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Understanding, teaching, and empowering students with language-based learning differences such as dyslexia

Kendra McCuine, M.Ed.

Kendra McCuine, M.Ed, teacher and interim director of the Hope Graham Program (HGP) at Bancroft School, writes about the beautiful and amazing dyslexic brain. Read on and discover further proof of what Hope Graham students already know: Dyslexia is a difference, not a disability! 

What, Exactly, Is OG?

OG LearningMost people who are involved in, or at least familiar with, the Hope Graham Program know that we base much of what we do on Orton-Gillingham, or OG. Wondering what, exactly Orton-Gillingham is and how we implement it in HGP? Read on!

In short, Orton-Gillingham is a method of teaching language that follows a specific teaching philosophy. We use it in HGP in two ways: (1) to teach our students how to read and spell, and (2) as the underlying teaching philosophy for all of the instruction that we provide.


The foundation of OG instruction is the tutorial. When you hear about “tutoring” in HGP, we’re not talking about homework help or reteaching a skill taught in class. The tutoring we provide follows a very specific format that is considered the gold standard in building the reading skills of students with language-based learning differences. During tutorials, students are directly taught the letters and letter combinations that create sounds in our language, as well as the units of meaning (morphemes) that construct the majority of English words (Latin prefixes, roots, and suffixes and Greek combining forms).

A traditional Orton-Gillingham lesson is split into two sections: Decoding (linking letters to sounds) and Encoding (linking sounds to letters). The sequence of a lesson generally looks something like this:

  1. Phonological awareness activity: Students practice splitting apart, blending together, or changing around the sounds in words. For example, a student might be asked to count the number of syllables or sounds in a word, blend several separate sounds together to form a word, or to remove a sound from a word (“say straw without saying tr”).
  2. Phonics drill cards: Students name the sound(s) and keyword(s) for each letter or letter combination that they have been directly taught. For example, a student who has learned the three sounds of ea would be shown that letter combination on a card and say, “EA says e as in bread, a as in steak, and ee as in eat.” Students might also practice the morphemes that they have learned, or learn a new letter or letter combination.
  3. Word to read: Students read a list of words that incorporates both learned and new concepts. Students may also work on “nonsense words” in this section, which are made-up words that can be sounded out. Reading nonsense words forces students to fully use the sound-symbol associations that they have learned.
  4. Connected text: Students work with their tutor to read text at their reading level, working to directly apply the letters, letter combinations, and morphemes that they have learned in this reading.
  5. What Says?: Students are given a sound and asked to write down all of the letter combinations they know that make that sound. For example, for the ee sound, students could write down e, e-e (as in theme), ea, ee, and ie, if those are the letter combinations they have learned for that sound.
  6. Spelling: Students are asked to spell words containing the letter-sound combinations, sight words, spelling generalizations, and morphemes that they have learned.
  7. Dictation: Students hear sentences containing the letter-sound combinations, sight words, spelling generalizations, and morphemes that they have learned. Here, they must also focus on capitalization and punctuation.

Individualized Lessons

There are many published reading programs that are based on the Orton-Gillingham approach. These programs come with a predetermined sequence of lessons or activities, dictating the order in which a student sees particular concepts and the time she spends on each. Orton-Gillingham, on the other hand, fits each student individually. An OG teacher or tutor takes notes during each lesson on the student’s strengths and weaknesses, designing the next lesson specifically around what the student was and was not able to do in that session. In order to individualize to this level, OG practitioners go through an extensive amount of training and practicum time before receiving their certification. Planning an effective OG lesson requires significantly more time than a programmed lesson, as all of the content is targeted around each individual student’s current abilities.

Philosophical Foundation 

In addition to determining the format for our tutorials, the philosophical foundation of OG informs all of the teaching that we do in HGP. This philosophy requires that instruction be:

  • Systematic, cumulative, and cognitive. Concepts are introduced in such a way that they build on each other. Students have a sense of what they have learned, what is coming next, and how what they are learning builds on itself.
  • Simple to complex. We teach the simplest concepts first, using them as stepping stones to more complex concepts.
  • Concrete to abstract. We begin instruction with the tangible or familiar, using that as bridge by which students can access more general ideas that may be difficult to grasp.
  • Diagnostic and prescriptive. Teachers consistently check students’ current levels of understanding and craft their lessons based on the information that these check-ins provide.
  • Emotionally sound. Teachers enable students to experience success in every lesson, fostering self-confidence and motivation.

