Can we do better than Orton-Gillingham?

Please excuse my rambling thoughts today. I have a lot on my mind. In fact, for quite a few months I’ve been trying to sort through a state of disequilibrium I seem to have found myself in.

Having been in education for a number of years, I still question. I like to think that questioning is a good thing. New learning often begins with a question, right? For the past year or so, I have been wrestling with the fact that I’ve been seeing students finish tutoring with an Orton-Gillingham (OG) based system, and rather than feeling celebratory they often seem deflated. As if they are asking, “Is that it?” I, too, began to ask this. So, in this state of disequilibrium, I began searching. Is there more I can and should do to help students make meaning of our English reading and writing system? Is there a way I can engage students more in their learning (I want them to own it, not me)? I spent time reflecting on what I did, and enjoyed, as a classroom teacher. How did I engage students in a way that they owned their learning in order for them to continue to pursue learning? What does research tell us about how people best learn? Having taken a number of classes on these very topics, I had to really look at the current instructional program I was using. Of course that led to more questions. The idea of HOW it teaches along with WHAT it teaches. So, my journey into other methods and programs went deeper. 

My studies led me to numerous articles and papers. I spent hours watching webinars and You-Tube videos of instruction in action. Everything kept coming back to Structured Word Inquiry (SWI). So, it seemed that diving into SWI even deeper was the next step. I began taking advantage of every learning opportunity I could find related to SWI. I called and emailed complete strangers to see why they made the switch from OG to SWI. The amazing thing is that many of these folks were struggling with the very things I had been struggling with. I was beginning to realize what others seem to have realized before me…OG is a method that can help people learn to read and perhaps improve their spelling. It is better than what is typically taught in a school setting. However, can we do better? I believe we can.

There is a lot I can say to support SWI instruction; however, there are whole papers, webinars, and courses on the topic. For lack of time, let me share this with you. The other day I had a student that struggled to read < reaction > within a passage. However, once we identified the base < act >, he could then easily pull off the prefix < re- > and the suffix < -ion >. Not only did he then have success in reading the word, he understood its meaning based on the meaning of the individual elements within the word. Through previous word investigations we had talked about the meaning of the prefix < re- > and the suffix < -ion >. Now we just had to explore what the base < act > meant. This young man easily applied his previous learning to the word he had just struggled to read. However, we didn’t stop there. I want students to see connections and practice those connections when they are meaningful. So, we took our base < act > and spelled other related words by adding different prefixes and suffixes my student came up with. Oh, we didn’t stop there either...After all, if we are going to create new words, we need to be able to take the different elements of the word and explain the meaning of the new word. This young man did this with great success.

Okay, I get it. All of this sounds great in the moment. However, did the student really learn it? Did it stick? I am finding that it’s sticking! Students are applying their learning (reading, spelling, and understanding) to different words different days. No, this is not a formal study; however, my observational data is showing there is carryover.

I was recently told that we do the best we can with the information we have. (Thank you for this reminder, Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley.) However, once we have new information, we have to decide what to do with it. I believe OG attempts to make reading easier for students. However, I am finding the more accurate I am in teaching how our writing system actually works, the easier time my students are having and the more enjoyable our lessons are becoming. Not just for me but, more importantly, for my students. So, I will continue to assess and monitor progress. I will adjust as needed. I will do the best with what I know and continue to learn along the way.

If you are not familiar with these folks and their work with SWI, you want to be. Check out their sites.

Pete Bowers: WordWorks, About WordWorks with links to research, Beyond Phonics: The Case for Teaching Children the Logic of the English Spelling System, Morphology and the Common Core: Building Students' Understanding of the Written Word

Gina Cooke: LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, Structured Word Inquiry and OG

Dyslexia Training Institute: Morphological Awareness

Sue Hegland: Learning About Spelling, Discovering the Sense in English Spelling: The Foundation of Literacy for Every Student

Tamera Boring