For more than 40 years, Dr. Marcia Henry has worked in the fields of reading and dyslexia as a tutor, diagnostician, professor and author. Her 2003 book, “Unlocking Literacy: Effective Decoding and Spelling Instruction,” is considered a key text for teachers seeking a systematized, effective method of reading and spelling instruction and focuses on morphemic awareness, letter-sound correspondences and syllable patterns.

She is also one of the nation’s foremost experts on Dr. Samuel T. Orton and his landmark work in the early 1900s with dyslexics first at the University of Iowa and later with educators Anna Gillingham and Bessie Stillman at Columbia University in New York. She is the author of “Dyslexia: Samuel T. Orton and His Legacy.”

Dr. Henry is a past president of the International Dyslexia Association (1992-1996) and in 2000, was the recipient of the IDA’s prestigious Margaret Byrd Rawson Lifetime Achievement Award.

You can find Dr. Henry’s books on Amazon:

In your 2013 interview with IDA (available here: you mention that you have a brother who struggled with dyslexia. How did this inspire your work?

My brother Peter is a severe dyslexic. He’s five years younger than I and when we were in school, I really didn’t pay much attention to his dyslexia, unfortunately. I just thought, “Oh, he must be kind of slow…” My parents always said, “He’s a boy. It takes them longer with language,” you know, the old myth about that. It wasn’t until after college that I became more aware. I was originally going to be a Social Studies teacher, but I married right after college and was expecting my first child, so I didn’t want to be teaching full time. As it turned out, back in my hometown of Rochester, Minnesota, the woman who had tested my brother in 1947 had a reading center called the Rochester Reading Center ( Paula Rome was her name—she and her husband were friends of my parents. So, I called Paula and asked if there would be something I could do at the reading center, knowing that my brother had gone through her training. Paula had actually helped train my mother to work with my brother. And she said, “Well, you can tutor.” And I said, “Well, the only problem is I don’t know how to teach reading.” And she said, “I will show you.” So that was fifty-six years ago and I’ve been learning ever since!

So what kind of techniques did she use? 

I actually learned what’s now called the Orton-Gillingham Approach. Paula Rome had been at the University of Pennsylvania when Dr. Samuel T. Orton’s work was very well known there. Dr. Orton was at the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia after he studied in Germany with Dr. Alzheimer in 1913. Paula’s uncle, Dr. Paul Dozier, a neurologist, worked closely with Dr. Orton and both of them influenced Paula’s teaching. And so when she moved to Rochester and opened the Center in the early 1950s, she started testing children with dyslexia, and started doing some training for parents, using the Orton-Gillingham Approach. Another one of my mentors was Jean Osman. Jean is still tutoring students and does a lot of teaching online with students. So, I was fortunate to really learn from two people who were very much pioneers in this field.

Have the techniques of Orton-Gillingham changed much over the years?

Well, I think the approach is very much the same. It was based on Dr. Orton’s theories that these children couldn’t learn to read using a whole word approach which was being used in the 1930s and ‘40s and ‘50s. And he believed that these kids needed a multi-sensory way of learning. They couldn’t just depend on visual memorization of words. They had to use their auditory memory, their auditory processing as well as visual processing, and with tactile reinforcement from both the hand, how it feels to form letters, and from the mouth, how it feels to form the sounds. And he linked all of those together. Then it was Anna Gillingham and Bessie Stillman who in the 1930s, started working in New York with Dr. Orton and they’re the ones who wrote the first first intervention manuals. The first Gillingham-Stillman manual came out in 1936, and they wrote about five different manuals. We used the 1956 manual in Rochester, and the newest edition of the manual looks very much the same today.

The one major research finding that has added to the Orton-Gillingham Approach is phonemic awareness, the importance of children understanding how to manipulate the sounds in words. So, that has been added to the Orton-Gillingham Approach, but it always included the spelling, the writing, the comprehension practice. Because of course, the goal in reading in is comprehension. But overall, the approach really hasn’t changed much over the years.

So, there are about 150 to 200 very common words that are non-phonetic that children do have to learn by rote. …words like ‘laugh,’ and ‘come,’ and ‘eye,’ and ‘blood.’ But if you consider that there are only about 200 of those out of the million words in the English language, that’s just a drop in the ocean as far as I’m concerned.  

In your work, you often refer to ‘unlocking’ the English language for students. Can you talk about what that means and when you became aware of those concepts?

Early on working with Paula and Jean, I learned a lot about phonics and letter/sound correspondences. I learned about syllable patterns. I learned a little bit about prefixes and suffixes and the rules for adding suffixes and so on. So those three: the letter/sound correspondences or phonics, the syllable patterns and knowledge of how to divide words into syllables, along with the structural analysis of looking for common prefixes, suffixes, and roots, all provide strategies for children to read words starting with one syllable words and then getting into the polysyllabic words.

