December 29, 2023

Orton-Gillingham with Dr. Donna Johnson

Blue Orchard Bee Resource

Orton-Gillingham with Dr. Donna Johnson


A long-standing goal at the Blue Orchard Bee is to improve the accessibility of our resources for all of our listeners and readers. Our work this year is focused on republishing some of your favorite episodes with new, fully edited transcripts to accomplish just that. This video first appeared in the 2023 Winter series last year and features a discussion between Danielle Merritt-Sunseri and Dr. Donna Johnson on Orton-Gillingham.


The following video is a product of the Blue Orchard Bee and the Charlotte Mason Institute to hold a copyright.  You are encouraged to share this file with your friends family and colleagues.  Do not republish this information in any format, including electronic or digital, without permission from the Charlotte Mason Institute.  Ideas suggested in these files do not necessarily reflect the views of the Blue Orchard Bee or the Charlotte Mason Institute. Information provided here is not to be perceived or construed as professional advice in matters of mental health.  You are encouraged to work closely with a mental health professional provider that meets your needs.


[Updated information for 2024!: The 2024-2025 Alveary membership will be available on 1 February 2023 with a new Alveary Viewbook and free composer study lessons releasing soon! Don't forget about the Charlotte Mason Conference in Lexington, KY, this summer. You can learn more at] Now let's listen to Danielle's discussion with Dr. Donna Johnson about Orton-Gillingham.

Danielle: A common question that often comes up for us is: what exactly is Orton-Gillingham? We hear Orton-Gillingham here and Orton-Gillingham there, but what does that really mean?

Donna: It comes up and a lot of people probably wonder what it means because it's complex in some ways. It isn't after you actually see - or can view a lesson happen - that's where you want to be, but it seems complex because it's been around for a long time and maybe a good place to start is just a little bit with the origins. What does Orton-Gillingham actually mean and when did it all start? It comes from the work of a neuropsychiatrist, I believe he was, also a pathologist from the same time really as Charlotte Mason, a little later, Samuel Orton. He was sort of the idea man. He actually did work with people, but then the teacher that developed what he learned into lessons - her name is Anna Gillingham. She lived until 1963 actually.

The dyslexic brain actually is different in how it functions.

They were born about the same time in the late 1800s. So, it's an approach that's been around for a long time. One advantage of that, this is just a little bit of an aside, is that because it's been around for a long time, there's a lot of evidence and research that support what it is. It isn't a set curriculum or a set program. It's an approach that has certain characteristics.

The list that I'm looking at is from a training that I had recently and it has 10 characteristics listed, but it's divided into three categories. So, the broad concepts, the side behind Orton-Gillingham are that it's multi-sensory, and that comes first often, it's alphabetic-phonetic, and synthetic-analytic.

I'm going to list all of these and then maybe talk a little bit about a couple of them separately. The instructional features would be the second sort of part of it. The lessons are structured, sequential, cumulative, and repetitive. And the knowledge that children - the knowledge approach and the teaching approach - is that it's cognitive, diagnostic, and prescriptive. I'll talk a little bit about the multi-sensory part of it first. A lot of teaching that has to do with literacy in group schools or even home schools or working with individuals focuses on the visual and the auditory. And because what we know now, the dyslexic brain actually is different in how it functions.

When a child is working with sounding out a word, and they've learned the phonics, they'll see it, they'll say it, they'll tap it, they'll do something kinesthetic and tactile with almost every part of the lesson.

So, the things that Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham came up with are proven, not because they could look at a brain the way we can now with functional MRI, but because they realized that something was different about that brain. And the multi-sensory approach that is the  visual and auditory and includes kinesthetic and tactile bring all those inputs within the same part of a lesson even into a child's brain. Now, you will see the kinesthetic and tactile parts of education in any school and in any classroom, but this happens all the time altogether. So, the kinesthetic and tactile are the inputs that go beyond a little bit what usually happens in school or it's because it happens in every lesson.

So, when a child is working with sounding out a word, and they've learned the phonics, they'll see it, they'll say it, they'll tap it, they'll do something kinesthetic and tactile with almost every part of the lesson. So, that's a very important one. The instructional features address the needs of the child that are more intense, if you want to use that word, and it’s more individual. So, that's why it can't be a curriculum or a program. You can't just say, this is what everybody does on day one, this is what everybody does on day two, then we have a little quiz, then we catch everybody up maybe, then this is what we're doing next week.

It's not like that. You have to have some assessment at the beginning and then you diagnose exactly what a certain student needs and prescribe for that. And it's flexible. I don't know if I used that word before. I think repetitive is similar to that. Because if a child doesn't master something, you review it and you go back to it before you keep going.

It's very explicit instruction. It works well working with an individual student because of those instructional features, but it also can be used with small groups of children, as long as you're not forgetting that they might have some individual needs. And so you might review something that one child needs more practice on with a small group.

