Can the Orton-Gillingham Language Approach Help with Dyslexia?


Dyslexia is one of the most common learning disabilities of a neurobiological nature. It implies difficulties with spelling and decoding that arise from poor word recognition in the process of reading. The cause of this disorder is a deficit in the phonological constituent of language. As a secondary consequence of such reading experience, acquisition of vocabulary and background knowledge might be challenged as well (Christo, et al, p. 5). However, dyslexia often has no impact on other cognitive abilities whatsoever and occurs in individuals with an average or remarkable intelligence level (who are often gifted in creative disciplines). This is not a disability but rather a different type of brain configuration (Hutson, p. 7).

The Orton-Gillingham instructional, multi-sensory approach can be applied in different pedagogical settings to teach children that have special needs, including those with dyslexia (Kardalevska, p. 47).

The paper at hand aims to prove that the Orton-Gillingham approach that provides an elaborate implementation plan containing a series of sequential steps and featuring several unique attributes is one of the most effective ways of treating dyslexia. Based on the literature review of both primary and secondary sources, the study will first give a summary of the issue and then pass on to a closer analysis of the approach and its features. In addition, ways for practical implementation will also be touched upon.

The Orton-Gillingham Approach: Overview of Orton’s Work

The Orton-Gillingham approach has been actively implemented for about 50 years in pedagogical practice even though it appeared earlier, in the 1930s (Purkayastha, et al, p. 685). The approach got its name from two researchers: Dr. Samuel Orton, who was a neurologist and a psychiatrist, and Dr. Anna Gillingham, who specialized in psychology (Hutson, p. 3). The overview of Orton’s work will help us prove that the approach he introduced had a substantial theoretical basis and came as a logical outcome of the researcher’s previous findings. Thus, its use for treating dyslexic children is supported by evidence.

Dr. Orton was the first to highlight the problem of word blindness, in the medical literature of the U.S. (Hutson, p. 3). He stated that word blindness: 1) had no connection with mental retardation and did not influence intellectual abilities (that is why Orton claimed that intelligence tests were useless for children with dyslexia as they gave wrong results); 2) had multiple forms ranging from mild to complete inability to decode words, and 3) indicated a different structure of the brain. He believed that only the left hemisphere was responsible for word recognition, whereas the right hemisphere was not involved in any language processes whatsoever (S. Orton, p. 13).

Orton found out that all the children he studied had problems with decoding and sequencing letters in words while either reading or spelling them. He invented the term strephosymbolia (“twisted symbols”) for this phenomenon (S. Orton, p. 15). Since Orton believed that the left hemisphere is involved in speech and text recognition, he supposed that the lack of its dominance in dyslexic children triggered the emergence of errors. The idea was that the images of words were normally stored in the left hemisphere with their mirrors in the right hemisphere suppressed by the dominant one. However, in people with mixed dominance, these mirror images contributed to the reverse perception of letters and words (S. Orton, p. 17). Although this hypothesis seemed legitimate, it was not proven by researchers later on. Nevertheless, it has been proven that children with dyslexia indeed use the right hemisphere to compensate for the deficiencies of the left one. For instance, when such children learn to read, they fail to establish connections between the symbol and the sound and use the ability of the right hemisphere to memorize whole words. Thus, even though Orton did not manage to prove his theory, its impact on further studies in the area cannot be overestimated (Christo, et al, p. 101).

Orton believed that dyslexic children could benefit from repetitive drills that would help them establish associations between sounds and their graphical representations. The purpose of these exercises was to eliminate reversed images used as compensations (Hutson 4). Orton emphasized that the flash method was completely useless in such cases as it would put children under pressure because of their inability to identify which letter stood for which sound. Repetitive mistakes would be unavoidable (S. Orton, p. 42).

Thus, relying on his findings and hypotheses, Orton introduced an educational method that was further developed into a remedial, multisensory approach by one of his associates, Anna Gillingham. The broader understanding allowed for using it to teach the language system and structure to all students, not only those with dyslexia (Christo, et al, p. 101).

