills. 

As we step into 2024, we wanted to gather a list of the top Orton-Gillingham resources available for both parents and teachers to empower learners with the tools they need for success.

Orton-Gillingham-Based Training

Distinguished by their evidence-based, multisensory methods, Orton-Gillingham-based trainings are beneficial for all students. Emphasizing a structured and systematic approach, they empower educators to break down words into smaller, more manageable components. The multisensory approach ensures a thorough understanding through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic elements, making the learning process more accessible. There are many OG training options that can be found on the International Dyslexia Association website, including The Institute for Multi-Sensory Education (IMSE).

Digital Resources

In the height of the digital age, it is important to note that there are a variety of resources out there for educators and parents alike to use both in the classroom and at home. IMSE offers an abundance of free digital resources that keep students engaged no matter where they may be including printable activities, digital slides, videos, and more! 

Additionally, the integration of digital resources such as apps like Pocket Phonics or OgStar Reading Complete not only expands Orton-Gillingham’s reach but also reinforces its effectiveness in addressing the diverse needs of learners in today’s technologically driven educational landscape.

Multisensory Learning Tools

Multisensory learning tools transform the reading experience by engaging multiple senses simultaneously, enhancing comprehension and retention. Many items can be used while incorporating the Orton-Gillingham approach in a lesson or during storytime, such as:

Tools for educators and parents like OG in a Bag or OG+ in a Bag can help make bringing Orton-Gillingham from school to home easier than ever! 

Education Blogs and Podcasts

Blogs and podcasts form a dynamic duo of resources that can guide parents and educators on their journey toward providing their student(s) with a strong literacy foundation. 

Blogs provide a real-time platform for educators and parents to share experiences, stay up-to-date on innovative practices, and follow the ever-changing landscape of where literacy stands today. On that same note, podcasts offer insights through expert interviews, discussions, and practical tips that can be easily integrated into daily routines. Some top literacy blogs and podcasts to follow include:



Support Communities

Educators and parents should always actively engage with the Orton-Gillingham community through online forums. These platforms offer a space for educators and parents to share experiences, seek advice, and access a supportive network dedicated to improving literacy outcomes.

  • Online Forums: Join communities dedicated to Orton-Gillingham to share experiences and seek advice from a network of educators, parents, and specialists, like yourself.
  • Parent Support Groups: Engage with local or online support groups to connect with others facing similar challenges.

As we navigate the educational landscape of 2024, the Orton-Gillingham approach continues to play a vital role in fostering literacy skills in individuals with learning differences. Whether you’re a teacher seeking professional development or a parent supporting your child’s learning at home, these top OG resources provide the tools and knowledge needed to make strides toward reading and spelling success. By embracing these resources, we can collectively contribute to creating a more inclusive and supportive learning environment for all.

Step-by-Step: How to Implement Orton-Gillingham in Your Classroom

Educators everywhere are eager to create an inclusive and effective learning environment that caters to learners of all capabilities. Implementing the Orton-Gillingham (OG) approach supports children as they develop the skills necessary to become successful readers and writers. Developed in the 1930s, this structured, multi-sensory approach has proven successful in teaching reading, writing, and spelling to all learners, including those with dyslexia and other language-based learning difficulties.

At its core, OG is an instructional model that provides direct and explicit instruction.  Foundational skills are introduced systematically with cumulative review. The OG approach integrates visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modalities into instructional routines. The goal of OG is to create a foundation for language that fosters a fluid transition from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn. 

When it comes to implementing OG, it starts from the ground up. We have detailed a step-by-step implementation process for educators to get OG instruction off the ground and their kids reading with success. 

Step 1: Educate The Educator

Before diving into implementation, grasping the fundamental principles and methodologies of OG is essential. Educators can acquire comprehensive knowledge of the English language structure (i.e. phonemes, graphemes, syllable types, orthography rules, etc.) through workshops, online courses, and other available resources. Teachers empowered with extensive knowledge of the English language are critical for effective implementation in the classroom.

Step 2: Assessment and Individualization

Understanding students’ literacy levels is paramount to effectively guiding their learning. Conducting comprehensive assessments is vital to pinpoint individual strengths and weaknesses in learning. This data enables educators to customize instruction, meeting each student at their unique learning point. By crafting personalized learning plans that target areas needing improvement, a tailored and differentiated approach ensures every student receives the support they require.

Step 3: Multi-sensory Instruction

The heart of OG lies in its multisensory instruction. The multi-sensory component is the simultaneous use of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic pathways to input learning by sight, sound, and writing.  When learning using a multi-sensory approach, students associate a printed letter with its name (visual) and its spoken sound (auditory).  Students tap into the kinesthetic modality by making associations between the printed letter and feeling its sound as it is formed in the mouth and also by feeling the motion of the arm as the letter is written or traced. This multi-sensory approach actively engages students throughout the entire lesson, reinforcing the taught material effectively.

