Using Orton-Gillingham to Build Vocabulary

Check out these vocabulary-building activities that follow the Orton-Gillingham method to teach students to read.

Too often than not, students will encounter a word they have never seen before, whether in reading or conversation. Most parents will tell them to look it up in the dictionary. However, when thinking of learning the meaning of words and vocabulary instruction, many consider the rote action of looking the word up in the dictionary. Using the dictionary is a necessary skill that should be taught, but research has told us that dictionary definitions are inaccessible to most students (Scott & Nagy, 1997; Marzano, 200).

For example, “experiencing or showing relief, especially from anxiety or pent-up emotion” is the definition of the word relieved in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. To know what relieved means, the student must have previously learned the definitions of the words: relief, experience, pent-up, especially, emotion, and anxiety. Most of the time, students walk away from this experience feeling anything but! Even if the definition makes sense and these words are known, exposure to word meaning from a one-time dictionary look-up does not equate to long-term memory.

But what can be done to make vocabulary building more effective, less remote, and authentic for students? The following vocabulary-building activities follow the Orton-Gillingham method of teaching multi-sensory strategies to teach students to read while simultaneously igniting a love of reading. 


The Frayer Model: A popular way to learn new vocabulary and concepts where students can define words in their own terms. Split a piece of paper (if the instructor wants the class to play individually) or the board (if the instructor wants everyone to collaborate) into four sections. In the middle of the sections is a word assigned by the teacher. Each section of the chart stands for facts, characteristics, examples, and non-examples. The students list descriptions of the original word to make up definitions that make sense to them. With the instructor’s guidance, this can be a great way to understand new vocabulary. 


Word Learning Strategies: Instruction in morphemes and context clues can deepen one’s knowledge of word meaning and use in talks and texts, in addition to learning how to use a dictionary.

A strategy in which the meanings of words can be determined by examining their meaningful parts (i.e., prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc.) is called morphemic analysis. A morpheme is defined as the smallest possible string of sounds that cannot be reduced any smaller and still has meaning. An example of this is shown in the prefix mis- (meaning: mistaken or wrong), which can change the meaning by being added to a base word. When we add mis- to the word understanding (meaning: comprehension), it results in a word meaning to wrongfully or mistakenly comprehend. This is one example of many that explains how adding word parts together can create new meanings and usages of words. Students can use prefixes, suffixes, and Greek and Latin roots to determine the meaning of a word when reading.

Contextual analysis is a strategy in which a reader uses context and hints that the author gives to help build vocabulary by defining an unknown word. These clues may be the word’s definition, an example or explanation, or a synonym or antonym. The clues can be found somewhere within the paragraph or in the same sentence as the word. Students can be taught to look for these clues to clarify the use and meaning of a word. It is important to know that context matters. The word snake is pretty simplistic, for example. It’s possible to conjure an image of a reptile that slithers through a garden. However, snake can also be used as an adjective (That snake of a fellow stole my favorite cap!) or as a verb (The park’s bench snaked around the perimeter.). A person must take notice of and look for clues as to how the word snake is being used to make sense of what is being written or said.


Snake-Word: A class activity that will get everyone involved. Divide the class into teams, each group sends a representative to the board. Each student chooses a colored marker (or piece of chalk) and assembles themselves in a line from one end of the board to the other. The instructor writes a letter on the board, and the first student in line writes a word beginning with the letter. The next student writes a word beginning with the last letter of the previous word, and so on. 

For example, if you choose the letter T, the words could be:

Taco > octopus > salmon > narrow > water

However, the students should write the words without spaces so that they merge together into a ‘snake’:


The fun is in the time limit. Limit the time each student has to write the next word, depending on the level of the class. If the timer runs out, the student misses their turn. If the student misses three times, they are replaced by another student from their team. 

After their time has passed, if they haven’t written a word, then they miss their turn. If you miss your turn three times, you are replaced by another student from your row/team. The students love it, are engaged, and can learn from each other’s vocabulary. 


Wall Dictionary: It’s time to get crafty. Grab a colorful piece of paper that will serve as the background of your learning activity. Paste 26 pockets on the background, labeling each pocket with a letter of the alphabet. Get the kids involved by having them write the 26 letters on some small pieces of paper. These will be the ‘pieces’ or ‘blocks’ of the activity. The students will put their letters into their pockets as soon as they can. Now that the base of the activity is made, this ‘wall dictionary’ can be used at any time to practice spelling. 

Specifically, divide the class into three or four groups; the instructor will call out words, and the students will listen, dissect, and choose the letters from the pockets to spell the words. 

Several wall dictionaries can be in use at once to keep the game competitive, and the students engaged. Happy learning! 


Word Play: Have some fun! Learning words can be supported by many word games. Here is a list of word games you can play with students.

Word Ladders


Making Words with tiles


Crossword Puzzles


Memory Games

Why do we need to teach vocabulary at all?

According to The National Reading Panel (2000), vocabulary is one of the essential components of reading. Students as early as kindergarten should be taught vocabulary building so that they may master comprehension as they progress into higher grades. If word meaning and usage is unknown, students will have difficulty making sense of the text. 

Learning vocabulary through Orton-Gillingham instruction results in improved written expression and reading comprehension. Vocabulary instruction can occur during all stages of reading a text. Although the above Orton-Gillingham activities are meant to be fun and engaging for students, more importantly, they are purposeful and effective in allowing them to never be at a loss for words.

Note: The use of teacher jargon was avoided, but homonyms, phrasal verbs, idioms, and puns are hiding in plain sight.