Assessing Reading

It is the beginning of the school year, and we are eager to see how our students read and what skills we need to teach them.  How do we accomplish both?  We do so with a comprehensive reading assessment that covers all skills needed for reading. 

Science of Reading and a Reading Assessment

               The science of reading tells us that BOTH language comprehension AND decoding are needed for effective and efficient reading comprehension (the ultimate goal of reading). Looking at Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope, we see that the Language comprehension skills (including Background knowledge, Vocabulary, Language structures, Verbal reasoning, and Literacy knowledge) work in tandem with the Word recognition skills (Phonological awareness, Decoding, and Sight recognition) to create skilled readers who can comprehend the texts that they read.

Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope

Especially for English language learners and for students with poor vocabulary skills, these upper strands of the reading rope must be assessed and taught. Supporting students’ background knowledge is also a crucial step in ensuring that they comprehend the texts they read.

               Both parts of the reading rope are equally as important, and each deserves a deep dive into the skills we need to assess.  In this post, we are going to examine the lower parts of the rope for Word Recognition.  These skills include Phonological awareness, Decoding (Alphabetic principle & Letter-sound correspondences), and Sight recognition. For years I gathered multiple assessments pieces to make sure I assessed all skills for phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition. But it was not organized, nor was it streamlined. So, I finally created my own, Structured Literacy Comprehensive Assessment to have an affordable and complete reading assessment for my students. I go into more detail about that resource and other independent assessment options below.

When Should I do a Reading Assessment?

  • Initial screenings for all students at the beginning of the year
  • Progress monitoring 2-3 times a year.  You will want to assess struggling readers more often.
  • Use comprehensive assessments that lend themselves to screening and progress monitoring throughout the year

Materials Needed for Assessment:

  • Pencils
  • Blank notebook paper
  • Chips/puff balls (or some other type of manipulatives you have on hand)
  • Teacher Observation sheet for informal assessment of pencil grip, posture, repetition, needed redirection, vocabulary (oral) vs written vocabulary, understanding of directions, etc. You can download a Teacher Observation form here for FREE!
Informal Assessment Observation Form

Phonological Awareness

               Reading involves moving from speech to print.  The core of reading is the phonemic piece (individual sounds) and not the larger phonological awareness pieces.  (You can read more about the difference here).  Don’t spend too much time on rhyming, for example, with older students.  We need to move into the phonemic awareness stage as soon as possible and assess how our students blend, segment, and manipulate phonemes within words. It is the phonemic piece of reading that most often accounts for why students struggle to read.

               Assess all students’ phonemic awareness (PA) in grades Kindergarten through second grade.  For those whose PA skills are automatic, they will not require explicit PA instruction.  But for those who are not automatic, explicitly teach and practice those targeted PA skills with PA drills and games.

               There are many assessments out there that assess Phonological Awareness skills.  A few that I recommend are:

  1. Structured Literacy Phonics Assessment Phonological Awareness, Reading, Spelling
  • Great for a wide range of ages
  • Includes a Pre and Post assessment of all skills
  • Rhyming
  • Sentence, syllable, and phoneme segmentation
  • Phoneme manipulation in all parts of a word
  • Purchase online here

2. Assessing Reading Multiple Measures Revised 2nd Edition 2018 (Core Literacy Training Series). 

3. The PAST revised by David Kilpatrick

  • Great for first grade and older
  • Phoneme manipulation in all parts of a word
  • Includes 4 versions to use throughout the year
  • FREE online here


               Both alphabetic knowledge and letter-sound correspondences should be assessed as part of the decoding process. Ultimately, students’ mastery of letter-sound correspondences helps determine whether they can read words or not. I encourage you to use both real and nonsense words to accurately assess a student’s decoding ability.

               Two phonics assessments I recommend:

  1. Structured Literacy Phonics Assessment Phonological Awareness, Reading, Spelling
  • Great for a wide range of ages
  • Includes a Pre and Post assessment of all skills
  • Letter naming, letter writing, letter sounds, word reading, nonsense word reading, spelling, oral reading/fluency, and comprehension
  • Purchase online here

Assessing Reading Multiple Measures Revised 2nd Edition 2018 (Core Literacy Training Series)

  • Great for a wide range of ages
  • Letter naming, letter sounds, word reading, and oral reading
  • Purchase online here

Sight Word Recognition

               Thanks to scientific studies of the brain, we now know that we put words into our long-term, “sight word” vocabulary in the same manner regardless of whether they are phonetically regular or irregular.  Automatic recognition of high frequency words (HFW) aid in fluency, decoding, and comprehension.  So, it is important to assess which HFWs the student knows. This will tell you which words you still need to teach (try this FREE HFW resource!), which HFW words to preview prior to oral reading, and which ones the student should be held accountable for reading correctly in connected text.

