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HGP Blog


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

Kendra McCuine, M.Ed.

Kendra McCuine, M.Ed, teacher and 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! 

Math Instruction for Students with LBLD: Where We Are and Where We're Going

In my first blog entry, “The Business of Changing Brains,” I outlined the research on the proven impact that Orton-Gillingham (OG) instruction has on students’ reading abilities. In the Hope Graham Program, we live the results of this research every day; the OG-based instruction that we provide in our small literacy classes and individualized tutoring sessions has a profound impact on our students’ ability to read (and often their excitement for doing so). Thanks to that research, we in the field of educating students with language-based learning differences (LBLD) know exactly what works for teaching our students how to read. What’s more, researchers have discovered the changes in the brain that result from such instruction.

In the realm of LBLD, far more is currently known about reading than math. However, we do know a lot about the kind of instruction that is effective for our students.

Explicit Math Instruction

Many HGP students participate in our “explicit” math classes, which occur at the same time as our other math classes in Grades 2-8, but in a smaller group and with alternative instructional approaches. Many of the instructional practices that our explicit math classes use have the same underpinnings as the OG approach. These include:

  • Direct and explicit instruction: Students know the goal of the day’s lesson. While math curricula often employ a “discovery method,” in which students intuit what they need to know from a series of examples, our explicit math classes provide students with the goal of the lesson right away.
  • Gradual release of responsibility: We employ an “I do, we do, you do” framework, in which the responsibility for content and procedures shifts gradually from teacher to student, with frequent checks for student understanding along the way.
  • Concrete to abstract instruction: Students work with hands-on or pictorial representations of abstract mathematical concepts in order to develop a solid understanding, gradually fading these out over time. This is something that all Bancroft math teachers do, but our explicit math teachers employ this practice for a longer period of time and with a wider array of manipulatives when necessary.
  • Less focus on language: Most math curricula today have a heavy focus on language in addition to the math concepts taught. Students are expected to read lengthy explanations and express their understanding in written form. Our explicit math classes intentionally decrease both reading and writing loads during instruction, so that students can devote more cognitive energy to learning and playing with their mathematical understanding.
  • Breaking down language tasks when necessary: Sometimes language tasks can’t be avoided in math class, such as when students learn math vocabulary or word problems. In these cases, our teachers directly introduce and frequently review math vocabulary. They also help students to break word problems down into their parts and translate each part into the language of math.
Neurological Research

One researcher, Dr. Joanna Christodoulou, is currently working to develop a better understand of what the neurological crossover is between reading and math difficulties. Dr. Christodoulou is a research associate at MIT, Adjunct Lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Assistant Professor at the MGH Institute of Health Professions. While her research is still underway, she has developed several theories regarding neurological factors that may cause students to struggle with both language and math. This is very exciting work, as it may help us to better target the factors that cause some of our Hope Graham Program students to struggle in both areas, and more importantly, how we can better target their needs.

I am pleased to announce that Dr. Christodoulou will be presenting her findings thus far, and her resulting theories, at our spring Bancroft Speaker Series on Thursday, April 26!

She will also discuss her completed work on the “summer slump” that students with LBLD often experience in reading, and ways to prevent reading regression during this time. Bancroft Speaker Series events are free and open to the public. Stay tuned for registration information — coming soon!

I encourage you to reach out to your child’s teacher if you have questions about how to support your child’s math learning at home.

I hope to see you at our Speaker Series on April 26!

Posted by in Speaker Series, Orton-Gillingham on Monday March 5, 2018 at 09:48AM
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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 in Orton-Gillingham on Thursday January 11, 2018 at 11:03AM
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