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Lack of Scientific Support for Orton-Based Reading Interventions, Two Parts

Author: Brandi Noll for the

Part 1 of 2

In the last few years I have observed the widespread use of Orton-based reading interventions, such as Wilson or Fundations, on the rise in K-12 schools. I tread lightly on this topic because I know it is a controversial one, with some Wilson-trained educators who may likely take great offense to what I am about to report, as if it were a personal attack. This first article (in a two part series) will simply address the current evidence about the effectiveness of these types of programs found within unbiased, scientific reviews. The second article will address some of the uses, or rather mis-uses of these types of programs commonly found within Ohio’s k-12 schools.

I must be clear from the beginning that within this first article I am not reporting opinion or information drawn from biased or low-quality research, but rather taking a very unbiased collection of reports and placing them all in the same location to illustrate why I have such grave professional concerns about the effects these programs are having on students in Ohio’s k-12 classrooms.

Background of Orton-based Materials

Based on the work of child neurologist, Dr. Samuel Orton, a specialized reading curriculum was first published in 1960 by Anna Gillingham and Bessie Stillman. The Orton-Gillingham (OG) approach in general can be described as systematic, sequential, multisensory, synthetic and phonics-based. Some commercial programs that are based on the OG approach include: Alphabetic Phonics, Wilson Reading System, The Herman Method, Project ASSIST, The Slingerland Approach, The Spalding Method, Project Read, Starting Over, and Fundations.

Two Important Terms: Research-based vs. Evidence-based

Educators associated with these types of interventions often claim that they are research based and can assist struggling readers with becoming better readers. Many of these products have even made their way into core reading classrooms as the type of instruction that ALL students received whether they struggle to read or not.

Unfortunately, the phrase, “research-based” is attached to just about every program, curriculum, and educational book on the market. It is over-used, and has basically become useless in determining if a product actually works. Unfortunately anyone can find some sort of ‘research’ to support something created for literacy, but this could include research that was either of high or low quality, biased or unbiased, and everywhere in between!

The term "evidence-based" is one that should be used more often. It can help assure educators that something has been used with students and has worked, and even more specifically for which students and in what ways. There are many public entities that provide this service: searching for evidence that a product or technique really works and then reporting these results to the consumer. Information from these sites, and a few other important pieces of objective research, are discussed below.

What is the Evidence Base of Orton-based Programs?

Source #1: In 2006, Ritchey & Goeke published a review of the literature of OG based instruction. They found that, much like today, these types of programs were being passed from one educator to the next, not based on strong scientific research showing it worked, but rather “fueled by anecdotal evidence and personal experience” (p. 172). They sought to find out if these programs were indeed assisting kids with learning to read. This still occurs today on many blogs and websites, where Orton trained educators often swear by the effectiveness of the programs, while other researchers continue to want proof that they actually improve reading abilities.

After sorting through the research published at this time, Ritchey & Goeke found that the amount of published studies that matched commonly accepted ‘sound research’ criteria were few and far between. They eventually conducted the literature review using just 12 studies that were deemed appropriate for inclusion in the review.

Conclusions of Ritchey & Goeke:

“Despite widespread use by teachers in a variety of settings for more than 5 decades, OG instruction has yet to be comprehensively studied and reported in peer-refereed journals. The small number of existing studies lack methodological rigor that would be required for publication in current peer-referred journals” (p. 182).

“There is insufficient evidence to conclude that OG and OG-based reading instruction meet the requirements of scientifically-based reading instruction” (p. 181).

Source #2: The Best Evidence Encyclopedia is a free site funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education and created by Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education. It summarizes scientific reviews in order to provide educators with “fair and useful information about the strength of evidence supporting a variety of programs available for students in grades k-12.” On this site struggling reader programs were placed into four main categories: 1. Strong Evidence of Effectiveness, 2. Moderate Evidence of Effectiveness, 3. Limited Evidence of Effectiveness, and 4. Insufficient Evidence of Effectiveness.

Only 8 programs fell into the top category with strong evidence of effectiveness, and one in the moderate evidence category. Of those 9, none of the programs were described as Orton-based. There are, however, several Orton-based programs found in the two lower categories.

Within the Limited Evidence category only one, Project READ, was described as an Orton-basedintervention. The Wilson Reading Program was found within the last category, Insufficient Evidence of Effectiveness. There is an extensive list of programs that had no qualifying studies so that conclusions could be made about effectiveness including Fundations and Spalding Writing Road to Reading.

