The Science of Reading: How Ellis’ Unconventional Approach Leads to Strong Literacy Skills

Ellis second graders Crystal and Julia have a good reason for enjoying their reading class: The more they can read, the more they can know about the world.
"I like reading and learning new words,” Crystal says. “When you do the sounds, it helps because you know how to say all the words in the book.” Julia agrees and adds, "Reading helps you learn other things.”

The girls are students in Ellis Reading Specialist Amy Hieber’s small group reading instruction. Ms. Hieber—like all classroom teachers of students in kindergarten through grade 2 at Ellis—uses the science of reading, specifically the Orton-Gillingham Approach, to teach students to read and to strengthen their literacy skills.

"The way we teach reading here is really exciting. This is something truly unique to Ellis,” says Head of Lower School Jamie Schiff, Ph.D. "This is not part of the typical curriculum at most schools. We offer it to every child, and it sets them up for success across all aspects of reading, throughout the rest of their time at Ellis, and into their future schooling.”

Orton-Gillingham (OG) is a science-based approach to teaching reading and writing that is often deployed when students experience difficulty mastering these skills. It was developed from research about how the brain learns to read and write, why many people have difficulty learning these skills, and the instructional practices that have proven to help students overcome these challenges. This instruction breaks reading and spelling into more targeted skills focused on letters and sounds and then builds on those skills. Small group instruction is key to this approach, as is pacing lessons based on the participating students’ individual strengths and weaknesses.

Whereas many schools only use this approach to help students who struggle with literacy skills, Ellis uses it as a primary method of direct reading instruction for all students, regardless of their natural ability. Phonics instruction, decoding, and sight word recognition are all taught using Orton-Gillingham methods, while comprehension and vocabulary acquisition are reinforced through Ellis' integrated curriculum.

"The OG approach is very systematic, very structured, and very multisensory,” Ms. Hieber says. She uses a variety of exercises in her small group classes that emphasize the way letters and letter combinations sound and feel. In one exercise, Ms. Hieber speaks a letter sound and the students have to draw the letters in a small sandbox. Another exercise is the three-part drill, where Ms. Hieber shows the students three flashcards, each with different letter combinations, and asks them to sound out the word. Sometimes it’s a real word and sometimes it’s a nonsense word—after the students say it, they have to tell her the difference.

"The nonsense word piece is important because it shows they can apply correct sounds to a word they’ve never seen before,” she says. "They know that no matter the context, it’s going to make the same sound.”

Ms. Hieber says the approach is something she deeply believes in and that she is glad to see a growing enthusiasm for using it as part of general instruction.

"I think this method sets students up really well for having strategies for reading unknown words. In other schools where I’ve taught, they’ve taught something called the three cueing system, which is looking at the first letter or two and guessing what the word might be. The OG approach helps us take the guessing out of it. Our students use their knowledge instead of looking at pictures or trying to guess what a word might be. We can say to them, ‘You have the knowledge you need to figure out what this word is.’"
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