Last week I heard from a group of first-grade teachers who had recently been told that the Riggs Institute’s Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking curriculum--which they were considering as a replacement for their current program--requires two-and-a-half hours of instructional time per day.
“Are you kidding me?” they asked. “How can my students stay focused for that long? It’s impossible! Are we supposed to teach phonics that whole time? Don’t you know how many other things we have to teach?”
I remember having that same reaction. I knew how they felt. These teachers were still so unfamiliar with the Riggs program that they were unable to imagine life in a well-taught Riggs classroom. They couldn't not see themselves in the middle of such purposeful action.
I immediately informed my callers that the Riggs Instiute's curriculum (the Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking) is a finely-sequenced, complete language arts program. It’s far more than just a phonics (or a spelling) program. Riggs students acquire critical cognitive sub-skills, penmanship skills, (beginning with lessons in manuscript letter-formation), a knowledge of spelling and syllabication rules, fluency skills, comprehension skills, composition skills, a knowledge of grammar, and more. They study Greek and Latin Roots, study syntax, and more. Riggs teachers create equality of educational opportunity for their students (preventing and correcting learning gaps) by using sound teaching principles and a sound curriculum to teach the subject matter of English in a highly-effective way. They help their students become literate--able to read their own textbooks, able to think critically, and able to communicate effectively (in speech and print). They give them the tools of learning.
When I finished explaining this point to my concerned callers, they received it as good news. “If the Riggs program is a complete language arts program,” they said, “then the rest of our instructional time can be devoted to math, science, etc. and does not need to be devoted to any additional language arts activities.”
Yes! That’s right. These teachers were beginning to see that by adopting the Riggs program they could do away with what once took up much of their language arts time. For example, they didn’t need to set aside additional time for students to fill out worksheets (Riggs doesn't use them), to memorize sight words (Riggs students don’t do that), or to do anything in addition to what is in the Riggs lesson. They could keep things simple while helping their students. They could focus on mastering one lesson at a time.
They asked again: “Are you sure we don’t need anything other than this program to teach foundational reading and writing skills?” Yes.
“As a bonus,” I said, “you’ll soon have extra time for the teaching of math, science, history, etc, because your hard-working little students will soon be writing and reading their own sentences and paragraphs about these.”
Since the Riggs Institute’s language arts program has been repeatedly tested in actual classrooms with real students, Riggs teachers can rest assured that the 2.5 hours of Riggs teaching time will be time in which their students will acquire the basic skills that are needed for a strong foundation in the language arts. They can know that they aren’t experimenting on their students. They can believe that their students will be well taught. After their first year of teaching with this program, they will be completely convinced of that fact. (See chart below for skills taught in the first two weeks of Riggs.)
Also, Riggs teachers do not teach Riggs for 2.5 hours straight. Instead, they commonly divide Riggs time into “Riggs chunks” around which they organize the rest of their instructional day. They make the development of oral and written language skills their priority, and they create several periods in the instructional day for teaching and practicing.
Many Riggs teachers use the following chunking system for first-graders during the first two weeks of instruction, keeping all practice sessions to 30 minutes or less (and interspersing them with recess, math, history, lunch, art, etc.).
Weeks 1 & 2 (Lessons 1-10)
During the first letter-formation period of the day, Riggs teachers often test their students on previous lessons. After this they review any letter formation of phonics knowledge that is still being mastered (based on test results), then they introduce the current day’s lesson. For example, on the first day of learning, teachers introduce the first lesson and uses a chart to help students see that all of the letter in the English alphabet can be made out of a few simple strokes. Students then practice making each stroke, developing fine motor-coordination along the way. They follow their teacher's explicit oral instructions as they work, practicing under her guidance until they can continue to practice independently. They learn exactly how to make each stroke, using previously-learned checkpoints to assess their own work along the way.
In the following few lessons, students begin each lesson by reviewing previous knowledge, then they apply that knowledge to today's lesson. After Lesson 1, students begin applying their knowledge of letter strokes to the writing of alphabet letters. Until they show initial mastery, they following their teacher's explicit oral instructions for the correct formation of each letter.
During the second letter-formation period of the day, Riggs teachers will usually have finished their introduction of new material and be ready to guide students as they practice writing and reading their letters. Students who have shown initial mastery may be released to practice writing both quickly and accurately as the teacher continues to work with those students who may benefit from a teacher's direct instruction: "Start your letter at the dotted line, go down to the base line."
During the final practice session of the day (I labeled it the phonetics period above, but call it whatever you wish), Riggs students will generally be ready to practice new material independently--if they've practiced well earlier in the day--by saying the appropriate phonemes while writing the corresponding graphemes that they have learned to date. As before, teachers continue to monitor the progress of every child, giving appropriate positive feedback and challenging others to increased proficiency (accuracy + speed). Students work diligently and carefully; teachers focus on their daily growth.
Letter-formation and phonetics are always practiced simultaneously in a Riggs classroom, because Riggs teachers know that the research of Dr. Samuel Orton conclusively demonstrated the need for such instructing, recommending its use for for the prevention and correction of a number of learning disorders; therefore, Riggs students hear and say sounds as they are writing the appropriate spelling pattern, creating multiple motor memories while enabling the brain to process the information through primary learning pathways.
As students begin to form accurate letters without prompting, they begin to make greater strides in remembering the sounds of each letter. Practice continues until students demonstrate fluency in both reading and writing, beginning with the sounds and symbols of these alphabet letters (Riggs phonogram cards 1-26).
Many Riggs teachers find it helpful to think of the last writing practice session of the day as being the one in which students are practicing phonetics. They know that until students write their letters quickly and easily, much of their mind’s focus will be on the writing of each letter. Mastery will follow quickly on the heels of letter-formation mastery.
