Dyslexia Instruction: More than multi-sensory phonics

Dyslexia Instruction: More Than Multi-Sensory Phonics

Talk About Dyslexia

A huge mastodon stomps around in the dyslexia education living room. Schools in the United States have done a surprisingly poor job of addressing it. Even though about 15% of students are dyslexic, dyslexia accommodation isn’t part of the regular classroom. Instead, students with the lowest reading scores are pulled out for small groups. There they repeat what was done in the classroom, but slower and with fewer students. Meanwhile, schools scramble to buy curriculum that raises test scores. Raising the reading level of 15% of the students would certainly raise test scores! However, three important facts go unremarked. Students suffer the effects.

Three Glaring Oversights

First, Orton-Gillingham alone is not enough. Hold your fire. I’ll explain below.

Second, dyslexic students CAN learn to read fast and well, despite a slow start.

Third, dyslexic-friendly classrooms are good for ALL students and do not slow down the class.

Why using ONLY Orton-Gillingham is a mistake

Orton-Gillingham methods (intense multi-sensory phonics), when used IN ISOLATION from other techniques, fail to produce joyful readers.  Orton-Gillingham is the holy grail of dyslexia curriculum for U.S. schools and private reading tutors.  And it’s a great start! But, using ONLY O-G produces adults who avoid reading because it’s slow and painful. Despite this non-shiny result, many dyslexia schools use only O-G. Public schools pay enormous amounts of money for O-G based curriculum for their reading specialists. This checks the box of providing extra help for a learning difference. However, it doesn’t result in great readers. Thus, bright, creative, dyslexic students go off to college or work unable to read easily or fast. The expectation for dyslexic students is a life-time of slow, laborious reading. That’s called “success” in our system since they CAN technically read. What more could you possibly expect for a dyslexic?

Use more than one method to teach reading!

Before I’m crucified for the heresy of calling out the dismal results of Orton-Gillingham methods, I want to clearly state that intense multi-sensory phonics such as O-G is great foundational reading instruction for all students, including dyslexics. In fact, I use it with all my beginning students. The mistake is in limiting instruction to ONLY one method, when research clearly reveals at least six pathways for reading instruction. (See The Reading Remedy: Six Essential Skills That Will Turn Your Child Into a Reader by Dr. Marion Blank) All students benefit from a multiple-methods approach. Every brain is unique, so a buffet of exciting learning opportunities only makes sense.

Dyslexics CAN read well — very well!

The most damaging piece of mis-information in reading education is that dyslexic students can never read well. In this view “success” for dyslexics means slow, laborious reading or a life time reliance on audio books. This myth persists because, due to poor educational options, it is sadly true for the majority of dyslexic students. But many dyslexics DO make a leap to fast, highly accurate silent reading when allowed to read in a dyslexic-friendly way.  (see Dr. Matthew Schneps article, How One Dyslexic Speed Reads, for Voice Dream Reader.) Oral reading and silent reading use different strategies. Any reader who continues to rely on sounding out phonemes in his or her head remains a slow reader!

How dyslexic readers can leap to fast silent reading

Some dyslexics discover a pathway to fast, silent reading that bypasses phonics and uses the dyslexic strength of pattern recognition and context analysis. (See The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain for discussion of dyslexic MIND strengths.)  After learning basic reading skills, many children naturally progress from sounding-out to fluency, both oral and silent.  Dyslexics get stuck.  By third grade it’s painfully obvious. Most reading programs assume a need to endlessly repeat the first stage of reading if the student still stumbles over oral reading. For a lot of dyslexics, this means the rest of their lives! A better plan: switch to other methods such as tracking and unison reading in order to make the leap to the next level.  This requires letting go of the oral reading requirement. Dyslexic strengths support fast silent reading, not fluent oral reading.

Learning from the Experts

I’ve had outstanding success teaching dyslexic students to enjoy reading. I start with multi-sensory phonics. I especially recommend Ron Davis’s The Gift of Dyslexia: Why Some of the Smartest People Can’t Read…and How They Can Learn, Revised and Expanded Edition techniques.  Davis uses clay to tactically link words to both meaning and sounds, in the context of a story or image. Another great resource is Marion Blanks’ The Reading Remedy: Six Essential Skills That Will Turn Your Child Into a Reader. After the student understands how sounds are represented, even if unable to reproduce them independently, I then teach them to track with a fluent reader or audio book. After six months to two years (depends on the student) of watching the words on the page while simultaneously hearing them read, dyslexic students turn off the audio. By then, they say,  “the audio books go too slow, even when I speed them up.”

Dyslexic-Friendly classrooms are good for all students

Rapid, efficient reading (and enjoyment of reading!) cannot be reached by sounding out words or slowly saying words in one’s head. Dyslexics, and all students, must eventually let go of the sounds and read for meaning. When they do, dyslexia becomes wings, rather than chains. A foundation in truly multi-sensory phonics, accompanied by other methods such as unison reading and tracking, provides the best chance for all students to love reading. Tracking with audio books, fluent readers, or text and audio videos such as LARA,  allows students to hear and absorb books beyond their tested reading level. Thus they add new vocabulary in context. This works well for non-dyslexic students, too. A dyslexia-friendly classroom is best for all students. Richard Whitehead explains how this works in detail in his book, Why ‘Tyrannosaurus’ But Not ‘If’?: The Dyslexic Blueprint for the Future of Education.


by Yvonna Graham, M.Ed., co-author of Dyslexia Tool Kit for Tutors and Parents: What to do when phonics isn’t enough

The Gift of Dyslexia by Ron Davis

The Reading Remedy, by Marion Blank, Ph.D.