First grade teacher Annette Farelli works with a student

Annette Farelli’s first grade classroom at Bergen Boulevard School is cozy and light-filled. Colorful posters and children’s artwork line the walls. Two rows of small desks dominate the room, each seating ten. “Alright, East side, pound it with me,” Farelli calls out, “Let me hear it!” Pounding out sentences is just one part of Farelli’s first grade class’s day: she’s also taken them through their paces with the blending board, sand trays and dictation.

At the same time, just down in the hall in Martha Acebal’s second grade classroom, students are working on their red words. “I go first, you listen,” Acebal advises the class as she stands up and executes an arm tapping exercise for a notorious red word, ‘which.’

Bergen Boulevard is part of the Ridgefield School District in Ridgefield, New Jersey. Located just over the Hudson from Manhattan, Ridgefield is a small, suburban enclave of roughly ten thousand. The kind of place where young families looking to escape the noise and bustle of the big city head to when they decide it’s time to settle down.


Bergen Boulevard School in Ridgefield, New Jersey

The Ridgefield School District has another draw for families: many come here for the District’s special education programs. In fact, the District began training teachers in the Orton-Gillingham method about eight years ago to better service elementary students with learning disabilities. A number of District teachers had also pursued Orton-Gillingham training at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, NJ.

And it was very successful with those kids,” says Janet Seabold, Ridgefield Public Schools’ Director of Curriculum. “We started a Response to Intervention program where we would do structured interventions with our regular education students in six week blocks and then return them to the class and we found such great gains with them that we wanted to bring it to our mainstream population.”

At the same time, particularly with changes in the state’s English language arts curriculum, Seabold says, teachers were also noticing gaps in the reading abilities of upper grade elementary students in general ed classrooms.

I was so happy to see that IMSE took a program that was usually one-to-one with our special needs kids and made it so that it could be [used] in a regular ed classroom, as a whole class.

—Ridgefield Principal, Anna Gaeta

“As our students started to age, getting to the fifth, sixth grade level where you would be reading that non-fiction text and asking [them] to decode larger words in a science textbook, the kids didn’t have the skills to break down those words,” she says. Making matters worse, at that time, lower elementary grades were not spending much time on dedicated phonics instruction either.


Shaler Academy in Ridgefield, New Jersey

By 2014, Principal Anna Gaeta, who oversees Bergen and its sister school, Shaler Academy, home to Kindergarten classes, was routinely having discussions with members of the two schools’ teaching staff about the gaps they were seeing in students’ skills. She began seeking out professional training that could help teachers address the growing need in general education reading instruction. That summer, she sent ten teachers who volunteered during their summer vacation to take IMSE’s Comprehensive Orton-Gillingham 30 Hour training.

There has to be an understanding of how language works.  And this program gives our students, in a very basic and fun way, an understanding of how language works. Those understandings go into their toolbox. 

—2nd Grade Teacher, Bergen Blvd. School, Martha Acebal

“They came back so enthusiastic about all the great strategies they had learned,” Gaeta says. Soon after, other teachers were asking about attending a training.

During the 2014-2015 school year, IMSE’s Orton-Gillingham program was piloted in Ridgefield Kindergarten classes. Following the trial, the District created a sub-committee to review IMSE and two other reading programs. “The committee felt [IMSE’s] program best met the needs of a larger classroom. You could differentiate the instruction for the kids who could learn quicker, who didn’t need the tenets of the decoding and the word breakdown skills as much as those kids who do,” Seabold says.

With the vote from the selection sub-committee and the support of Ridgefield School Superintendent, Frank Romano, Bergen Boulevard and Shaler Academy school administrators began exploring implementing IMSE’s Orton-Gillingham program across the curriculum in grades K, 1 and 2 for the 2015-2016 school year. To prepare, twenty teachers from the District attended IMSE’s 30 Hour Comprehensive Training in June of 2015.



First grade teacher Annette Farelli and second grade teacher Martha Acebal were among the teachers who attended the training.

The training was Farelli’s first exposure to Orton-Gillingham. “The training was challenging, but exciting at the same time, because I felt like I was getting clues on how to give these strategies to the students that you didn’t quite know how to get to before,” Farelli says. 