Attributes of the Approach That Ensure Effectiveness

Besides the substantial theoretical knowledge forming the approach, there is another set of arguments that support its implementation for treating dyslexia. The following attributes prove the uniqueness and high flexibility of the approach:

  1. It is personalized. Children with dyslexia may have other problems like Attention Deficit Disorder. Treating dyslexia must begin with a general assessment (Purkayastha, et al. 686).
  2. It is multisensory. The effectiveness of the approach lies in a combination of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic elements. Children learn more easily when several senses are involved in the process (Kardalevska, p. 48).
  3. It is diagnostic and prescriptive. The instructor keeps track of students’ progress and provides solutions to emerging problems (Kardalevska, p. 48).
  4. It features direct instruction. Students are informed about the goals and the steps involved to stay motivated (Christo, et al, p. 102).
  5. It uses the principle of systematic phonics. The approach takes advantage of the connection between the sound and its symbol as well as the way sounds to form syllables (Christo, et al, p. 102).
  6. It relies upon applied linguistics. The approach prompts students to practice reading, writing, and pronunciation using applicable rules (Purkayastha, et al, p. 686).
  7. It enhances linguistic competence. The approach stresses the importance of syntactic structure and word semantics (Purkayastha, et al, p. 686).
  8. It is systematic and structured. The information is logically ordered, and the program unfolds gradually, which facilitates learning (Kardalevska, p. 49).
  9. It is sequential, incremental, and cumulative. Complex material is based on the previously learned simple things (Kardalevska, p. 49).
  10. It encourages feedback and provides positive reinforcement. Punishments are excluded. The approach helps enhance the self-confidence of children with dyslexia (Christo, et al, p. 102).
  11. It uses cognitive methods. When students understand what they learn, they start to apply new information for building patterns that make it easier to acquire new knowledge (Christo, et al, p. 103).
  12. It is emotionally sound. This implies that the approach is focused on giving positive emotions to learners with dyslexia (who often perceive themselves as disabled). Orientation for success helps them show better results (Purkayastha, et al, p. 687).

Implementation for Treating Dyslexia

The effectiveness of the approach is revealed through the elaborateness of implementation steps (J. Orton, pp. 26-28):

  • The student looks at the letter and repeats its name several times.
  • The student is taught to produce the letter in writing by copying it and then writing from memory.
  • Each phonic unit is written on a card. Keywords are used to memorize sounds.
  • The sounds are learned in groups.
  • Once they are memorized, blending of consonants and vowels is introduced. The student repeats the clusters of sounds until he/she can produce the whole word.
  • As soon as the word is learned, the teacher pronounces it slowly, separating the sounds. Students repeat the word, naming the letters that it contains, writing them, and reading the word back.
  • When the word is mastered, new letters and sounds are introduced.
  • Consonant blends are presented as challenging phonetic units.
  • The long vowel sounds are explained. Students memorize the rules of reading open and closed syllables.
  • To practice memorized words, students read a text with a controlled vocabulary.


As is evident from the analysis performed, the Orton-Gillingham instructional, multi-sensory approach can and should be applied for the treatment of dyslexic children. The overview of Orton’s work provides substantial ground for claiming that the approach came as a result of extensive theoretical research (although some of the author’s ideas proved to be misleading). The effectiveness of the approach reveals itself through several attributes that it possesses. In addition, students gain not only skills but also self-confidence that comes from a positive learning experience. The implementation plan suggested by the author proves that no single step is missing, which (coupled with diligent teaching and learning) ensures success.

Works Cited

  1. Christo, Catherine, et al. Identifying, Assessing, and Treating Dyslexia at School. Springer, 2009.
  2. Hutson, Phyllis C. The Essentials of Grammar Instruction. Dog Ear Publishing, 2006.
  3. Kardalevska, Lubica. “Individualized Approach as a Form of Adjustment in Reading Instruction for Dyslexic Pupils.” Vizione, vol. 24 (2015), pp. 47-56.
  4. Orton, June Lyday. The Orton-Gillingham Approach. Orton Dyslexia Society, 1966.
  5. Orton, Samuel Torrey. Reading, Writing and Speech Problems in Children. W.W. Norton & Co, 1937.
  6. Purkayastha, Saptarshi, et al. “Dyscover – an Orton-Gillingham Approach Inspired Multi-Sensory Learning Application for Dyslexic Children.” 2012 World Congress on Information and Communication Technologies (WICT), IEEE, 2012, pp. 685-690. Web.