Brains are Like Play-Doh: The Reading Approach that Changes the Dyslexic Brain

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Working with clients who have dyslexia is one of the most professionally rewarding things I do. For the last five years, I have had the opportunity to utilize the Orton-Gillingham reading approach with clients who have dyslexia. On a weekly basis, I continue to be amazed at the drastic improvements that occur—sometimes very rapidly—when students are exposed to this way of reading.

While working as a Learning Specialist at MSU, I became determined to find a way to help students with dyslexia become stronger readers and spellers. My research revealed an abundance of programs and approaches that claimed to remediate dyslexia, but the clinician in me was only willing to accept one that was supported by solid research and had a proven track record of success. After a significant amount of digging, I finally found the Orton-Gillingham reading approach, which actually changes the way the dyslexic brain operates.

Having the opportunity to witness the changes happening during the last five years with my clients has been absolutely amazing.  Watching my clients witness the transformation in themselves is even better; the growth that occurs in not only their reading and spelling skills but also in their self-esteem and self-confidence is phenomenal.

What is the Orton-Gillingham Reading Approach?

Created by Dr. Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham (educator and psychologist) in the 1930s, the Orton-Gillingham reading approach is a multisensory, phonetically-based intervention that has been strongly supported by research through the years.

Why Does It Work?

Brains are essentially like Play-Doh, and can be molded with appropriate intervention. Research and brain scans show that the Orton-Gillingham approach can actually change the “wiring” of the dyslexic brain. To illustrate, in the brain pictures at the top of this post, you can see that the dyslexic brain overuses one area in the front of the brain (Broca’s area – responsible for speech) to try to process information when reading. In contrast, non-dyslexic brains utilize three different areas to read, which is considerably more efficient and effective.

People drastically underestimate the complexity of the reading process, but there is a great deal going on in the brain when reading! Here’s a quick snapshot of some of the processes involved when trying to read the word “cat” out loud:

  • Visually process the symbols “c” “a” “t”
  • Identify each symbol as a letter
  • Identify the specific sound each letter makes
  • Blend the three sounds together
  • Recognize that the three blended sounds create the word, “cat”
  • Process how “cat” will sound, and how to pronounce it
  • Speak the word “cat” out loud

How Does It Work?

Students who have dyslexia have difficulty recognizing, isolating, and distinguishing the individual sounds that make up a word, which makes both reading and spelling painfully difficult for them. Thank goodness for Dr. Orton and Anna Gillingham, whose approach literally forges new pathways in the dyslexic brain so that it operates more like a non-dyslexic brain when trying to read.

There are three key reasons the Orton-Gillingham approach works:

    1. It is multisensory. Instead of students relying on their visual senses (eyes) to process information, they learn to use their tactile senses (drawing, tracing, writing) and auditory senses (listening, speaking sounds and words out loud). Engaging these senses forces the dyslexic brain to activate and utilize the two areas in the back of the brain that are naturally activated in a non-dyslexic brain when reading.
    2. It is phonetically-based. It involves directly and explicitly teaching students each of the sounds that letters and letter combinations make in the English language in a very structured, systematic way. Each new concept builds on concepts that were previously taught, with review built-in to each lesson. In this way, students can learn how to break down and read/spell words more effectively and efficiently.
    3. It is designed to be individualized. In our first session, I assess a student’s knowledge of letters and sounds. Then I begin to create individualized lesson plans for each of our sessions. This means that the sessions move at the student’s pace. Sometimes we cover two new concepts that are “easy” for a student in one session. Conversely, sometimes we’ll spend two or three sessions on one concept that is difficult for a student in order to make sure that it’s clear before moving on.

Who Can Benefit From It?

Although research indicates the earlier the intervention, the better, I have also worked with adults whose spelling and reading skills have improved tremendously in a very short amount of time using the Orton-Gillingham approach.

Students who do not have dyslexia but whose spelling and reading skills are not as strong as they would like them to be can also benefit from this approach; its effectiveness is not limited to those with dyslexia.



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