How slow can you go?

For many Orton-Gillingham practitioners, the answer is not slow enough. We move as fast as we can and as slow as we must—the wisest words ever spoken when it comes to pacing. How do we as Orton-Gillingham practitioners know when we can move forward? What are the factors we take into consideration when adding new sounds? What is automaticity? One of the core principles of Orton-Gillingham is that we teach to mastery. However, pacing involves not only being solid with the concepts but being emotionally sound as well.


I think one of the most important attributes of a good OG practitioner is intuition. Our intuition is called upon throughout the lesson and is a function of the automaticity of the teacher’s skills. We are constantly making judgment calls. As the lesson unfolds, we are always reading the demeanor of the student, and their attitude and mental state always play into the choices we make during our sessions. We make snap decisions to make whatever changes are needed and are prepared for pretty much anything. I recall a student of mine who was frequently in distress, the cause varied from school stress to teenage angst. My well-thought-out session was often dumped for a chat, followed by oral contextual reading, and a root game. Contextual reading calmed her and reading aloud is fabulous for fluency, the card game works to solidify the morphology piece of the lesson. I know that had I pushed forward the lesson would have been a flop. We also use our intuition in lessons with no emotional upset. We have to know when the student really intellectualizes the concepts.  We watch for clues. We make choices based on their responses. 


How do we teach pacing to new tutors? Sadly, I don’t think we can. We learn from our experience. As a fellow tutor said, “I moved too fast and it came back and bit me in the butt”. How true is that statement! Assuming that the student knows a concept always leads to disaster. Let’s throw around a few ways to know that we really can move forward. What is mastery, when can we add the newest concept?


When you first test a younger student, it is easy to assume they know the vowel sounds it they demonstrated proficiency in the initial testing through a few correctly written words. I would say proceed with caution. Those words are often memorized, the individual sounds in isolation may not be solidified. I always start with short a. In a previous post, I wrote about short a. This is a crucial time to go slow and watch for the cues from your students. Can they easily snap the word together? No? Even if they can write the word, I caution you not to move forward. They need to move smoothly from one word to the next while reading. One standard of automaticity I was taught is that a list of 20 short a cvc words should be read in under 30 seconds with no more than two errors before moving forward. Running out of short a activities? Check out The Way to Short A  and Hal Sal Val to add to your bag of tricks.


In addition, when teaching reading to a younger student we need to check on those pre-reading skills. They include, but are not limited to, alphabet skills and all the components that fall under the umbrella of phonological awareness. These are crucial skills that I liken to the foundation of a house—if the foundation isn’t solid the house will collapse. If you are uncertain how to check for them, I encourage you to contact a seasoned OG professional in your area for further training. How many times have you worked with a 3rd grader and realized they can’t see patterns based on word families and rhyming? You were trying to move forward but sensed something was holding you back. Now your lessons include rhyming and sequencing. Imagine the aha! moment they will have when they both see and hear the patterns. You have once again shifted your pacing.


Nonsense words are a great way to determine if a student is solid with the short vowels. Multisyllabic nonsense words are hard, they make us think about syllable division and syllable types. They force a student to analyze the word to make it make sense. Unknown words are analyzed in the same way. This is a great tool to determine where your student needs to be.


So, when do you know when to move forward? If they can read the word does that mean they can spell it? Absolutely not. If they spell a word with -tion does that mean they will spell other words with /shun/ correctly? Nope. They need to read many words, write many words and be able to identify for themselves which /shun/ they need to use based on the generalizations you have taught them. Then and only then should you move forward. Since OG is cumulative, we will always be revisiting this concept. 


Pacing is crucial; sometimes slowing down or falling back is exactly what the student needs. One of the joys of being a trained Orton-Gillingham practitioner is that we have the luxury of writing our students’ lessons. We are not stuck in the constructs of a curriculum. If we have to stay with short a for a month, we can. If we need to circle back later, we can do that too. Orton-Gillingham is prescriptive and diagnostic. Use your intuition, trust your gut. If this all feels daunting to you, look in to some mentoring, get further training, and most importantly observe seasoned OG practitioners as they work their magic with their students. I can’t stress the importance of coaching and mentoring enough. 


happy pacing

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Karen Sonday - July 8, 2019

Pacing was one of my sister’s soapboxes. She made it very clear to me what automaticity looks like. Even so, I am constantly telling myself to slow down, overlearn, and as my mom likes to say “make haste slowly.”

Lou Ann Peterson - July 7, 2019

I completely agree with everything you mentioned about pacing! It is so important; moving to new conceits too quickly only leads to frustration for the student but for the tutor as well. I also agree with implementing nonsense words to ensure that skills have been mastered. So many students mask poor decoding skills because they have large banks of memorized vocabularies.

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