Ridgefield 2nd Grade teacher Martha Acebal leads her class in an arm tapping exercise

Martha Acebal was familiar with the Orton-Gillingham method, but was impressed by the multi-sensory aspect of the program, which she feels helps integrate lessons more firmly in students’ memories. “Anything that’s kinesthetic, whether it’s a tactile sand tray, or getting them up, tapping, finger tapping, pounding, because at this age, the young ones, they need to move. So, I think it really anchors their learning in a way that you know, if they just heard it, or if they just saw it, by having their whole bodies involved…it’s amazing,” Acebal says. 

Ridgefield teachers and administrators were also pleased with the practical nature of IMSE’s program. “You know, it’s one thing to be working one-on-one or two-on-one or in a small group.  But when you have to take the theories to a group of twenty-five kindergarteners and keep them on task and focused and learning, it’s a whole different thing,” Seabold says.

It’s not as much fun to read a science textbook as it is to read Harry Potter. And the kids needed those skills…what this does is to give the kids the skills to read the words that are not as fun to read.

—Ridgefield Schools Director of Curriculum, Janet Seabold

Teachers liked that IMSE’s program helped break out day-by-day lesson plans in a sequential, organized way. “This program was practical, proven to work in the classroom, which is a big piece with our teachers. Because if they don’t really care for it, they’re not going to use it. But they really see the benefits, that’s why they’re using it,” Principal Gaeta says.

Perhaps another surprising benefit of using IMSE’s Orton-Gillingham in the general ed classroom is how it helps strong readers in first and second grade get even stronger. 

“The one component that’s especially exciting to me is syllabification, and what I’m finding is that the advanced readers are loving this because now they’re tackling those tough words. And non-fiction reading has become such an important component especially with the Common Core…they’re tackling these big challenging words, that normally they wouldn’t have,” Farelli says.

Ridgefield curriculum director Janet Seabold agrees that even strong readers can benefit from dedicated instruction on word decoding. And that simply immersing children in books during the early grades isn’t enough. “It’s not as much fun to read a science textbook as it is to read Harry Potter. And the kids needed those skills. What this does is to give the kids the skills to read the words that are not as fun to read,” Seabold says.

For Martha Acebal, IMSE’s Orton-Gillingham program provides the foundational skills that all young readers need. “There has to be an understanding of how language works.  And this program gives our students, in a very basic and fun way, an understanding of how language works.  Those understandings go into their toolbox,” Acebal says.



Another significant benefit of using Orton-Gillingham in the general ed classroom is early detection for students struggling with dyslexia, auditory processing or other reading disabilities. Dawn Galbraith-Mazzola is a Response to Intervention (or RTI) Specialist for Ridgefield schools. “We started the mandatory second grade dyslexia red flag screening this year,” Mazzola says.

New Jersey, like many states across the country, are now requiring school districts to provide both dyslexia screening and intervention services for students by second grade.

But prominent reading researchers and dyslexia experts like Sally Shaywitz, founder of The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, have argued that dyslexia can be detected as early as Kindergarten.

For more about the findings of Shaywitz and other researchers, click here: http://dana.org/Publications/Brainwork/Details.aspx?id=43792

By implementing IMSE’s Orton-Gillingham across all K, 1 and 2 classrooms, Galbraith-Mazzola says the district will have a jump on early diagnosis, above and beyond the state-mandated testing. “We can start interventions two years earlier; that’s pretty amazing to be able to start interventions that much earlier and solve that issue. It’s something that we can close early instead of them coming up into third and fourth grade and then we’re finding that they’re two deviations from the norm.”

What IMSE does is it reaches across all those barriers, it reaches all students.

—Ridgefield Schools Director of Curriculum, Janet Seabold

And because all children are taught in IMSE’s Orton-Gillingham method, there’s more fidelity of instruction for students who do receive one-on-one instruction—they will go into resource rooms already familiar with the concepts of phonemes and the practice of tapping out syllables.