The full document, which additionally includes details about many programs that do work entitled,Educator’s Guide: Identifying What Works for Struggling Readers can be accessed online.

Source #3: The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) is considered the “research arm” of the U.S. Department of Education and aims to identify what works and what does not, so that schools can improve educational outcomes for students. At this site, research reports about a variety of specific literacy interventions can be read and downloaded. These reports detail the effectiveness of these interventions, based on acceptable scientific studies. Research summaries, program descriptions, and research studies accepted for inclusion are detailed and a full report can also be accessed.

In regard to Wilson Reading System, the summary page reports, “Wilson Reading System was found to have potentially positive effects on alphabetics and no discernible effects on fluency and comprehension.” The term alphabetics is used to describe phonemic awareness and phonics skills. Of the studies reviewed, only one out of nine met the IES standards.

The summary report for Waterford Early Reading Program was identical, with the only change being that 36 studies were reviewed in order to arrive at this conclusion. An intervention report about Fundations can be found in the category related to children with disabilities and was last updated in July 2010. The IES found no studies that fell within their standards, and determined that they were “unable to draw any conclusions based on research about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of Fundations…” Within the same category, the IES determined that no “Unbranded Orton-Gillingham-based Interventions” fell within the scope of their review protocol, out of 31 total studies.

And so I end this first article with these questions:

Why would schools risk using any of these Orton-based interventions with our most fragile readers if they have yet to be proven, in reliable, scientific, and unbiased research to indeed positively affect reading outcomes including the most essential ones; real reading and comprehension? Especially considering we have a plethora of information regarding interventions that have proven over time to work for a variety of struggling readers!

Another question that I will address in the next article (Part 2) is this: Why would schools also choose to use this type of instruction, yet to be proven to work with struggling readers and designed for dyslexic students, with our typically developing readers in the regular education classroom?

Ritchey, K.D, & Goeke, J.L. (2006). Orton-Gillingham and Orton-Gillingham-Based reading instruction: A review of the literature. The Journal of Special Education, 40(3), p. 171-183.

Part 2 of 2

In the preceding article (Part 1 of 2), I reported about the scientific evidence that is available to educators at this point in time about the effectiveness of Orton-based teaching programs such as Wilson and Fundations, as well as others, which are being used by an increasing amount of schools in Ohio and across the nation. The first article focused on whatreading skills in particular were affected by these interventions and which were not, based only on pieces of research that were deemed ‘high quality’ and met guidelines for adhering to what the research field considers both valid and reliable research practices and procedures.

This article will build on the last, but will take a closer look at how these programs are actually being implemented in k-12 schools, and how this compares with what we know about the role of phonics in learning to read from past and current research.

I will explore seven issues regarding the misuse of these programs in schools, which simply illustrate instances in which some instructional practices are not matching what we know are best practices. Although the reading wars seem to rage on, this article is not one in which whole language is pitted against phonics. What we know at this point in time is that phonics is one essential element in a complete reading program. The real issue comes when the scales of “balanced instruction” get helter-skelter and lean too far toward the phonics side. Unfortunately, sometimes phonics seems to take on a life of its own in schools and specifically in intervention. Some educators come to believe that phonics itself is the answer to all struggling readers’ woes. However, what we know from research and experience is that no struggling reader simply needs more phonics instruction to be successful, as reading itself is a much more complex construct that this assumption supports.

Issue #1: Just How Much Phonics is the ‘Right’ Amount?

Lets start with the big picture. What is the role of phonics? We teach students letter-sound relationship (phonics) so that they can ‘break the code.’ If they come to a word they do not know, we want them to be able to decode as many parts of the word as possible in combination with other clues from the author in order to get meaning from the text. Because we know a lot about the reading process, we know that there are many systems that work together to help a reader figure out an unknown word, and so a reader never has to rely on phonics alone. As students progress through harder and harder texts, their phonics needs will change. Some students will come to many words they cannot decode and others will be able to decode just about any word that comes in front of them, while the majority of readers fall somewhere in between these two extremes. What we do know is that every reader is different in what they need to be able to read whatever texts are placed in front of them.

