Transitioning to the Science of Reading Utilizing the Orton-Gillingham Methodology

The Science of Reading and Orton-Gillingham method empowers teachers to transition away from the three-cueing system.

The Science of Reading has been a rising hot topic over the years as evidence supporting the effectiveness of reading instruction is becoming clearer. 

Considering that only one-third of American children are able to read proficiently, it’s easy to agree that it is time to come together to make an overarching change in the way reading is taught. The Orton-Gillingham approach does just that; combining the Science of Reading (SoR) with multi-sensory approaches changes the way teachers teach and readers read.

The Science of Reading shows that educators need to secure phonics as the primary approach to reading and, in turn, prepare students to become independent and fluent readers for life.

There is a lot of information and resources available to guide instructional practices based on evidence for teachers looking to transition from a balanced literacy approach. Many teachers are used to the three-cueing system as a teaching approach that drives reading. The three-cueing system is in place for students to access information sources, including visual, structure, and meaning. Students, in this approach, are encouraged to engage in independent reading of high-interest books, make informed guesses at a word, and use context or other knowledge and experience to plug in unfamiliar words. Teachers using the three-cueing system as a primary approach could choose to mix in some phonics instruction when deemed appropriate. However, extensive research within the Science of Reading confirms that adding in some phonics instruction intermittently is not effective. They will not develop the deep knowledge and skills that good readers possess, even if students are exposed to reading and provided with a wealth of opportunities. Multiple references have revealed that poor readers’ strategy mimics the three-cueing system. In addition, many children remain ill-prepared to tackle more advanced concepts in later years with this type of cueing system. Fortunately, the Science of Reading proves that we don’t read differently, and with instruction like Orton-Gillingham, every student gains access to the same skills and knowledge on their journey to becoming a good reader. 

If you are just beginning to dive into the instructional practices that are heavily supported by research or are new to the Science of Reading and Orton-Gillingham, below are just a few areas that you will want to become very familiar with in order to begin teaching most effectively:

Gain insight into the Science of Reading and Orton-Gillingham Instruction

What scientists have confirmed about how children learn to break the code of the English language is explained by a compilation of many years of research. The contributions of experts in the fields of cognitive science, educational psychology, developmental psychology, and neuroscience represent decades of studies demonstrating the essential foundational reading skills that must be mastered by all students to develop effective orthographic mapping and decoding skills. This research has important implications on how students should be taught and how reading skills are developed. The SoR dispels misconceptions about commonly used practices that don’t provide a clear direction and are not supported by evidence. It explains how we learn to read. Struggling to guess and sound out words is not a trait of good readers. They recognize them and typically don’t have any problems. Word reading is fluent and allows them to focus on meaning-comprehension. 

Do the “Math”

Understand the Simple View of Reading

Gough & Tunmer’s (1986) Simple View of Reading demonstrates comprehension as the product of two basic components-

Word Recognition (Decoding) x Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension

Assessing reading weaknesses and understanding the formula will help educators provide appropriate instruction. The Simple View formula indicates that strong comprehension can only occur if both language comprehension skills and decoding are strong. Word recognition is best taught wherein students develop knowledge and skills about how the alphabet works to become expert decoders, known as a phonics-based approach. At each grade level, we must ensure that students have higher-order thinking skills and sufficient content knowledge to understand what they read. Orton-Gillingham reading instruction must allow students to apply knowledge of the subject and synthesize the information to establish solid comprehension in order to prepare them to become strong decoders.

Learn the Alphabetic Principle

A highly effective reading teacher must develop a solid understanding of the Alphabetic Principle. This is the systematic relationship between letters (graphemes) and the sounds that make them up (phonemes). Good readers recognize patterns in words because they know that each sound is represented by one or more letters and that words are made up of sounds. This ability to identify patterns allows students to differentiate between words that look similar like imported, impaired, and imparted or bet, bend, and bent. This skill is unattainable through the use of cues like a search for context, access to illustrations, or guessing. 

Understand Orthographic Mapping

A major discovery in reading research in past years, children learning letter-sound relationships has given us a solid understanding of how words are stored in our memory. “Orthographic mapping” is the mental process that is activated to engage in effortless, instant word retrieval. Dr. David Kilpatrick reminds us that “Efficient orthographic mapping will only occur if the student has adequate skill in phonemic awareness and analysis” (Essentials, p.100). Teaching the brain to recognize patterns is a top priority of Orton-Gillingham instruction. The use of linguistic vocabulary (compound word, digraph, closed syllable, blend, syllable) and identifying the substructures (syllable types, spelling rules, patterns) within words is powered by impactful Orton-Gillingham instruction. Students will be able to decode new words with this application of knowledge and skills. “Orthographic lexicon” is the bank of these words that can be instantly retrieved and read effortlessly. 

Embrace Orton-Gillingham Instruction

Boring, rote, or mundane are some of the words used to describe phonics instruction. Teachers who have been professionally trained in Orton-Gillingham will likely be under different assumptions. Why? The answer is simple. When students are taught through a systematic, explicit, multisensory approach, they use word recognition and build confidence by quickly mastering skills. Activation of these skills paves the way for the student to gain a deeper comprehension of text, fluent reading to occur, and ignites excitation in the brain. Skilled teachers will embed practice through repetition and review cycles designed to enhance orthographic mapping skills. Teachers can familiarize themselves with Ehri’s Phases of Sight Word Development and the levels of phonological awareness development to establish a developmentally appropriate reading program. Opportunities to engage in word study, nonsense word reading, word structure analysis, and phoneme awareness activities will promote mapping. In addition, the selection of appropriate reading materials (controlled and decodable text) will provide opportunities for the student to apply decoding strategies to mastery and gain confidence. 

Build Fluency with Orton-Gillingham Instruction

Students can focus on generating meaning from other aspects of text when they are able to recognize words automatically and accurately. This requires multiple opportunities and repeated exposure to recognize irregular words, apply learned decoding strategies, and activate orthographic mapping skills.  

Shifting gears from one instructional approach to another can be challenging. There is an undisputed importance of the value of contextual cues in assisting students to generate meaning from text. We continue to promote the student’s attention to the meaning (semantics) and construction (syntax) of the text to enhance comprehension and imagery. When used to supplement the phonetic process (rather than replace it), these cues are perfectly appropriate. But what happens when the fourth-grade student is no longer provided with visual cues and the pictures are gone? Thankfully, an inherent goal of teaching is to promote the success of every student by igniting a student’s love for learning. Good teachers are constantly searching for effective teaching practices and building their knowledge upon the research that supports learning. Teachers will be able to shift the instructional focus to evidence-based practices, which will build a foundation that will empower students and ultimately allow them to read at more advanced levels by embracing the Simple View of Reading. 

“Reading failure can be prevented in all but a small percentage of children,” says Louisa Moats. In recent years, scientists have made great strides in preventing and correcting reading problems as well as understanding how students learn to read. These findings provide information that will foster reading development in those who encounter problems with reading as well as good readers. Having access to this information warrants an interdisciplinary call to action, wherein policymakers, teachers, and parents begin to collectively embrace the Science of Reading to bring about better outcomes for the future of student performance and reading instruction. The Science of Reading and Orton-Gillingham method empowers teachers with resources, instructional strategies, and the knowledge of the Science of Reading to feel confident in delivering evidence-based reading practices to all students.