What is Dyslexia? What is structured literacy? What is the Orton-Gillingham approach?

Read on for informative descriptions and helpful links relating to dyslexia and effective reading instruction. 

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Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge. (International Dyslexia Association) 

Dyslexia is characterized by trouble with reading and spelling words. There is no cure for dyslexia, however, early identification and intervention leads to better academic, social, and emotional outcomes. 

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Characteristics of Dyslexia

Below are a few symptoms of dyslexia in children, teenagers, and adults.

Characteristics of Dyslexia in preschool-aged children
-Trouble rhyming words
-Possible delay in speech and/or language
-Difficulty learning letters and sounds
-May have difficulty pronouncing some words
-Family history of reading difficulties

Characteristics of Dyslexia in Children (K to 5th Grade)
-Oral language and reasoning are often more advanced than reading
-Trouble blending and segmenting sounds in words
-Difficulty remembering high frequency words
-Continues to sound out words after multiple exposures
-Spells words the way they sound
-Possible co-occurring disorder (dysgraphia, ADHD, language impairment)

Characteristics of Dyslexia in Teenagers & Adults
-Has a slow reading rate
-Has trouble finishing timed tests without accommodations
-Still struggles with spelling errors
-Does not enjoy reading for fun 
-Prefers to listen to audio books
-Possible co-occurring disorder (ADHD, language impairment)
-Struggles learning a foreign language
-May excel in other areas that don’t involve reading
-Possibility of low self-esteem and lack confidence 

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Dyslexia screening

Phonological weaknesses or disorders, specific language-based difficulties, are usually the underlying cause of the literacy problems associated with dyslexia. Comprehension may be impaired and writing skills will suffer if spelling is not mastered. Language and vocabulary problems can cause comprehension difficulties that can become more severe over time as academic demands increase.

The problems associated with dyslexia are language-based, not visual and not related to cognitive skills or intelligence. Phonological processing problems are the principal cause of dyslexia. Phonological processing refers to the ability to analyze speech or spoken language, from identifying individual words, to word parts or syllables, and then into the smallest parts called phonemes or speech sounds. Because speech is produced rapidly, and sounds within spoken words are pronounced so quickly, phonemes overlap.

Assessment by a skilled professional can determine if the student struggles with phonological processing. When students continue to struggle with literacy skills despite the provision of additional high-quality, expert instruction using Response to Intervention (RTI), a formal clinical evaluation is needed to determine if they have dyslexia. Assessment of dyslexia involves individual testing, most often provided by a team of qualified professionals who have had extensive clinical training in assessment as part of a graduate degree program. Evaluation by a medical doctor is not required for assessment or identification of SLD or dyslexia.

Areas assessed:
Phonological Awareness – an individual’s awareness of and access to the sound structure of his/her oral language
Phonological or Language-Based Memory – ability to recall sounds, syllables, words
Rapid Automatic Naming – speed of naming objects, colors, digits, or letters
Receptive Vocabulary – understanding of words heard
Phonics Skills – understanding of the symbol (letter) to the sound(s) relationship, either individually or in combination with other letters
Decoding –ability to use symbol-sound associations to identify (read – pronounce) both real words and nonsense words
Oral Reading Fluency – ability to read accurately, at a story-telling pace 
Handwriting formation 

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Orton-Gillingham Structured Literacy

The Orton-Gillingham approach is a language-based, multisensory, structured, sequential, cumulative, and cognitive approach to teaching students how to become confident readers. The critical elements that make this approach effective for ALL students include: personalized, multisensory, diagnostic/prescriptive, direct, systematic, linguistic, structured, sequential/cumulative, and continuous feedback/positive reinforcement. These evidence-based strategies are helpful for all students but essential for individuals with reading or spelling difficulties, including those with dyslexia or dysgraphia.  

Parents who have children with reading challenges, including dyslexia, should seek out reading instruction that is based on a systematic and explicit understanding of language structure, including phonics. This reading instruction goes by many names, Structured Literacy, Orton- Gillingham, Simultaneous Multisensory, Explicit Phonics, and others (See IDA’s link below for the Fact Sheet for Effective Reading Instruction).  

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