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.
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 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.