Using Hand Signals to Teach Riggs Phonograms

Since I try to stay informed about how teachers and parents are using the Riggs Institute’s materials, I sometimes hear of people who use them in fun-looking ways.

When I recently searched YouTube and Pinterest for “Riggs Phonograms,” for example, I found a number of videos (none of which had been approved by Riggs) in which teachers were using hand signals to practice Riggs phonograms. Have you seen them?

In one such video, the /c/ phonogram was held up as the teacher said its two possible sounds (/k/ and /s/) while using her fingers like a pair of scissors (“cut”?) and then moving her whole hand and arm in an undulating manner (“snake”?). Can you picture this? I saw a number of videos of this kind.

The students, who were sitting on the floor, repeated the teacher’s hand signals and sounds. Doesn’t this sound cute and fun? Sure. But there are a number of dangers surrounding this practice.

First of all, if we want to give a child the key to reading, we have to establish what Dr. Hilde Mosse calls “a conditioned reflex or an automatic association” in the child, and this reflex “starts with the letter (or a fixed combination of letters representing one sound) as the conditioned stimulus and ends with the child saying the letter sound.” Did you catch that? The letter is the visual element, and the sound is the auditory element, and the goal is to have the child associate the two.

What happens if we add another visual element (such as a hand signal)? Can you see how it  might interfere with a child’s ability to establish the necessary automatic association between the sound and letter? When hand signals are added, won’t some children be responding to the stimulus of the hand signal, not the letter?

Instead of helping her students form automatic associations between seen letters and spoken sounds, this teacher may be unknowingly encouraging them to form automatic associations between seen hand signals and spoken sounds. She may not be using research-based teaching techniques. She may not be establishing a direct sound-symbol relationship for the child because her hand signals may be interfering with her ability to do that. Instead of making the learning process simpler for the child, she might be making it far more complicated because she is now forcing the child to remember something like “wriggling hand = ‘snake’ and ‘snake’ begins with the /s/ sound, which can be spelled with the letter c.” This is not good.

Dr. Mosse’s suggestions about this topic are worth repeating here:

The formation of [the] conditioned reflex requires that the child experiences the visual and the spoken letter together repeatedly, without interference by any other stimulus, and always in the same sequence, namely by looking at the letter briefly before saying it. The best way to teach this skill is by having the child write the letters and make the sounds as he writes them. Writing fixes the forms of letters faster and more firmly in the child’s mind than reading because it combines the senses of vision and touch with motor, kinesthetic, and proprioceptive (arising from striped muscles, tendons, joints) sensations. Simultaneous writing and speaking fixes the visual and the acoustic images of the letters more firmly in the child’s mind than any other method, strengthens the connection between them better and forces the child into the correct left-to-right sequence from the very start. No other teaching technique establishes the necessary conditioned reflexes with greater speed, accuracy, and reliability (my emphasis).

So there we have it. Whenever someone asks me if they can use hand signals to help teach Riggs, I usually introduce them to the work of Dr. Hilde Mosse and show them why using hand signals is not actually a help but a hindrance, especially when the use of hand signals prevents children from writing the phonograms during practice, which is often the case. And how else could it be? If the student’s hands are being used to make hand signals, the student can not be following the Riggs Institute’s directions to write the phonogram while saying its sound(s). In short, the teacher who uses hand signals cannot be simultaneously engaging her students in the type of multisensory (multimodal) practice described above and prescribed by Dr. Samuel T. Orton and Dr. Hilde L. Mosse for the prevention and correction of learning disorders. She cannot be teaching Riggs.

I have heard teachers advocating for the use of hand signals for their ADD, ADHD, and kinesthetic learners. What these well-intentioned teachers do not yet see is the fact that using hand signals is not the kind of multi-sensory practice that will do the most good for these children. According to doctors Orton and Mosse (and others), these children need to have a pencil in their hand during practice, and they need to continue to have it in their hand during practice. Children who have not yet formed the automatic associations mentioned by Mosse need to see, hear, say, and write the phonograms that they are trying to master. And they need to do that repeatedly throughout the day. No other educational activity will do more to focus a child’s attention; and no other educational activity will do more to improve their reading and writing skills; and there is only so much time in your instructional day. So you do the math.

Unfortunately, a number of the videos that are posted on Youtube and Pinterest, none of which have been approved or suggested for use by the Riggs Institute, promote the use of hand signals for the teaching of phonograms. Keep away from them.

If you want to reach every type of learner and keep all of them engaged and enthused, I invite you to believe in yourself, I invite you to believe in your students, and I invite you to use the Riggs Institute’s practice activities as described in the book. If you have questions, just ask. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, and don’t let yourself get sidetracked with the “latest and greatest” teaching techniques on the Internet. You don’t have time for that. Simply follow the directions in the Riggs Institute’s teaching manual and stick with the practice activities that have been repeatedly found to work for all children. Do not be tempted to use the cutesy and seemingly fun methods of instruction that can be found on Pinterest and in YouTube videos. You don’t need them. Your students have never been afraid to do “grown-up” work, and nothing is more fun to them than being successful at it. 


Thank you for this succinct article. I was tempted to use the hand signals. Fortunately, I called Riggs, and received clarification as to why the activity was not appropriate. Basically, it violates the four pillars of truth for providing the most effective learning opportunity for children and adults alike - specifically, having the student simultaneously write, speak, hear, and see the phonograms (the Riggs method!).

Submitted by Laurel Sanders (not verified) on Mon, 01/04/2016 - 14:55

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