By Peggy Price, M.Ed., F/OGA
This article was initially published on October 27, 2023 as the cover story to the OGA Newsletter Summer-Fall 2023 issue.
Anyone who chooses to become a teacher and devotes years to an undergraduate or graduate degree in education deserves to be taught evidence-based instruction with adequate mentoring and support. In June 2023, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) issued a comprehensive review of how well schools of education prepare our nation’s educators to teach children how to read. The NCTQ reviewed the reading coursework taught by nearly 700 elementary teacher preparation programs, and their findings reveal an alarming picture:
- Only 25% of programs adequately cover the five core components identified by the National Reading Panel, with phonemic awareness receiving the least attention, despite its crucial role in reading and spelling development (McCardle & Chhabra, 2004).
- Nearly one-third of programs do not offer any practice opportunities connected to the National Reading Panel’s core components.
- 40% of programs are still teaching strategies that have been debunked by the scientific community (e.g., the three-cueing system).
- 58% of programs do not dedicate at least two hours to the topic of teaching struggling readers, including students with dyslexia, and 81% of programs do not require any opportunities to practice.
You can read NCTQ’s Executive Summary here. However, there are teacher preparation programs and professors of education, such as Mount Saint Joseph’s University, that are successfully preparing educators in evidence-based literacy instruction, and the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) has an accreditation program to identify these schools.
A lack of knowledge about how children learn to read and write and how to identify and teach the many who struggle leaves many teachers unprepared. Many educators don’t understand the principles of the scientific method or research design, leaving school administrators and teachers alike vulnerable to educational fads or facing an endless quest to find a teacher-proof program.
While high-quality, evidence-based curriculum matters, we will continue to fail vulnerable students, including students with disabilities such as dyslexia, students living in poverty, students of color, and students learning English as a second language, until we address teacher training. This article examines 1) the components of high-quality teacher training and professional learning, 2) specifically how the OG Approach’s model for teacher training can elevate our teaching profession, and 3) five recommendations for school administrators and teacher preparation programs. Effective literacy instruction is our most powerful tool to advance equity of educational outcomes.
Darling-Hammond and Richardson (2009, page 1) asked, “What does the research say about the kind of professional learning opportunities that improve instruction and student achievement?” in a 2009 article published in Educational Leadership. Results of multiple studies suggest that the “one and done” workshop model is ineffective. This research leads to Recommendation #1: Supervision is key; coursework alone is insufficient. Content knowledge coupled with applied practice leads to an increase in teachers’ knowledge and skills. Most training models in other professions value rigorous job-embedded supervision. Doctors complete a residency. Electricians complete an apprenticeship. And yet, the challenging task of teaching our children, even though there is student teaching, does not have a comparable, robust supervision model to teach the Science of Reading in many teacher preparation programs.
Recommendation #2: A broad, well-organized school initiative will create more lasting change. Creating and sustaining collaborative learning environments where school staff can share and learn from one another is important to encourage change beyond an individual’s classroom. It helps to have a critical mass, such as a group of special educators and reading interventionists, an entire grade level, or even an entire school, work toward the common goal with school administrator support. School leaders, including principals, literacy coaches, and directors of curriculum and special education services, should be part of the coursework and have opportunities to observe an OG lesson with the mentor or OG Fellow, so that school leaders are knowledgeable and invested in the school initiative, too.
Recommendation #3: More training over a longer period of time is better than less. The number of coursework hours and intensity of collaborative, job-embedded coaching (e.g., supervised practicum) correlate with greater student outcomes. Yoon, Duncan, Lee, Scarloss, & Shapley (2007) found that programs that spread professional learning over 30 to 100 hours during a significant span (6-12 months) were most effective.
As Director of the Stern Center’s Orton-Gillingham Institute, my colleagues and I help schools implement the OG Approach as part of district-wide literacy initiatives. When inquiring schools ask if OG is the best literacy program, I answer in two parts. First, OG is not a program but a flexible instructional approach that can be used for both general education and intervention. Literacy expert Dr. Margie Gillis, in Understood.org, explains that “an approach, such as OG, is the opposite [of a program]. It’s an intervention that’s individualized to each child. That process starts with identifying the child’s learning difficulty. The next step is to develop a plan to address that difficulty. An approach can offer more flexibility to meet complex needs than a program can.” Second, OG training, as set forth by the Orton-Gillingham Academy (OGA), is a powerful model for effective teacher training. When OG practitioners state OG is a flexible approach, we more accurately state that OG lessons can be taught flexibly because the teacher has the knowledge and clinical training to adapt instruction for their students. One cannot be flexible when one does not understand what and why they are teaching.
What does it mean to be “trained in OG?” It means someone who successfully completed both coursework and a supervised practicum, consistently teaching high-quality OG lessons that are well-matched for their students. A school hiring committee or family looking for a tutor can contact the OGA to inquire if an individual is in the OGA directory and verify their membership level. From its inception, the OG Approach valued a supervised practicum when Anna Gillingham would sell her Gillingham Manual only to those who trained under her supervision (McClelland, 1989). A report titled Practice with Purpose: The Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise, Deans for Impact (2016) explains the importance of deliberate practice and valuing quality over quantity of training opportunities. They outline five principles of deliberate practice that are most relevant to developing an effective teacher:
- Pushing beyond the educator’s comfort zone
- Working toward well-defined, specific goals
- Focusing intently on practice activities
- Receiving and responding to high-quality feedback
- Developing a mental model of expertise refers to the teacher’s ability to self-monitor and improve their performance over time and a conceptual understanding of how students learn, grounded in cognitive science.
