We often get calls from new-to-Riggs teachers who are surprised by the pace of our curriculum. A kindergarten teacher, who had attended one of our recent workshops under protest [not recommended], recently called to question the speed at which students can master our content. I listened. She said that her students, who had been in school for 60 days, had only gotten to lesson 10, and she said that none of them were really mastering any of the content.
“They can’t go any faster,” she said. “Are you sure kindergarten kids can do this kind of stuff? There’s no way they can learn one-half lesson per day!”
I hear this a lot. The teachers seem to be saying that little kids can’t learn the subject matter of English--beginning with the elements of spelling and pronunciation-- because:
- Some of them have never been to preschool
- Most of them don’t have the necessary fine motor skills to do the lessons
- Some of them don’t have any support at home
- A few of them can barely speak English
- Some of them don’t even know the alphabet
- Some of their parents have never even read to them
My caller added, “The book says I should be teaching one-half lesson a day. This doesn’t seem realistic to me . . .”
I couldn’t help but wonder if my caller, who had a Master’s degree, had forgotten this nation’s educational history.
When the children of our nations founders, and the children of their descendants and slaves went to school (those who were lucky enough to attend), had they been to preschool? Did they have the fine-motor skills needed to spell, write and read? Did they all have literate parents at home? Did all of them speak English as a first language? Did all of them know their alphabet? Did all of them have books at home? Were the soldiers who fought in our Civil War, the women who waited for them at home (or fought at their side), and the children of the slaves who were freed by Lincoln more prepared to learn than the children of today?
Had my caller forgotten that spelling and reading skills have been successfully taught to young children since the invention of vowels 800 B.C.? Had my caller forgotten that before the American Revolution, Colonists used nothing but chalk and a slate and The New England Primer (originally published in England) to teach the subject matter of English to their own children in a step-by-step way? Did she not know that virtually all of them became literate?
Had my caller forgotten that Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book (affectionately known as the Blue-Back Speller or Old Blue Back) was used by nearly every student in America . . . once upon a time? Had she forgotten that it contained lessons for teaching spelling and reading with American-English spellings and pronunciations (instead of the spellings and pronunciations being used in England)? Did she not know that it sold about 100,000,000 copies and was used to teach the basics to five generations of schoolchildren? Had she forgotten that educated illiterates were unheard of back in the day? (Not everyone went to school, granted, but everyone who went to school learned to read.)
I wondered if my caller knew that things were different--simpler--when children began at the beginning, led by a teacher who was ready, willing, and able to teach basic subject matter in a systematic, multi-sensory way? Did she know that “once upon a time” school children were not expected to know much when they showed up for their first lessons? Did she realize that students started by learning their letters, and they learned them by memorizing the most common sounds of each letter? Had my caller forgotten that students studied thoroughly back then, mastering one lesson at a time? Had she forgotten that they used their knowledge of letters to spell and read syllables and words, which they then practiced doing before moving on to sentences?
Had she forgotten that children used to thrive on being treated as though they could learn difficult subject matter in an orderly way? Had she forgotten that they understood why they needed to take one step at a time? Had she forgotten that teachers never asked children to memorize words by sight back then, that they saw no need to ask students to practice reading sentences before they had learned how to spell and read the words it contained? Did she not remember that students didn’t study words before they studied the sound-symbol relationships of their language?
Did my caller not know that all children between the ages of five and fifteen who arrived at the schoolhouse door were declared “ready” to learn? That the only requirement for Lesson 1 (where everyone started, regardless of age) was a slate (for writing practice) and a speller (usually Webster’s, which was known as “the most important class book not of a religious nature”).
Did my caller realize that every literate person used to understand how the language worked, that a slave-owner’s wife and a raggedy bunch of street urchins once thought nothing of using Webster’s Speller to teach young Frederick Douglass the basics of English orthography (spelling) and orthoepy (pronunciation)? Did my caller know that this type of curbside teaching was considered normal (though forbidden to many), once upon a time--back when everyone knew that you started to read by learning to spell? Did she know that both Lincoln and Douglass learned to read well enough to teach themselves whatever they wished, by doing it one step at a time, using nothing but Webster's Speller, in spite of the fact that they both came to their studies completely ignorant?
But I rarely speak of my wonder, so I simply did my best to respond to my caller’s concerns. “It’s understandable that the pace seems unrealistic to you,” I said, “because student expectations in this program are much higher than what most teachers are used to. Our learning standards may seem incredible to you, especially for your at-risk students, but I assure you that these standards reflect the previous achievements of students who have learned with this method.”