That's okay, because you'd be doing that anyway. Underlying this is something that I didn't hear about when I first learned about Orton-Gillingham back in the late 1970s. Another feature that's really been brought out and added is that the program needs to be emotionally sound, and that's true of any teaching, but because children with dyslexia - they don't know what's wrong with them, they think something is, they think they're never going to get it and everybody else is - that has, that's emphasized more. And it may be that even because of COVID and things that have happened, we're more tuned into emotional needs of all children, but a child that's struggling with something really needs that support. And so that's a big focus now that I don't know if Orton Gillingham thought much about, but I think by supporting the educational needs of a struggling learner, you are doing that. But just something that we need to think about.

There's always phonics. There's always phonological awareness. There's always morphology, dealing with the meaningful units of a word. You're always using decodable and controlled text at the beginning.  

So, a typical lesson. I think the best thing a parent or a teacher could do that wanted to learn about Orton-Gillingham would be - I guess I don't have a good link for this online... maybe I could find one - would be to watch a lesson, because you can find some online in YouTube or    someplace, and just see what a teacher is doing because there're certain parts you do in every lesson. There's always phonics. There's always phonological awareness. There's always morphology, dealing with the meaningful units of a word. You're always using decodable and controlled text at the beginning - that's a big difference in how reading is taught throughout our country.

Now, something called three cueing is used in a lot of places, that have different names, but it really is a carry over a whole language. And so children are taught that if you can't tell what a word is, look at the picture. It's sound out the first letter and see if you can figure it out, use the context - that doesn't work very well for a child that has dyslexia. So, you really have to have decodable, controlled text at first, but then your goal, of course, is to go beyond that.

But you can't make that, you can't be, you can't make that happen too fast or try to make that happen too fast. So, really another part of every lesson is sight word instruction. A lot of sight words that kids need at the beginning of reading, and this is true no matter how you're teaching them, aren't phonetic in English, according to how we, the order of the phonics that we teach. Twenty-six letters, but we have 45 different ways of, 45 presentations of sound that you need. The letters are always the same, but there's 45 different ways of spelling those sounds, I guess would be the way to say it. So, sight vocabulary is also part of every lesson, but the more phonics a child learns, and they do go more in-depth with it and spend more time with it if they use Orton-Gillingham, the less crazy English seems. And so a lot of words that are not decodable at first will be later after you know more about the phonics. The young lady that I, one of the young ladies that I just had a lesson with today that I tutored, we're now doing multiple spellings. So, she can tell you eight ways to spell the long e sound, e, in order of the most common one to the least. Not very many people could do that. I had to to be certified and now I'm working with her - she's actually better at it. It's amazing. The brain of a lot of people with dyslexia - once it's in their memory, they've got it. And she can do that and we're working on that this summer with a lot of the different sounds. How are there all the ways to spell this? And that's not commonly taught to anybody, but it's part of Orton-Gillingham. And so that comes in with spelling. When you're spelling and you get to a long e sound, then you start to analyze and evaluate what, how does this fit in or what's the rest of this word? Why would I use this here and not - why would I spell long e with a double e instead of an ‘ey’? And you know that because of how you learn those things individually.

Most of what people say about English being crazy and not making sense is not correct.

So, it's very analytic and repetitive and it goes way beyond what most people ever know about phonics. And I think that's a huge advantage. Actually, I hate it when anyone says, ‘well, that's just an exception - English is just crazy. I don't know. We don't know why, you just have to memorize it.’ Because most of what people say about English being crazy and not making sense is not correct. One example I use with my college students that are going to be teachers, and these are common words, why is there an e at the end of have and give? It's not making the a long or the i long (because they know that silent e makes a vowel long). And the reason is there's just no words in English that end in v. They're just aren't. And the e has four or five different functions. That's another thing in e at the end that people don't know. And one of them is because no English word is in v. So, you put the e on there. That's all it's doing. So, it's fun to learn all that and to realize that English does make a lot of sense.

So, that's a huge feature of Orton-Gillingham - that you learn phonics way more in-depth than most people because you need to. It needs to make sense to you. It isn't going to just click in that that's how that word is pronounced or spelled. You have to understand why.

Danielle: It's clear to me why a tutor or a therapist would be so helpful in implementing this and being able to assess the child constantly and know what they need based on all of the experience and training that they have. What do you suggest to parents who just can't afford one?

Donna: A couple of things on that. There are two organizations that certify tutors and teachers. One is the Orton-Gillingham Academy. The Academy of Orton Gillingham Practitioners is one of them. And I'm going to have to think about - and that's not the one that I'm certified under.   IMSE. I'll have to think about what that stands for. And you will see the symbols of their certification on certain materials or teachers can be certified under those programs. The Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners, they really work more with teachers and you have to have at least a bachelor's degree to do their training.

And both of the organizations have multiple levels of training, too. There are some programs now, or I'm going to say instead, that use the true Orton-Gillingham approach that homeschoolers can use - that it makes sense to use for what they cost and that you're allowed to use them. There are some programs that you can't use unless you have been trained. So, if there's a concern about the cost of a tutor, and it isn't necessarily inexpensive, there are a couple of programs that we said I can mention that you could do at home. I've been to two Charlotte Mason conferences recently, and I've talked to some parents that do just go outside and get a tutor. A tutor needs to see your child probably, if you're paying a tutor, twice a week and it's best if there's a day in between. And many people do tutor now over Zoom or Skype or whatever online. You don't necessarily have to take a child someplace or have them come to your house. A lot of it can be done online. It's kind of amazing how people have figured out how to do that. People that homeschool their parents or their children - they're willing to do a lot of research and figure out how to do it, what to do. And so, I think that you could do what you need to at home, if you did your homework.