So what then, is just the right amount? The answer to this is simple: Each student needs just the right amount of phonics instruction so that he/she can get meaning from texts by being able to recognize, pronounce, and understand the words which are found within the text. Notice I did not stop with the ability to pronounce the words, as this will not create an efficient and effective reader! Instead, it will create what are often described as “word callers” – those students who decode the words with ease, yet get no meaning from the text. This is not considered real reading.

Issue #2: Which Tier… I, II or III?

Some Orton-based programs such as Wilson and Fundations were first marketed as Tier II and III intervention programs, as they should be. They are programs which fall to the extreme end of phonics, relying on an extensive and exhausting list of spelling patterns and rules beyond what ‘normally developing’ readers would ever need. They would likely only be appropriate for a very small population of the entire classroom; those students whose reading systems are functioning well, except for the ability to ‘break the code.’ However, this does not mean they are appropriate for allstruggling readers, as we know that there are ways that students struggle to read which are outside the realm of phonics.

If you look at this from the perspective of a company who’s goal is to make a profit (isn’t that a major focus of any successful business venture?), then this really limits the money you can make off such a program. If only a small percentage of America’s students have the issue of being on target with every other construct of reading except the ability to decode or encode, then your product is only needed by a small amount of consumers. If I were selling an educational product (which, in the name of full disclosure, I am not), then I would want to create a product that most students needed if I wanted to maximize my earning potential. And that is just what happened. Suddenly Fundations started being marketed as more than just a tier II or III intervention, and became a product teachers could use for the entire class.

I have worked with or spoken to many teachers who have been mandated by their district to use phonics programs such as Fundations with their whole class during whole group instruction. There are so many ways in which this does not match research on best practices in reading, the first being that most often this does not match the needs of the majority of students. Let’s choose a middle of the road classroom in which the majority of students are reading on grade level, with the exception of 40% of students who are reading below grade level. If 60% of the students are reading on grade level this means they are comprehending grade level texts, which means they are decoding the words well enough to understand. These students do not need a heavier than normal focus on phonics.

As the texts, which the students are encountering, progress in difficulty the teacher would need to be mindful of what spelling patterns match words that students will be encountering, and may have trouble decoding. For the other 40% of students who are struggling, their needs will vary widely. There is no research to support that these students simply lack decoding skills alone, and therefore need a heavy focus on phonics in order to become more skilled readers. In fact they might have a lack of experiences with texts (outside of school), a lack of vocabulary to gain meaning from texts, the inability to automatically recognize an appropriate amount of sight words, or the inability to comprehend what they are reading. They might even have a lack of motivation to read or a lack of self-confidence in their reading. Perhaps they might be learning English as a second language. None of these reading concerns will be solved with a heavy focus on phonics. It is highly likely that the group of students that would need a heavier focus on phonics in this hypothetical classroom would be so small that the instruction would be more appropriate in a small group setting, rather than including all students, even those who do not need it. The students who do not need a heavy focus in phonics, the majority of this classroom, have other important reading related strategies to practice in order to advance their own abilities. Most teachers with whom I have conversed, that use this phonics-based instruction whole group, observe that in fact the students who need this type of instruction most are lost in the whole group setting, getting little from it. So in the end, the instruction has become ineffective, inefficient, and unnecessary. This is what happens when we teach something whole group without making sure it actually matches the needs of the majority of students.

Issue #3: Lack of Connection to Authentic Texts.

Past phonics research has pointed to the idea that phonics instruction has to be connected to the texts that students are engaged with in school. You cannot use one text to teach comprehension, while using another to increase fluency, another to teach vocabulary development, another to teach phonemic awareness, and yet another to teach phonics. This sounds ludicrous when I write it this way, doesn’t it? Yet we unintentionally end up doing this if we segment our reading instruction into the big five areas identified by the National Reading Panel Report (NRPR). This was certainly not the intent of the NRPR. Reading is a complex process that requires all of these skills to work in collaboration, and so we should teach in this way. If a text has multi-syllable words, content specific vocabulary, and complex ideas organized in a specific format, students must be taught how to attackeach of these challenges while reading this one text.

One of the greatest flaws of these Orton-based programs, whether used whole or small group, is the lack of authentic text. I was once asked to use the Fundations program with the struggling readers with whom I was intervening in a primary building. As I read the manual I noted that the framework of the intervention required a 45-minute block of intervention in small group working on building, reading and writing words not texts. In fact the manual advised that if I were to match the lessons to authentic text, this would have to occur outside of the 45-minute intervention, and I would be responsible for finding texts that matched. I immediately lost all hope in the idea that this intervention would actually help my students get better at real reading. Forty-five minutes of literacy intervention three to four days per week with NO literature? I don’t know any struggling reader for which that would be appropriate!