               Consider the results of your Sight Word reading assessments in combination with the Decoding assessments and Phonological Awareness Assessments.  When looking at all areas of Word Recognition, you will better be able to pinpoint the causes of a student’s underlying reading struggles.

               Two High Frequency Word Assessments I recommend are:

  • High frequency words divided by Dolch grade level lists

Word Ladders

Research studies over the last 40 years tell us that the strongest reading results come from phonemic awareness paired with systematic phonics. Phonemic awareness is the awareness of the individual speech sounds in spoken words. For example, the word cat has three phonemes: /k/ /a/ t/. The word eight has two phonemes: /ā/ /t/. If we change the first sound in eight to /ĭ/, we get the word it. These are examples of phonemic awareness tasks.

Phonics involves connecting the graphemes (letters) in written words to the phonemes (sounds) these letters represent. Reading words in an alphabetic language like English requires a phonetic approach. This phonics approach requires phonemic awareness skills like blending, segmenting, isolating, and manipulating to access the words in our language. Phonics instruction should be explicit and systematic. It should follow a logical scope and sequence of skills from simple to complex. This Structured Literacy approach helps ALL students and follows the science of reading.

Connecting Phonemic Awareness and Phonics?

But phonemic awareness and phonics should not be practiced in isolation. So, how do we connect phonemic awareness and phonics? There are many activities to connect the two, but today we will discuss the power of word ladders (sometimes referred to as word chains). This simple tool requires phonemic awareness skills such as segmenting, isolating, manipulating, and blending in order to change the word one phoneme at a time.

Word Ladders with Phonemes

Word ladders can utilize letters or just sounds. If your students are not yet ready to manipulate at the grapheme-level, you can use puff balls or disks to have them create word ladders. For example, watch this video in which a student manipulates the PHONEMES in words dictated by the teacher.

You can also see this in the pictures below as step-by-step directions:

  1. Teacher dictates the word mask. The student repeats it and taps a puff ball for each phoneme. In this word there are four phonemes: /m/ /a/ /s/ /k/.

2. Teacher says, “If that is mask, show me mast.” Student repeats the word, taps the puff balls again and isolates which phoneme needs to be manipulated. In this case, the student knows it is the last phoneme (from /k/ to /t/).

3. The student switches out the puff ball representing the /k/ sound for a new one representing the /t/ sound. She then taps each puff ball again as she says each sound. Lastly, she uses her finger to blend the sounds together.

**Once a puff ball is “subbed out,” it returns to the top with no given sound. It can then be substituted on the next word for any sound.

Word Ladders with Graphemes

Word ladders use the same approach as the above phonemic awareness manipulation activity. However word ladders require students to change the spelling of a word (with graphemes!) by one phoneme at a time. Spelling and reading words in this manner helps students master the letter-sound correspondences. It also teaches students to attend to all letter-sounds in a left-to-right manner. No more guessing at the first letter or using picture clues to figure out the word. Students will be attuned to all the phonemes and graphemes in the words they encounter.

You can watch this video to see how a student writes the word ladders AND how she builds up a word with just puff balls!

When creating or using Word Ladders, it is important to follow a systematic approach. You will first want to assess your students to isolate their needs. Start with the simpler skills first and progress to the more complex skills.

  1. The simplest task is to change the same phoneme throughout the activity. This is a great place to start with students. The beginning phoneme is usually the easiest to manipulate.

2. The next step would be to change the final sounds and medial sounds (with three phonemes). Below is an example of manipulating all three (but still only one phoneme at at time).

3. Next you can move to building words from one phoneme and then taking phonemes/graphemes away. These addition and deletion skills require higher-level phonemic awareness.

4. The most complex step is to work with words that have more phonemes. This gives the students opportunities to manipulate more phonemes. You can also use words with long vowel spellings so that students have to attend to more sophisticated spelling changes.

