What is the Orton-Gillingham Approach?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The Orton-Gillingham method of reading and writing was developed in the 20th century. By using a multi-faceted approach to comprehending reading and writing, founders believed that the information would become more firmly implanted in the minds of students. The Orton-Gillingham approach is rarely used in public education today, but has found some acceptance in classes for children with learning disabilities, dyslexia, or autism.

Public schools used the Orton-Gillingham approach to teach reading to students.
Public schools used the Orton-Gillingham approach to teach reading to students.

The founders of this method of learning were both staff members at the prestigious Columbia University. Anna Gillingham was an education specialist with a history of success training teachers. Samuel Orton was a well-respected pathologist and psychiatrist with a particular interest in studying children with learning disabilities. Gillingham incorporated Orton’s methods into her training manuals, eventually publishing what would become the standard for the Orton-Gillingham method, Remedial Training for Children with Specific Disability in Reading, Spelling and Penmanship. First published in 1935, the book would quickly become the basis for the primary method of reading and writing education in American public schools.

The Orton-Gillingham reading and writing method is rarely taught in contemporary public education.
The Orton-Gillingham reading and writing method is rarely taught in contemporary public education.

The Orton-Gillingham approach stressed a multi-discipline style of learning. In addition to copying a letter down, the student would also speak it aloud and, using their hand, draw it in the air. Proponents believe that this gives a triple reinforcement, giving a child multiple triggers to help him or her remember the letter or word.

In addition to the triple-enforced learning, teachers are meant to work in a structured manner. Letters should be fully comprehended before moving on to words, sentences and so forth. If later difficulties occur in regards to a particular concept, the teacher should start over from the beginning. This makes the Orton-Gillingham approach difficult to use in large group settings, as students may learn at very different rates. The variance in student comprehension is thought to be one of the reasons that the method works best in one-on-one or small group situations.

Despite the widespread use of the Orton-Gillingham approach, several scientific studies on the effects of the program have returned mixed or contradictory results. Despite the method’s inability to prove uniformly effective in widespread use, it is still considered beneficial for very young children or those struggling with dyslexia or other learning disabilities. A non-profit organization called The Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators oversees proper use and learning of the Orton-Gillingham approach. This organization, based in New York, offers accreditation to institutions and teachers, particularly with regards to aiding dyslexic students.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


I've never herd of the Orton Gillingham approach to reading but it makes sense to me. They have shown over and over again that people learn in different ways.

Some of them respond better to kinetic learning, some to visual, some to aural.

This way you let them try each way and see what works best, with the others there to back up whatever they prefer the most.

I imagine this is particularly important for people with learning disabilities since they in particular need a strong literacy base to work from for the rest of their education.


@Mor - I don't know for sure but I imagine that that part of the approach is more to stop people from trying to rush the student into reading rather than making absolutely sure that they understand everything first.

That's often the major problem with kids not learning to read. People try to rush them, they get to a point where they don't understand what's happening and they begin to associate reading with being unhappy and not understanding.

This is why some kids believe they are stupid. It's like that quote by Eisenstein. "Everyone is smart. But if you judge a fish by his ability to climb a tree he'll go through the rest of his life believing he's stupid."

I think if the kids ask, of course you can try to explain the point of letters. But most kids that age are just happy to be learning, they don't need to know the point of it.


I can see how multiple methods of reinforcement would help students, but I'm not so sure about the approach of only moving on to words when all the letters are completely understood.

I remember when I was in high school, learning the table of elements, I just could not get them to stick in my head. I didn't understand why they were each given such an arbitrary position or why they each had the numbers that they did.

My teacher didn't know how to handle my questions and indeed I suspected that she didn't know the answer to them (not that that's a crime, but she tried to make me feel like I shouldn't be asking).

So, I asked my father who, luckily for me, read a lot of science magazines and he explained how elements are formed and why they go where they do.

Understanding the point of the table made it much easier to understand.

I can see the same thing happening with students. Dyslexic students usually are just as bright as the average student. Explaining the point of words before they learn the letters would surely do no harm.

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