From Research to Practice

The application of research to practice is necessary for educators in their work with students.

This has never been more true as districts and state education departments develop training, processes, and instructional practices to meet the needs of students with dyslexia. For over forty years, research has been conducted in labs and in the field to explore the causes of reading difficulties. This research has yielded important information regarding the neurological and genetic factors related to dyslexia as well as the implications for instruction and intervention in the classroom.

The most commonly used approach for appropriate instruction was developed in the 1920's by Dr. Samuel Orton, a neuropsychiatrist and pathologist who did extensive studies of children with the language processing difficulties that are now associated with dyslexia.

Dr. Orton was able to use his research, along with the instructional knowledge and resources of Anna Gillingham, to develop teaching principles and practices which are still in use today. The Orton-Gillingham approach is recognized as the most effective for struggling readers because of the essential components used to deliver instruction and intervention.

More recently, research has led to the development of models of instruction that target the specific needs of those with print-based disabilities. The National Reading Panel (2000) identified the "5 Pillars of Reading Instruction" and numerous studies have consistently supported the use of phonics-based curriculum to improve outcomes for beginning and struggling readers.

Even though overwhelming evidence has demonstrated the benefits of phonics instruction, the whole language approach persists in teacher preparation programs. This has resulted in several generations of students who are unable to decode efficiently and reading scores that have not improved significantly in four decades. Based on recent brain research, experts in the field recommend the use of structured literacy as the primary method of instruction for students with dyslexia. Both of these research-based instructional approaches allow educators to move from research to practice in meeting the needs of students.

Effective Approaches Based on Research


The components of the Orton-Gillingham approach work particularly well with struggling readers, including those with dyslexia. Most importantly, the O-G approach is language based, drawing upon and integrating decoding and encoding skills from initial to more advanced. This foundation includes the structure of the English language that involves reading, writing, and spelling. Initial skills stress the alphabetic principle—the sound-symbol relationships that are connected to spoken and written language. Students must begin with an understanding that individual sounds combine to form words and that letters are the representation of these sounds. Research has shown that this understanding of phonics is the cornerstone of reading and writing.

Features of the O-G Approach

Another essential component of the O-G approach is the structured and sequential development of skills that build upon one another. Students with dyslexia require explicit, systematic instruction in order to learn and practice each new skill.

Direct instruction is required for these students because print-based tasks are confusing and overwhelming when they do not have a clear explanation that allows them to "unlock the code" of English.

The pace is slower to ensure that students are acquiring each skill to mastery. Instead of focusing on the speed of oral fluency and encouraging students to read quickly, accuracy is promoted. This reduces the tendency for students to skip words or guess and to attend to each word as they apply the skills they've learned.

Teachers who tell students that words have to be memorized “because English is just a crazy language” are doing them a disservice...”

Sustained attention to the orthographic patterns that exist in English are essential for new and struggling readers. Teachers who tell students that words have to be memorized "because English is just a crazy language" are doing them a disservice, yet this response often occurs unwittingly as a result of the limited linguistic training that teachers receive. In fact, almost 85% of words can be accurately decoded with an understanding of the predictable patterns of English.

The explicit instruction of these patterns is important for another reason as well. Studies show that good readers can store a new word in visual memory with as few as one to four exposures whereas students with reading disabilities may not form an "orthographic map" in the brain, even with as many as 15 exposures.

Explicit instruction that provides the rules for decoding provides students with an “anchor” to aid in recognition and storage and is essential in developing this visual memory. Being able to store new, unique, and sight words in memory forms the basis for fluent and automatic reading and improved spelling. This ability of the brain has evolved over time to handle the added demands of recognizing and recording written language.

For this reason and others, the Orton-Gillingham approach includes multisensory instruction that engages visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning pathways.

Multisensory Instruction

Auditory Learning Pathways
Kinesthetic Learning Pathways
Visual Learning Pathways

Icons made by Madebyoliver and Freepik from flaticon.

Students with dyslexia may need repetition and multiple options for acquiring skills and forming neural connections. Students hear, see, write, and then read the words, often with hand movements or gestures that reinforce the brain-body connection.

In some O-G based programs, marking systems used to decode words provide even stronger visual and tactile foundations. Research indicates that such language processing loops are much more effective in supporting reading and writing skills for children and adults with dyslexia and English language learners.

Another component of the Orton-Gillingham approach is the personalized feedback and reinforcement that occurs during direct instruction. Rather than allowing students to guess or continue making errors, the O-G approach provides for opportunities to identify not only the "what" but the "why" in decoding and spelling. For example, when students understand that words such as unique or intrigue are derived from French and have a specific and consistent pronunciation, they are able to make sense of new and challenging words. Because this approach includes practice and observation by a trained adult, students receive immediate feedback and support in correcting misconceptions and mistakes.

Structured Literacy

While Orton-Gillingham is a broad approach that can be applied to any program for reading instruction, the International Dyslexia Association has developed a research-based approach for reading and writing instruction known as Structured Literacy. This approach focuses on the special literacy needs of students with dyslexia but there is "substantial evidence that it is more effective for all readers." Three overarching principles guide how instruction is provided to meet the individual needs of students:


Systematically and Cumulatively


Structured literacy is defined by several core elements which incorporate components of the Orton-Gillingham approach.

From Research to Practice - How Brain Research Informs Instruction

Another exciting result of research is what has been learned about the brain and reading. The most significant findings to date include:

  • The brains of children with dyslexia are under-activated in three primary areas that process language and have poorer connections between regions of the brain.
  • Early screenings can identify children at risk for reading difficulties even before they begin reading.
  • When targeted intervention is provided for young readers, the areas that process language become more activated and brain connections improve.
  • The brain scans of struggling readers who received targeted intervention for one school year looked like the brains of normal readers and these students with previous reading problems became average readers.

Research has and will continue to stress the importance of high-quality reading instruction to improve reading outcomes. The foundational reading skills of phonological awareness, the alphabetic principle, and the decoding patterns of English must be taught explicitly and systematically. All children should be screened in kindergarten for potential reading difficulties and research-based reading programs must be available to all students.