Orton Gillingham and Alphabet Sign Language – It’s Multisensory!

One of the core principles of The Orton Gillingham Approach is simultaneous multisensory instruction. Using VAKT techniques, teachers can target any two or more of the visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic sensory modalities concurrently. Educational theorists and researchers, such as Montessori, Fernald, and Gillingham, have used multisensory instruction for over one hundred years, with stellar success. Dr. Montessori believed that teachers should "never give more to the mind than to the hand".

As a Montessori certified educator, as well as an Orton Gillingham certified Practitioner, I am a deep believer in multisensory instruction. Hands-on activities and exercises help the student to focus and deeply process the lesson to be learned. Motor memory plays a large part in the automaticity of knowledge and recall. Actions truly do speak louder than words.

In 1980, after my graduation from Montessori Pre-Primary Training, I created a literacy/ language program for students at the Montessori school that I had founded. I wasn't aware at the time of the striking parallels between the Montessori Method and the Orton Gillingham Approach! It would be years before I discovered the similarities, both in philosophy and in technique. In creating the literacy program for my school, I sequenced the alphabet letters into a logical sequence, around the ability to create short vowel CVC words, starting with short A. Having an organization to the order of introduction made sense at the time, and I was elated to later learn that Anna Gillingham had done the same!

Several years later, my child was diagnosed with dyslexia, and I learned about the Orton Gillingham Approach. After completing my Orton Gillingham certification, I decided to author a structured, explicit, sequential, multisensory Orton Gillingham curriculum (called Lil' Reading Scientists TM) and I decided to utilize the same order of introduction that I had created for my school in 1980, since it was already explicit, sequential, structured, and ordered from simple to more complex.

When creating my Orton Gillingham-based curriculum, I searched for a way for students to be able to account for each letter and/or sound in a word. Wilson has their finger-to-thumb tapping method. Other OG programs use arm tapping, finger tapping on a desk, or fist pounding. I wanted to find an original method of accounting for each letter/sound in words when encoding and decoding. That's when I remembered.........alphabet sign language!

As a child, I had learned the American Manual Sign Alphabet in Girl Scouts. I immediately tried to remember how to sign the alphabet. Eureka! Motor memory served me well, even 40 years later! Never underestimate the amazing power of motor memory!

Using the American Manual Sign Alphabet to Teach Letter Sounds:

The American Manual Sign Alphabet can be used to teach the alphabet letters and sounds. Many of the alphabet hand signs actually look like the alphabet symbols. To apply the use of the American Manual Hand Signs to an Orton Gillingham program when teaching alphabet sounds, say the whole keyword phrase - letter name, keyword, then sound - (i.e. "a apple /a/"), and make the hand sign for the letter a when you say the sound of the letter. Always pair the hand sign with the sound! This pairing technique will help students to recall the sound when making or seeing the hand sign. I often prompt students for the correct letter sound in a word by silently making the corresponding hand sign. Students then can easily recall the sound. This technique is highly successful!

Using the American Manual Hand Signs to Teach Decoding and Encoding:

When teaching early encoding and decoding skills, teach the students the Alphabet hand signs to the point of mastery, ideally as you are teaching and reviewing letter sounds. Then use the alphabet hand signs to finger spell words. For instance, to decode the word "cab", look at the printed word and make the hand sign for the letter c while saying "/c/". Then make the hand sign for the letter a while saying "/a/". Then make the hand sign for the letter b while saying "/b/". Then blend the three sounds together by saying the whole word.

To encode the word "cab", show a picture of a cab, and sound out the word while making the corresponding hand signs. For instance, say "/c/" while making the letter c hand sign. Then say "/a/" while making the letter a hand sign. The say "/b/" while making the letter b hand sign. Then blend the sounds together by saying the whole word.

Alphabet Hand Signs Hold Students Accountable:

American Manual Alphabet Signs help students to stop adding and omitting letters in words. Just like finger tapping or fist pounding, students need to make one action per letter or letter cluster seen in a word, when decoding. Therefore, when looking at a word to decode, students need to make an action of a hand sign for every letter (or letter cluster) seen.

For encoding, students need to make an action of a hand sign for every sound heard. Utilizing the Alphabet Hand Sign technique keeps students accountable, and eliminates the error of adding and omitting letters in reading and spelling.

Going One Step Further: Using Gesture Sign Language to Teach Alphabet Sounds:

In my private practice, I currently work with a student who is severely dyslexic, and has very poor short term memory and recall. He has had a difficult time learning the vowel team sounds and keywords. He has been in reading therapy with me for three years. One of his main hobbies outside of school is baseball. He has been teaching me about baseball over the period of time that we have worked together. One day, he showed me the gesture signs that his team uses to plan their plays. In my crazy teacher brain, I immediately thought "If he can learn these baseball signals with ease, how can I harness that ability with the vowel team sounds and keywords?" I then read an article on the power of motor memory, and I began thinking about employing gesture sign language, along with the alphabet hand signs, to represent the keywords. I researched the gestures for the keywords that I use in my OG curriculum, and then inserted them in the keyword phrases, and it worked like magic! is a picture of the keyword phrase for the 'ai' vowel team, with 'rain' as the keyword.

For instance, my keyword for the vowel team 'ai' is the word 'rain'. The sign language gesture for the word 'rain' is to spread the fingers of both hands out at shoulder height and move the fingers while moving both hands down, to signal falling rain. So for the vowel team 'ai', which makes the long /a/ sound, our keyword phrase looks like this:

Step 1: Make the alphabet hand sign for 'a' and say the letter name.

Step 2: Make the alphabet hand sign for 'i' and say the letter name.

Step 3: Make the gesture sign for the word 'rain' and say 'rain'.

Step 4: Say the sound that the vowel team make: long /a/, while making the sign for the letter a.

Adding the gesture sign language for the keyword has been of tremendous benefit to my student! According to Marilyn Daniels, in her book Dancing With Words, sign language is perceived and processed in the right hemisphere as visual input, and then processed in the left hemisphere as language. Sign language assists the two hemispheres of the brain in working together in language tasks. Since dyslexics favor the use of the right hemisphere, sign language proves to be a useful tool for their learning profile.

I know of other OG programs which employ arbitrary hand signs or gestures for the alphabet letters and their sounds. I feel that the use of the American Manual Sign Alphabet is a better option for this task. First of all, American Sign Language is recognized as a foreign language by many universities. Students who know the hand signs are on their way to real-life communication with the deaf population. Second, many of the American Manual Alphabet Signs look like their corresponding letters, which helps to reinforce the correspondence between signs and letter symbols.

The Lil' Reading Scientists TM Orton Gillingham Curriculum contains activities and worksheets with ASL. Please visit our store on Teachers Pay Teachers, to view it.

For further information on the use of alphabet hand signs and gestures in literacy instruction, please read Marilyn Daniels' book, as cited above. Her insights are incredibly motivating in regard to assisting dyslexics with the arduous task of learn how to read and spell.

Jenelle Erickson Boyd, M.Ed., Author of this Blog, is a Certified Reading Specialist and a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner through the International Dyslexia Association, and certified in Montessori Education and P-3 Teaching. She is an avid advocate of students with reading issues, and a conference speaker, as well as a teacher trainer. Jenelle is the Author of the OG Curriculum called Lil' Reading Scientists TM.

To contact Jenelle, please email her at

To view the Lil' Reading Scientists TM Orton Gillingham curriculum, please visit our website at, and our Teachers Pay Teachers Store: Lil' Reading Scientists Orton Gillingham.