Who Were Orton & Gillingham?

Finally, you may be wondering where the name Orton-Gillingham comes from. The OG approach is based on the work of Dr. Samuel T. Orton and Anna Gillingham, which began in the 1920s. Dr. Orton, a neurologist, pioneered the field of language-based learning differences by studying children who showed signs of what we now call dyslexia and developing an instructional approach specifically for these students. Anna Gillingham, an educator and trainer of teachers, was responsible for developing Dr. Orton’s method into a teaching approach and training teachers to implement it. She also lay the foundation for what we now call “multisensory teaching,” theorizing what we know to be a very strong link between auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic ways of learning and storage in memory.

Learn more at ortonacademy.org.

Posted by Kendra McCuine in Orton-Gillingham on Thursday January 11 at 11:03AM
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In Our Students’ Words (Part 2): The Power of a Name

In the Hope Graham Program (HGP), we believe that enabling students to name their challenges empowers them to understand when and why they struggle. A student who can confidently say, “I am dyslexic” knows that he or she is a bright student whose brain is not optimally wired for reading, not a student who is dumb. Students who know that they have expressive language challenges understand that they need some time to think before responding, some sentence starters to get the words flowing, or the opportunity to talk around the idea they’re trying to express — and that these are just tools to help them express what they already know.

Most importantly, by naming their challenges, our students have the opportunity to realize that those challenges are only a sliver of their overall identities. At Bancroft, a student might see himself as a student who is great at robotics, a quick math problem-solver, a kind friend, dyslexic, and a strong lacrosse player. Or she could be a curious scientist, member of the Lower School Leadership team, dyscalculic and ADHD, and star of the fifth grade play.

Earlier this year, one of our new HGP students decided to write a letter to the President after realizing the freedom that comes from being in a school where differences are named, celebrated, and recognized as just a small aspect of our extremely multidimensional students. Portions of this letter are shared with the student’s permission:

“I am in 5th grade and am 11 years old, like your son Barron. I am Dyslexic and have ADHD. I want to explain how I struggled in public school from kindergarten through 4th grade. While in school, I was struggling with reading, writing, and math. I was so frustrated that I tried to cover my confusion by making jokes. I had no confidence and thought that I was dumb.

“My parents were told that the school does not use the word Dyslexia. I googled and found in October of 2015 The United States Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Service produced a memo that ‘encourages States to review the policies procedures and practices to ensure they do not prohibit the use of the terms of Dyslexia, Dyscalculia and Dysgraphia in evaluations eligibility and IEP documents.’

“I finally had some answers when a psychologist diagnosed me. After we received the test results, the psychologist recommended Bancroft School in Worcester MA. So now I am at Bancroft in the Hope Graham Program for Dyslexia and ADHD. I feel so much more confident and comfortable. There are 7 kids in my class and I'm getting the right tools I need and learning how my brain works.

“How can you as our President help kids like me get the right tools so they don’t get left behind? Lastly, Mr. President, if public schools do not even acknowledge the word dyslexia how are kids going to get the help they need?”

Names hold a lot of power. We encourage you to help your child acknowledge and perhaps even celebrate the sliver of their identity that has made HGP a good fit for them. 

Posted by Kendra McCuine in Student Voices on Tuesday December 5, 2017 at 12:27PM
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In Our Students’ Words (Part 1)

Student Voices MicrophoneMuch of the time, kids are able to articulate what needs to be said even better than the adults in their lives.  For this post and the next, I’m going to let HGP student voices dominate. The following is a speech written by a student for the 8th grade Forum.  Forums are a very special tradition in which each 8th grader writes and presents a speech to the entire Middle School on any topic of their choosing. One of our HGP students recently delivered this speech with confidence and poise, and was met with enthusiastic applause upon its completion!  I share it with the student’s permission:

“Mom, I have all these ideas in my head, but I can't get them on paper.” I remember saying that when I was in fourth grade.  I never wanted to go to school in 4th and 5th grade. I was bullied and I struggled in most of my classes. I never felt like I was good enough.  Then I was tested and learned that I have dyslexia. This is my journey through dyslexia.

“You may be wondering what is dyslexia? According to Merriam-Webster, “Dyslexia is a learning disability involving difficulties in acquiring and processing language.” In basic English what this means is that my brain learns differently when it comes to reading, writing and spelling.