Issue #4: A Lack of Collaboration Between Three Systems While Reading

With my knowledge and background in regard to what good readers do while reading, I am constantly on the alert to how struggling students’ systems are functioning. As I plan for meaningful intervention, I must be attuned to what systems are working for the individual, and which are not. Good readers use visual clues (letter-sound relationships), semantic clues (meaning), and syntactic clues (the structure of our English language). These systems work in harmony with each other at the same time. If I teach a child to heavily focus on reading and writing words (not texts) by focusing on letter-sound relationship (heavy focus on phonics), then their system ends up placing more importance on the visual clues and less on the other clues.

Let me illustrate this point with one small miscue I noted on the running record of a dyslexic child who was receiving an Orton-based intervention. The child was reading a below grade level text, one that was determined to be at the child’s independent level by the running record analysis, administered by the classroom teacher. The child was highly accurate with this text, only misreading three words out of the 100. However, one of the miscues was of particular interest. The child substituted the word ‘a’ for ‘the’ and proceeded to go back to self-correct. So why does this self-correction matter? Don’t we want children to go back and self-correct?

First we need to be reminded that good readers do not read without making any errors. In fact if you read something out loud right now, you may very well read the word ‘a’ for ‘the’ in any text and the chances that you would even notice are slim. Why is this? It’s because good readers know that text must make sense and if it doesn’t, then we need to reconsider, we need to re-analyze, we need to go back and possibly ‘fix’ things. If something makes sense, we just read on without going back to ‘fix’ things. However, for this reader meaning was not in the forefront of his reading process. If it were, the reader would have made the substitution and simply read on without stopping. However, the child’s visual systems were taking over and told the reader, “That doesn’t look like the word a. It has the letters t, h, and e. So it must be something different.” Do you think a reader who is concentrating this heavily on visual clues can also be focusing deeply on comprehension?

Issue #5: Systematic: What Exactly Does and Doesn’t this Mean?

The word systematic can be found frequently in the NRPR, however the interpretation of this term by those who create and sell Orton-based program is a bit skewed. Systematic does not mean that every spelling pattern must be taught to a reader in order to advance their reading abilities. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that states that good readers possess this knowledge. In fact, if you administered a phonics-based assessment to a group of good readers that asked them what rules and spelling pattern connections they knew, I predict that few of them would do well. Why is this? It’s because good readers move beyond the rules of letter-sound relationships and move into gaining meaning. When I say, “move beyond the rules” I do not mean that they likely learned it at some point and then didn’t need it anymore. I am pointing to the idea that good readers read a lot of text, and while doing so, they start to decipher how our language works implicitly. For example, if the wordsgame, fame, and tame all sound the same at the end (at the rime), then the word lame is likely to sound the same.

This is just one way that readers learn how our language works. But most importantly, we must engage students with lots of text in order to build up their knowledge of our written language. And at the same time, we must engage students in lots of purposeful and engaging writing so that they can learn our language at another level, by actually using it! There is not enough time in the day to focus on every spelling pattern ever invented, so teachers must be choosey about what they spend time teaching related to phonics, and should only choose those patterns and rules that are likely to help students become more proficient at reading and writing during authentic experiences, not every single one!

Issue #6: Misdirected and Biased Assessments

All of these Orton-based programs include assessments for teachers who might want to choose a place to start, to plan the next step of instruction and to monitor progress. I refer to these assessments as ‘biased’ because they are not the types of assessments that could be used to guide or monitor any other type of instruction, but instead only match the exact instruction provided in these programs. For example, if I was teaching a student to use chopsticks, I wouldn’t provide them a fork and spoon to use when I was ready to assess their progress, I would use chopsticks. I could see how much they knew about chopsticks before starting, and could measure their ability to use chopsticks after providing them ongoing support. But I really couldn’t use this type of assessment outside of my chopstick instruction. This is the same with these programs. These assessments measure the child’s knowledge and application of this knowledge about a large bank of spelling patterns and rules, applied to words, not text. The assessment assumes that a child needs all of the patterns and rules in order to be able to read and write efficiently, and if they don’t know them then instruction will fill in these gaps. Outside assessments, ones that include real reading and writing tasks would likely give the interventionist or teacher a better assessment of how the child’s reading and writing abilities were progressing as a result of the intervention, and may not match the level of improvement that the biased assessment reports.