When used as part of a Structured Literacy approach, word ladders can be an engaging and worthwhile activity for your students!

Student Examples:

Orthographic Mapping

The Process of Orthographic Mapping: What is it and why is it so important?

“The mental process we use to store words for immediate, effortless retrieval.”

David Kilpatrick

Orthographic mapping is a behind-the-scenes, cognitive task in which students store words in their long-term memory. It’s not a skill or form of curriculum. It’s a process.

The process of orthographic mapping builds our sight word vocabularies. This is the pool of words from which we can immediately recognize for automatic word reading. This is the same process for phonically “regular” or “irregular” words so that we do not have to spend mental energy sounding out words.

What Skills Are Needed for Orthographic Mapping?

While orthographic mapping in and of itself is a process and not a skill, it does require two main skills in order to occur. These are phonemic proficiency and letter-sound knowledge.

Orthographic mapping requires the ability to connect the phonemes (or the sounds) in spoken words to the graphemes (or letters) in written words. In order to make those connections, one must have phonemic proficiency AND he must have mastered the letter-sound correspondences.

What Does the Process of Orthographic Mapping Look Like?

Orthographic Mapping Process by Orton Gillingham Mama

When we orthographically map, we take what we already know about a word (which is usually the meaning and the pronunciation) and connect the individual phonemes (sounds) to the graphemes (letters) that represent the sounds in the word. When we do this, the phonemes, graphemes, and word meaning are inextricably linked! We can store the word as a sight word for automatic retrieval. We no longer need to decode these words one sound at a time. This is how we become fluent readers.

Skilled Readers DO NOT…

Skilled readers do not use visual memory to remember words. Brain scans show us that we use a different part of the brain for word reading. Other brain scans show us that word recognition is faster than processing a picture of the same written word.

Dehaene, Reading in the Brain

Once we have orthographically mapped words, we recognize them in any font, shape, color, or size. That is because we have mapped the specific letter sequence to the individual sounds, not a visual image of the word. We could not have memorized the global word shape of all different fonts and letter shapes nor sounded them all out.

Words are not read as visual images

Which Instructional Approaches DO NOT support Orthographic Mapping?

When we over-rely on pattern books, we set up young readers to use contextual guessing or to rely on pictures. Contextual guessing, looking at a picture, or skipping a word not only do not help our struggling readers store the unknown word in memory, but it actually hinders them from learning the word. If they guess or skip the word, then they are not actually attending to the familiar sequence of letters in the word.
Each time we encourage a decoding strategy other than attending to ALL the sounds left to right, we are robbing the student of the opportunity to orthographically map the word.

So, either by our instruction or without strong foundational skills, these students are left to guess and use context clues to figure out unknown words.

Studies show that skilled readers DO NOT USE CONTEXT to read. So why would we teach that as a decoding strategy?

Context CAN help once a student decodes a word. Context can help with comprehension, as a checking method for decoding, or to help with accent/stress. But we should not encourage context guessing as a strategy.

-And as we discussed before, encouraging learning words by their shape is not efficient or effective. So, learning high frequency words on flashcards or sticky notes may not likely be an efficient use of time.

How Do we Teach the Skills for Orthographic Mapping?

  1. Make sure that letter-sound correspondences are secure. We should explicitly teach these and give students opportunities to practice them.
  2. Teach and practice phonemic awareness skills through the manipulation level to allow for orthographic mapping to occur.
  3. Decoding and word study– this entails EXPLICIT INSTRUCTION in letter-sound correspondence, spelling patterns, spelling rules, syllable types, morphology, etc. Once those have been explicitly taught in a systematic manner, you can practice playing with sounds in words first and then exposing the student to the letters.

Phonics alone is not enough. Phonemic awareness alone is not enough. And word study alone is not enough. But we should explicitly teach all three of these components. Some students need a lot of practice with these skills, and some require only a little.

Phonemic Awareness and its Role in Orthographic Mapping

Levels of Phonemic Awareness by Orton Gillingham Mama

Phonic decoding (sounding out words) requires the bottom level of these phonemic awareness skills ( isolation, blending and segmenting).