A child does not have to learn to read when they are five or six.

And one thing that's really missing, and this is part of the recorded presentation that you're going to post, is phonemic awareness at the audio, the hearing-only level - that's one thing that's missing with a lot of dyslexic kids - and that is not a hard thing to teach and you don't need to buy a lot of materials to do that. So, sometimes if you just kind of go through the process and find the glitch, things just kind of click. The young woman I'm working with right now, she couldn't read when she started third grade and now she's going into seventh grade and she's doing much better. Writing is still hard and spelling, but reading is there and if you've got that and got that confidence, it's easier to move on to the other things that are related to printed text. So, if you have the means, finding a certified tutor will probably save you a lot of time. If you need to find something that doesn't cost as much, some programs cost less that you can use. There's some programs you can't use unless you're specifically trained to use them. But I think you could do it at home, if you did the right research and telling out exactly what you needed to do and watching some online lessons would show you the process.

Danielle: So, what - do you have a couple of programs in mind?

Donna: Well, this is from the one that pops up the most that parents could use at home, and I can send you some of these links that I looked at, is Barton Reading and Spelling. I have no reason to recommend or not recommend something, but I know that that one is used a lot in school and you can use that one at home. And the little chart I have here, from wherever I download this, says that it costs $250 to $300 for 10 levels. But you can teach that yourself. You get the instructor manual. That one, I think that one now has an online component. And there's a little set of tiles for the tactile part where children work with the letters and move them around. The other one that I am most familiar with is called Reading Horizons. I'm not going to look and mention all the costs involved here because people can look this up.

Two that were at this site that I do not know anything about - and it was a homeschool mom's site, so it must have -  then I'm assuming that you're allowed to use these in homeschool. One's called All About Reading. One's called The Logic of English Foundations. And those I'm not familiar with.

One that's really good that you can't use unless you're specially trained is called Wilson. What's the rest of that name... A Dr. Wilson came up with it. And that one you have to be certified.

You know, the other thing, but to become a certified teacher of one of these Orton-Gillingham methods for a homeschool mom would cost as much as and take as much time, I think, as hiring a tutor. As far as a teacher in a group school, if you have this sort of training and you use it to teach all beginning readers using this, that's your reading. And you don't - If you teach this to every kid starting out, every kid is going to learn to read. So, it will be wonderful - would be - if more teacher training schools used this. Now, there are places in Minnesota that their Department of Education is training teachers. It started as a pilot program, and I think it's starting to go beyond that, where public school teachers are learning, basically, to be teachers of children with dyslexia and struggling readers. Because if they learn that and it's the whole school program, it's kind of got it made. So, that's happening in a few places, in a few public schools, but not a lot. The other thing, if a homeschool mom got this training, they could also tutor other children. And that happens sometimes, especially with Barton. I work in our local school district with, I was there for a while as part of my higher ed job, just to get back into a K-12 school. And the special ed teacher there was using Barton, and she had first purchased it for her own daughter. She was a teacher, but not a special ed teacher. She purchased it to use with her own daughter and got her SPED certification, and now uses that same program as a public school SPED teacher. So, it might be more than one advantage to learn to teach that way. But it does take more time.

[Orton-Gillingham] is more individual. That's why it can't be a curriculum or a program.  

The other thing, the thing if you are a home school mom, you don't have to start - a child does not have to learn to read when they're five or six. Sometimes just waiting a little longer, it comes much easier. There's a trend in the US to teach reading at such a young age, and if we just all wait until second grade, maybe you really start on that. That's another way that you would solve problems for a lot of kids. They wouldn't struggle if you just waited a little bit longer. They might still, but it would come easier. So, I don't know, some homeschool parents have a child that doesn't catch on to reading right away, but when they do, all of a sudden the first book they read is Huckleberry Finn, or something that's way advanced. So, you don't have to be, you shouldn't ignore it if a child is struggling early and you see the signs, but you can also slow down the pace of even the starting point while you do some more of the phonemic awareness. As long as you're exposing kids to a lot of books.

And one thing I found, that is just a little pamphlet, this is not from one of those two certification organizations. I think it's an online Orton-Gillingham site that calls itself the Literacy Nest, It's a good place. And this little pamphlet answers the questions that you asked me pretty much on one sheet and it's pretty good information. So, just finding something like that. And again, I have no reason to push the Literacy Nest, except I run across the materials and they seem legitimate and helpful and will point you in the right direction.

The other place to really go with help about dyslexia, including good curricula, and you could find either of these just by a Google search - one is at Yale University and one is at the University of Michigan. And if you typed in the University of Michigan dyslexia or Yale dyslexia, you would get to a website that has a ton of information. And there's probably no place to clip for parents or teachers. Those are very in-depth websites and they will give you some evaluations of programs that you might be able to use.

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