"Growing Readers Together"
Suzanne Knoelk MS, CALP
Using Multi-Sensory Techniques to
Reach Struggling Readers

Meet Sue Knoelk....... Passionate educator, well versed Reading Specialist, and all around children's reading champion. Sue loves what she does on a daily basis. 
"As a classroom teacher, I was puzzled why some students struggled so much trying to apply phonics skills in their reading and spelling and why after dedicated instruction and practice, these students still were not fluent" ...............more

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Orton Gillingham

What is the Orton Gillingham method?

Orton-Gillingham is an instructional approach intended primarily for use with persons who have difficulty with reading, spelling, and writing of the sort associated with dyslexia. It is most properly understood and practiced as an approach, not a method, program, system or technique. In the hands of a well-trained and experienced instructor, it is a powerful tool of exceptional breadth, depth, and flexibility.

The essential curricular content and instructional practices that characterize the Orton-Gillingham Approach are derived from two sources: first from a body of time-tested knowledge and practice that has been validated over the past 70 years, and second from scientific evidence about how persons learn to read and write; why a significant number have difficulty in doing so; how having dyslexia makes achieving literacy skills more difficult; and which instructional practices are best suited for teaching such persons to read and write.

The approach is so named because of the foundational and seminal contributions of Samuel T. Orton and Anna Gillingham. Samuel Torrey Orton (1879-1948) was a neuro-psychiatrist and pathologist. He was a pioneer in focusing attention on reading failure and related language processing difficulties. He brought together neuro-scientific information and principles of remediation. As early as 1925 he had identified the syndrome of dyslexia as an educational problem. Anna Gillingham (1878-1963) was a gifted educator and psychologist with a superb mastery of the language. Encouraged by Dr. Orton, she compiled and published instructional materials as early as the 1930s which provided the foundation for student instruction and teacher training in what became known as the Orton-Gillingham Approach.

The Orton-Gillingham Approach is most often associated with a one-on-one teacher-student instructional model. Its use in small group instruction is not uncommon. A successful adaptation of the approach has demonstrated its value for class-room instruction. Reading, spelling and writing difficulties have been the dominant focus of the approach although it has been successfully adapted for use with students who exhibit difficulty with mathematics.

The Orton-Gillingham Approach always is focused upon the learning needs of the individual student. Students with dyslexia need to master the same basic knowledge about language and its relationship to our writing system as any who seek to become competent readers and writers. However, because of their dyslexia, they need more help than most people in sorting, recognizing, and organizing the raw materials of language for thinking and use. 


The Orton-Gillingham Approach has been rightfully described as language-based, multi-sensory, structured, sequential, cumulative, cognitive, and flexible. 

Teaching begins with recognizing the differing needs of learners. While those with dyslexia share similarities, there are differences in their language needs. In addition individuals with dyslexia may possess additional problems that complicate learning. Most common among these are attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity (ADHD).

  The Orton-Gillingham Approach is unique in that it is:

  •      Neurologically based (techniques set down new neurological pathways in the brain)
  •      Diagnostic and prescriptive (discovers what the child needs to know and meets them where they are as well as guides the child where they need to           progress)
  •      Multi-sensory (utilizing auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile pathways)
  •      Structured and sequential (phonetically based building from simple to complex units of language)
  •      Synthetic and analytic (learning is based on parts made into the whole as well as presentation of the whole and breaking it down into component parts )
  •      Cumulative (lessons progress from simple to complex and are based on previous learning)
  •      Cognitive (teaches the history of language and the rules and generalizations that govern it)
  •      Flexible (because no child is exactly alike and because Dyslexia is different in each person, lessons vary with each child)
  •      Taught toward mastery and automaticity (continual review of previously learned material is part of every lesson)
  •      Direct, explicit instruction with continuous student-teacher interaction
  •      Emotionally sound (The child always finds success, thereby gaining confidence as well as skill.  The child is not expected to do anything they have not       been explicitly taught.) 


It uses all the learning pathways: seeing, hearing, feeling, and awareness of motion, brought together by the thinking brain. The instructor engages in multi-sensory teaching to convey curricular content in the most understandable way to the student. The teacher also models how the student, by using these multiple pathways, can engage in multi-sensory learning that results in greater ease and success in learning.

