The Orton Gillingham Language Triangle

The work of Dr. Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham has lived on for almost a century, and has laid the foundation for many teaching techniques and multisensory procedures still in use today. The idea of multisensory teaching has been studied and practiced by many theorists, educators, and researchers, and perfected over time. This week's Blog focuses on the deep teaching of the alphabet letters and sounds, and their written form, through the Language Triangle, as put forth by Anna Gillingham, in correspondence with her work with Dr. Orton.

Ms. Gillingham illustrates the Language Triangle as follows:

Teaching the alphabet letters deeply involves several steps before mastery can be achieved:

  1. Students need to learn the names of the alphabet letters.
  2. Students need to learn the corresponding alphabet sounds for each letter.
  3. Students need to learn how to trace and then reproduce each alphabet symbol.
  4. Students need to learn how to match upper and lower case letters, and learn to recognize differing fonts.
  5. Students need to learn advanced letter cluster sounds (oa, ie).

In The Gillingham Manual, Ms. Gillingham writes: "In direct contrast to current practices, the Orton-Gillingham-Stillman approach starts with the individual sounds and then uses these sounds to build words. This "word-building method" also builds a close association or link between what the student sees in print (visual), what the student hears (auditory), and what the students feels as he or she makes the sounds of the letters and writes (kinesthetic - large muscle movements, and tactile - sensations in the mouth and on the fingertips). This technique is referred to as the "language triangle" or multisensory approach".



*Pictured from l to r: Lil' Reading Scientists TM Word Building Board #1; Lil' Reading Scientists TM Word Building Boards #3 & 4.


The Language Triangle focuses on three Associations:

Association 1 combines use of all three senses (visual, auditory, kinesthetic-tactile):

*Associating symbol to name of letter

*Associating symbol with sound of letter

*Associating symbol and feel of letter when spoken and written





Association 2 focuses on auditory training for oral spelling:

The teacher says a letter sound and the student tells the name of the letter







Association 3 focuses on written spelling:

*Associating the symbol with the kinesthetic experience of writing it

*Associating the writing of the letter with the visual symbol

*Associating the sound of the letter with the feel of writing it





In The Gillingham Manual, Ms. Gillingham states that: "Every phonogram (representation of a sound) is presented through each association (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic), and each association is linked and presented simultaneously. The individual pathway makes an imprint on the brain and thus strengthens the learning process".

The significance of Gillingham's Language Triangle is that it dissects and then re-assembles the multi-directional sensory pathways that can be stimulated. As teachers, I believe that we often tend to inadvertently and subconsciously focus on and teach through our own preferred sensory pathways, and skip those pathways with which we are less comfortable. Gillingham exposes the need to reinforce all available pathways - in a simultaneous manner - in order to awaken the brain, and create new connections.

Gillingham lays out specific procedures for each of the three Associations listed above in the Language Triangle, and provides some amount of scripted teacher verbiage. I will not include all of the steps in this Blog; however, I will discuss the important principles of the overall philosophy. The full set of procedures can be found in The Gillingham Manual, published by Educators Publishing Service.

  1. One of the goals of the three Associations is to translate letter symbols into sounds, in a rapid fashion, which "is the basis of oral reading" (Gillingham, The Gillingham Manual).
  2. Another goal is to teach the student to think about words as phonetic units, as opposed to ideograms which are thought of as wholes. 0
  3. Use keywords to teach correct letter sounds. Example 'a apple /a/". Students can rely on the keywords to prompt and figure out the correct corresponding letter sound.
  4. Don't add vowel sounds to consonants. For example: say /d/ instead of /da/.
  5. Teachers must know the correct pronunciation of each letter sound, and letter cluster.
  6. Encourage students to use the upper arm muscles when writing, to maximize the kinesthetic experience. Standing while writing on a chalk or white board will accomplish this goal.

Many simplified practices are in vogue today for teaching the alphabet in preschool, kindergarten, and even in non-structured remedial reading programs. Fads, such as "Letter of the Week", letters shaped like animals, letter people, and ipad apps for letter recognition, fail to teach the alphabet on a deep, sensory level.

*Pictured above: Lil' Reading Scientists TM Alphabet Keyword Cards with Alphabet Sign Language. Sign language adds another dimension to the kinesthetic/visual pathways.

The fact is, there is no replacement for deep sensory input. Children with reading issues require multi-level, multisensory, and multi-experience exposure, through explicit instruction, with the three associations of the Language Triangle, in order to master all of the layers and facets of the English orthographic alphabetic system. This very alphabetic system will be used by the student as the foundation for all written language tasks, and for reading itself. It must be solid and thoroughly processed.

All teachers of reading should know and master Gillingham's Language Triangle. It's just good teaching! Hopefully it will find its way into teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities, and will also be taught in stand-alone Orton Gillingham training programs.

Good teaching - good techniques - good knowledge of the science of reading - is the answer. The question is: Why are so many of our students struggling with literacy?

Jenelle Erickson Boyd, M.Ed., CDP, the Author of this BLOG, is a Certified Reading Specialist, a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner, a Certified Pre-3rd Grade Teacher, and a Certified Montessori Educator; an avid advocate of students with reading issues; a teacher trainer and school consultant; and a speaker at educational conferences. She is the Author of the Lil' Reading Scientists Literacy Solutions TM Orton Gillingham Curriculum. Jenelle can be reached via email at


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