Dear Dr. Linda,

In one of your recent columns a parent asked if his son should attend the school’s summer reading program. The father didn’t want him to go because the father had had a bad experience with a summer reading program when he was a kid. Here’s my question. My daughter’s school is providing a summer reading program and her teacher recommends that she attend because it follows a multisensory Orton-Gillingham approach. I don’t know if I should send her because I don’t know what that means. What is the Orton-Gillingham approach?


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Dear Connie,

If your daughter is just learning to read or is struggling learning to read, she would most likely benefit from a multisensory Orton-Gillingham-based program.

The Orton-Gillingham approach is a tried-and-true sequential approach to learning to read, geared for beginning readers and those who have difficulty with reading, writing and spelling, such as those children with dyslexia.

Dr. Samuel T. Orton and Dr. Anna Gillingham developed it over 90 years ago. It is still the basis for a variety of phonics programs used by reading specialists who work with children with dyslexia and other reading disorders. Drs. Orton and Gillingham understood then—and recent research still holds this to be true—that whether children are just beginning to read or having difficulty learning how to read, they need to understand the basic building blocks of our language, from alphabet letters to the sounds they make, and how to put them all together to make words.

The Orton-Gillingham approach teaches children how to break words into phonemes, the basic units of spoken language. The English language has approximately 44 phonemes. You’re more familiar with phonemes than you think. Those are the symbols you see on one of the first few pages of every dictionary. Reading is simply associating a distinct sound with each one of those phonemic symbols. For example, when we read the word “cat,” we consciously connect three phonemes, c – a – t, and then blend those sounds to say the word cat. It’s that simple. However, children who have dyslexia—which is not reading backwards as many believe—have difficulty connecting and remembering which sounds go with which symbols and must practice connecting these sounds until the connections become automatic.

The multisensory part comes from the fact that the Orton-Gillingham approach recommends teaching reading through having children use multiple senses when learning. Seeing a letter or word, hearing the sounds they make, drawing pictures of objects those words represent, and developing the fine motor skills to print and write the letters and words all converge to strengthen learning in the brain. (Smell and taste play a role as well, especially with the names of food or flowers.) The point is that the more sensory inputs are involved in learning a word, the more likely it will be learned and remembered.

There are many reading programs that follow this approach—Wilson, Preventing Academic Failure (PAF) and many more. Is one better than the other? Probably not. As long as a program follows the general sequence of learning described above, the success of one over another depends on each child’s needs and their relationship with the teacher. Research has shown that if a child feels the teacher cares about them and they are engaged in the process of learning, they will benefit no matter what program is in use.

With this said, I would recommend that you contact the teacher and ask her why she believes your daughter would benefit from an Orton-Gillingham-based summer reading program. Then explore all your options so that you find the right support for your daughter. It may be the correct approach for her learning to read, but may not be the right setting or the right teacher for her. These factors are just as important.

Dr. Linda