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Rethinking the Approach to Solving America’s Literacy Challenge

What Works & What Doesn't

Our attempts to solve this country’s literacy challenge through traditional educational channels have experienced and continue to experience success, sometimes dramatic and sometimes less so, but always requiring a master teacher and time—often a lot of time. What we haven’t done is try to approach the challenge from a different angle. This article is written to introduce a new, innovative approach to this long-standing problem, an approach that can be used by experienced and inexperienced teachers and even parents who wish to help their own children who struggle with literacy, guaranteeing fidelity to a model regardless of the facilitator or his/her personal level of training.

The good news is we know how to teach children to read. For centuries, we have effectively been teaching all types of children to read, and we have even created and adopted effective approaches to teaching children with learning differences and challenges—now we have evidence-based approaches. Many of our best-known evidenced approaches are based on the Orton-Gillingham methodology. The Orton-Gillingham (OG) methodology, designed by Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham over 50 years ago, is a phonic, multisensory method used to teach children with dyslexia and other reading challenges to read. OG itself is not a curriculum but rather a way of teaching. There are many reading programs that use the OG methodology that are recommended for students with dyslexia or anyone who has difficulty reading the words on the page. The key elements of any curriculum that uses the OG approach are:

  • Comprehensive: Every letter, every sound, every sound-letter combination, rules for spelling, rules for decoding, and word frequencies are taught using specific rules.
  • Explicit and Direct Instruction: Every detail is taught directly. There is nothing left to chance that students must figure out themselves.
  • Multisensory: All new concepts are taught using auditory, visual and kinesthetic (movement/touch) teaching methods.
  • Mastery: Each piece of instruction is taught until the student can automatically recall and use the sound-letter combinations, decoding and spelling rules, syllabication, etc. without hesitation before moving to the next concept.

What we have realized is that the solution to solving America’s literacy challenge is not in understanding how to teach children to read but in providing teachers and parents with this knowledge and ensuring that they are taught with fidelity. Teachers, schools and school districts continue to fail to ensure that all of our students are reading by fourth grade for two simple reasons: 1) it’s too costly to train all teachers, and 2) there’s no guarantee that teachers who were trained will understand or apply the approach with fidelity.

This realization has led a few of us to ask the question of how a non-educator (e.g., a frustrated parent like Tine, who felt helpless when she couldn’t support her struggling eight-year old dyslexic son) would take a different approach to tackling America’s literacy crisis and helping struggling students to read. Understanding that the solution already exists but is out of reach for the non-educator, and that traditional training models are costly and have limited success, a social entrepreneur would approach the problem by taking an existing evidence-based model and creating direct access for the student, the parent and the teacher. Clayton Christensen ( would characterize this as the beginning of a disruptive innovation in which the nonconsumer (a dyslexic student) of traditional education becomes the catalyst for the creation of a better product. Because the traditional setting and approach didn’t work for that nonconsumer, a different approach was demanded that forced innovators to seek new methods that could eventually replace traditional education models and become the standard practice.

In the case of solving America’s literacy challenge, we already have the disrupter, Mary Schuler. The Schuler methodology is based on Orton-Gillingham, crossing OG’s general guidelines with the Wilson Reading System’s more detailed instruction of ALL phonic sounds from Orton-Gillingham. Different from OG and Wilson, however, Schuler’s innovation is the Vowel Reference Card, which on one sheet gives students the most common vowel sounds, enabling them to read and spell the most common words in the English language. Because this method not only teaches common words but also teaches general phonics principles and rules, reading can be mastered at the third- or fourth-grade level. More than that, however, students are given the tools to read and spell words at much higher grade levels. Because Schuler’s phonics approach is simpler, more rapid and less expensive, it can allow for training more teachers and parents and educating more students in less time whether they are normally skilled, advanced or literacy challenged. However, the model in itself still cannot ensure that teachers and parents, once trained, will apply it with fidelity.

Therefore, the remaining question regarding this disruption is how to scale and/or replicate it in traditional school and home settings with fidelity, and this question forces us to ask what an effective literacy teacher does that can be transferred to inexperienced teachers or parents. We know that an effective literacy teacher follows an approach like Schuler’s that is based on OG. More importantly, an effective literacy teacher can take information from a student’s responses and then adapt his/her teaching to fill the student’s instructional gaps. What we needed to figure out was how this approach and that effective teacher’s knowledge could be put into the hands of parents and inexperienced teachers.

Schuler decided to partner with the gaming industry to ask the question of whether it could resolve the sometimes broken auditory feedback loop that occurs between student and teacher, and our solution was to put the Schuler approach into an online platform that includes that student/teacher feedback loop. Through our exploratory stage, we determined that it was in fact feasible to develop software that can take in the user’s speech and analyze it, and then provide that user with meaningful feedback. We also determined that we could give users insight into their own speech. The feedback would come in multiple forms including telling and showing them how to shift their tongue to the correct position to create the correct sound.

Over the next year, Philadelphia Gaming Lab partnered with Schuler to build supporting software around a highly modular structure that follows an evidence-based scope and sequence. At the core of the instruction system is simplicity and being user-friendly, to drive participation in a learner-directed context as well as in the classroom. The play context of this system should be inherent in how students interact with the application rather than depending on external (non-intrinsic) elements. Using the system should be a playful experience that is directly tied to learning.

We can now report that we have achieved success: The model will soon be available directly to parents, teachers, classrooms and schools—all that’s needed is access to a computer or portable device. The simplicity of the model puts the knowledge that usually only master teachers have into the hands of parents and less experienced teachers, to guide students to read with minimal support. As the digital divide continues to shrink, soon all students will have access to this evidence-based, structured approach, and soon all students will be reading.

Author Bios<
Nicholas Torres is a Teach for America elementary school teacher and the CEO of Education Plus Academy Cyber Charter School, which specializes in educating students with learning differences and disabilities.
Mary Schuler is a Master Special Education teacher and the developer of the Schuler approach to phonics.
Tine Hansen-Turton is the mother of a dyslexic child who is reading because of the Schuler approach.