Miracle in Spanish Harlem

Millions of children struggle with learning disorders in American classrooms, but do all of them have to? For example, can we prevent reading failure? And can we correct it? By teaching correct knowledge intensively and well, can we teach older children, struggling and diagnosed children, wounded and troubled and poor children how to read as well? What about children who have lost all hope, all confidence? Can we contribute to their healing by increasing our own subject knowledge so we can help them learn to read?
In the mid 1960s Dr. Hilde Mosse, head psychiatrist for the New York City Public School system, decided to look into the startling rise in disorders in children. While touring the schools in Spanish Harlem, she came to the first-grade class of Oma Riggs, and she was shocked by what she witnessed.
Unlike the squirmy, anxious children in all the other classrooms she had visited, these students appeared calm and focused. Each child stayed at their own desk, producing written work with only pencil and paper. They were all paying attention, following directions, and participating.
Dr. Mosse noticed that the lesson was simple yet challenging, the learning goal was clear, and the children knew exactly what it was. All this caught Dr. Mosse’s attention because it was so drastically different than what she saw in every other classroom. She began to take notes, and she saw something like this:
Ms. Riggs stood at the front of the class and held up a card on which <ch> was printed. As the children focused their attention on this common English digraph, Ms. Riggs said the three most common English phonemes associated with it (as in church, school, and chef). The class then immediately repeated the three phonemes before writing the grapheme. And that was that. As the children finished writing one grapheme,
Ms. Riggs held up another. She kept the lesson uncomplicated and engaging by keeping her students working as they moved through the deck again and again. The students kept seeing and hearing, speaking then writing, working briskly yet carefully, and surely to Dr. Mosse’s surprise, cheerfully. The mood of the class was relaxed and friendly, but also serious. Dr. Mosse noticed that the children were rising to Ms. Riggs’ challenge to speak in unison, and they were thriving under her praises.
These children had no interest in horsing around or distracting their classmates. They had no time for it. Oma Riggs had promised these little learners that they would begin to write words with these graphemes in just few days, and sentences would follow in a few weeks, and they wanted to be ready. At that time in Harlem, half of those kids had parents at home who were trying to learn English, and Oma Riggs had assured them that they could take what they’ve learned and go right home to teach their parents too, and they were determined to do that. They trusted her, because she spoke the truth.
As they wrote and spoke, deliberately forming conditioned reflexes between graphemes and phonemes, letters and sounds, these kids were forming tight neural connections between the acts of writing, reading, speaking and listening, and they knew it. They fully understood that they could help their parents (and any other person) form these same connections once they mastered their work. Ms. Riggs had told them everything, and they believed her. On the first day of school, Ms. Riggs had given them a pencil and some extra lined paper to take home to their families, and they had fallen in love with her.
Dr. Mosse was determined to find out more about how to teach reading through spelling and writing. She intuitively saw the connection between these children’s behavior, mood and focus, and how and what they were being taught.
In the many first-grade classrooms she had visited before Ms. Riggs’ class, the children drew lines on worksheets, circled pictures on worksheets, tried to memorize “sight words” (without the help of phonetic analysis) talked and played with their neighbors, played games, and did other things that youngsters tend to do when they are not engaged in activities that challenge and excite them. Dr. Mosse had also noticed this. She had also noticed that many teachers seemed frustrated and overwhelmed, perhaps because they were spending so much of their time directing bored children to fill out worksheet after worksheet that then had to be corrected. Dr. Mosse’s heart when out to all of them.
So she started asking questions.
Does our modern manner of teaching contribute to some of the symptoms that I’m seeing in my patients? Does this way of teaching create unnecessary stress for teachers and disorders for students? How do our teaching methods and classroom materials contribute to – or detract from - focused, high-quality practice? Does our lack of explicit instruction and focused, deliberate practice contribute to our students’ current misunderstandings about our writing system?
Determined to find answers to her questions, Dr. Mosse asked Oma Riggs to teach her about the methods she was using in her classroom. Mosse wanted to know if she could teach her patients (school children with a variety of diagnoses) in this same hands-on way to help them master the knowledge and skills of literacy they lacked -- skills, Dr. Mosse hypothesized, that had been taught incorrectly or not at all. And she wanted to know if this would make a positive difference to their mental/emotional health. The answer was a resounding yes! 
How did she do it? Dr. Mosse began by placing a student’s desk in her doctor's office, where she began to tutor children according to the methods learned from Ms. Riggs. By beginning with letter-sound associations and having her patients see, hear, speak and write each phoneme/grapheme combination, she not only helped these children but she established a compelling body of evidence for the best ways currently known to teach the brain to learn to read--and to rewire brains that had been trained through less efficient methods.
She continued this work, sharing her findings with her peers, and culminating in the publication of the 714-page book she referred to as her magnum opus, The Complete Handbook of Children’s Reading Disorders: You Can Prevent or Correct Learning Disorders.
Dr. Mosse, who had stepped out of her office to begin her classroom tour after noticing that most of the children being referred to her for mental disorders were also suffering from reading disorders, was returning to her office with a possible cure for the latter, which had tremendous impact on the former. She had discovered that a few basic principles of learning must be followed to create a healthy and well-ordered mind. These were the principles used by Oma Riggs, that time and again proved to correct the disordered thinking of Dr. Mosse’s patients just as they worked for Ms. Riggs’ Harlem students.
To learn more details about how Riggs and Mosse’s methods can be used to improve your own skills, your child’s, or your classroom’s, please browse the following links, and consider contacting the Riggs Institute, a not-for-profit group created to help parents and teachers by supplying excellent materials (such as flashcards of proper phoneme/grapheme combinations with instructions) and advice from experts currently teaching with Oma’s own techniques.
Remember, there is hope for every student, no matter their age or diagnosis. As Dr. Hilde Mosse said, “The prognosis for the treatment of all reading disorders is excellent. Only a small number of children with the severe organic type cannot be completely cured.”


"She had discovered that a few basic principles of learning must be followed to create a healthy and well-ordered mind. These were the principles used by Oma Riggs, that time and again proved to correct the disordered thinking of Dr. Mosse’s patients just as they worked for Ms. Riggs’ Harlem students." Thank you for this inspirational article! It's encouraging to read about Ms. Riggs' methods through the eyes of Dr. Hilde Mosse, and to be reminded of the powerful impact of the basic principles taught by Oma Riggs. I'll be checking-out the links. I'm particularly interested how adults who are still learning to read respond to the those basic principles.

Submitted by Heather Worthington (not verified) on Thu, 12/07/2017 - 11:49

Add new comment