Recently, I had a great conversation with a first grade teacher using the Fundations program in her own classroom. It was the end of the school year and she had used the program whole class for the entire year. Her students who struggled were also getting a ‘double dose’ of the program in their small group intervention each day. The conversation started with her comment about how she had more students qualify for an IEP through the label “Other Health Impairment” than in most years. These students were receiving the programs twice per day, yet weren’t progressing. Her discussion focused on her frustrations with this outcome but in no way did she relate this to the program she was using. Overall, she had a very positive attitude about the program.

She excitedly told me about how she has never had a group of students before who were so good at ‘coding’ words (identifying and marking spelling patterns within them) and the vocabulary they used, such as the terms blends and digraphs, impressed her. You see, she was informally measuring their progress by how well they did exactly what she was teaching them. This is what teachers are trained to watch for…are the students absorbing and applying what they are teaching them? And indeed these students were getting really good at breaking words apart and identifying spelling patterns within them. The students were also using the language of the teacher. But it was my next question that brought about a long pause from this teacher. I asked, “But are your students actually getting better at reading?” You see, if she had been using real reading and writing as her guide, she would have better feedback in regard to how her kids were doing at what really matters – the reading and writing of text, which goes way beyond breaking words apart and applying spelling rules!

Issue #7: Why is a Multi-sensory Approach so Much Better?

These types of Orton-based programs proudly tout the fact that they are multi-sensory approaches to teaching reading. They include such things as ‘skywriting’ and textured paper with letters or words on them. Research tells us that students who struggle often need more than the traditional, whole-group classroom teaching found in many primary grade classrooms. Struggling students’ strength may not include visual and auditory pathways of learning. There is certainly no debate about this! However, publishers are not the only people who hold the key to making instruction more multi-sensory. This is a quick and easy addition to any teachers’ toolbox of instructional strategies.

If a teacher incorporates reading, writing, listening, speaking, as well as fine and gross motor movements, then their instruction automatically becomes multi-sensory! Unfortunately many teachers spend their time focused on the speaking aspect, which requires students to listen. When students learn letter sound relationship they need plenty of opportunities to speak about it to peers, to use it in their writing (one of the most neglected aspects of phonics and reading instruction in general), to use their bodies to explore the shapes of letters, and to be directly taught about their mouth (including their tongue, cheeks, teeth, and jaw) as they create the sounds that letters make.


Is it not about phonics versus no phonics. Everyone knows that phonics is an important component to high quality reading instruction. It’s a matter of balance, which means just the right amount of phonics based on student need. What do students need to become better readers and writers?

Can materials really hurt kids? Absolutely not. However, the way in which materials are used or designed can oftentimes lead teacher toward poor practices. Salesmen and saleswomen employed by publishing companies are paid to sell materials and they are good at what they do! Sometimes too good. When educators are searching for a quick and easy fix for their most struggling readers, these programs can appear to be just what they need. But unfortunately a closer looks leads me to other conclusions. Of all of the experiences and education which I have had the benefit of partaking in, everything I know about the reading process and best practices has led me to agree with everything that research has supported (in part 1 of 2). These programs are not the solution toward helping our most struggling students learn to read.

Additional Resources:

Although I haven’t cited much of my information in the article above, in order that I could provide the reader with a smooth flow of reading, I have provided a few major resources below that do support my statements and provide additional information about high quality phonics instruction.

Link to IRA’s Position Statement on Phonics, entitled: The Role of Phonics In Reading Instruction.

Link to the document entitled, How Teachers Can Use Scientifically Based Research to Make Curricular & Instructional Decision.

Link to the article, Saying the “p” Word: Nine Guidelines for Exemplary Phonics Instruction. Stahl.pdf

Link to a PowerPoint published by Steven Stahl and The Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement (CIERA) entitled, Phonics they Really Use.

Special Note:

In Part 1 of this series I mentioned the program The Spaulding Writing Road to Reading as one commercial reading program based on Orton. Since this article was published, I have been contacted by the public relations consultant for Spalding Education International. He stated in an email to me that Spalding does not claim to be Orton-based. I felt that this clarification was an important point to correct for my readers! Thanks to Mr. Pizzino for bringing this to my attention.

DMU Timestamp: August 11, 2015 21:12

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