Step 4: Structured and Sequential Approach

Another fundamental aspect of OG is its structured and sequential method for teaching language skills. It begins with foundational elements like phonemic awareness and phonics, beginning with simple, frequently-used concepts, and gradually advances to more complex concepts. This deliberate construction ensures that each lesson builds upon prior knowledge logically and progressively.

Step 5: Repetition and Reinforcement

Repetition is key to mastery. Offering abundant opportunities for students to practice newly acquired skills via the Three Part Drill, interactive activities, daily encoding activities, decodable readers, and games is crucial. Moreover, regularly revisiting previously learned material enhances retention, fortifying deep mastery of concepts.

Step 6: Ongoing Monitoring and Adjustments

It’s important for teachers to continuously monitor students’ progress through ongoing formative assessments like spelling, text reading with decoding, and other progress monitoring tools. Adjusting teaching strategies based on individual performance to adapt learning plans accordingly is essential as flexibility is key to effectively meeting the needs of the students in any classroom.

Step 7: Collaboration and Support

Literacy instruction is not an individual endeavor. As a teacher, collaborating with other educators, specialists, and parents creates a supportive network where insights are shared and strategies are built. At the end of the day, educators are there to enrich the learning experience of students and provide support where needed.

Implementing the Orton-Gillingham approach in the classroom requires dedication, patience, and a commitment to individualized instruction. By embracing its principles and methodologies, teachers can create a nurturing environment where every student can flourish in their language skills. Contact us to learn more about the implementation of Orton-Gillingham in your classroom.

Orton-Gillingham for Intervention

Again and again, the Orton-Gillingham (OG) approach is proven to be a powerful tool in teaching students with dyslexia and other language-based learning challenges. Its structured, multi-sensory approach is unmatched in its effectiveness in literacy instruction. But what about its application in an intervention setting? Reading interventionists have a unique position in the learning-to-read pipeline; their instructional knowledge and strategy must equip them to handle any learning situation. Orton-Gillingham is invaluable in reading intervention as an essential asset for educators seeking to make a difference.

The success of OG lies in the tailored approach provided to each individual’s unique learning needs. This personalized methodology becomes even more vital for reading interventionists– ensuring all students receive comprehensive and targeted support, whether they are beginners struggling with the basics or more advanced readers struggling with comprehension. 

What Does Orton-Gillingham Look Like in Intervention?

The OG approach focuses on building foundational skills, addressing gaps, and fostering reading fluency. The multi-sensory nature of OG engages students’ different learning modalities, following a structured sequence teaching phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. A key distinction of OG in intervention is its ability to identify and target specific areas of struggle while also considering the learner’s strengths.

One-on-one intervention, especially using approaches like Orton-Gillingham, is highly personalized and focused on addressing the specific needs of the individual learner. It begins with an initial assessment to understand the learner’s current reading and spelling abilities, as well as their strengths and challenges. Based on the assessment results, the educator develops an individualized lesson plan that targets the learner’s areas of difficulty. These lessons are sequenced logically, starting with foundational skills and progressing to more complex concepts.

OG utilizes multisensory techniques to engage multiple senses and enhance learning, including activities like tapping out syllables or using manipulative materials. Through these activities, the educator will work on building the reader’s skills of:

  • Phonological awareness
  • Phonics
  • Reading practice
  • Spelling and writing
  • Sight words and vocabulary

Regular review sessions should reinforce previously learned concepts and ensure retention, along with ongoing assessments to track the learner’s progress and make any necessary adjustments to the instruction. As the learner becomes more proficient in foundational skills, the tutor gradually introduces more complex reading materials and challenges.

Orton-Gillingham Activities for Intervention

Morpheme BINGO

Engage students with familiar games while sneakily incorporating learning components. Create a BINGO card grid and place syllables, sounds, or morphemes in the grid spaces. The teacher will dictate a concept, and if the students have it on their board, they will cover the concepts with a token until someone has BINGO. This activity not only reinforces morphemic awareness but builds comprehension. 

Arm Tapping

Help students master irregular words through multisensory review. Create a stack of cards containing the words your students are learning. Reveal the words one by one by holding the cards with your non-dominant hand in front of you. Have students tap left to right using their dominant hand. Right-handed students start with their right hand on their left shoulder, and left-handed students start with their left hand on their right wrist. State each letter of the word while your students tap down their arms, and once they tap out each letter, state the whole word while creating a sweeping motion down the arm. Think of this sweeping motion as underlining the word. 

Sound Repetition to Word Building

For struggling readers who have a difficult time with phonological awareness, hands-on activities can make all the difference; plus, engaging visual, auditory, and tactile (fine motor) pathways never hurt. Take a plastic tray, cookie sheet, tabletop, or other medium and cover them with shaving cream or sand. Call out a known sound and have your students repeat the sound. Then, they should use their fingers to write the letter that makes that sound while verbalizing the letter name and sound (/d/ d says /d/). By utilizing their fingers to write the letter, they are accessing thousands of nerve endings that transfer patterns to the brain while solidifying the connection between sounds and letters.

