The Orton-Gillingham approach is a unique language training system that was designed by Dr. Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham. Dr. Orton, a neuropsychiatrist and pathologist, was a pioneer in focusing attention on reading failure and related language processing difficulties. He revolutionized modern thought concerning learning disabilities, determining that language-based disorders were biological and not environmental in origin. He brought together neuroscientific information and principles of remediation, having extensively studied children with the kind of language processing difficulties now commonly associated with dyslexia and formulating a set of teaching principles and practices for such children. He strongly believed that such disorders would respond to specific training if properly diagnosed and if the proper training methods to meet the needs of each particular case were instituted.
Anna Gillingham was a gifted educator, psychologist, and school administrator. Working with Dr. Orton, she devised methods of teaching these students based on the principles formulated by Dr. Orton, and she compiled and published instructional materials. The Gillingham Manual, which she wrote with Bessie Stillman, still serves as the leading instruction manual of the Orton-Gillingham approach.
The Orton-Gillingham approach has been the most powerful intervention designed expressly for the remediation of the language processing problems of children and adults with language-based learning disorders such as dyslexia. However, due to its design and manner of implementation, research supports that all students can and will benefit from a multisensory, structured, sequential, cumulative, cognitive, flexible, emotionally sound, and diagnostic-prescriptive approach. The Orton-Gillingham process places students in position to master the eighty-five percent of the English code that is phonetic. Further, and most importantly, it allows them to make intelligent choices towards mastering the remaining fifteen percent of the English code that must be analyzed in order to be applied properly.
The Orton-Gillingham approach revolves around the scientifically-based concepts that humans acquire and master language through three distinct neurological pathways: visual processing (seeing), auditory processing (hearing), and tactile-kinesthetic processing (feeling).
The visual pathway is the most important pathway involved with the acquisition of written language skills; however, when discussing visual processing ability, the actual process of seeing is not the issue. Acquisition of a visual image in the “mind’s eye” is believed to be determined by the level of functioning of the angular gyrus, an area in the left hemisphere, the hemisphere that serves as the language center of the human brain for ninety percent of the human population. The angular gyrus sits on the junction of the temporal lobe
Figure 1. The Angular Gyrus
and the parietal lobe. It is located directly behind Wernicke’s area, the language center of the brain that is responsible for processing sound into understandable words. The level of functioning of the angular gyrus directly impacts the recognition and recall of words. Those students who have a high level of angular gyrus activity have good visual memory. Those who have low levels of angular gyrus activity struggle with reading, spelling, and composition. These students have poor visual imagery and pronounced word recognition difficulty. Those toward the lower end of the spectrum, approximately fifteen to twenty percent of the world’s population, can be described as dyslexic with a specific visual processing difficulty.
Visual imagery and word recognition ability have no direct correlation to a student’s intelligence. Cultural icons such as Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein had visual imagery and word recognition skills toward the lowest end of the spectrum. In fact, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein were both dyslexics.
As visual processing ability referred to word recognition and recall of words after the image has been received by the eyes, auditory processing ability refers to what happens to impulses of sound in the brain after the ears have received them. You will recall that sound is processed into understandable words in an area of the temporal lobe of the dominant hemisphere called Wernicke’s area. The level of functioning of Wernicke’s area directly impacts the auditory recognition and recall of words. Those students who have a high level of activity in Wernicke’s area have good auditory processing ability. Those who have low levels of activity in this region struggle with the verbal skills associated with spoken words and ideas. These students have difficulty remembering what was said (following oral directions), are highly susceptible to distracting noises, and find it extremely difficult to master foreign languages. As with visual imagery and word recognition and recall, auditory processing ability is independent of intelligence. Further, longitudinal research demonstrates that six out of ten people with visual processing difficulties also have auditory processing deficits.
Figure 2. Wernicke’s area
Tactile-kinesthetic ability refers to motor movements, and there are two classes: tactile or fine motor (speech production, handwriting, typing) and kinesthetic or gross motor (running, athletics). Motor memory is a very powerful tool. Physical activities such as riding a bicycle remain in active memory, once the skill has been acquired, despite the time lapse that occurs between rides. Therefore, the movements of the hand while writing and of the speech organs and vocal tract during phoneme or word production provide a crucial pathway of the learning process. The area of the language brain that controls the vocal tract is called Broca’s Area.
Broca’s area is located on the inferior frontal gyrus in the frontal lobe. It is the speech center of the language brain as it directs the muscles of the jaw, tongue, and throat to form the sounds that make up words.
Figure 3. Broca’s Area
The Orton-Gillingham approach incorporates all three neurological pathways (visual, auditory, and tactile-kinesthetic) in the remediation of language skills or in primary language instruction. While many linguists believe that children are born already equipped with an innate blueprint or template for spoken language, written language is a human construct. In the evolution of writing, we have designated symbols to represent the sounds of spoken language. We have, in essence, created our own code. In order for students to properly master the components of our language, breaking the code proves to be a monumental yet crucial task. Few students naturally make the association between letters and sounds. These associations have to be carefully taught and drilled until automaticity is developed as students move from symbol to sound and sound to symbol.
Dr. Walter E. Dunson, Jr. is the founder and executive director of The English Code Language Training System, an educational services company that provides language remediation and other services to dyslexics and other students with language acquisition difficulties. As an educational consultant, he has more than twenty years of experience working with students with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences in one-on-one and small group tutorials. He is recognized for his knowledge of learning disabilities, dyslexia, and English phonology and morphology.
Dr. Dunson is a former member of the Board of Directors of the International Dyslexia Association (Houston Branch) and the author of three books: The English Code: A Forensic Approach to Mastering the Language, The English Code: Student’s Manual, and The English Code: Grammar Directory.
In September of 2009, Dr. Dunson unveiled The English Code Language Training System, a 20-disc CD collection that enables dedicated parents to provide language remediation to their own children in the comfort of their homes.
Dr. Dunson can be reached at his website http://www.drdunson.com/