Why does Orton Gillingham work? And, A Few Tips!

Why does Orton Gillingham work?

The Orton Gillingham method is used to teach reading, writing and spelling. It’s not a “fast” approach to learning – it’s a thorough approach.

Orton Gillingham starts with the most basic part of language, the phoneme, the smallest unit of sound, and teaches all the sounds the letter makes – that’s right, many letters have more than one sound! (Think letter s – it says “s” as in moss or it can say “z” as in rose.)

Orton Gillingham then builds on this to add blends, beginning sounds and ending sounds. Then moves into rules like FLOSS, Magic E, Hard/Soft C&G, and more. OG then moves into syllable division. It teaches vowel teams and Latin connectives and plurals and possessives. Orton Gillingham teaches prefixes and suffixes and roots, and accenting rules. (And much more! This is not a complete list).

Orton Gillingham is a very thorough method for teaching the English language! It’s been used for dyslexic students, but it is a wonderful way for anyone to learn English.

The part to never overlook when teaching or learning this method is that Orton Gillingham is multi-sensory. Let’s repeat that – MULTI-SENSORY. This means that a student should learn from hearing it (auditory), seeing it (visual) and feeling it (kinesthetic) – every. single. time.

A student should hear what they see and spell what they hear.

The Orton Gillingham method works because it’s thorough in teaching English and because it’s thorough in asking students to hear, see and feel what is being learned.

A few tips

Be gracious

Never show anger when teaching a student – always be encouraging and find positive comments over negative.

There’s a saying from a book called The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene that says, “Kids do well when they can.”  

Greene is an advocate that kids want to do well, but they may lack the skills. This is also true in learning. A kid will please someone when they can. By being gracious and giving positive feedback, like “great job,” “smart thinking,” or “that was a hard word,” you are setting your student up to have a winning attitude. Actually, Greene really says all people do well when they can. So, if you are the student, be gentle with yourself! You are doing great. English can be a hard language to learn. Orton Gillingham is a wonderful method, but not necessarily an easy method. Be sure to treat yourself as you would treat a friend and give yourself plenty of compliments.

OG has a structure and sequence that builds on each lesson – it’s cumulative learning

Orton Gillingham is methodical. It starts with the small unit of letter sound (phoneme) and builds on that foundation with structure. A student should succeed before moving forward. If a student does not have a 95% retention rate, the lesson should be repeated until that rate is achieved. Never just “move on,” to the next lesson. If something is just too difficult (like hearing the difference between short i and short e), move ahead slowly and continue to repeat the difficult lesson.

Be sure to show and tell before expecting a student to know what’s going on. Demonstrate what you want from the student.

Repetition is the mother of learning. Repeat, repetition is the mother of all learning. There’s no such thing as over-teaching or over-learning.

Orton Gillingham is Multi-Sensory based learning

Orton Gillingham uses this triangle as a visual of Orton’s theory:

Orton Theory Triangle

A student should hear what they see and spell what they hear.

Notice “Auditory” is at the top of the triangle. Orton Gillingham uses a mostly auditory approach to learning then ties in the touch (kinesthetic) and visual to go with the auditory. The primary question when errors are made is, What do you hear?, rather than, What do you see?

Building on this effort to hear the words, a student should always sound out words and read everything themselves. A student should always read what they wrote, not what they meant to write, so they can learn to edit their own work.


Have kids use the rules and methods they are being taught to eliminate guessing. Orton Gillingham is full of ways to read and decode, guessing should not be necessary.

Give students enough time to answer. Count slowly to 10 if needed, but allow a student time to think and answer.


Orton Gillingham encourages flexibility in learning. If students have difficulty in concentrating, change tasks quickly. Having 15 short tasks might be better than a four-part lesson. Be flexible enough to know when to stick to the plan and when to loosen up the lesson.

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