-If we only teach the bottom set of skills, this will help students phonically decodesound out words. However, we need to teach the higher-level phonemic awareness skills to automaticity in order for students to orthographically map the words to REMEMBER WORDS for future, automatic retrieval! So, by itself, phonic decoding is not enough to produce a sight word vocabulary. But phonic decoding provides the OPPORTUNITIES needed for words to be added to our sight word vocabulary.

If students are allowed the time to practice phonemic awareness skills to mastery (through explicit, systematic instruction), then taught the word-reading skills alongside those, and given ample opportunities to practice these skills in decodable, controlled texts, they will build their phonemic proficiency AND their sight word vocabulary!


Activities to Support Orthographic Mapping

In Preschool and Kindergarten:

  1. Read Nursery rhymes that bring the student’s attention to similar word parts like rhyming. As we expose children to these parts of oral language, this sets the stage for the phoneme-level skills needed for reading and spelling.
  2. You can practice phoneme-level awareness with stories using alliteration.
  3. Students should practice matching beginning sounds with pictures and objects.
  4. Students should practice the phonological skills alongside learning letters. Teach letter-sound knowledge through explicit instruction.
  5. As their skills grow, weave in appropriate phonemic awareness skills like segmenting and blending to simple words or pictures. Students can begin to blend simple words once they have learned only a few consonants and short vowels.
Kindergarten Skills for Orthographic Mapping by Orton Gillingham Mama
Letter Identification by Orton Gillingham Mama

In Late Kindergarten and 1st Grade:

  1. Move away from the larger phonological awareness units like rhyming and focus on the phoneme-level skills like segmenting and blending individual sounds.
  2. Explicitly show students how the graphemes work together in a left to right manner. This needs to include a logically-ordered scope and sequence that moves from simple to complex.
  3. Use decodable texts.
Activities for Orthographic Mapping by Orton Gillingham Mama

In 2nd and 3rd Grade:

  1. Assess and practice the higher level phonemic awareness skills. Many students will still require a lot of practice with phonemic awareness, and some will need very little.
  2. Teach syllable types, phoneme blending, decodable reading with a specific skill, sorting activities, word chaining, look-alike words, and nonsense words. All of these bring the student’s attention to the sounds and specific letter sequence in words.
Activities to promote Orthographic Mapping by Orton Gillingham Mama

Do I Need to Change My Current Curriculum?

Some curricula innately promote the skills needed for orthographic mapping better than others. However, you can easily weave in activities to any curriculum to help improve your students’ sight word vocabularies. Even small changes can make a huge difference!

Language at the Speed of Sight

Language at the Speed of Sight

Mark Seidenberg’s 2017 book, Language at the Speed of Light explains how human brains learn to read and how educational instructional practices can support this complex process. By highlighting the decades of the science of reading, Seidenberg explains the gap between the science and current educational practices.  He also offers suggestions for how teachers can change their instruction to most efficiently and effectively teach students to read.

The Importance of Speech

By nature, humans seek out data. We are constantly updating our “data systems” based on what we see and experience. As we learn letter-sound correspondences and how orthography relates to semantics and meaning, we update the data about these connections. Well-timed, explicit instruction in these areas accelerates the acquisition of reading and the related data connections.

The science of reading tells us that skilled readers mentally activate the phonological code. They can easily isolate and manipulate individual speech sounds. These skilled readers rely on the phonological code and do not have to resort to guessing or using context clues. It is poor readers (with poor phonemic awareness) that have to rely on context. When we encourage students to use context clues, we are teaching them the reading habits of poor readers.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

Instead of focusing on teaching reading, recent educational approaches focus on developing literacy. Educators have falsely assumed that the basic skills of reading are easy to acquire while reading comprehension is hard. The science tells us the exact opposite. Time spent on explicitly teaching the foundational skills (phonemic awareness, phonics, letter sound knowledge, etc.) improves reading comprehension. Once word reading is efficient, efforts can focus on supporting language comprehension and building prior knowledge.

The Disconnect: The Science of Reading

A hurdle for teachers of reading comes from the gap between the science of reading and practice. As Seidenberg said:

“Education as a discipline values observation and hard-earned classroom experience, setting up a conflict with science’s emphasis on understanding that supersedes personal experience.”