Diagnostic and Prescriptive:

An Orton-Gillingham lesson is both diagnostic and prescriptive. It is diagnostic in the sense that the instructor continuously monitors the verbal, nonverbal, and written responses of the student to identify and analyze both the studentís problems and progress. This information is the basis of planning the next lesson. That lesson is prescriptive in the sense that will contain instructional elements that focus upon the resolution of the studentís difficulties and that build upon the studentís progress noted in the previous lesson.

Direct Instruction:

The teacher presentations employ lesson formats which ensure that the student approaches the learning experience understanding what is to be learned, why it is to be learned, and how it is to be learned.

Systematic Phonics:

It uses systematic phonics, stressing the alphabetic principle in the initial stages of reading development. It takes advantage of the sound/symbol relationships inherent in the alphabetic system of writing. Spoken words are made up of individual speech sounds, and the letters of written words graphically represent those speech sounds.

Applied Linguistics:

It draws upon applied linguistics not only in the initial decoding and encoding stages of reading and writing but in more advanced stages dealing with syllabic, morphemic, syntactic, semantic, and grammatic structures of language and our writing system. At all times the Orton-Gillingham Approach involves the student in integrative practices that involve reading, spelling, and writing together.

Sequential, Incremental, and Cumulative: 

The teacher presents information in an ordered way that indicates the relationship between the material taught and past material taught. Curricular content unfolds in linguistically logical ways which facilitates student learning and progress.

Step by step learners move from the simple, well-learned material to that which is more and more complex. They move from one step to the next as they master each level of competency.

Cognitive Approach: 

Students understand the reasons for what they are learning and for the learning strategies they are employing. Confidence is gained as they improve their ability to apply newly gained knowledge about how to develop their skills with reading, spelling, and writing.

Emotionally Sound:

The approach provides for a close teacher-student relationship that builds self-confidence based on success. Studentsí feelings about themselves and about learning are vital. Teaching is directed toward providing the experience of success. With success comes increased self-confidence and motivation. The basic purpose of everything that is done in the Orton-Gillingham Approach, from recognizing words to composing a poem is assisting the student to become a competent reader, writer and independent learner.

  What is taught in an Orton-Gillingham lesson?

The Orton-Gillingham curriculum teaches, at appropriate developmental times, phonograms for decoding and encoding, spelling rules and generalizations, and syllable types.  In addition, an appropriate mastery of non-phonetic (sight) words is expected.  Reading is very phonetically controlled at first.  Eventually, other materials are introduced that have been previewed for the decodability and/or level of the child.

The lesson plan has seven basic parts:  phonogram review and blending; word and phrase or sentence reading; new material; What Says?; S.O.S. (Simultaneous Oral Spelling); dictation; and oral reading.  All parts reflect the Orton-Gillingham instructional approach.

The length of time required to complete the Orton-Gillingham curriculum varies with each child.  Appropriate follow up, sometimes simultaneously, includes multi-sensory studies in comprehending fiction and non-fiction, morphology (study of roots, prefixes, and suffixes), vocabulary, and study skills.

More specificallyÖ

  • Phonology and phonemic awareness: Phonology is the study of sounds and how they work within their environment.  A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a given language.  Phonological awareness is the understanding of the internal linguistic structure of words. An important aspect of phonological awareness is phonemic awareness or the ability to segment words into their component sounds.
  • Sound-symbol association:  This is the knowledge of the various sounds in the English language and their correspondence to the letters and combinations of letters which represent those sounds.  Sound-symbol association must be taught (and mastered) in two directions:  visual to auditory and auditory to visual.  Additionally, students must master the blending of sounds and letters into words as well as the segmenting of whole words into the individual sounds.
  • Syllable instruction: A syllable is a unit of oral or written language with one vowel sound.  Instruction must include the teaching of the six basic syllable types in the English language:  closed, vowel-consonant-e, open, consonant-le, r controlled, and vowel team.  Syllable division rules must be directly taught in relation to the word structure.
  • Morphology: Morphology is the study of how morphemes are combined to form words.  A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in the language.  The curriculum must include the study of bases, roots, and affixes.
  • Syntax:  Syntax is the set of principles that dictate the sequence and function or words in a sentence in order to convey meaning.  This includes grammar, sentence variation, and the mechanics of language.
  • Semantics: Semantics is that aspect of language concerned with meaning.  The curriculum (from the beginning) must include instruction in the comprehension of written language.