BLOG > Sam and June Orton and the Orton National Scholarships

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Giving teachers free training in explicit, multi-sensory literacy instruction methods is the goal of the Orton National Teacher Scholarships. Even though these teaching methods were originally devised by researchers and reading specialists for dyslexic children, the training, as designed for general classroom use, makes it possible for all teachers to teach reading to all learners.

Today, when teachers face many challenges in preparing the next generation of readers for success, what the Ortons discovered and practiced remains powerfully relevant. When 66% of our 9-year old children fail to read at their grade level, and 46% of our students could significantly improve their reading skills with explicit, structured reading instruction, the Orton legacy is a beacon for those that want to teach all students how to read well.

OrtonThe Fund is named for Samuel and June Orton, a husband and wife team that researched why otherwise intellectually healthy children struggle to learn how to read. Both were highly-qualified. Dr. Orton came from a family of educators, and he was a graduate of the Taft School and Ohio State University, where his father was president. He attended the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine, earned his master's degree at Harvard University, and later studied in Germany with Alois Alzheimer.

His wife, June, was a gifted scholar who graduated from Vassar College at 19-years of age and held a master's degree in social work from the prestigious Smith College School of Psychiatric Social Work. Marcia Henry wrote, “June Orton's contributions to the field of dyslexia are immeasurable.” She was the author of an important paper, A Guide to Teaching Phonics, and as a social worker, she created detailed case notes that included an insightful social history of a dyslexic client and parents. After Dr. Orton's death, June Orton remained committed to their work, continuing her "diagnostic evaluations, consultations, and teaching" for another 29 years.

Samuel Orton’s extraordinary neurological research theories were fast-tracked to groundbreaking teaching methods by collaborators Anna Gillingham, an educational psychologist, and Elizabeth Stillman, a dyslexic educator. The early results of Orton’s research were a remedial program by Gillingham and Sillman. "Their novel technique at the time was based upon the constant use of associations of how a letter or word looks; how it sounds; and how the speech organs or hand writing feels when producing it.”

Dr. Orton also had an uncanny ability to identify major clinical aspects of dyslexia and place it within its biological context. Decades and decades later, experts in the field still marvel at Orton's perceptiveness. The Ortons’ research and the resulting teaching methods remain the fundamental springboard for the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Approach, the International Multi-Sensory Language Education Council (IMSLEC), Wilson Reading, and many others.

The Orton’s research and education story begins in the 1920's. At that period in American educational history, the progressive school movement was unfolding, and the “whole-word", or "sight reading”, method of reading was embraced by educators. June Orton wrote, "The teaching of phonics was actually forbidden in many schools for a number of years,” which added to the reading failure of many youngsters. It was also a period when psychiatrists were called upon to study education and, in particular, juvenile behavioral issues in school. Poor school performance and its "emotional causation" began to be studied by original teams that consisted of psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric social workers.

After leaving his position as professor of psychiatry at the Pennsylvania Hospital for Mental Diseases in 1919, Orton became the founding director of the State Psychopathic Hospital in Iowa City, Iowa. There, with his first Rockefeller Foundation grant, he created a mobile unit that toured the countryside serving communities in "mental hygiene". It was in a mobile clinic where they came upon a 16-year old boy who had never learned to read but who was intelligent in every other way. Other cases of "specific retardation in reading" were discovered during those years, making the research group large enough to be useful.

As a neurologist, neuropathologist, and professor of psychiatry, Orton, at age 46, was uniquely prepared for his investigations. With his broad medical background and his having read medical manuscripts about ‘Congenital Word Blindness’, written  by Englishmen Dr W. Pringle Morgan and Dr. James Henshelwood, he immediately recognized the Iowan boy's symptoms.  Orton also had particular experience in studying injured adult brains in the laboratory; using post-mortem anatomical findings, he was able to correlate symptoms of language disorders in living patients.

He called the reading disability “strephosymbolia (twisted symbols), recognizing that dyslexia may be neurologically based, but that its treatment must be educational.” Dr. Orton presented his research findings to the American Neurological Association, afterwards attracting further support from the Rockefeller Foundation. (Many members of the Rockefeller family have had dyslexia, most notably U.S. Vice-President Nelson A. Rockefeller.)

Placeholder imageOne of many exceptional features of Orton's research was his top objective to study children and use the findings in the classroom to teach more effectively right away. No time to waste. His second grant amounted to almost $1 million in today’s dollars. Moving to New York to be president of the American Psychiatric Association, and a Columbia University professor, he continued his research at the Neurological Institute with further Rockefeller funding. He did not work alone, putting together an amazing group of experts to further the research, clinical, and educational work.

During their long careers, Dr. and Mrs. Orton helped innumerable children, their disciples went on to found schools, and virtually all of their many protégés became leaders in the learning disabilities field. In 1949, The Orton Society was named for them. It later became the Orton Dyslexic Society, and now it is known as the International Dyslexia Association.

Boon Philanthropy, in partnership with independent expert trainers across the country, hopes to continue the recognition.  The Orton National Scholarship Fund offers teachers complimentary opportunities to learn the modern-day evolution of the Orton research and best practices. The Orton story is one of many in the field of learning disabilities, where experts have tirelessly worked to improve education for the most challenged students. At Boon, we want to help all educators, administrators, and policy makers understand the work’s relevance to the education of all students.

Henry Sinclair Sherrill
Boon Philanthropy