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How to Help My Struggling Reader: The Orton-Gillingham Approach

By: Jennifer McCullough M.S. CCC-SLP

Late one night, I found my 9-year old daughter hiding under her covers with a flashlight reading “one last chapter”. Though I scolded her to turn her light off and go to bed, I went away smiling. She has what I call the “reading bug” and I count my lucky stars.  Throughout my career most of my clients have had to battle to be able to read. As a result, very rarely do these children read because it is fun. These struggles happen way too often.
In fact, reading difficulties are the most common cause of academic failure and underachievement.  According to the International Dyslexia Association, between 15-20% of young students suffer from reading and language processing weaknesses and, unless those weaknesses are recognized early and successfully treated, they are headed for academic failure. Another 20-30% are at risk for inadequate reading and writing development, depending on how well, and how, they are taught. Ironically, due to specific criteria, most of these children are ineligible for special education services and are dependent on the instruction given by their classroom teacher or services outside the school.
How can we help?First, having a better understanding of how typical students learn to read is key, as well as an idea of what might be going wrong for struggling readers. Many language processes must be coordinated to allow for fluent reading. Researchers have discovered that auditory processing (the ability to process what you hear), plays a critical role in learning to read, write and spell.  In fact, one area of auditory processing, termed phonological processing, is clearly implicated as the most common cause of reading disabilities or dyslexia.  Phonological processing is the ability to detect and discriminate differences in phonemes or speech sounds. When kindergarten children are given phonological processing tasks, their performance is remarkably predictive of how well they will read several years later.
Three kinds of phonological processing appear to be most important when learning to read: phonological awareness, phonological memory, and rapid naming. Phonological awareness is the ability to access and manipulate the sound structure of language.  Examples are: knowing the sounds that letters make or your ability to rhyme two similar words. Phonological memory is your ability to temporarily store information in working or short-term memory. Rapid naming is the ability to quickly name numbers, letters, colors, or objects. Weakness in rapid naming affects fluency or speed of mental processing.
Basically for someone to read “cat” for the first time, they have to recognize the letters, remember the sound the letter makes, hold those sounds in short-term and working memory and, finally, blend the sounds rapidly together to read the word.
What does all of this mean? All students need to learn phonics! Children that have trouble attending, or with memory or with being able to rapidly name objects, letters or numbers have many roadblocks to becoming successful readers.  It’s even more important for this group to have direct phonics instruction.  Do you know what kids without these issues do when they are not directly taught phonics? They teach it to themselves. They need to do this in order to be able to decode words they have never seen and cannot guess based on pictures and context.  These students may learn to read but they are not taught spelling rules, and generalizations and are often poor spellers.
In addition, it is vital that we identify children who may have difficulties with memory, naming, and phonological awareness skills as early as possible. Training these children to learn compensatory strategies to help improve these skills will directly improve their capability to learn to read. Professionals such as speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are uniquely trained how to teach these strategies. Some compensatory memory strategies might include teaching rehearsal (i.e. repeating back specific items) and visualizing (i.e. making a mental picture). Playing the “I Spy” game can help with rapid naming difficulties by giving the kids a method of describing words they may find difficult to retrieve. Reading rhyming books, singing rhyming songs and playing around with sounds in words are examples of activities that can encourage phonological awareness skills to develop.
What’s the best way to teach phonics?  Back in the 1930s a neurologist (Samuel Orton) came together with an educator and psychologist (Anna Gillingham) and created an intensive, sequential phonics-based system called The Orton-Gillingham Approach to reading instruction. This theory is based on neuroscience research that shows if children are taught to read using all four pathways with which we learn – visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic – they achieve more success.
Using this multi-sensory approach can help all students, those that have no reading roadblocks mentioned above. However, it is imperative that the “at risk” children are taught this way because they can receive the information through all of the neurological pathways that is best for them to learn. For example, if a child is having trouble remembering “c” says “k”, then pairing the letter “c” with a visually appealing picture (visual pathway) or tracing the letter in the sand as they say the sound (tactile pathway) may work better than only saying the sound (kinesthetic and auditory pathways).
There are many programs based on the Orton-Gillingham approach.  It is not a “pre-packaged” program that can be directly purchased.  Properly providing this type of instruction requires intensive and costly training.  Atlanta is lucky to have a great program that offers training to teachers, parents and professionals at a local, well renowned, private institution called The Schenck School, a private school for students with dyslexia. Here in Decatur, a foundation has recently been created to help fund tuition for local teachers interested in taking this course. This foundation is called “REAP”or “Reading is Essential for All People”. This month REAP worked together with the Decatur Education Foundation to host an awareness session on Dyslexia at Decatur High School where hundreds attended. For more information or to donate, visit REAP’s website: .
For more information on Orton-Gillingham and language based services you can contact PediaSpeech Services, Inc. at