When I am asked, “What happens if we [the school district] spend the time and money to train staff in the OG Approach, and then those teachers leave for another job?” I often respond, “Can we afford not to train the staff working with our more vulnerable students at risk for or already experiencing reading failure?” It would be better to train an individual with the chance that they may leave for another position than not to train staff who stay. When there is a critical mass of educators trained in OG, which may take several years, seasoned OG teachers help new staff learn how to implement OG more easily, improving sustainability.
Holding high expectations for our students has a favorable effect on student growth (Gentrup, Lorenz, Kristen, Kogan, 2020); therefore, it stands to reason that schools of education and school leaders who uphold high standards for their pre-service teachers and staff may grow more competent and confident teachers. Recommendation #4: Outline clear, high expectations before beginning any professional learning endeavor. If a school pays for its staff to complete OG training (course and practicum), explain to their staff from the start that the expectation is to successfully complete the coursework and practicum resulting in OGA certification. For example, the Associate Level teacher’s final application is not ceremonial but an opportunity for an educator to further analyze data and reflect on their teaching. Districts may need to allocate time for educators to work on this application. It is often helpful if even one teacher in the district has completed this training and can speak to their experience to reassure teachers that while this professional training will require time and effort, it will yield remarkable results, and teachers will feel supported by having access to a mentor or OG Fellow throughout the practicum year(s). Additionally, some teacher prep programs would greatly help their education majors with direct, explicit instruction in professional writing (a skill all educators and most professionals will need), an applied understanding of the normal distribution to understand standardized assessment, and less time spent writing personal reflections.
Recommendation #5: Ongoing communication is key. If a school pays for its staff to complete OG training (course and practicum), plan to regularly speak with the OG Fellow/mentor about their staff’s progress. A phone call or meeting every few months is worthwhile so school leaders can better assist the OG Fellow with their mentoring. The Fellow can help school leaders identify strong educators who may be ready for more leadership responsibilities and even help to develop a teacher improvement plan if necessary. Ideally, this same level of honest, supportive dialogue should be applied to undergraduate and graduate advisors placing education majors in student-teaching placements.
The combined elements (listed below) give the OGA the reputation of being the gold standard for literacy instruction for individuals with dyslexia and, increasingly, for classroom instruction, too:
- Clear expectations outlining coursework and practicum requirements
- High expectations
- Robust coursework, requiring homework including a comprehensive reading list from a wide range of research topics related to literacy and dyslexia
- Supervised practicum with ongoing coaching and feedback
- Accountability at each stage in working toward the goal of certification
The Iowa Reading Research Center produced a superb podcast series, A Novel Idea: The History of the Science of Reading Movement, in June – July 2023. The fourth episode (Mechelke, 2023) in the series chronicles the development of the Orton-Gillingham Approach and its lasting impact on the Science of Reading movement. As Nina Lorimor-Easley, Assistant Director for Education and Outreach at the Iowa Reading Research Center, points out, “What [Sam Orton and Anna Gillingham] brought to the field was massive… the majority of the work that they’ve done is holding true. Science is moving, evidence is moving, we’re still moving forward, but most of their work is still holding true today.”
Individuals who choose a career in education deserve robust training in evidenced-based literacy instruction so they are prepared to be effective teachers. My hope for our children is that schools of education and other professional training organizations will look at the research on effective teacher training models and the OGA training model as an example. It is more time-consuming and less lucrative to provide the in-depth, personalized coaching involved in a supervised practicum, but it is precisely this job-embedded coaching that is necessary to learn and implement OG effectively. Not only has my own journey learning the OG Approach been meaningful and life-changing to my students, but the time, patience, and detailed feedback I received from my Supervising Fellows (with deep gratitude to Sheila Costello, Christine Evans, Marcella Fulmer, Jean Foss, Norma Jean McHugh, and Claire Pearson) gave me confidence in my own abilities as an educator. High standards lead to emotionally supportive instruction for students and educators alike.
Darling-Hammond, L., & Richardson, N. (2009). Research review/teacher learning: What matters. Educational leadership, 66(5), 46-53.
Deans for Impact (2016). Practice with Purpose: The Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise.
Austin, TX: Deans for Impact. Retrieved from https://www.deansforimpact.org/files/assets/practice-with-purpose.pdf
Ellis, C., Holston, S., Drake, G., Putman, H., Swisher, A., & Peske, H. (2023). Teacher Prep Review: Strengthening Elementary Reading Instruction. National Council on Teacher Quality. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED628762
Gentrup, S., Lorenz, G., Kristen, C., & Kogan, I. (2020). Self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom: Teacher expectations, teacher feedback, and student achievement. Learning and Instruction, 66, 101296.
Gillis, M. What research supports Orton–Gillingham? Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/articles/orton-gillingham-research
McCardle, P. E., & Chhabra, V. E. (2004). The voice of evidence in reading research. Paul H Brookes Publishing Co.
McClelland, J. (1989). Gillingham: Contemporary After 76 years. Annals of Dyslexia, 39, 34-49.
Mechelke, M. (Iowa Reading Research Center). (2023, June – July). A Novel Idea: The History of the Science of Reading Movement [Audio podcast]. https://irrc.education.uiowa.edu/resources/novel-idea-podcast
Yoon, K. S., Duncan, T., Lee, S. W. Y., Scarloss, B., & Shapley, K. L. (2007). Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement. issues & answers. rel 2007-no. 033. Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest (NJ1).