Burgin took her training with IMSE last fall as part of a district-wide offering in which more than 300 teachers across Arlington Public Schools were trained in the multi-sensory, structured literacy program.

Burgin is a National Board Certified Teacher who was named the 2016 Arlington Public Schools Teacher of the Year.

Jennifer Burgin of Arlington Public Schools in Virginia.

Typically a second and third grade teacher, last year Burgin said she was asked to take over a kindergarten class — a first for her.

“It was real paradigm shift,” she said. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘I know I have some tricks, I know I have some strategies, but how do I really make it work for young learners?’ Because I have taught children to learn from their reading, but I had never specifically taught a child how to read before.”

The Orton-Gillingham approach was developed in the 1930s by a neurologist named Dr. Samuel T. Orton and an educator named Anna Gillingham primarily for children with reading difficulties and dyslexia. The approach has been researched, used, tested, and proven to be beneficial for all children learning to read.

The flexible, language-based literacy technique hinges on multi-sensory learning components, and is structured, sequential and cumulative.

In 2017, district administrators from Arlington schools told the IMSE Journal they hoped the training would help give teachers additional, proven tools to make more connections with students who are dyslexic. However, general education teachers like Burgin said that over the past year, IMSE’s Orton-Gillingham methodology has been effective for all her students — high achievers, average students, English Language Learners and struggling students alike.

Burgin’s 24 students have represented 12 different languages, including multiple dialects within a single language, such three students who each spoke a slightly different version of Arabic — one being from Egypt, one from Iraq and another from Saudi Arabia.

“The training helped me realize that I had to start with letter names and letter sounds,” she said. “Once I realized that when you teach reading you’re not just teaching words upfront, that you have to teach kids how to sound things out, I had no idea where I was going to begin.”

“The skills have been incredible for reinforcing the learners who already came in with a lot of alphabet knowledge — but it was extremely helpful for my friends who were having a real struggle learning English,” Burgin said. “By the end of the school year, all of my students mastered every single letter and sound — and these were kids who have not even spoken [English] for a year and I was getting them to read using the skills I had been taught [with IMSE].”

Much of the beginning of the kindergarten year is spent working on the Virginia Standards for letter sounds, letter recognition and letter writing, Burgin said, meaning she knew she needed to quickly get some new, and effective, tools under her belt.

“Once I took my OG training, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m blending, I’m segmenting, I’m teaching them reading skills so that when I put a book in front of them, all the little skills we’ve practiced are put into application.’ It all of a sudden made sense and there was a path laid out before me, almost like it was this yellow brick road, and I just follow this and it will take me to the next piece.”

Now, Burgin’s OG training from IMSE drives her whole group language arts and phonics block, she said, building upon a new letter of the day.

“The skills are so rich that it really drives our whole English and language arts block when we’re looking at strategies,” she said. “When we’re talking about phonics these skills that we all have in common are what’s driving us. It’s powerful to have a common language.”

Using the strategy with her whole class, though IMSE’s Orton-Gillingham training has proven to be especially useful for students with a range of learning abilities, has also helped to create a sense of “equity” among her learners, Burgin said. Going through the procedures and practices together has fostered a culture of excitement toward learning, while also minimizing shame for students who have struggled with reading in the past.

“It puts it out like, ‘Hey, whether you’ve heard it or not, we’re all here, we’re all spending time observing and analyzing this letter. We’re all making the symbol in the sand, we’re talking about the sound, and then we’re going to constantly cycle,'” she said. “So if today the letter is ‘J,’ for the children who knew J, they were very excited, and for kids who didn’t know J, there was no shame in that. I would show all of them J, so whether kids were writing about it or talking about it, it was very equitable because everyone engages.”

To other districts or teachers considering the training, Burgin said it was an “investment” that so far she’s found “very worth it.”

Not only has it helped her make breakthroughs with her students, but it’s also helped create a deeper bond between herself and her fellow teachers.

Previously, only one staff member at her school had been trained in Orton-Gillingham — a fact that was useful to the school, but left the teacher feeling overwhelmed and isolated as she was the only one with knowledge on the method. Today, that same staff member has a renewed sense of enthusiasm for Orton-Gilligham, sharing in tips and tricks and other best practices with the other now-trained teachers at the school.

“She’s so excited that now we’re all trained together and now we can talk about it, and since she’s been trained in it so long, she’s now excitedly pulling out all these materials,” Burgin said. “Even though you can be trained and do it in isolation, it’s even that more rich and deep if you do it with a group.”

“My mom used to work for Amway and she’d say, ‘It’s not just a business, it’s a way of life,’ — and OG is not just a strategy, it’s a way of thinking about phonics and teaching phonics.”