While OG is an intervention tool with countless success stories, effective implementation requires well-trained educators. Finding the right OG training program is crucial for interventionists to get the best results with their students. The Institute for Multi-Sensory Education (IMSE) stands as a leader in OG training, offering expert-led comprehensive courses that equip educators to unlock the transformative power of OG and create an inclusive, empowering, and effective learning environment for struggling readers at any level.

Orton-Gillingham’s personalized, multi-sensory approach bridges gaps and empowers struggling readers to unlock their full potential. By embracing Orton-Gillingham and accessing top-notch training through IMSE, reading interventionalists can make a lasting difference in the lives of their students.

Orton-Gillingham for General Education

In today’s diverse classrooms, educators face the challenge of meeting the needs of students with varying reading abilities. Initially developed for individuals with dyslexia, Orton-Gillingham (OG) has gained recognition as an effective, structured, multi-sensory instructional method for all learners. 

With its structured and systematic approach, OG provides explicit instruction in foundational literacy skills, ensuring all students receive comprehensive and targeted support. The multi-sensory nature of OG engages students’ different learning modalities, promoting better understanding and retention of skills learned. OG’s emphasis on individualized and small-group instruction allows teachers to tailor lessons to meet the specific needs of each student but also fosters a personalized learning environment for the class as a whole. By incorporating OG into the gen ed classroom, educators can effectively address skill gaps, promote inclusivity, and empower all students to achieve literacy success.

What Does OG Look Like in the Gen Ed Classroom?

Orton-Gillingham is a research-based, individualized teaching approach emphasizing explicit, systematic, and cumulative instruction. It targets the foundational skills of reading, writing, and spelling, helping students develop strong literacy foundations. In the general education classroom, OG can be integrated seamlessly within the existing curriculum to support the learning needs of all students.

OG in the gen ed classroom involves creating a structured and supportive learning environment. Teachers trained in OG employ multi-sensory techniques, breaking down language concepts into smaller parts and providing ample practice opportunities. They incorporate visual aids, manipulatives, auditory cues, and kinesthetic activities to engage students’ learning modalities. By doing so, educators can cater to diverse learners, address skill gaps, and foster a positive, inclusive classroom environment.

OG Activities for the Gen Ed Classroom:

  • Sound Blending: Sound blending activities help students develop phonemic awareness, an essential skill for reading and spelling. In this activity, students are given a set of individual phonemes or sounds and are guided to blend them together to form words. For example, the teacher may provide the sounds /b/, /a/, and /t/, and students blend them to create the word “bat.” This activity can be conducted as a whole class or small group exercise, encouraging active participation and reinforcing sound-symbol associations.
  • Word Dictation: Word dictation exercises are effective for building spelling and writing skills. Teachers provide a series of words, read aloud one at a time, and students write them down. This activity promotes the development of sound-symbol correspondence, orthographic knowledge, and enhances students’ spelling accuracy. It can be tailored to different proficiency levels by adjusting the complexity of the words or incorporating specific spelling patterns.
  • Sentence Building: Sentence-building activities support the development of grammar, syntax, and comprehension skills. Teachers provide students with individual words or phrases, and students work collaboratively to construct meaningful sentences. This activity encourages students to apply their knowledge of sentence structure, parts of speech, and vocabulary. It can be extended to include more complex sentence formation, such as compound or complex sentences, to challenge higher-level learners.

Searching for an Orton-Gillingham Approach for Your Gen Ed Classroom?

Implementing OG in the gen ed classroom requires specialized training for teachers. The Institute for Multi-Sensory Education (IMSE) offers comprehensive OG training programs for educators and equips teachers with the knowledge, skills, and resources necessary to implement OG techniques within the gen ed curriculum effectively. By investing in high-quality OG training, teachers can enhance their instructional practices and provide equitable literacy instruction to all their students.

Investing in the right OG training, such as the programs offered by IMSE, empowers gen ed teachers to implement this evidence-based approach effectively and significantly impact their student’s academic success. For more information on OG training available to all teachers, check out!

Understanding Multi-Sensory Instruction

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:

  • Charts
  • Flashcards
  • Graphs
  • Diagrams
  • Lists
  • Maps 
  • Pictures
  • 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
  • Experiments
  • Projects
  • Performances
  • Oral reports
  • Lectures
  • 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.


Additional Activities for Multi-Sensory Instruction

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.

Encoding vs. Decoding

“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: 

  1. VC/CV (harbor)
  2. V/CV (heaven)
  3. VC/V (cabin)
  4. CV/VC (labor)

There are seven syllable types in English: 

  1. Closed syllables (hat)
  2. Open syllables (to)
  3. Magic-e syllables (bake)
  4. Vowel team syllables (heat)
  5. Bossy r syllables (curb)
  6. Diphthong syllables (howl)
  7. 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. 


Irregular Words

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 Word Breaks

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 Types:

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 Patterns:

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.

How to Teach Phonemic Awareness

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.

Young students partaking in multi-sensory instruction

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.

What Is Orton-Gillingham?

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.


Critical Components of the Orton-Gillingham Approach

  • 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.


The Key Benefits of the Orton-Gillingham Approach

  • 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.