“I also learned that I am not alone.  An estimated 20% of the population has dyslexia including some people you may have heard of.

“Just because someone is diagnosed with dyslexia does not mean all dyslexics are the same. It doesn’t mean we read letters backwards, that we don’t know our right from our left and most importantly, it doesn’t mean that we are slow or not trying hard enough!

“For me personally, dyslexia makes reading, writing, spelling and time management a challenge.

“Reading had been the easiest of the 4 for me which is different from other dyslexics. In elementary school I was about 1-2 grade levels behind in reading up until 6th grade. That is when I came to Bancroft and the Hope Graham Program and learned specific strategies and skills.

“Tools like active reading, ear reading, which is the ability to listen to books read aloud electronically, and Orton Gillingham tutoring have helped me to have a better understanding of what I am reading and how to be a better writer. Orton Gillingham is a unique approach intended to help individuals with reading, writing, and spelling. It teaches you spelling rules, syllable division, vowel teams, Latin roots, suffixes, prefixes, and what they all mean. Writing and spelling are still a challenge for me, but not nearly so difficult as before.

“Before I came to Bancroft I was very determined to do school work on my own without any help which is a crazy idea. Because of my determination, it took me two weeks to write a memoir in 5th grade that took other kids only 4 days to write. Of course, if I had gotten help I would've gotten it done much faster and it would have been the same quality. It was difficult for me to understand my learning then because I would do really well on work but it would take me excessively long times and a lot more effort compared to others in my class. My teacher would even use my work as examples which always made it seem worth spending that amount of time on.

“I would also spell things extremely phonetically and still do. Words that had the same letters in different orders confused me a lot too. The best examples are who, how, and why which do not have all of the same letters but are very similar. I don't think I could truly 100 percent always know which was which until 6th grade.

“I have been in HGP since 6th grade and it has helped me grow so much as a learner and in my overall confidence. HGP has helped me realize that everyone learns best a different way and that what works for me is not always going to work for someone else.  Dyslexia is something you will never grow out of and it means that reading and writing assignments may always take me a bit longer to complete, but with hard work, determination and specific strategies and tools, the sky's the limit!

“And finally I will end with a classic quote:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live it's whole life believing it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

Posted by Kendra McCuine in Student Voices on Friday November 3, 2017 at 01:15PM
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Defined by Strengths

This past Thursday, Peggy Stern, Academy Award winner director and creator of Dyslexiaville, spent the afternoon with all of our Hope Graham Program students. Not only is Peggy a very successful filmmaker who credits her talent to her dyslexia, she is an immediately relatable and very candid speaker. So it was no surprise that she was able to spark deep thoughts and conversations among our students, focusing on their individual strengths.

Peggy met with our HGP Middle School and Lower School students separately, but both groups were equally interested in this concept of strengths.  One Lower School student seemed to have a spark of epiphany as he answered one of her questions, wrestling to find the words to express the fact that while students with language-based differences (LBLD) have a hard time learning to read, they are able to some things much more easily than their non-LBLD peers. Both groups then went on to think about and express their own strengths, some of which included: drawing, computers, animals, curiosity, hockey, thinking creatively, writing short stories, science, combining two things into one thing, learning facts, understanding the feelings of others, math, and soccer.  

The Learning Lab Method that Bancroft School teachers often employ offers all Bancroft students to learn through, practice, and showcase their strengths. A student might create a stop-motion Lego animation detailing their research on Myanmar’s educational system, compose and perform a song in the style popular during the Industrial Revolution, or research our school’s namesake and display their findings at Bancroft Tower for hundreds to see (all of these are actual projects). These projects, which offer student voice and choice and an authentic audience for student work, enable Hope Graham Program students to not only address their weaknesses, but to employ their strengths without limits.

We encourage every parent of a student with a language-based learning difference to keep up an ongoing conversation going around your child’s strengths.  If your child has a hard time identifying what they are good at, taking a look at their interests is a great starting point (even as children, we tend to gravitate towards activities that suit our strengths).

This assessment from Headstrong Nation is also  a fun way to map your child’s strengths.

And remember to share what comes out of these conversations with your child’s teacher so that they can keep up the encouragement at school!

Peggy Stern (center) and HGP Faculty Oct. 12, 2017

Hope Graham Program teachers with Peggy Stern (center) before her Bancroft Speaker Series presentation to an audience of parents, educators, and students about encouraging students’ strengths.


