When Ivan was in the middle of second grade, his mother dragged him into my office at the Riggs Institute’s learning center. Head down, Ivan refused to look at me as his mother spoke of her concerns. “Ivan is two years behind in reading skills,” she said, “and none of his teachers have been able to help him. They think he has a learning disorder; the school wants him tested. But. . . . "
Kicking his feet as he sat slumped in his chair, Ivan said nothing.
“We don’t test for disorders here,” I said. “But I can find out what he does and does not know about the English spelling system, and then we can talk about how Ivan can fill in his knowledge gaps.” His mother agreed. Ivan said nothing.
I walked Ivan over to a desk, gave him a pencil and a piece of paper, and asked him to write the letters of the alphabet as I said their names aloud (out of sequence). This is what Ivan wrote.
Next I showed Ivan the alphabet and asked him to tell me which sound(s) each symbol represented. Ivan knew only one sound for each vowel, and some of what he knew about consonant sounds was incorrect. For example, he said "buh" and "kuh" for the letters b and c, adding an "uh" sound instead of saying the elementary sounds in isolation.
After this I asked Ivan to write not, big, was, no, horse, from, saw, on, house, form, clam, ton, dig, shut, with, reason, early, church, point, night, change, cent, ice, sea, played, this, hope, cane, side, good, do, have, as, and I told him to just draw a line if he didn’t know how to spell any of the words. Here's what he wrote:
Can you tell how little Ivan knows about the English spelling system?
After this, there was no point in torturing Ivan by asking him to write whole sentences, so I skipped that part of the Riggs Reading Acts Test and just asked Ivan to tell me what the following written sentences meant:
I am a boy. I live in a house. I like to look my best. My hair is shiny. I wash it every day. I eat good food. I look nice today.
Ivan looked at the sentences for a few minutes, then he looked me in the eye and said that he didn’t know. “I really don’t know how to read,” he admitted quietly.
Holding his gaze, I replied: “I know you don’t, Ivan. And the reason you don’t is simple: nobody taught you what you needed to know. I’m sorry that I had to ask you to read to me when I already knew that you couldn’t. But I promise to never do that again—ever. I promise to never ask you to do something that I have not first taught you to do, okay? Will you trust me on this? Will you work with me if I promise not to make you read before you really and truly know how?”
Ivan slowly but surely nodded his head. So I smiled and showed him a little bit about how I was going to help him, and then we said goodbye, agreeing to get started the very next
Following the Riggs Institute’s teaching recommendations
, I took Ivan back to the beginning, and he got down to work. I showed him that the letters of the alphabet were made from a few simple strokes which were combined in a variety of ways, and his eyes immediately got huge.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me this?” he demanded.
“They probably didn’t know,” I told him. “I only learned about it a few years ago.”
He repeated the instructions aloud and practiced making his letters in exactly the same way each time, using established checkpoints as a reference. Whenever Ivan missed a checkpoint, he simply crossed off the letter and said “cancel” (telling his brain not to remember that), then he rewrote the letter. No fuss, no muss. He was starting to use every “mistake” as another opportunity to learn (and practice). He was thriving.
While writing, Ivan always said the sound(s) of the letter to establish that connection in his brain, and as soon as he was able to form each letter without thinking about exactly how to do that, the sound-symbol connection became fixed in his mind. If I said the sound(s) of any given letter, he could write the corresponding letter. If he saw the letter, he could immediately say the corresponding sound(s).
His mother noticed that he caught on to the logic of the instruction right away and was printing almost instantly. “Ivan is very analytical,” she said, “and he really needs to understand what is going on, and why. When you showed him exactly how to make his letters, he got it.” She explained that "these teaching tools let Ivan use his reasoning to help him learn, and the multi-sensory practice activities, which require him to hear, speak, see, and write while mastering skills and facts, is something that Ivan really needs. He's not a visual learner."
The English spelling system was starting to make sense to Ivan, and he was showing us that he was learning in a way that that worked for him. And he learned and he learned and he learned.
We moved on to the next lessons, and Ivan began writing and reading the multi-letter phonograms
spelling patterns that would finish creating a working set for him. He zoomed through them.
By lesson 20, Ivan had learned 55 phonograms. He knew them perfectly, so we started spelling and reading common English words, all of which I first dictated to Ivan, and all of which could be written with the spelling patterns he had just finished learning.
Ivan sounded out each word, and I helped him choose the right phonogram if there was any question about it (some sounds can be spelled multiple ways). Then he dictated the word back to me, and we analyzed it together. We learned about spelling rules, syllable rules, and pronunciation rules
as we encountered words that illustrated them, and I taught him a simple marking system to aid his memory and understanding. Ivan decoded and blended each word until he could read it easily and quickly, and he practiced spelling and writing the words to prepare for his tests. Ivan worked very hard to master each lesson. He loved it!
When Ivan proved to himself that I had been telling the truth about the fact that all the words in his school books could be decoded by learning these spelling patterns and rules, he almost got mad about it.
“Why didn’t anybody tell me?” he demanded (again).
“They probably didn’t know,” I repeated.
We worked together to build reference charts to help him organize useful information about the English language, and he used these tools to answer his own questions. He learned how to read more and more words by first spelling and then analyzing them, and soon he was ready to write and read his own sentences. These sentences became his personal set of decodable texts, and he practiced reading them until he could read them fluently. Here is Ivan's work after 50 hours of instruction:
As always, no worksheets, workbooks, or computers were used for Ivan's sentence work. He learned to write and read them in the same way he learned to write and read spelling patterns and words—by using only paper, pencil, and his very fine mind. (This finely sequenced method of instruction is called The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking
for a reason. Its title is not a play on words.)
Now that Ivan had the skills he needed to succeed, I gave him a copy of Green Eggs and Ham. He read it accurately and easily. And I was once again completely impressed with what children can do when given the proper tools. As reported in the local paper at the time, “Ivan—who could not correctly write the letters of the alphabet or spell, struggled with basic penmanship skills and could not read—within months showed drastic improvement in all areas.”
Do you agree?
His mother said she had peace of mind and a certainty that she didn’t have before, and anyone could see that Ivan had it too.
On his last day of training Ivan confidently strode into the room sporting a stylish, spiky hair-do and a proud smile. He handed over his homework, and I could see right away that it was written in his best handwriting. “No mistakes,” I said. Ivan beamed. When I asked him to read his paragraphs aloud, Ivan stood up even taller and began to speak in a strong, confident voice. I marveled at the changes that had come over him. He used to want to be invisible but now he felt like he belonged in the world.
As Ivan read his homework, he spoke clearly, fluently, and expressively.
His mother cried. (Can you blame her?)
When I asked her to write a testimonial to share with other parents, she wrote only one line: “If you’ve lost all hope and are sick of having your child fail and be labeled, try Riggs.”
Effective Spelling Instruction for Students With Learning Disabilities