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Orton-Gillingham vs. Wilson Reading Systems

In 2013 according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 65% of American fourth graders and 64% of eighth graders in public schools tested below basic or at a basic reading level. With results such as these, it’s no surprise that learning how to read can be overwhelming for many students. It can be especially daunting for those with dyslexia. These students need more than basic classroom instruction; they must be taught methodically, step by step to fully comprehend language and reading in order to achieve literacy.


The Orton-Gillingham method is mainly intended for people who have difficulty with reading, writing, and spelling often associated with dyslexia. Distinct from more rigid approaches, Orton-Gillingham allows for the flexibility that many dyslexic students benefit from. The basics of language are taught through all three learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.

Because dyslexia inhibits understanding of written language, students must be directly taught every rule for writing and reading. Orton-Gillingham begins by teaching the basics of language – individual letters, sounds, etc. – and moves students to more complex material as they master each lesson. Research shows that dyslexic individuals are better able to understand and retain information when they use all their senses to learn: a beginning student using the Orton-Gillingham approach might see the letter C, say it out loud, and write it down all at the same time. Learning this way allows dyslexic students to realize the logic behind written language and equips them with the skills to use it.

The instructional methods that define the Orton-Gillingham approach originate from studies on how people learn to read and write, why a large number have difficulty doing so, how dyslexia makes attaining literacy difficult, and which practices are best suited for teaching such individuals to read and write. Since Orton-Gillingham focuses on the needs of the individual student, it is most often used in a one-on-one setting, but it also has proven success in small groups and classrooms.

Wilson Learning System

The Wilson Reading System (WRS) is based on the Orton-Gillingham approach. It is designed for students in grades 2 through adulthood who have specific trouble with reading and spelling. Designed by Barbra Wilson, WRS is a structured remedial program that teaches writing and reading to students who have not had success with other programs, and those who have specific learning difficulties like dyslexia.

The program aims to teach students alphabet principles (sound-symbol relationships) through five main elements: (1) phonemic awareness, (2) instruction of word analysis, prosody, and comprehension, (3) reading and spelling instruction, (4) cumulative instruction, and (5) teaching for mastery. To encourage learning, students are involved in various activities including hearing sounds, practicing with flash cards, listing to others read, and reading aloud themselves.

Every Wilson Reading System lesson has the same ten parts based on the specific needs of the student. Ideally, students meet with a teacher 3 – 5 times a week for 60 – 90 minute sessions, one-on-one or in small groups. Depending on frequency, it can take students from 2 – 3 years to complete the entire 12-step program.


The Orton-Gillingham approach has been supported by multiple studies and is proven successful for students with dyslexia. The Wilson Reading System was found to have positive effects for students where previous programs had failed, but research has not been able to determine specific effects on comprehension. A longitudinal study found the Orton-Gillingham more effective than the Wilson Reading System because it allows for flexibly and is understood better by students. Overall, it seems that the Orton-Gillingham should be the first step towards helping students with dyslexia learn how to read; however, the WRS can be a useful tool for students with more specific learning needs who have been unsuccessful in other programs.