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Contrasting Literacy Approaches: Multisensory Method vs. Four Blocks Approach

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    The Orton-Gillingham approach to reading instruction is language-based and uses a multisensory approach to teaching the phonemic structure of the written language, specifically to people who are dyslexic.  There are three main features of this approach:

    1.                          Multisensory: In this feature, the teachings are based on action, using auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile elements.  Basically, the student learns through listening, looking, speaking, and writing.

    2.                          Cognitive: In this feature, the student is taught how to learn and apply the language knowledge that is needed.

    3.                          Structure, Sequence, and Cumulative: The elements of language are introduced systematically.  All sound and symbol associations, as well as language usage rules, are introduced in an understandable order.  Consonants, vowels, and blends are introduced in order.  After the basic elements of language are learned, advancement to syllable types and roots are introduced.  As new material is learned, the previous materials are constantly reviewed.

    The Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators (2006) states “the Orton-Gillingham approach has been the seminal and most influential intervention designed expressly for remediating the language processing problems of children and adults with dyslexia.”  Oakland, Black, Stanford, Nussbaum, & Balise (1998) made the following conclusion:

    “Three qualities are thought to facilitate reading development in these children: the provision of a highly structured phonetic-instruction training program with heavy emphasis on the alphabetic system, drill and repetition to compensate for short-term verbal memory deficits, and multisensory methods to promote nonlanguage mental representations.”

    Developed by Anna Gillingham and Samuel Orton, the Orton-Gillingham Multisensory Method differs from other reading methods by what is taught and how it is taught.  There are five steps in this form of literacy teaching.

    The first step is phonemic awareness.  A student must be taught how to listen to a word and break it down into separate phonemes.  Sounds must be blended into words.  Sounds must be changed, deleted, and compared.

    The second step is phoneme/Grapheme correspondence.  Teaching which sounds represent which letter or letters is accomplished at this point.  It also involves blending sounds to make simple words.

    In the third step, the six types of syllables of English words are taught.  Knowing the syllable types allows a student to know what sound the vowel will make.  The student also learns how the syllable should be spelled for the sound.

    The fourth step is to teach rules and probabilities.  Dyslexic students need to understand that there are several ways to spell similar sounds.  The fifth step is teaching roots and suffixes to expand vocabulary and comprehension of unfamiliar words.

    In teaching the Orton-Gillingham method, several techniques are utilized.  In dyslexic students, each of the following techniques can be used:

    1.                            Simultaneous Multisensory Instruction:  Seeing a letter, saying its name and sound, and writing it in the air, simultaneously, helps a beginning student to be able to store and retrieve the information being taught.

    2.                            Diagnostic Teaching:  A teacher must reevaluate a student’s understanding and application of the language rules.  If a previously learned rule is misused or misunderstood, it should be taught again.

    3.                            Intense Instruction with Extra Practice:  Dyslexic students need a more intense instruction regimen.  These students also need more practice, in comparison to regular readers.

    4.                            Explicit Instruction:  Dyslexic students need to be taught each and every governing language rule.  Each rule should be taught and practiced until the student is proficient.  Then another rule can be introduced.

    5.                            Synthetic and Analytic:  Synthetic teaching involves showing students how to take individual letters and sounds and form words.  Analytic teaching involves showing students how to take long words and break them down.  Both aspects must be incorporated into each lesson.

    6.                            Systematic and Cumulative:  In teaching dyslexic students, everything must be started from the beginning.  One rule should be introduced at a time and practiced, until the student is proficient.  Past taught rules should be incorporated into current and future lessons.

    Jo Ann Palmenti, a teacher, talks about working with dyslexic children.  She states the following about the Orton-Gillingham method (2000):

    “The Orton-Gillingham approach does more than teach reading, handwriting, spelling, and expressive writing.  The approach helps children and adults experience the success that has eluded them for so many years.  They gain the understanding that they are smart and talented.  This realization may take years but it does happen.”

    Patricia Cunningham’s Four Blocks approach to literacy involves four main processes, called blocks.  These blocks are: The Guided Reading Block, The Self-Selected Reading Block, The Writing Block, and The Words Block.  Cunningham believes in the importance of making each block multilevel, that is, available to students at any reading level.  Therefore, each block should be tailored to each child’s literacy needs.

