Orton Gillingham vs Wilson Reading Approach: What’s the difference?

Reading is an important skill in an individual’s life. You will be surprised to know that 93 million adults in the United States are at or below the basic level required to contribute successfully to society. A part of this group are those who have learning difficulties.  People with dyslexia (a learning disability) have a hard time reading because their neurobiological condition poses difficulties in word recognition, spelling, and decoding text. 

So, how can we, as parents and teachers, help children with poor reading skills get better? The solution lies in utilizing a reading program that helps the child with reading issues overcome the barriers hindering their literacy skills.

There are quite a few reading programs available to support people with reading difficulties. Two of them are the Orton-Gillingham Approach and the Wilson Reading Program. However, before we discuss which of the two is better, let’s try and understand them individually.

The Orton-Gillingham approach

According to the Orton-Gillingham website, 15% of US school students have dyslexia. Therefore, providing essential support to these students is vital. 

The Orton-Gillingham approach was developed by Dr. Samuel T. Orton, a neuropsychiatrist and pathologist, and Anna Gillingham, an educator, and psychologist, in the 1930s for children who were then known to have “word-blindness” or dyslexia, as known in current times. 

Orton gillingham

They developed this approach with a belief that dyslexic students required a direct, structured, and multi-sensory approach to enhance their reading skills. Using this approach, educators teach sounds and letters to students in a systematic manner using explicit, sequential, and multisensory teaching instruction. Simpler topics are later built upon as students master smaller skills. 

The multi-sensory approach teaches concepts of the language through listening, speaking, seeing, and writing. Educators enjoy the flexibility to use teaching strategies to match a student’s needs. Instructions progress gradually and logically, beginning with basic knowledge of the language to more advanced and complicated concepts. 

A typical lesson includes a flashcard drill, dictation, and reading, and continues for 40 minutes to one hour. Using this method of instruction, educators can help students work on the five pillars of literacy, i.e., phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

The Wilson reading program

This program was developed by Barbara Wilson along with her husband Edward in 1985. It is based on the elements of Orton-Gillingham’s approach but is divided into three tiers – Fundations (K-3), Just Words (4-12), and Wilson Reading System or WRS (2-12).

Fundations is an early intervention program, whereas Just words is an intervention program for older students. Both programs can be conducted by a general education teacher in a general classroom setting.

On the contrary, the Wilson Reading System is designed for providing intensive instruction to students from grades 2 to 12 and adults who require rigorous support due to their learning disabilities. The program is conducted by certified instructors either one-on-one or in small groups. Each lesson is divided into three blocks, and each block is designed to be completed in 30 minutes. 

wilson reading

This program is also highly structured and systematic and uses a multisensory approach targeting visual, kinesthetic, tactile, and auditory pathways to teach students. It starts with helping students grasp basic language skills like sounds and letters and later moves to teach how syllables are used for reading. 

A strategy typical to Wilson is the use of “sound tapping” to teach students to break and blend words by tapping their thumb and fingers. As the program is aimed to help students of a wide age group, the reading material is age appropriate so that a tenth grader with a lower reading level doesn’t end up reading material designed for 5th graders. 

Which one is better – the Orton-Gillingham approach or the Wilson reading program?

The first thing we need to keep in mind is that Orton-Gillingham is not a program. It is an approach used to help students who cannot read and spell correctly. On the other hand, Wilson Reading is a program formulated in a structured manner to improve reading and is one of the programs based on the Orton-Gillingham approach

Both are well-designed and solid and can meet the needs of a student facing reading challenges. So, saying one is better than the other is not appropriate. Students with learning disabilities have a mix of strengths and weaknesses. What works for one student may not be as effective for the other. 

Orton-Gillingham’s methodology will probably help students who require more flexibility in instruction. Teachers can utilize this flexibility to make individualized teaching strategies for a child depending on their needs. 

Wilson Reading seems a good option for middle schoolers and high schoolers as it is geared toward students in this age group. The program is suitable if you’re looking for something simple and straightforward. 

Another thing to remember is that progress takes time. These interventions do not produce instant results. If you’re expecting things to turn around in a few sessions, it may not happen. Hence, it is most important to stick to a program for a while and review its effectiveness periodically to see if it is producing visible results in the child or not. 

What’s next?

After you have made your choice, the first step will involve an assessment of your child’s strengths and weaknesses by a teacher or specialist trained in the particular program. 

After the assessment, the teacher will begin with the program either one-on-one or in a small group with children having similar reading levels and challenges. 

When a new topic begins, the teacher repeats the concepts multiple times till the students get it. Teachers usually move on to the next topic only after the students have mastered the current skills. 

There is no specific time frame in which you can expect results. It all depends on the severity of the challenges faced by a student. Some may start showing improvement a couple of months into the program. While others may take longer to reach the desired reading level. So, patience is the key here. Every student will take their own time to get better at reading.

Final words

Finding the perfect reading program for a child can be overwhelming. If you’re a parent who wants to provide at-home support to your child, it is best to discuss with your child’s special education teacher to know if there is a specific program that the school follows. You may want to continue the same at home to avoid confusing the child by learning two approaches simultaneously. You can also try and understand the nitty-gritty of various programs available and if there’s any particular program that your child’s teacher thinks will benefit your child more. 

Learning to talk is a skill that develops naturally when a child listens to others. But reading does not. You can’t expect a kid to start reading by simply surrounding them with books. What a child needs is easy-to-understand yet effective instruction to help them learn how to decode words. Only then, we can expect them to become good readers. In the end, what matters is providing the right kind of support system to our children to encourage them to grow and keep moving forward.

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