It wasn’t until my graduate education at Stanford when I was working on my doctoral degree that I got deeper into understanding how to unlock the language. I took a course in psycholinguistics and that was really when I first realized how important it was to understand the origin of the words, the etymology. Old Middle English words are usually our short everyday down to earth words, mostly one syllable. These are the words that are taught first but some very common words are very phonetically irregular. Once you get into the morpheme patterns, those are much more regular, and by adding prefixes and suffixes to words, especially adding those prefixes and suffixes to Latin base words or root words, we just expand words.

I can take a Latin root like struct, S-T-R-U-C-T, which is completely phonetic, I can make ‘construct,’ ‘construction,’ ‘reconstruction,’ and ‘Reconstructionist.’ I can make it plural by adding an S. And those are the units of the words that are so important for kids to understand. Words of Latin origin make up over fifty-five percent of the words in English. So it’s just critical if we want our children to learn to read beyond a third grade level that we teach some of those meaning units. And they’re helpful for not only enhancing decoding and spelling, but vocabulary as well. The Greek base words are important because they’re the words that are found in science and math content.

CLICK TO PLAY: Marcia Henry on the importance of students’ understanding of morphemes, Latin and Greek roots and orthography to create a solid foundation in English.

And having a grasp on Latin words helps ESL students build a bridge between their native language and English. (For more on this, see our interview with Dr. Timothy Rasinski of Kent State University:

Especially with Latin and its connection to Spanish. I taught for many years at San Jose State University, and in the San Jose Unified School Districts, we had 89 different languages spoken by children. We had only a few bilingual Spanish and bilingual Vietnamese teachers. When children learn morphemes, especially the Latin bases, it has a huge connection for Spanish speakers because Spanish is a Latin-based language. And teachers can start building this knowledge very early—first grade, second grade, third grade.

English often gets a bad rap by being somehow less phonetic or unpredictable in its spelling patterns. Why is that?

Again, a lot of those words actually came from Old English. It was the first English printing press, developed by William Caxton, that really standardized spelling. Before, most of the writing was done by monks or by very well educated people and they spelled words as they sounded. And so you would take a word like ‘friend’ and there would be six different spellings of just that word. Well, once it got standardized, we know that ‘friend’ is F-R-I-E-N-D, which is non-phonetic.

So, there are about 150 to 200 very common words that are non-phonetic that children do have to learn by rote. They have to be able to read those and they have to be able to spell those, words like ‘laugh,’ and ‘come,’ and ‘eye,’ and ‘blood.’ And most of them are very short one syllable words, but they’re non-phonetic or irregular in the vowel sounds primarily. But if you consider that there are only about 200 of those out of the million words in the English language, that’s just a drop in the ocean as far as I’m concerned.

Another vital component in teaching reading is fluency. But our notions of what it means to be a fluent reader have changed over the years—can you elaborate?

Good fluency used to be thought of as speed only—if you could read quickly, you were fluent. But now we know that fluency is not only how rapidly you read, but how well you connect the words together when you’re reading a text. The other element that is essential is what we call ‘prosody’ which refers to the inflection of the voice, the rhythm and cadence. We also want kids to automatically be able to recognize the various patterns that appear in words, the short vowels, the consonant sounds, the blends and digraphs, because with automatic recognition of those as well as the prefixes and Latin and Greek roots, that’s how we gain fluency. We immediately identify automatically those parts and we blend them together through whatever strategy we’re using.

It may be having to use just phonics or one syllable words. Phonics doesn’t work for more than one syllable at a time. I can’t read the word ‘vacation’ by sounding it out, v-a-c-a-t-i-o-n. We’d never make vacation. I have to know about open syllables, the long vowel open syllables, I have to know that T-I-O-N together always says ‘shun.’ By recognizing those word patterns, we’ve gained fluency.

To work on fluency, I like choral reading. I find that if I’m working with a student, I let him or her read a paragraph and then I read a paragraph, they read a paragraph, I read a paragraph. Because in hearing me, they get a much better sense of the appropriate speed, the appropriate inflection. We’ve found through the research of people like Dr. Tim Rasinski and Dr. Maryanne Wolf who have been studying fluency for the last several years. They have found that fluency has been a missing element in many of our lessons. So, now I think people are paying more attention because you have to be good decoders of words to be able to read fluently. And you also need the other elements of understanding sentence structure, punctuation, and so on.

What do you think the biggest challenges are facing reading specialists and general ed teachers in the classroom today?