-Seidenberg 2017

Educators have used experience and anecdotal evidence to support and guide their theories. Many pendulum swings in education have been based in these experience-guided theories. Seidenberg uses the 3-cueing system as an example. He says:

“The 3-cueing approach is a microcosm of the culture of education. It didn’t develop because teachers lack integrity, commitment, motivation, sincerity, or intelligence. It developed because they were poorly trained and advised. They didn’t know the relevant science or had been convinced it was irrelevant.”

We should teach educators the science of reading and basic, cognitive principles. From there they can better inform their instruction. We must be willing to shift away from what we think we know to being willing to learn what we don’t know. Let’s be critical thinkers for the sake of our students!

Think Like a Scientist

There are too many “wars” happening right now.  Political wars, reading wars, vaccine wars, and actual wars.  We are divided into groups with whom we agree on topics that are important and relevant to us.  But how many of us act like a scientist and actually read the data, research, polls, and first-hand accounts from the stake holders?  Do we, on the other hand, revel being in an echo chamber that simply supports what we already believe in?  What if, instead of spending time justifying our own opinions, we shift to recognizing our own biases and consider that our beliefs might not be consistent with current research?  

What Would that Look Like? 

We need to be critical thinkers. We need to gather the most significant resources and research to find out what is actually true.  Humility is a central tenant of critical thinking and one that I speak about in my previous post “I Love Being Wrong.”  If you are not willing to change your perspective based on collective knowledge, you are not thinking critically.  You are not looking for new information. You are trying to defend and persuade others to believe what you believe in.  

Science is not definitive because it is ever evolving.  But the collective science should be our guiding principle.  What if based in that science we were to be brave and ask important questions about our own beliefs and the beliefs of others?  We would need to be nimble and discerning like a scientist.

So, consider the following:

Consensus does not equal truth. 

Rather than preaching your beliefs to others, try to understand theirs. Ask yourself and others, “How do you know?”

Rather than attacking someone on the other side of an issue, reexamine your own perspective.

Don’t be so quick to accept what you see on social media, and don’t use those “facts” to denigrate someone else.

Don’t be afraid to stand up and call out misinformation but do your part to first be informed about the research.

Consider that discussions of “pendulum swings” derive from anecdotal evidence and/or old research studies.  Science is not a pendulum. As researchers learn more, we should be actively open to their results (especially when they go against what we previously thought has true). This requires looking for reasons we might be wrong instead of reasons we might be right.

Try to listen more to ideas that are hard instead of beliefs that sound familiar. 

Think like a scientist. Value curiosity over conviction.  

Reading in the Brain

If you are curious about what happens in the brain when humans read, this is the book for you! I am not qualified to write a true book review (nor am I attempting to), but I hope to summarize some of the main topics in the book. What happens in the brain when we are reading is no longer a mystery. We all have precious extra time outside of work and family, so I hope this can be the first of many book “glimpses” to help you prioritize your next nightstand book of choice.

From Letters to Language

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a self-proclaimed word nerd. So, it should be no surprise that I enjoyed every inch of this book. Stanislas Dehaene explains in detail how visual information comes in through the eyes, gets sorted into different parts of the brain and affects how we learn to read. He also explains how we have adapted our reading and writing to pre-existing brain parts.  While we are wired for language, we are not wired for reading.  However, parts of brain and neurons have also adapted to the letters and languages we have created. This is true across all languages even ones with pictorial aspects like Chinese.

All visual information comes in through the eyes, but our brain processes specifically just letters and words through an area in the brain he refers to as the letterbox area. This part of the brain activates in brain scans for written words and not for spoken words.  This complex brain processing bounds sequences of letters together so that it can easily decode and access meaning. All of this happens in less than 1/5th of a second. Dehaene proposes that during our schooling, the brain rewires itself. Our brain’s neurons go through neuronal recycling when adapting to cultural changes like letters. So, word recognition occurs in the brain area where the neurons are most efficient for reading. Pretty fascinating, right?

Stages of Reading

When learning to read, children go through three stages of reading: the pictorial stage, the phonological stage, and the orthographic stage. Dehaene goes into great detail explaining the stages and how they can inform our instruction. In order to read well, children must be explicitly and systematically taught grapheme-phoneme instruction.  The automaticity of reading leads to the best performance in sentence and text comprehension.

