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What Is The Orton-Gillingham Approach?

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The Orton-Gillingham approach[1] is a unique language training system that was designed by Dr. Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham.  Dr. Orton, a neuropsychiatrist and pathologist, was a pioneer in focusing attention on reading failure and related language processing difficulties.  He revolutionized modern thought concerning learning disabilities, determining that language-based disorders were biological and not environmental in origin.  He extensively studied children with language processing difficulties and formulated a set of teaching principles and practices for such children.

Anna Gillingham was a gifted educator, psychologist, and school administrator.  Working with Dr. Orton, she devised methods of teaching these students based on the principles formulated by Dr. Orton, and she published The Gillingham Manual, which she wrote with Bessie Stillman.

The Orton-Gillingham approach revolves around the scientifically-based concepts that humans acquire and master language through three distinct neurological pathways:  visual processing (seeing), auditory processing (hearing), and tactile-kinesthetic processing (feeling).  In the last pathway, tactile refers to small muscle movements (handwriting, manipulation of the vocal tract, tying a shoe lace), and kinesthetic refers to large muscle movements (movement of the arms or legs).  The Orton-Gillingham approach incorporates all three pathways (visual, auditory, and tactile-kinesthetic) in the remediation of language skills or in primary language instruction.

We have previously discussed the visual and auditory neurological pathways and their impact on language acquisition and processing.  What remains to be explored is tactile-kinesthetic processing. Tactile-kinesthetic ability refers to motor movements, and there are two classes: tactile or fine motor (speech production, handwriting, typing) and kinesthetic or gross motor (running, athletics).  Motor memory is a very powerful tool.  Physical activities such as riding a bicycle remain in active memory, once the skill has been acquired, despite the time lapse that occurs between rides.  Therefore, the movements of the hand while writing and the movements of the speech organs and vocal tract during phoneme or word production provide a crucial pathway of the learning process.  The area of the language brain that controls the vocal tract is called Broca’s Area.


Broca's Area (2)

Figure 1.  Broca’s Area


Broca’s area is located on the inferior frontal gyrus in the frontal lobe.  It is the speech center of the language brain as it directs the muscles of the jaw, tongue, and throat to form the sounds that make up words.

The Orton-Gillingham approach incorporates all three pathways from start to finish.  During one component of an Orton-Gillingham session, a student will look at a letter or phonogram and make the corresponding sound.  In a reverse process, the student will hear a sound and must name and form the associated letter or phonogram.  Sound-symbol correspondence must be systematically and explicitly taught.  It must be firmly established in a logical progression from single vowels and consonants through consonant and vowel pairs (digraphs and diphthongs).  The sequence is always from the simple to complex.  Even within this vital, yet short, portion of the Orton-Gillingham session, all three neurological pathways are incorporated into the learning process.

The Orton-Gillingham approach is an intensive, sequential phonics-based system that teaches the basics of word formation before whole meanings. The approach accommodates and utilizes the three learning pathways through which people learn, and it teaches to a student’s strengths while seeking to improve weaknesses through explicit and systematic phonics instruction.  The approach will foster in your child the ability to forensically master reading, writing, and spelling.  The tutorial is ideal for traditional school settings or the parents who want to personally tutor their children in home-school environment.  The Orton-Gillingham approach has been the most powerful intervention designed expressly for the remediation of the language processing problems of children and adults who struggle with reading, writing, and spelling due to auditory and visual processing deficits due to a language-based learning disorder.  However, due to its design and manner of implementation, research supports that all students can and will benefit from a multisensory approach.  The Orton-Gillingham process places students in position to master the eighty-five percent of the English code that is phonetic.  Further, and most importantly, it allows them to make intelligent choices towards mastering the remaining fifteen percent of the English code that must be analyzed in order to be applied properly.

The Orton-Gillingham approach as presented in this work is language-based, multisensory, structured, sequential, cumulative, cognitive, emotionally sound, and diagnostic-prescriptive.


  • Language-based

The Orton-Gillingham approach is based on a technique of studying and teaching language, understanding the nature of human language, the mechanisms involved in learning, and the language-learning processes in individuals.


  • Multisensory

Orton-Gillingham teaching sessions are action-oriented with auditory, visual, and tactile-kinesthetic elements reinforcing each other for optimal learning.  The student learns spelling simultaneously with reading.


  • Structured, Sequential, and Cumulative

The Orton-Gillingham teacher introduces the elements of the language systematically.  Students begin by reading and writing sounds in isolation.  Then, they blend the sounds into syllables and words.  Students learn the elements of language (e.g., consonants, vowels, digraphs, blends, and diphthongs, etc.) in an orderly fashion.   The student, then, proceeds to advanced structural elements such as syllable types, roots, and affixes.  As students learn new material, they continue to review old material to the level of automaticity.  The teacher addresses vocabulary, sentence structure, composition, and reading comprehension in a similar structured, sequential, and cumulative manner.


  • Cognitive

Students learn about the history of the English language and study the many generalizations and rules that govern its structure. Students also become aware of the neurological pathway which serves their learning style best.  This fosters the ability to learn and apply the language knowledge necessary for achieving reading and writing competencies.


  • Emotionally Sound

In every lesson, the student experiences a high degree of success and gains confidence as well as skill. Learning becomes a rewarding and happy experience.


  • Diagnostic-Prescriptive

The method is infinitely adaptable.  Students are taught only what they require, in the manner that is appropriate for that particular student.





[1] For a step by step Orton-Gillingham training session, see my book,  School Success for Students with Dyslexia and Other Reading Difficulties.


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