Posted by Kendra McCuine in Speaker Series on Wednesday October 18, 2017 at 02:02PM
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Why Is Writing So Hard? (And How Can We Make It Easier?)

As parents and teachers, we often notice that our students are able to speak about a subject with detail and ease yet fall apart when asked to write about that same theme. It is immensely important that our children develop strong writing skills that enable them to communicate their great ideas. Yet writing is arguably the most difficult academic task that we can ask of our children.

Why is writing so hard? The answer lies in the sheer number of component skills that are required for successful writing. A brief list these subskills includes:

  • Handwriting
  • Spelling
  • Sentence Structure
  • Editing
  • Language Comprehension
  • Expressive Language
  • Flexible Vocabulary
  • Planning and Organization
  • Flexibility (willingness to delete previous work during the revision process)

For any of us to do a good job carrying out a task with a lot of component parts, like writing, we must master each of the component parts to the point that we can perform them without much thought. Our brains each have a limit on the amount of energy and attention that we can devote to any activity at any given time. The more automatic we are with one task, the more of our precious cognitive energy and attention we can devote to another.

In writing, this means that if a student struggles significantly with handwriting, she will have very little energy and attention to devote beyond forming individual letters. Another student may be able to spell with relative ease, but if he lacks a strong knowledge of sentence structure, he will not have enough cognitive capacity to focus on organizing his composition in a way that makes sense. The skill with which the child has the most difficulty gets the most energy and attention, at the expense of all of the other skills required for strong writing.

One way to get around such difficulties is through accommodations. Accommodating a student means opening up an access point to the curriculum without changing the teaching approach or the actual assignment. For example, students who struggle significantly with handwriting or spelling can utilize speech-to-text technology, voice recordings, or scribes in order to bypass these difficulties. For a student who finds it hard to plan or organize her writing, the teacher might break down the assignment and provide specific templates for her to fill in before drafting her composition.

We accommodate students so that they can successfully complete the assignments in front of them. However, the ultimate goal is to provide instruction that decreases the need for these accommodations in the first place. In the Hope Graham Program, our teachers and tutors work with students on all of writing’s component skills, and students practice each of them until they are automatic. They work intensively on spelling during their language classes and tutorials, build on their understanding of sentence structure from Grade 2 all the way up through Grade 8, and practice planning and organizing their writing across all of the academic disciplines. This year, our HGP teachers are excited to be partnering with an occupational therapist so that they can help their students to develop stronger handwriting skills in the classroom.

I invite and encourage you to share this information with your child the next time he or she experiences frustration with writing. Reflecting on which part of the process is breaking down can help students to feel empowered and advocate for themselves effectively.

Writing is really hard, but by understanding which part of it is causing difficulty for a child, we can make it easier.

Posted by Kendra McCuine in Reading on Monday September 25, 2017 at 10:48AM
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Growing Lifelong Readers vs. Kids Who Can Read

Without a doubt, the daily instruction provided in the Hope Graham Program provides students with the skills that they need to decode and understand text. We help them to develop the neurological pathways necessary for accurate and efficient reading through the highly effective Orton-Gillingham approach. We provide modeling, guided practice, and opportunities for independent application of the best research-based comprehension strategies. And we engage our students in frequent fluency drills in order to build their reading speed, accuracy, and expression.  

While these underlying reading skills are absolutely necessary for our students to succeed, they are insufficient in their own right. Fitting with Bancroft’s mission to develop lifelong learners, the Hope Graham Program aims to empower students not only to know how to read well, but to become readers for life.

While we can and do measure the indicators that a child is progressing in his or her reading ability, the broader goal of empowering lifelong readers is far more difficult to directly assess. We can get a sense that a child is on the right track when they:

  • Have access to books that match their interests and passions
  • Spark and engage in conversations outside of school about what they are reading
  • Keep track of books that they would like to read in the future
  • Are developing the stamina to read independently for increasingly lengthy periods
  • Can identify the books that have most impacted or resonated with them
  • Connect information and life events to what they have read in books

Hope Graham Program teachers facilitate this progression by exposing students to all kinds of books at their “just right” level, encouraging students to ear-read (listen to) more difficult but engaging texts while reading along in a hard-copy text, helping students to make lists of books they would like to read, and providing opportunities for students to build reading stamina, both in school and for homework. In addition, as students enter the upper middle grades, they begin to track their “textual lineage,” documenting the books that have resonated with them and have therefore contributed to their growing sense of who they are as individuals.  

