What is mastery in an Orton Gillingham Lesson?

What is mastery in an Orton Gillingham Lesson?

I was recently asked by a school administrator to define mastery and to present it in written form. I have to admit the question set me back a bit. No one has ever asked me to quantify this, much less write it down. Where do I even begin? How do you define such an abstract concept? Coming from an Orton Gillingham background, mastery is not shown through running records, timed reading, or standardized tests. It is an intuitive process as the instructor and demonstrative for the student. After being given this task of defining mastery, I consulted my peers. They all had varying perspectives. But what was conclusive, no one thing screams, “This student has mastered this skill.” Mastery in reading may look different from the mastery of spelling, and most importantly, it looks different from student to student. 

When I first began my OG journey, I realized quickly, a considerable part of this teaching process depended heavily on my intuition — knowing how to present the materials in different ways to see how a student responds. Can they only read contextually, but they are unable to read in isolation? Does their spelling reflect their reading skills? What is missing in this student’s toolbox? My pacing plays a massive role in their mastery. Trusting your gut not to move forward, to stay put for a while, is not how traditional teaching works. We go against the predetermined curriculum; our students dictate the speed to their mastery.

Long before PA was a trend, the Fellow I trained under always included alphabet skills, rhyming, blending, segmenting, elision, RAN, and handwriting along with the typical reading and spelling evaluation in a typical intake session. Having knowledge of our student’s skills and adding activities to our OG lessons to refine those skills was commonplace. Without addressing the holes in these fundamental skills, mastery of reading and spelling would be slow. They need to hear the sounds before they can write the sounds; they need to understand phoneme/grapheme association; they need to isolate sounds and then blend them together. A student needs to form their letters correctly. So much goes into teaching a dyslexic person to read before we can even consider mastery. None of this hard work is easily charted; each day brings a new ah-ha moment for the practitioner, causing us to dig deeper into our bag of tricks.

So what does mastery look like to me? It means they can identify a concept by correctly reading and writing it. By this, I do not mean just five or six words; I mean lists of words read with accuracy smoothly. They can spell the words automatically. Younger students will read a decodable reader and be able to discuss the story. I feel we can work on comprehension skills even in a CVC short a book! For older students, this means layering the lists, moving from simple to complex. I think of mastery when the student is able to work through the process metacognitively. I believe firmly in using eliciting questions in my practice, never giving them the answer but walking them through the process to find it on their own. They then move to automaticity with the concept. When they can do this, they have reached mastery.

I asked a few colleagues how they quantify mastery. Here are a few of their responses:

  • smoothly reading a list of 15 CVC words in under 30 seconds with fewer than two errors
  • writing an irregular word correctly five lessons in a row
  • reading text at their level with fewer than five errors
  • reading with 90% accuracy
  • spelling with 85% accuracy
  • some boxed programs have a mastery checklist after 3 units, based on percentages


Once a student reaches mastery, this does not mean it is mastered forever. The beauty of OG is we are always circling back, practicing previous concepts. So often we come to a plateau, we need to hang out there awhile, perhaps looking at things a bit differently. Times like these occur when classroom work has been ramped up and stress levels are high, or maybe life is just a bit overwhelming. Reading and spelling for a dyslexic person is hard! I have been doing this for a long time, and I consider myself a pretty good instructor, but my dyslexia rears its head daily in my personal life. It actually just happened with the word plateau! I wrote it so many ways, and spell check still wanted to correct it with plate. So have I reached mastery there? Absolutely not. I will need to go search for other words that fall into that pattern just as I would for my students.     

So In conclusion, I don’t think mastery is easily defined. I do know that my job as a private practitioner, not working in a classroom setting or with small groups, allows me the luxury of working one on one with my students. I relish the opportunity to dig deep into the information I record on my individualized, annotated lesson plans. My lesson plans are riddled with notes. They include thoughts on the student's behavior, how they read, and how they were able to bring their errors to correction. By individualizing the lesson plans, we can guide our students to mastery. No two students are alike, nor should their lesson plans be. 

I am curious and hopeful that you will comment on what mastery looks like to you. 

happy mastery

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