The Dyslexic Brain

In dyslexic students, the anatomy of the brain is disorganized (specifically in the temporal lobe).  Using brain scans, Dehaene explains exactly what happens in the brains of those with dyslexia. Would you like to know why so many dyslexic students mix up b and d? Read this book to find out how our innate symmetry in relation to the world around us affects how we view letters.  Are you curious what Dehaene says about multisensory instruction like Orton Gillingham for students with dyslexia? Does it really help?

This book is not intended to be a teaching tool per se. But understanding reading in the brain will absolutely help shape and direct your instruction. Don’t be afraid to put on your science hat and learn the research behind how our brain works. Dehaene presents the information in a way that all of us can comprehend. Enjoy!

I Love Being Wrong

For some people, saying the words, “I am wrong,” might be incredibly difficult. But for me, saying or thinking the words excite me. I am energized by learning something that contradicts what I previously thought.  Is that odd to admit?

As organizational psychologist, Adam Grant said in his podcast and in his new book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What you Don’t Know,

“In a changing world, you have to be willing and able to change your mind. Otherwise, your expertise can fail, your opinions get out of date, and your ideas fall flat.”

Adam Grant

In a recent meta-analysis of 81 studies, past experience rarely affects future performance. What matters is past performance and current motivation and ability. I have found that some people do not admit they are wrong because they think it is a sign of failure.  I feel like a failure if I rest on my laurels and refuse to seek out new information.  Instead, I prefer to go out of my way to read research and listen to podcasts that do not necessarily support my thinking. It can be uncomfortable.  But how am I to learn if I only surround myself with information that already supports my thinking?

No matter how new information informs my current thinking, those ideas are not my identity.  My identity is one of constant learning and rethinking and not one of already knowing.  I value curiosity and humility over conviction.

We are in a time of stark polarization in politics, education, climate…you name it and there are two opposing sides.  But what if we focused our energy on being open to learning instead of proving our points?  What if we all delighted in being wrong?  If nothing else, wouldn’t that make us all slightly less wrong than we were before? 😊

Orton Gillingham Lesson-Part 2

In the first part of an Orton Gillingham lesson we practice phonemic awareness, blending, and letter-sound correspondence. After that, it is crucial that students review and reinforce previously learned skills.  The student must also learn new information and practice this new skill in their reading and writing. Concepts taught and reviewed cover ALL strands of reading and language to foster skilled reading.

Review and Reinforcement (R&R):

This section of an Orton Gillingham lesson involves the student reading and spelling words and sentences. The skills reviewed in this section come straight from the student’s card pack (discussed in my earlier blog post here).  These usually include ten of the previously taught skills that need to be reviewed to reinforce the concepts.  They are also based on the tutor’s diagnostic notes from previous lessons about student errors. Students in the Orton Gillingham approach require many more repetitions of reading/spelling a skill than traditional learners.  Fluent readers may only need to read a word 1-4 times to be able to read it with automaticity.  An Orton student may take 30 or more times to secure a new skill. 

In the R&R portion of my Orton lessons, I ask the student to read aloud a list of words and at least two sentences. I provide immediate error correction as he reads. I then dictate words aloud for him to spell.  The student can spell on paper, a white board, note cards, etc. I do recommend having the surface be one that is semi-permanent.  That way the student can read back all of the words he spelled before moving on.  You can also check for errors more easily if he does not have to erase it before writing the next word. You can also use these spelled words to layer in other skills such as syllable division, syllable type sorting, grammar, fluency, etc. 

Example of an Orton Gillingham Lesson by Orton Gillingham Mama

New Information in an Orton Gillingham Lesson:

I follow a scope and sequence of skills that moves from simple to complex.  Many people ask me about different Orton Gillingham sequences.  A Fellow in the Orton Gillingham Academy and mentor of mine once told me, “Don’t be so bound by a sequence that you lose sight of what each student needs.”  An Orton Gillingham tutor should be skilled enough to follow a general sequence, but flexible enough to individualize what skill is taught next. So, based on student errors, areas of mastery (determined by initial and ongoing assessments), and my sequence, I decide what skill I will introduce next.

In this section I explicitly teach a phonics skill, syllable type, spelling rule, syllable division rule, morpheme, or a grammar topic.  This includes a visual for the student to add to his binder (see picture below), examples, words to read and spell, and sentences to read and spell.  There are multisensory techniques and/or games to support this learning as well.  I also intentionally weave in skills that need further review from previous student errors.

