Seven Characteristics that Make the Orton Gillingham Approach Work for Your Kid

The Orton Gillingham (OG) approach is considered to be the Gold Standard for teaching students with dyslexia. What is it about the approach that makes it effective and unique? OG principles include being language-based, explicit, systematic, yet flexible, simultaneously multisensory, diagnostic and prescriptive, brain-based, and emotionally sound.

1. Language-Based

Our language and alphabet are phonetically structured by sound/symbol correspondences that must be learned because no one can memorize all the words they will ever encounter. Teaching is based on understanding and exploring how language works and how we learn to communicate.

2. Explicit

Everything we expect a student to know must have been previously taught, or assessed to be known. Even if a student can read and spell a word it is often useful to make sure they know the underlying rules behind what they know so they can then apply it to unknown words. 

We don’t expect kids to know what they don’t know or expect them to have learned somehow by osmosis. We don’t expect kids to read words they don’t know how to read and we discourage guessing at words by looking at a picture or first letter or figuring out what word it might be by context. 

3. Systematic, Yet Flexible

In math, we generally teach addition and subtraction before multiplication and division. In the same way, we should not toss in advanced words like through and balloon to an early reader. We teach line upon line, using our scope and sequence and checklists to make sure students understand all previous concepts. We also systematically review material so that students don’t forget concepts and have continued practice with all learned material.

Skipping around is hard for students who already have a large cognitive load just trying to keep up. It is empowering and encouraging for students to be able to see where they have been and where they are heading to. This record is useful to the tutor as well as parents and future teachers. But it is especially important for the student to see progress and be celebrated for each step forward.

Yet, remaining flexible is also important, if a student is getting so frustrated they can’t effectively learn. When this happens, we can switch gears and play a game, get up and move, or just stop for a chat. Then we can get back to work.

4. Simultaneously Multisensory

This feature is often misunderstood. It doesn’t just mean we have the students do hands-on things like write in sand (By the way, sand is not mandatory to OG. I rarely use it. SO. MUCH. MESS.)

We want students to use as many senses (and thus brain regions associated with those senses) as possible AT THE SAME TIME. Thus the student writes a letter or word (kinesthetic and tactile) while saying the letter and sound and possibly keyword as needed, or spelling or sounding out the word (mouth muscles activated, so kinesthetic) while hearing their own voice, (hearing, obviously) while looking at the letters (visual) while also keeping in mind all the steps (executive functioning/frontal lobe) This is often referred to as VAKT (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile) and the theory behind it is that the more brain regions that are activated at the same time, the more brain connections the student will form and the better the student will remember. 

This is the least studied aspect of OG and there is not a lot of research on the efficacy of this method, but I can tell you from experience that it keeps attention and provides concentration and repetition that works well for most students. Using a variety of surfaces is fun and engaging for students who need a lot of practice. I like to use textured mats, carpet samples, a variety of writing surfaces like a personal whiteboard or chalkboard, and yes, for younger students who really need it, I do pull out the shaving cream and sand.

5. Diagnostic and Prescriptive

An OG practitioner will be constantly jotting notes on observations, errors, and hesitations. The attention to detail is used later to plan the next lesson with the needed review, reteaching, or just practice. This ensures that the student is reviewing what that particular student needs at that particular moment. A practitioner is often thinking about our students and what they need in order to progress throughout the day. I can’t tell you how many times I lie awake at night thinking about what is happening in tutoring sessions and how I can make adjustments to my lesson plans. 

6. Brain-Based 

OG is based on our best and current understanding of how the brain works and learns. Brain Imaging has clarified and strengthened OG teaching. Required, ongoing, continuing education from conferences and publications keeps practitioners up to date on the latest research. 

7. Emotionally Sound

Let’s face it, our students who have dyslexia have beaten themselves up enough. When we teach them, our continued repetition and review ensure that students have a high level of success. We go as fast as we can and as slow as we must. A practitioner who is able to be empathetic, flexible, and encouraging is going to have more success with fragile students who work SO HARD every single day. We work hard in our sessions, but we always keep in mind the student’s emotional well-being is the most important aspect of tutoring.

A tutor who uses these seven characteristics will have greater success with teaching your kid and catching them up to their peers. Be sure to ask your tutor and teachers if they have training in OG. It will make the difference!