Why Is Structured Literacy Missing From So Many Teacher Programs?

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December 2017

By Terri Hessler

If your child is in an Orton-Gillingham (OG) tutoring program or in a school utilizing OG, or if you are at all familiar with the IDA’s list of accredited university reading programs, you have probably wondered why OG training isn’t a part of more teacher training programs for future reading teachers, specialists, and early grades teachers. The answer to that question is a bit complex but there are three big issues that boil down to how, where, and by whom OG and other reading programs were developed.

The OG approach we know today is based on a method developed by Anna Gillingham, who was a psychologist and research associate of Dr. Samuel Orton, a medical doctor who worked with children with reading difficulties. He used the then 25-year-old term congenital word blindness to describe their condition but today we call it dyslexia (Henry & Brickley, 1999; Orton, 1929). Orton, Gillingham—and later, Bessie Stillman, a school principal and friend of Gillingham—developed the Orton-Gillingham method, an explicit, multisensory, structured language approach to teaching reading. Orton was aware that the new teaching method of the time—the whole language approach—was problematic for these children. He even published an article in an educational psychology publication when phonics instruction was about to be forbidden in favor of these new, progressive, “whole-word” reading programs, one of the many shots fired in what would become known 50 years later as the Reading Wars.

Emphasis of Literacy Approaches

Structured Literacy

  • Sounding out decodable words; reading by sight only non-decodable words
  • Guessing is not considered reading
  • Decodable text for reading practice; access to high-quality literature and stories from varied cultures by being read to
  • Forcing reading is not beneficial because it can lead to frustration and a growing dislike of reading
  • Letter-sound correspondence taught so that decodable words can be recognized in text
  • Teaching children the entire structures of words and word part meanings


Whole Language

  • Reading by sight (recognizing whole words, rather than sounding out)
  • Guessing a word based on pictures nearby
  • Guessing a word based on context
  • High-quality literature with characters and stories from varied cultures over a child’s reading level
  • A constructivist approach resulting in meaning making in reading
    • For example, a child may approach the word house in the text and, based on the first letter, the picture, and the context, read home; a teacher with a whole language approach may deem this acceptable reading

There are a few possible explanations for the continued presence—indeed explosion—of the reading programs that became known as whole language. One is that professors who developed these programs became invested in them, and in turn, their graduate students championed them, especially if they participated in developing them. Those graduates who went on to become professors in other schools of education took them with them to their new universities and/or teachers colleges and used them in teaching their students who were pre-service teachers, thus spreading the reading component of the progressive movement. Reading Wars is a disappointing but accurate term for the long-running feud between what has simplistically been called whole-language versus phonics instruction. This feud, for the most part, occurred in higher education, but the casualties were—and are—real: teachers and children in the classroom (as well as their families!). Because Orton was a medical clinician and professor of psychology, his work was likely not known in colleges of education (Henry, personal communication). In addition, when Gillingham, and later Stillman, field-tested and wrote their reading instruction approach (Gillingham & Stillman, 1997), they were not associated with a university or teachers college. As a result, their reading program spread to other schools, not by teacher educators but by other psychologists who studied with and under Dr. Orton at the state university hospital he founded (Orton, 1963).

Related to this explanation is the idea that the progressive movement grew out of a response to the formal tradition of education in which the authoritarian teacher holds a broad base of knowledge, and who is also associated with being a strict disciplinarian (Semel & Sadovnick, 2008). The teacher as friend and facilitator may have been much more popular in attracting the numbers needed to teach the country’s growing number of students in post-World War II’s population explosion.

Fortunately, the tide is slowly turning as some colleges of education in institutes of higher education (IHEs) have finally recognized that dyslexia is a real learning difference that can be mitigated and/or remediated with evidence-based reading instruction. The International Dyslexia Association recognizes those IHEs and their programs that incorporate the IDA Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading. Since 2012, IDA has been credentialing IHE programs that incorporate those standards, which define what all teachers need to know and be able to do to teach individuals to read proficiently. As more and more programs incorporate these standards, more teachers will be able to meet the needs of students with dyslexia and fewer of them will be left out of the general education curriculum.

(For a fuller treatment of this topic, see “Calling a Truce in the Reading Wars: How One University Reached Common Ground,” by Terri Hessler and Dorothy Morrison, in the Fall 2016 issue of Perspectives in Language and Literacy.)


Gillingham, A., & Stillman, B. W. (1997). The Gillingham Method. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service.

Henry, M. K., & Brickley, S. G. (1999). Dyslexia…Samuel T. Orton and his legacy. Baltimore, MD: The International Dyslexia Association.

Semel, S. F., & Sadovnik, A. R. (2008). The contemporary small-school movement: Lessons from the history of progressive education. Teachers College Record, 110(9), 1744-1771.

Orton, J. (1963). The Orton story. Bulletin of the Orton Society (now Annals of Dyslexia), 13(1), 1-6.

Orton, S. T. (1929). Sight reading as a source of reading disability. The Journal of Educational Psychology, 20(2), 135-143.

Dr. Terri Hessler is an associate professor of special education at The Ohio State University at Newark. Her research interest involves interventions to improve academic performance for children with high incidence disabilities, especially those with dyslexia, as well as those considered at risk for being identified as having high incidence disabilities. Prior to her experience in higher education, she taught English/language arts to adolescents and was a resource teacher for adolescents with specific learning disabilities.



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