Oral Reading and More:

The last part of my Orton Gillingham lessons includes some combination of oral reading, comprehension, grammar, written expression, vocabulary, and a new information recap.  With my younger students, I try to incorporate a decodable text that focuses on the new information skill.  For example, if I taught the -ck rule, I could read with him Mack and Betts.  With my older students, I might pick a book that focuses on a morpheme such as sub-.  For that we might read a non-fiction story about submarines that submerge.  Within the text we work on building vocabulary knowledge, comprehension, and highlighting grammar topics.  When possible, I also ask the student to practice written expression organization, sentence building, grammar, and/or punctuation.  And finally, we have a short recap of the new information from our lesson.

-ck Decodable text by Orton Gillingham Mama

There is SO much to include in each Orton Gillingham lesson.  Each one is individualized to the specific needs of the student.  Quality Orton Gillingham lessons are also layered to provide extra review and space to cover all strands of literacy. And while balancing all of the key Orton

Orton Gillingham Lesson

This is Part 1 of a series of posts about what is included in an Orton Gillingham lesson plan. Many assume an Orton Gillingham lesson only includes phonics. While explicit instruction of many phonics skills is a large part of an OG lesson, a quality lesson covers SO many more aspects of our language. This post will dive deeper into the first part of an Orton lesson including the visual drill, the auditory drill, and a blending drill/phonological awareness activity.

A Little Foundation First:

The English language is an alphabetic one.  Specifically, it is made up of 26 letters and 44 phonemes.  Although decoding depends on letter-sound correspondence, it is also important to ensure that students know the letter names

-Firstly, knowing the letter names provides a common language for discussing letters, sounds, syllables, and words. 

-Secondly, many letters or letter combinations have more than one sound.  For example, the letter <c> can say /k/ or /s/.  It will be crucial for the student to know the letter names before learning the different sounds they may represent.

-Thirdly, many letter names provide a hint to the letter sound.  For example, the name of the letter <p> starts with the sound that it represents (/p/).  So, learning the letter names will help the student master many letter-sound correspondences.

-Students need to solidify their letter-names so that they can fully engage in discussions about these letters and how the sounds in our language are mapped to them.

The Visual and Auditory Drill of an Orton Gillingham Lesson:

A quality Orton Gillingham lesson is completely individualized and based on the needs of the student.  Using initial and/or ongoing assessments and error tracking, the teacher includes 10 phonogram cards in the drill pack.  The teacher will review these skills in the visual/auditory drill and as part of the student’s word and sentence reading/spelling EACH lesson.  As the student masters a skill, the teacher then removes that card from the pack.  After the teacher introduces a new skill, she adds that card to the drill pack for review.

Video an example of the Visual and Auditory Drill of an Orton Gillingham Lesson


After a warm-up drill to prime the student’s brain for learning, the teacher will initiate the VISUAL DRILL.  In this drill, the teacher shows the student the front of the card with the grapheme on the front. The student says the sound that the grapheme represents and simultaneously traces the letter(s) shape on a textured surface.  If the student knows more than one sound for the grapheme, he says both sounds and traces for each sound. This continues for all cards in the deck.


In the AUDITORY DRILL, the teacher faces the card deck towards herself. She says the sound of the first grapheme. The student then repeats the sound.  Next, he writes all the spellings in order of frequency that he has learned so far that represent that grapheme. This continues until the teachers dictates all the sounds and the student writes the corresponding spellings for each sound.

Traditionally this has been done in person with the teacher sitting across from the student. Recently there has been more need for virtual sessions. So you may want to consider using FREE online card decks like these for virtual tutoring sessions. If you want written instructions for the visual and auditory drills, check out this FREE resource.

Back of a set of cards for the Visual and Auditory Drill

Blending Drill and/or Phonemic Awareness:

As part of any good Orton Gillingham lesson, the teacher creates the lesson based on the individual needs of the student.  For this part of the lesson, some students may require a phonemic awareness drill, some a blending drill, and others may need both. 

Phonemic Awareness drill:

There is a continuum of phonemic awareness skills.  The teacher should first assess these skills and explicitly teach them to the student as needed in a systematic manner.  These drills include only letter SOUNDS.  You can read more about those skills in another of my blog posts here. Below is one example of a phonemic awareness drill.  This requires the student to isolate a sound and then delete the sound.  Higher-level PA drills like this lead to orthographic mapping of sounds for efficient, long term memory and retrieval of words.