    “Four Blocks is a Framework for Reading and Writing that includes all the components of a comprehensive instructional program.  We include teacher read-aloud and independent reading during the Self-Selected Reading Block.  Comprehension instruction is included during Working with Words.  Fluency is developed as children learn to read and spell high-frequency words during the Word Wall activity and when we do Repeated Readings during Guided Reading.  Writing instruction is included during the Writing Block.  Meaning vocabulary is taught during Guided Reading, especially when we include material during Guided Reading related to science and social studies.  Meaning vocabulary is also developed during Self-Selected Reading as children listen to what the teacher reads aloud and engage in regular independent reading” (Cunningham, Cunningham, & Allington, 2002).

    Eight years of research on using Four Blocks in teaching yields the following results:

    “At the end of first grade, 58%-64% of the children read above grade level (third grade or above), 22%-28% read on grade level, and 10%-17% read below grade level (pre-primer or primer).  On average, one child each year is unable to meet the instructional level criteria on the pre0primer passage.  At the end of second grade, the number at grade level is 14%-25%.  The number above grade level (fourth grade level or above) increases to 68%-76%.  The number reading below grade level drops to 2%-9%” (Cunningham, Hall, & Sigmon, 1999).

    The Guided Reading Block is used to expose children to a variety of literature, teach comprehension, and teach to read books at levels that increase.  This block is generally started with the teacher introducing or reviewing information relevant to the literature.  Comprehension is taught and practiced.

    “Students who read and reread passages orally as they receive guidance and/or feedback become better readers.  Repeated oral reading substantially improves word recognition, speed, and accuracy as well as fluency.  To a lesser but still considerable extent, repeated oral reading also improves reading comprehension.  Repeated oral reading improves the reading ability of all students throughout the elementary school years.  It also helps struggling readers at higher grade levels” (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001).

    There are several ways that a teacher can adapt this block to make it multilevel and ensure that each student’s literacy needs are met:

    1.                            Teachers can choose two selections for Guided Reading time.  One should be grade level.  The other should be at an easier level.

    2.                            Reread the chosen literature.  This allows the children who struggled in reading it the first time to have the opportunity to read it by the last time it is read.

    3.                            Use whatever accommodations are necessary in order to ensure that children get needed support.  This may include providing extra reading time, individual or small group meetings, or tutoring.

    The Self-Selected Reading Block usually starts with the teacher reading a selection aloud.  Students will then read on their own from the classroom’s book selections.  The teacher can take the opportunity to conference with several students during this time.  Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn (2001) state: “No research evidence is available currently to confirm that instructional time spent on silent, independent reading with minimal guidance and feedback improves reading fluency and overall reading achievement.”

    Self-Selected Reading is multilevel on its own because children are choosing the literature that they read.  They know what their own reading level is and choose what literature meets that level.  To aid in making this block as multilevel as possible, teachers can collect literature in a wide variety of levels and topics.

    The Writing Block allows children to choose their own topics to write about.  Children are using their own thoughts to present their topics.  The students that may be struggling during the reading blocks are gaining the knowledge of learning how to read on their own by writing in their own way of speaking.

    The Words Block teaches children to read and spell highly used words.  The wall of words activity helps children recognize each word introduced.  Students are also able to use the word wall words to spell and recognize similar sounding words.  All of the activities incorporated in the Words Block are universally multilateral by design.

    In contrasting Orton-Gillingham’s multisensory method to Cunningham’s Four Blocks approach, the differences on the two are apparent.  The multisensory method is designed to teach dyslexic people to read, using their senses.  The Four Blocks approach is structured to teach elementary aged children to read.  However, the similarities in both literacy methods are constant.  Learning to read beginning with phonics is the focus of both approaches.

    Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators, accessed Feb. 2007 at

    Armbruster, B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. (2001). Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read. National Institute for Literacy. [Electronic version]

    Cunningham, P., Cunningham, J., & Allington, R. (Sept. 2002) Research on the Components of a Comprehensive Reading and Writing Instructional Program [Electronic version]

    Cunningham, P., Hall, D., & Sigmon, C. (1999) The teacher’s guide to the fourblocks: A multimethod, multilevel framework for grades 1-3. Greensboro, NC: Carson-Dellosa Publication Company, Inc.

    The Four Block Literacy Model. What is the Four-Blocks®? Accessed Feb. 2007 at

    Oakland, T., Black, J., Stanford, G., Nussbaum, N., & Balise, R. (1998) An evaluation of the dyslexia training program: a multisensory method for promoting reading in students with reading disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities. 31(2): 140-147.

    Palmenti, J. (2000) Success is never boring. Dyslexia Online Magazine. Accessed Feb. 2007 at


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