So obviously, we believe very much in the power of Orton-Gillingham (OG) instruction. But we have been around long enough to know that sometimes, for whatever reason students just don't make the progress we expected. So the questions we always come back to are: Why does this happen? and What can we do about it?
In looking at these questions systematically we often come back to the idea of executive functioning - the brain's ability to systematically plan and organize in order to achieve the desired goal.
1. The intervention isn't working because the student doesn't believe any goal is necessary.
We certainly don't intend to come right out of the gate and blame lack of progress on the student because in many cases that would be an entirely false assumption. However, we need students to take ownership over their learning. In order to be truly successful, the student needs to want to learn how to read more successfully. This seems simple, but quite frankly, some students just do not have any desire to progress their reading ability because they feel like they don't need help and are just fine where they are at. When this happens remediation can be a long and difficult process that often doesn't yield the type of results we would expect.
One of the first things we must consider is whether the student simply has or has not bought into the notion that they need help. At the most basic level, is the student doesn't believe they need help - the brain is not recognizing that a goal even exists. If we have no goal, we cannot have cognitive processes in place to help us reach that goal. This is the breakdown of executive functioning at the very base of the concept.
2. The student has not received adequate supports for their working memory deficits.
As an interventionist, it can be very challenging when a student has poor working memory because we need to find a way to move information from short-term memory storage into long-term memory storage for later retrieval. For students with poor working memory, they aren't able to hold onto information long enough to adequately move all of the information into long-term storage. This means that we, as interventionists, need to provide specific strategies or supports to help the information stick.
Now here - we also don't want to take on the notion that all students could have vastly stronger short-term memory if they just had the right supports. As far as we can tell with current research, the brain's short-term memory capacity is much like that of a computer it has a set amount of RAM and when the storage is full it takes a ton of work to figure out how to resave files in a more efficient way in order to get more information to hang out in that short-term storage area. We know as interventionists that remediation will take much longer because of the added need for repetition for students with poor working memory.
3. The student is unable to distinguish whether or not he or she is understanding the material.
Metacognition is a huge aspect of executive functioning and basically just means the ability to recognize whether or not you get something. When a student recognizes that they are struggling with a specific part of an OG lesson it can be incredibly valuable to have that awareness because the brain is more apt to continue rewiring and molding when it knows the achieved result has not yet been met. When a student thinks they understand a concept, when in reality, they don't the brain has tucked that file away in the "completed tasks" pile even though that particular task still needs work. Asking students to continue to be aware of their own depth of understanding of a concept helps immensely with the brain's ability to recognize that continued work is necessary to reach the end goal. It's the whole idea of "do you know that you don't know?" because that is a huge step up from "I don't know that I don't know."
While there are a number of other contributing factors to why OG might not be getting your student to where he or she should be, these are the three top reasons that weak executive functioning may be impacting optimal growth.
So what can we do?
1. Work to get buy-in from your student.
This often comes through solid rapport building and an understanding that you display for your student's frustrations. If you cannot gain buy-in, consider waiting until they are ready. If you begin the program before they are ready, you are risking shut-down, burnout, and the loss of future opportunity to really get through to him or her in a powerful and meaningful way.
2. Provide working memory supports wherever possible.
Determine whether your student is a visual, auditory, tactile, or kinesthetic learner. From there work with your student to find memory supports that really work for them. For a visual learner - it might be having a reference card to help them remember specific rules or phonograms. For an auditory learner, it may be a mnemonic or auditory cue. For a tactile learner, it may be using multiple opportunities to write the information down in meaningful ways. For a kinesthetic learner, it might be using sand paper or having them hold an interact with an object that will tie meaning to a pattern (e.g., holding a toy boat and manipulating the boat to help them remember the "oa" phonogram pattern).
3. Work to develop metacognitive skills in their learning.
Hold your student accountable for recognizing words they do not know, patterns they do not know, or rules they do not know. Congratulate them for their correct recognition of struggle (e.g., "Wow Joe, I am so impressed that you recognized you didn't understand the meaning of that sentence. What is the specific word or phrase that is tripping you up so we can dig a little deeper?) and then reward the recognition by looking up the word that caused struggle on the internet or agree to play a game during the next session to further solidify a rule they weren't understanding.