We know that children who read stay readers. A term that is often used in the field of reading instruction is the “Matthew Effect,” meaning that the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. Students who read a lot experience substantial growth in their reading skills, while those who do not read for pleasure outside of school lose pace significantly with their peers who do. The number of words that students are exposed to when they read, or do not read, is staggering (Image credit: Kyleen Beers): 

Words-Per-Year Comparison

Incredibly, students who read less than a minute each day are exposed to 8,000 words in a year, while students who read for 20 minutes per day are exposed to 1.8 million words in the same period of time! All of those words translate to an expanded bank of word knowledge and familiarity that helps students to decode more accurately, read more quickly, and understand more deeply.  

If these figures make you worry that your child has missed out or is behind, don’t. Lifelong learners do not develop overnight, and it’s never too late for students to build a robust reading life. This is the work of a child’s entire academic career. Rather, we as parents, teachers, and students ought to feel empowered. The work we do each day helps to grow readers who love to learn through text, and who can speak with enthusiasm at the dinner table about the latest great thing they’ve read.  

Posted by Kendra McCuine in Reading on Monday September 11, 2017 at 03:22PM
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The Business of Changing Brains

HGP is certainly all about effective teaching for students with language-based learning differences. But did you know that we’re really in the business of changing the structure of students’ brains? Relatively recent advances in the field of neuroscience have given educators empirical evidence about how dyslexic and non-dyslexic brains learn to read, enabling us to design more effective reading interventions for those who need them.

In the not-so-distant past, neuroscientists and educators didn’t fully understand why a lot of really bright kids, like those in HGP, had a really hard time learning to read. Before fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) made its debut in 1991, the technology to prove that some brains read differently just didn’t exist. There was a lot of skepticism around whether dyslexia was even “real,” and a lot of misinformed but well-meaning people sold, bought, and used a variety of ultimately useless products to help dyslexic kids read. Worst of all, these students’ inherent intelligence, strengths, and talents were sometimes overlooked simply because of their difficulties in one aspect of school. But by the early 2000s, fMRI enabled researchers to prove, with clear evidence, what lots and lots of people had suspected for a long time: dyslexia is indeed an inherited difference in the brain, and it does not impact an individual’s intelligence.

These scientists discovered that proficient readers primarily use the left side of their brain for reading. This is the most efficient route for turning groups of symbols (letters) into full words that carry meaning, like a highway to reading. However, for dyslexic readers, most of that highway’s lanes are blocked off. Their brains try to compensate by using the right side instead, but like a bumpy back road, this route doesn’t get them to fluent reading nearly as quickly as an efficient left side would.

Discovering why a dyslexic brain can be so intelligent yet have such a hard time reading was incredibly exciting. Among educators, however, questions remained about what kinds of intervention might help these students. Reading teachers had been arguing for quite some time about whether reading should be taught by directly teaching students phonics, or by exposing them to a lot of literature without direct instruction. Some researchers set out to discover what happens when a dyslexic student (or adult) is given a top-notch phonics-based reading intervention, such as those based on the principles of Orton-Gillingham, our main teaching method in HGP.

dyslexic brainHere’s what they found:

In the top row of this image, the kindergartner is clearly using a bumpy back road (the right side of the brain) to try to read the words in front of her. However, look what happens to her brain by the time she's in first grade, after receiving some really good intervention. The left side is beginning to activate during reading! The brain is becoming more efficient at transforming letters into sounds. And as this child continues with the intervention, those connections will grow stronger and stronger. Thanks to the fact that our brain pathways don’t “harden” until our 20s, the effects we see on this kindergartner are achievable well into late adolescence.

Image sourcehttp://www.commlearn.com/dyslexia-and-the-brain/

In HGP, we work on this kind of brain “rewiring” every day. Whether a second grader learning vowel-consonant-e syllables, a fifth grader deciphering vowel digraphs, or an eighth grader mastering Latin and Greek morphology, our students are constantly working to build and strengthen the neurological connections that they need for proficient reading. The best part? They get to do the hard work of building new neural connections within a school that recognizes and encourages their individual strengths and talents.

Posted by Kendra McCuine on Monday August 28, 2017 at 03:34PM
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