During her testing of Kindergarten students at the end of 2015, Galbraith-Mazzola found that after six months of OG instruction in Ridgefield’s general ed classrooms, students were already applying the strategies they had learned in settings outside of their regular classes.  “The biggest thing was in the phoneme segmentation section of the test where I would ask them to break a word into parts.  For instance if I said the word cat, I would ask them to break it down into the sounds /k/ă//t/.  They were tapping it, without me asking them to. They were using the strategies, which shows that they’re generalizing them into different settings, which is a higher skill for them.”


Ridgefield Kindergarten teacher, Lillian Pagano, at left

For Kindergarten teacher Lillian Pagano, IMSE’s approach to Orton-Gillingham offers helpful tools for differentiation with the district’s youngest students, who present a unique challenge for educators. “One of the things that I love about teaching kindergarten, but one of the most challenging things about kindergarten, is the children come in at all different levels. We have children that do not know how to write their name, don’t know a letter, don’t know a sound, and you have children that are emergent readers,” Pagano says.

IMSE lessons can be tailored to provide that differentiation in instruction, so crucial in Kindergarten and the early elementary grades. By creating small group ‘centers,’ teachers can hone in on letter formation or provide targeted phonemic instruction to students who are still getting their basic skills down. “We create centers, and in the centers, the children themselves are reinforcing the skills that they’ve learned, and again, in a very fun and engaging manner. I don’t need to be on top of them all the time like you are when you do direct instruction,” Martha Acebal says.

Beyond Ridgefield’s large concentration of special needs students, the district is quite ethnically diverse—29% of students are Asian and 34% are Hispanic. “What IMSE does is it reaches across all those barriers, it reaches all students,” Seabold says. The methods of Orton-Gillingham, with a focus on phonics and systematically breaking down words and sentences overlaps nicely with a purely phonetic language like Spanish.

For more about IMSE and ELL instruction, click here: https://journal.orton-gillingham.com/ell-students-benefit-from-orton-gillingham-techniques/



Aside from the practical aspects of IMSE’s Orton-Gillingham program, teachers and administrators love the ongoing support and opportunities for continued professional growth they receive.

“We liked [IMSE] because there was a large component of professional development that went with it. And studies do show that a well-informed teacher is the best resource.  So, that was a very important part of our decision was that it would benefit the teachers because there was a ongoing professional development along with it,” Galbraith-Mazzola says. 

Teachers point to the added benefits that IMSE provides with its email newsletter, OG Weekly and the IMSE lesson planning app teachers can download onto their phone or tablet. “The weekly newsletter is a very skill specific item and it just gives you just enough information.  There was a week I wasn’t reading the Red Words up and down and back and forth and it was just a self-check for me to say ‘Oh my gosh, yes, that was a good idea, I should go back to that,” Farelli says.


Jeanne Jeup, IMSE director and co-founder

Ongoing visits from IMSE staff have also been a big help to Ridgefield teachers. “It’s been great to see Jeanne come in and step by step walk us through what a word dictation looks like, what at three-part drill is, review all these things that we learned. We come in and the teachers sit there and they take notes during our lessons, and then we can question her,” Pagano says.

Ridgefield’s embrace of OG is extending beyond the classroom, too. “Our parents are involved. They know the terminology.  They know what a Red Word is, a Green Word is. They know what they should be trying to do at home if they do notice that their child is struggling with a particular word.  So again, everybody’s involved, that’s wonderful,” Acebal says.

In just one year, Ridgefield schools have already seen great reading gains among students in grades K, 1 and 2. For teachers like Martha Acebal, it’s been exciting journey that Ridgefield educators are excited about continuing, “Come back.  See how we’re doing.  Maybe let’s discuss some other things that we could be doing.” 

Just as students learn new strategies to make them stronger readers, educators trained in IMSE’s Orton-Gillingham method find their professional growth enriched as well.

“The day I stop learning, there’s a problem.  And with IMSE coming in, I’ve learned a whole new component of how to reach something that was a challenge for me as a professional.  It is a journey, but it’s a journey worth taking.  And I’m still evolving, but I’m excited when I see my students getting it,” Farelli says.

 For more information about Ridgefield schools, check out: http://www.ridgefieldschools.com/