In the last few years I have observed the widespread use of Orton-based reading interventions, such as Wilson or Fundations, on the rise in K-12 schools. I tread lightly on this topic because I know it is a controversial one, with some Wilson-trained educators who may likely take great offense to what I am about to report, as if it were a personal attack. This first article (in a two part series) will simply address the current evidence about the effectiveness of these types of programs found within unbiased, scientific reviews. The second article will address some of the uses, or rather mis-uses of these types of programs commonly found within Ohio’s k-12 schools.
I must be clear from the beginning that within this first article I am not reporting opinion or information drawn from biased or low-quality research, but rather taking a very unbiased collection of reports and placing them all in the same location to illustrate why I have such grave professional concerns about the effects these programs are having on students in Ohio’s k-12 classrooms.
Background of Orton-based Materials
Based on the work of child neurologist, Dr. Samuel Orton, a specialized reading curriculum was first published in 1960 by Anna Gillingham and Bessie Stillman. The Orton-Gillingham (OG) approach in general can be described as systematic, sequential, multisensory, synthetic and phonics-based. Some commercial programs that are based on the OG approach include: Alphabetic Phonics, Wilson Reading System, The Herman Method, Project ASSIST, The Slingerland Approach, The Spalding Method, Project Read, Starting Over, and Fundations.
Two Important Terms: Research-based vs. Evidence-based
Educators associated with these types of interventions often claim that they are research based and can assist struggling readers with becoming better readers. Many of these products have even made their way into core reading classrooms as the type of instruction that ALL students received whether they struggle to read or not.
Unfortunately, the phrase, “research-based” is attached to just about every program, curriculum, and educational book on the market. It is over-used, and has basically become useless in determining if a product actually works. Unfortunately anyone can find some sort of ‘research’ to support something created for literacy, but this could include research that was either of high or low quality, biased or unbiased, and everywhere in between!
The term “evidence-based” is one that should be used more often. It can help assure educators that something has been used with students and has worked, and even more specifically for which students and in what ways. There are many public entities that provide this service: searching for evidence that a product or technique really works and then reporting these results to the consumer. Information from these sites, and a few other important pieces of objective research, are discussed below.
What is the Evidence Base of Orton-based Programs?
Source #1: In 2006, Ritchey & Goeke published a review of the literature of OG based instruction. They found that, much like today, these types of programs were being passed from one educator to the next, not based on strong scientific research showing it worked, but rather “fueled by anecdotal evidence and personal experience” (p. 172). They sought to find out if these programs were indeed assisting kids with learning to read. This still occurs today on many blogs and websites, where Orton trained educators often swear by the effectiveness of the programs, while other researchers continue to want proof that they actually improve reading abilities.
After sorting through the research published at this time, Ritchey & Goeke found that the amount of published studies that matched commonly accepted ‘sound research’ criteria were few and far between. They eventually conducted the literature review using just 12 studies that were deemed appropriate for inclusion in the review.
Conclusions of Ritchey & Goeke:
“Despite widespread use by teachers in a variety of settings for more than 5 decades, OG instruction has yet to be comprehensively studied and reported in peer-refereed journals. The small number of existing studies lack methodological rigor that would be required for publication in current peer-referred journals” (p. 182).
“There is insufficient evidence to conclude that OG and OG-based reading instruction meet the requirements of scientifically-based reading instruction” (p. 181).
Source #2: The Best Evidence Encyclopedia is a free site funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education and created by Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education. It summarizes scientific reviews in order to provide educators with “fair and useful information about the strength of evidence supporting a variety of programs available for students in grades k-12.” On this site struggling reader programs were placed into four main categories: 1. Strong Evidence of Effectiveness, 2. Moderate Evidence of Effectiveness, 3. Limited Evidence of Effectiveness, and 4. Insufficient Evidence of Effectiveness.
Only 8 programs fell into the top category with strong evidence of effectiveness, and one in the moderate evidence category. Of those 9, none of the programs were described as Orton-based. There are, however, several Orton-based programs found in the two lower categories.
Within the Limited Evidence category only one, Project READ, was described as an Orton-based intervention. The Wilson Reading Program was found within the last category, Insufficient Evidence of Effectiveness. There is an extensive list of programs that had no qualifying studies so that conclusions could be made about effectiveness including Fundations and Spalding Writing Road to Reading.
The full document, which additionally includes details about many programs that do work entitled, Educator’s Guide: Identifying What Works for Struggling Readers can be accessed online.
Source #3: The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) is considered the “research arm” of the U.S. Department of Education and aims to identify what works and what does not, so that schools can improve educational outcomes for students. At this site, research reports about a variety of specific literacy interventions can be read and downloaded. These reports detail the effectiveness of these interventions, based on acceptable scientific studies. Research summaries, program descriptions, and research studies accepted for inclusion are detailed and a full report can also be accessed.
In regard to Wilson Reading System, the summary page reports, “Wilson Reading System was found to have potentially positive effects on alphabetics and no discernible effects on fluency and comprehension.” The term alphabetics is used to describe phonemic awareness and phonics skills. Of the studies reviewed, only one out of nine met the IES standards.
The summary report for Waterford Early Reading Program was identical, with the only change being that 36 studies were reviewed in order to arrive at this conclusion. An intervention report about Fundations can be found in the category related to children with disabilities and was last updated in July 2010. The IES found no studies that fell within their standards, and determined that they were “unable to draw any conclusions based on research about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of Fundations…” Within the same category, the IES determined that no “Unbranded Orton-Gillingham-based Interventions” fell within the scope of their review protocol, out of 31 total studies.
And so I end this first article with these questions:
Why would schools risk using any of these Orton-based interventions with our most fragile readers if they have yet to be proven, in reliable, scientific, and unbiased research to indeed positively affect reading outcomes including the most essential ones; real reading and comprehension? Especially considering we have a plethora of information regarding interventions that have proven over time to work for a variety of struggling readers!
Another question that I will address in the next article (Part 2) is this: Why would schools also choose to use this type of instruction, yet to be proven to work with struggling readers and designed for dyslexic students, with our typically developing readers in the regular education classroom?
Ritchey, K.D, & Goeke, J.L. (2006). Orton-Gillingham and Orton-Gillingham-Based reading instruction: A review of the literature. The Journal of Special Education, 40(3), p. 171-183.