We spoke for a while, and I encouraged her to study The Riggs Institute's Teacher’s Manual, which cites many cases of master Riggs teachers who have successfully taught at this pace. I assured her that I have personally taught kindergarten students at this pace (one-half lesson per day), all of whom mastered the lessons.
I encouraged my caller to remember that the principles in this program aren't something that an educator just dreamed up one day, that they come out of the work and research of a world-famous neurologist. I reminded her that this program and its predecessor have been used by master teachers for over seventy-five years.
“These finely-sequenced lessons are designed to teach your students all of the necessary cognitive sub-skills required for reading mastery,” I said. Your students will learn them by doing the practice activities, during which they will be studying letter-formation (which is a mechanical skill with established norms), phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, writing, decoding, fluency, vocabulary-development, grammar, syntax, and composition skills.
“Since your Riggs lessons begin at the beginning," I said, "no previous skills or knowledge are required." In classes led by master Riggs teachers, the students simply begin as students have begun for thousands of years, and they learn at what was once considered to be an ordinary pace.
“Eventually,” I said, “you will be a master Riggs teacher who is able to teach at the same general rate as other masters, but right now you are still learning the program. Since this is so, my best advice is to have that be okay with you as you become a student of the method. If you become willing to trust those who have gone before you, if you become a student who is willing to take direction from the master teachers who have contributed to the writing of this program, you will go far."
Here’s the good news: The Riggs curriculum is so powerful that Riggs teachers never have to worry about comparing their students to others. Oma Riggs always said that even if Riggs teachers begin by fumbling their way along and doing only one-half of this stuff right during their first few years of teaching it, their students will still learn ten times more than what they would have learned in a non-Riggs classroom. Remember this:
- Don’t compare yourself to other Riggs teachers. Begin where you are, and focus on growth.
- Don’t say that your students can’t do this stuff. If you follow in the footsteps of those teachers who have gone before you in this matter, they surely can.
- Believe that this program has been designed to develop the cognitive sub-skills that your students are currently lacking. If a child comes to school, he is ready to learn what is being taught in these lessons.
- Begin with Lesson 1 and focus on one lesson at a time; have your students practice that lesson until they have mastered it; make sure they do the multi-sensory writing practice that is required for mastery.
If you are teaching kindergarten, do your best to teach about one-half lesson per day. Your students should be reading and writing phonograms for at least an hour a day. This hour can--and should--be divided into shorter blocks of time, but it cannot be negotiated away. Having your students practice with a pencil in their hands, and having them follow your explicit oral instruction as they form their letters again and again, is the method that must be used to develop the subskills of reading and writing.
Many struggling Riggs students have teachers who are simply not having their students put in enough writing time, and that can make all of the difference. Remember that your kinesthetic learners can’t learn to decode well unless they write, and their tiny finger finger muscles won't get stronger (or more coordinated) without daily workouts.
If your students have not been to preschool, be thankful. They probably have far fewer bad habits related to reading, writing, and pronunciation. They probably aren't writing upside-down or backwards, or writing with all capitals, or trying to guess at whole words, etc., and the won't have to unlearn such unproductive habits.
If your students hold their pencils incorrectly, why be surprised? They came to school so you could help them practice this skill.
If your students don’t have any support at home, so what? Oma Riggs regularly taught the precursor to this program to her first-grade students in Spanish Harlem, where half of the kids in her class could not speak English, and neither could their parents. This did not stop Oma Riggs (for whom the Riggs Institute was named) from teaching the kids (and many of the parents) to read and write to grade level, and many of her students surpassed that.
(As a sidebar, did you know that programs which require parental support are legally discriminatory? Think about it: If parents must help their children in order for their children to become educated, and if children must have certain pre-reading skills before they can success in school, then where does that leave the children of immigrants? Where does it leave the children of illiterates? Weren’t public schools created to help those children who could not depend on outside support?)
If our students come to school not knowing how to form their letters correctly, isn’t that one of the first things we ought to teach them? If they come not knowing the most common sounds of letters, isn’t this where we ought to begin? And don’t they learn how to hold a pencil correctly by practicing that very thing under our direction? Lessons 1-8 are designed to teach these skills.
I urged my caller to do four very important things, and I encouraged her to call us if she had any further questions:
- Study pages 49-100 (all about teaching lessons 1-8)
- Set up a daily practice schedule that allows for at least 90 minutes of daily practice time.
- Have students practice the skills in lessons 1-8, as directed, until they are well on their way tobeing mastered, then have them move on to the next lesson while continuing to practice the previous material (students should practice daily until mastery has been achieved).
- Move on to the next lesson.