Phonemic Awareness Activity Deleting a Phoneme

Blending Drill:

While phonemic awareness deals with only sounds, a traditional blending drill requires the student to blend together sounds represented by letters.  When first starting out, work with only two sounds/graphemes at a time.  Work up to the student blending CVC syllables and then words with consonant blends.  These can be real or nonsense words. The student’s ability to blend more letter sounds will often depend greatly on their phonemic awareness skills.  Below is an example of a simple blending drill of CVC syllables. 

Blending drill with CVC

These are the first parts of a basic Orton Gillingham lesson.  In this other blog post, I will dive into the review and reinforcement parts of a lesson, new information, grammar, oral reading, comprehension, vocabulary, written expression, and more!

After comprehensive training, teachers learn how to provide immediate and specific error correction.  They also learn how to offer non-verbal cues, handwriting instruction, and multisensory techniques to support the student’s learning. Most importantly, they learn the “why” behind the parts of each lesson and how the skills weave together to support overall skilled reading. All of these components can be done in person or virtually. I encourage you to read the blog post of one of my colleagues, Carolina Orton-Gillingham, here on how to set up an Orton lesson for a virtual tutoring lesson. All parts of an Orton Gillingham lesson can be done virtually and with multisensory strategies. Carolina Orton-Gillingham explains all the components you will need to make your virtual lesson complete!

Would you like to learn more about becoming an Orton Gillingham tutor? Check out quality trainings here. I hope that you will follow my blog and read my next post about other important parts of an Orton Gillingham lesson.

Orton Gillingham Principles

Orton Gillingham is an approach and not a program.  It is a systematic approach to teaching literacy to individuals for whom reading, writing, and spelling do not come easily. Many of these individuals have dyslexia, but many others can benefit from the structured literacy approach as well.  In the hands of a well-trained Orton tutor, the approach is comprehensive, flexible, and individualized. And while each student’s lesson will be unique to her needs, every good lesson shares the same Orton Gillingham principles.

Principles of the Orton Gillingham Approach:

  • Individualized– Based on comprehensive literacy assessments, Orton Gillingham teachers plan individualized lessons based on the student’s needs.  While there is a general scope and sequence, there is no set order of skills.  Each child’s path will differ slightly depending on what skills he masters and how long it takes him to master other skills. 
  • Diagnostic and Prescriptive– The teacher plans each lesson for the student based on errors from previous lessons. The teacher takes notes as the student progresses through a lesson noting and immediately addressing any errors.
Example of Prescriptive and Diagnostic notes on an Orton Gillingham Lesson plan
  • Systematic– Concepts move from simple to more complex.  For example, teachers directly teach the sound-symbol relationships, syllables, syllable division rules (for multi-syllabic words), spelling rules, morphemes, etc. 
Orton Gillingham Mama’s Sequence
  • Sequential and Cumulative– Orton teachers include skills from previously taught material in every lesson.  Students with dyslexia often need multiple repetitions of a skill before they master it.  A well-trained tutor tracks student errors and weaves in those skills as review as needed.  The information taught also builds upon previously taught material.  This ensures that almost every word or syllable type the student encounters is one that he is capable of decoding or spelling. 
  • Explicit Instruction– All skills are explicitly and directly taught to the student. A student should not be expected to know information that has not been explicitly taught to him.  After direct instruction of a skill, the teacher scaffolds the instruction so that the student eventually reads or spells the skills independently and with automaticity. 
  • Multisensory– The Orton Gillingham approach utilizes visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic pathways simultaneously to learn content.  This supports retention and retrieval of information. Multisensory techniques are used throughout an Orton Gillingham lesson. These may include tracing letters while saying the sound, swopping syllables, coding vowels, charting, tracking while reading, highlighting spelling patterns, and more.
Multisensory technique of phoneme blending with a rope
  • Structured Literacy– The teacher presents information in an ordered manner that merges together previously taught material and new information.  This does not just consist of phonics, but rather the full breadth of our language.  This includes (but is not limited to):

Phonemic awareness



-Spelling patterns


-Written Expression




If you are interested in learning how get trained as an Orton Gillingham tutor, I encourage you to read more here.