During the first two weeks of instruction, Riggs teachers spend at least 15 minutes a day reading to students from vocabulary-rich literature. They also spend about 30 minutes a day on oral phonemic awareness activities, including the memorization and recitation of classic poetry. (See Riggs Lessons 1-10 and pages 112-114.) In a Riggs classroom, phonemic awareness activities help students hear and manipulate (orally at first) the elementary sounds (phonemes) within words. After the first twenty Riggs lessons, phonemic awareness activities include the manipulation of sounds and symbols (graphemes) within the whole words that scholars are learning to spell and read, because Riggs teachers understand that “[G]rapheme-phoneme knowledge provides readers with a powerful mnemonic system that bonds the spelling of individual words to their pronunciations in memory” (see article at http://www.riggsinst.org/ehri.aspx); they know that graphophonemic awareness is a much more powerful tool than phonemic awarenss alone.
In Lesson 1
- Riggs students learn how to sit, how to hold their pencils, and how to position and hold their writing arm and writing paper. They are also shown that all of the letters of the alphabet can be made with just a few letter strokes (see page 77-79 in Level I).
- Riggs students learn to identify the margin line on their paper, and they learn to identify the four lines that will be used as reference points (“checkpoints”) during letter formation practice (base line, middle dotted line, top base line, lower dotted line).
- Riggs students learn 4 reference points on a clock (“checkpoints” 2, 10, 8 and 4 “on the clock”) and learn how to make the 7 basic letter strokes (from which all alphabet letters will be formed) during whole group instruction and first guided practice. (See pages 79-80.)
- After guided practice session, students practice independently as teachers monitor progress and work with struggling students.
- Riggs students learn how to form the 26 letters of the alphabet during whole group instruction and guided practice (4 new letters each day).
- During practice, Riggs students repeat the sounds that are most commonly represented by each letter as they write that letter according to objectively identifiable parameters (see Riggs phonogram cards 1-26 for “checkpoints” relating to each letter).
- After each day’s initial presentation and guided practice session, Riggs students practice independently; Riggs teachers monitor progress and work with struggling students.
- During practice, Riggs students analyze their own letters to see if they conform to established norms. (“Does this letter touch the checkpoints?”) They are taught to “cancel” (draw a line through) any letters that do not meet the criteria for “excellence”(letters are “excellent” if they touch all the checkpoints). And they are taught to rewrite the letter, paying careful attention to each of its checkpoints.
During practice, children who are struggling to touch the checkpoints are encouraged to play the “pencil commander” game, which involves having the children tell their pencils pencils (aloud) exactly what to do. (This is similar to the game of “Simon Says”--the pencil can only go where the student tells it to go.)
Tip: A great practice assignment during this stage of instruction is: “Write five excellent _______.” Since my students know that any letter that touches the established checkpoints will be called “excellent,” and since they know that any letter that is not excellent must be canceled, and since they know that they will be finished practicing as soon as they have made five excellent letters, they usually get on with practicing excellently. (While some may initially choose to waste their free time by writing twenty letters, seventeen of which are not excellent and must therefore be canceled, this does not last for very long. I never need to say anything to these students. I simply praise them for their five excellent letters, praise them for cancelling the non-excellent letters, and leave them alone. They soon tire of doing unnecessary work and become ready to slow themselves down enough to do excellent work in the first place. (All of my students have been highly intelligent in this way.)
Riggs teachers use most of Lesson 9 to review everything taught to date by having their students participate in the creation of a classroom wall chart to illustrate many of the learned concepts. (Note: Teachers of older students generally have them create the chart on a page in their personal reference notebook.) The instructions for beginning this chart, which will be added to in future lessons, can be found on pages 108-111 in the Riggs Text (Level I). This is the first of many Riggs charts, which are referred to during daily practice and review sessions.
- Practice writing all alphabet letters that are still being mastered
- Learn phonogram 27-31
In the first ten Riggs lessons (the first two weeks if you are teaching one lesson a day), organize your day to enable students to spend their educational time engaged in finely-sequenced practice activities which have been carefully designed to:
- Develop phonemic awareness
- Develop auditory, visual, verbal, and motor-tactile cognition
- Build fine-motor skills
- Create an initial skill base for future writing practice
- Teach letter formation using eight “checkpoints” and seven basic letter strokes
- Create an initial understanding of the alphabetic principle
- Create an initial knowledge base of phoneme-grapheme relationships
- Teach the phoneme-grapheme relationships of 31 English spelling patterns (See Lessons 1-10 in the Riggs Institute’s Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking, and see Riggs Phonogram Cards 1-31)
During Letter-Formation and Phonetics Time:
- Riggs students learn that writing is a technical skill with established norms.
- Riggs students learn basic letters strokes and checkpoints
- Riggs students learn how to make each letter of the alphabet (phonograms 1-26)
- Riggs students learn how to say the sound(s) of each alphabet letter
- Riggs students learn how to place alphabet letters side-by-side, in a left-right direction
- Riggs students learn how to write and read phonograms 27-31
- Riggs students learn how to take daily phonogram tests
- Riggs students learn how to correct daily phonogram tests
While some kindergarten teachers teach one-half lesson per day (taking 20 days to teach the first 10 lessons), others go more quickly. (It depends on the class.) Teachers of first-grade students generally teach one lesson per day, while teachers of older students generally go more quickly (depending on how many bad habit must be untaught). Teachers are urged to use their own judgment; those who are new to Riggs should proceed through the lessons as quickly as possible without neglecting excellence, having high expectations for themselves and for their students.
In the first ten lessons:
- Riggs teachers and Riggs students work hard.
- They practice until mastery occurs.
- They persevere.