Orton Gillingham: Ideas for Speech Therapy

I just learned another way to blend literacy with speech/language therapy. I just completed a 30-hour training course to become Certified in Orton Gillingham (O-G) (1). I was looking forward to learning this popular alternative to teaching reading and writing.  What I didn’t expect, was to come away from this O-G course with the realization that private speech therapy has become an alternative rather than a supplement to public education.

The O-G course was a week long, thoroughly pragmatic description of how to teach reading. Ten of the 12 participants were classroom teachers. One was a parent home-schooling her child and the other was me. The instructor was enthusiastic, patient and knew the material inside and out. There were frequent conversations about how lessons could be adapted for specific children and settings. I was completely satisfied with the class.

It seems to me that O-G has a step-by-step linguistic hierarchy that could be applied to learning fluency tools. Easy onset, reduced speaking rate, resisting time pressure, voluntary stuttering, and stuttering modifications could be taught in conjunction with a review of the rules of English reading and writing.  Speaking, reading, writing, listening, and literature would become a part of every speech therapy session right from the get-go at appropriate skill levels.  Literacy concepts could also be taught in combination with sessions on acceptance of stuttering, non-avoidance, desensitization, and self-expression. Multisensory experiences and practice drills could find a place in every lesson plan.

The practice drill has become more common in public education because of a teaching protocol called Response to Intervention (RTI). I attended a day-long workshop on RTI in 2008 (2). RTI protocol emphasizes drill and data collection.  The emergence of RTI foreshadowed the demise of special education. It permits children to qualify for extra help without undergoing lengthy and expensive team evaluations. Using an RTI intervention model, school districts can economize by assigning volunteers and assistants to complete practice drills with students who need help in small groups within the classroom. My O-G course instructor said the “beauty of O-G is that anyone can do it.” Highly structured programs such as O-G fit well into an RTI model.

I have concerns about RTI. I don’t understand how a child with an undiagnosed language or hearing impairment benefits from the RTI more-of-the-same approach. Does such a child need to fail at all three RTI levels before someone suggests an alternative? At the same time, I do wonder if my own speech therapy practice should place greater emphasis on simple speech practice drills. I provide guidelines for speech carryover practice and I grew up in a house where homework was top priority. But O-G class discussions made it clear that some students have limited opportunity for and assistance doing homework. “Race to Nowhere” (3) even suggests that homework can be harmful. Maybe simple speech drills that “anyone can do” deserve more respect.

How does O-G, reading, and writing fit with speech language pathology? The term “orthography” refers to the writing system of a language. A recent article published in an American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA) journal says that "Orthographic knowledge represents the information that is stored in memory that tells us how to represent spoken language in written form..." (4)  Two important concepts in this article seem especially relevant for any reading/writing program:

1.        Mental Graphemic Representations (MGR): This is "the stored mental representations of specific written words or word parts...when one has a clear mental image of a word, then ‘correct writing’(and reading) of that word should occur." (5)

2.        Orthographic Patterns: This refers to the letters representing speech sounds, how letters can be combined, and where letters may appear (positional and contextual constraints).

"MGR knowledge reflects memories of specific words, whereas orthographic pattern knowledge connotes an understanding of the patterns governing the symbol system. It is not word specific. "(6) O-G teaches non-phonetic “red words” in a different way than words which can be decoded phonetically.  Red words must be memorized, become mental representations. On the other hand, “green words” can be sounded out using rules of phonetics. Eventually, both “red” and “green” words must be memorized for fluent reading. More fluent reading enhances comprehension. Similarly, it has been speculated that fluent speech may also have a mental representation in the brain. (7)

 Some researchers feel that developmental stuttering is tangled up in language. "For more than half a century, language has been defined in part by Its components: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics ... This thinking however ignores a now well established principle that reading and writing are language skills...orthography must be included as one of the six, rather than five, components of language.” (8) Orthography and literacy are within the scope of practice of the SLP. I will be blending the acquisition of fluency enhancing techniques with the linguistic hierarchy provided by Orton-Gillingham for some students. I’ll be blending literacy into all of my lessons. My hope is that new fluency skills will become associated with literacy skills for the child and that better carryover will be one result.

Visit Blue Ribbon Readers at http://www.pspb.org/blueribbon/index.html for some fun literacy games.

A recent comprehensive text on dyslexia is Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D. http://dyslexia.yale.edu/book_Overcoming.html?gclid=CIfgnJWkqq0CFegSNAodoxPHng

(1)    Institute for Multi-Sensory Education, December 5-9, http://orton-gillingham.com/

(2)    Implementing a Response to Interventions Model, Dedham, MA, March 2008

(4)     Kenn Apel (2011) What is Orthographic Knowledge? Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 42, p. 592.

(5)    Ibid, p. 593

(6)    Ibid., p. 594

(8)    Kenn Apel, p. 599-600

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.