Leading dyslexia treatment isn’t a magic bullet, studies find, while other options show promise

In 2019, a grassroots campaign led by parents succeeded in passing a wave of dyslexia legislation. At least seven states, from Arkansas to Wisconsin, now require teachers to be trained in the Orton-Gillingham teaching approach and use it to help students with dyslexia read and write better. Many more states mandated hallmarks of the Orton-Gillingham method, specifically calling for “multisensory” instruction.  In New York, where I live, the city spends upwards of $300 million a year in taxpayer funds on private school tuition for children with disabilities. Much of it goes to pay for private schools that specialize in Orton-Gillingham instruction and similar approaches, which families insist are necessary to teach their children with dyslexia to read.

But two recent academic papers, synthesizing dozens of reading studies, are raising questions about the effectiveness of these expensive education policies. A review of 24 studies on the Orton-Gillingham method, published in the July 2021 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Exceptional Children, found no statistically significant benefit for children with dyslexia. Instead, suggesting a way forward, a review of 53 reading studies, led by University of Virginia researcher Colby Hall and published online September 2022 in Reading Research Quarterly, found that much cheaper reading interventions for children with a variety of reading difficulties were also quite effective for children with dyslexia.

There’s no litmus test for dyslexia and education experts say the diagnosis covers a range of reading problems. Orton-Gillingham is one of the oldest approaches to help struggling readers, dating back to the 1930s, and it explicitly teaches letters and sounds, and breaks words down into letter patterns. It also emphasizes multisensory instruction. For example, students might learn the letter “p” by seeing it, saying its name, and sounding it out while tracing it in shaving cream.

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