Time. I’m currently working with a group of teachers outside of Rochester in a small school district. There are fifteen elementary and middle school teachers who are either classroom teachers or paraprofessionals, reading specialists, and special ed teachers. Those of us who have the luxury of tutoring one-on-one generally have a child two to four times a week for maybe forty-five minutes to an hour. These teachers tell me that they’ll only have ten to twenty minutes working with individual students, if that. And of course most of the classroom teachers have maybe thirty children.

Teachers are required today to do so much. One of the teachers I’ve worked with, was so concerned about the amount of testing and that all of a sudden these children were required to take computerized tests. These were first, second, and third graders, who barely knew how to use keyboards. So the pressure is there, and she felt so much time was taken up teaching how to take the test rather than teaching the fundamental skills that the children needed. So I think that’s one of the big challenges.

Another challenge I know that some reading specialists and general ed teachers face is that in some states, there is a mandate that if a child is not reading at grade level by the end of third grade, they will be repeated. And to me that’s never made any sense. If, especially, once they repeat third grade, they’re just doing the same thing they did before without giving them new strategies, new types of teaching, these kids probably aren’t going to make it the next year either. And I think that’s very frustrating for teachers and it puts a great burden on the third grade teachers.

The other thing that concerns me is that by fourth grade decoding in reading instruction really stops. So, those third grade teachers need to have taught everything by the end of the year because by fourth grade they’re expected to read to learn, not to learn to read. Again, that puts a terrible burden on third grade teachers and it simply isn’t possible for every student to capture all of those lessons by the end of third grade.

…by fourth grade decoding in reading instruction really stops. So, those third grade teachers need to have taught everything by the end of the year because…they’re expected to read to learn, not to learn to read. It simply isn’t possible for every student to capture all of those lessons by the end of third grade.

You’ve co-edited a history of Dr. Samuel T. Orton for the International Dyslexia Association, “Dyslexia: Samuel T. Orton and His Legacy.” Aside from the Orton-Gillingham Approach itself, what can educators and those interested in the science of how reading is taught learn from his life and work?

He was a real Renaissance man with lots of interests in pathology, neuroanatomy, and neuropsychiatry. Dr. Orton was trained as a psychiatrist and a neurologist. In 1906 he took a Masters Degree in Reading from Harvard. In 1919, he was invited to the University of Iowa to be the head of Psychiatry and Psychiatric Services and to start a mobile mental health unit. Like the roving library buses that go around, well, this was a mental health bus, and anybody could refer children who were having difficulty. Dr. Orton was struck by the fact that so many of the children that were referred couldn’t learn to read and yet in so many other ways they had some real gifts, either mechanical gifts, or were good with music, art or in athletics. Many of them seemed to do well in some areas but in language, especially reading and spelling, they couldn’t make it. So he set up a lab school at the University of Iowa and he brought in this interdisciplinary team to work on what he saw as a very big problem.

He accepted and realized that this had to be a multidisciplinary team, working together. He brought in physicians, educators, psychologists. And he also brought in some teachers who’d had a lot of experience in teaching reading. And so when he puts them altogether in this lab, that’s where he first got his ideas that this was a brain difference for these children. He didn’t ever call it brain damage or dyslexia, but he felt that it was something within the brain that was different in these children.

Parents also played an important role. Dr. Orton spoke with parents often at P-T-A meetings, at Kiwanis club meetings, at Rotary club meetings, because he wanted the community to know that these kids were bright and yet for some reason they couldn’t learn to read. But in using this Approach, they could make real gains.

CLICK TO PLAY: Marcia Henry on the history of Orton-Gillingham.

What’s the biggest advancement that’s been made in dyslexia research to date?

Well, it’s definitely all of the brain research because now we know for sure that dyslexia is a brain difference. With the scanning possibilities, functional M-R-I’s, and so on, we’re just learning so much. But I’m convinced that the intervention is still going to be educational. We can change the structure of the brain through the appropriate education that children receive.

I remember when I started my doctorate program, I was so excited because I was going to be able to read all of this wonderful literature about dyslexia. But when I went to the education library, Cubberley Library at Stanford, I couldn’t find any of these books. And so I went to the librarian and she said, “Oh, all of the work on dyslexia is in the medical school library and you need to have a special pass if you are going to be allowed to go to the medical school library.” Now this was in the early 1980s, so it wasn’t that long ago, and I was just stunned. Well now, there’s so much more that’s been written focusing on education and intervention, remediation, so now those things are also showing up in the education libraries. But for such a long time, it was thought of as a medical problem. But now we know that the intervention is not medical, it’s educational.