Why Can't I Use Pictures to Teach Riggs Phonograms?

The Complete Handbook of Children's Reading Disorders

Last week my friend told me about yet another Pinterest pinner who had created a cute set of cards to help children learn phonics facts. Instead of presenting each letter, or multi-letter combination, in isolation, as the Riggs Institute recommends and as the Riggs Institute’s phonogram cards do, this pinner’s set of “Riggs” cards included clever pictures that were intended to give students a visual signal for the associated speech sound. What did the Riggs Institute think of teaching phonics facts with picture clues? my friend asked. Good question.

When I first learned that there were only about 70 basic spelling patterns in the English language (these are often known as the Orton Phonograms), I became very excited and immediately went to work teaching 45 of these essential patterns to my struggling daughter, Morgan. I then taught Morgan how to use these patterns to spell and read a few hundred high-frequency words.

By using the printed phonogram cards in an early copy of Romalda Spalding’s Writing Road to Reading, and by contacting the Riggs Institute for advice along the way (the directions in Spalding’s book were very confusing to me), I was able to continue to work with Morgan, who soon overcame her reading and writing difficulties and zoomed to the head of her class.

I was amazed, to say the least, so within a few months, I had done what these Pinterest pinners have done. I had produced a rough draft of a darling little book to help children learn the Orton phonograms. Can you blame me?

My closest friends were in love with the playful characters that introduced the sounds of each new pattern, to say the least, and I was proud beyond words.

Loading a few prototypes of my little book into my car, I headed off to the Riggs Institute to share them with Myrna McCulloch, the founder and director (and my new mentor) of that nonprofit literacy agency. Certain that McCulloch would be ready, willing, and able to help me distribute these books to parents (and teachers), I couldn’t wait to introduce her to my little phonics friends.

McCulloch loved my enthusiasm, but she was not impressed with my friends. In fact, she was appalled by my idea.

“Didn’t you read Spalding’s book, Stephanie?” she said. “What makes you think that children need picture clues when Romalda Spalding and Dr. Samuel Orton (a famous neuroscientist who mentored Spalding) say they don’t and when even your own child did not need them?” (McCulloch had a way of cutting right to what I needed to hear.)

McCulloch then proceeded to help me see why adding cute pictures to phonogram cards is a terrible idea, and she introduced me to the work of Dr. Hilde Mosse, a highly trained pediatric psychiatrist, who helped me to understand why picture clues interfere with the child’s ability to form one of the conditioned reflexes that are necessary for reading. Yikes! I still shudder at the thought of how many children I could have unknowingly harmed. It had never occurred to me that using pictures would make things harder for children because pictures are only indirect memory links to sounds. I had not seen that it was far better to learn the direct sound-symbol relationships.

Children should be told from the first day of school that letters represent speech sounds that are a part of every word, says Dr. Mosse. They should be told that they must learn to associate letters (the visual stimuli) with sounds (the letter’s only meaning). And they should be helped to do that, directly.

Regardless of how we might feel about our darling phonics pictures, the truth is that anything that might distract from a child’s ability to associate letters with speech sounds is not helpful. And picture clues are very distracting. They create a direct interference with what must be learned.

The fastest way to learn phonetic associations has long been known: The child should be helped to see the letter (or multi-letter spelling pattern), hear the sound(s), say the sound(s), and write the letter (or spelling pattern), so that their primary learning pathway may be addressed and so that the information may be retained and properly integrated. The child must be encouraged to do this consciously and repeatedly, until the learned association has become an unconscious decisions made by the mind. The only visual “signal” the child should be responding to is the letter itself.

Does this make sense to you? Can you see why adding cute pictures does not help but hinders the learning process? Can you see that the only picture needed is the letter itself? If so, will you please help your fellow teachers and parents to see the same thing? Not knowing any better, well-intentioned people will probably continue to create pictures to “help” children learn essential phonics facts. When you see them doing this on Pinterest or YouTube, will you please share this article with them so that they can consider the possibility that their “Riggs” cards are not helpful? Thank you.

Please find below some relevant selections from Dr. Mosse’s highly-recommended text, The Complete Handbook of Children’s Reading Disorders (available from the Riggs Institute): 


Reading must become an automatic act, performed without thinking about the technique involved. Included in this automatism must be an automatic correction of errors. The neurophysiologic mechanism that makes this possible is the formation of conditioned reflexes. The reading skill consists of a succession of reflexes whose development is governed by the laws of Pavlov’s conditioned reflexes.

[W]e must establish a conditioned reflex or an automatic association in the child, which 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.

Speech is the unconditioned reflex action that must be conditioned to respond to the new visual “signal.” The unconditioned reflex, which all children have in common, consists of the repetition of the speech sounds they hear.

The conditioned reflexes necessary for reading are difficult to establish. The visual stimuli are letters, which are two-dimensional abstract forms that bear no immediate relationship to objects or feelings and whose only meaning is the sound. It must be explained to children from the very beginning that letters represent speech sounds that are a part of every word. This explanation is quite indispensable because not all children can deduce this on their own.

I have examined too many children of all ages up to high school who had reading disorders because they did not fully understand this basic fact. It either had not been explained to them properly or not stressed consistently enough. Learning, even the acquisition of automatic functions such as conditioned reflexes, always requires understanding; the highest and most advanced parts of the cerebral cortex must always be activated, otherwise learning cannot take place.

To show a child a group of letters and to tell him that this means “house”--as is done in those kindergartens and first grades where children are introduced to reading with so-called “sight words”--confuses them, interferes with the formation of conditioned reflexes, and teaches them a lie. The letter sequence h o u s e stands for the word “house” and not for the house they see; pictures do that, but not letters.

To achieve conditioning with the greatest possible speed and accuracy the child must know exactly, step by step, what he has to learn. He must be told, for instance, that the “S” stands for the sound “S” and for nothing else, and that he must learn to say “S” when he sees “S.” Whether single letters or a fixed combination of letters forming one single sound are taught, the conditioning process is the same. The child must be helped to form an automatic association between the seen letters and the spoken letters. The formation of such an association is the key to reading.

The formation of such 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 teacher should make certain that the child is looking at the letter while the teacher sounds it and the child repeats it, or later on when the child reads it on his own. The teacher’s pronunciation must act as the child’s feedback correction until his own feedback system is working. That is why it is so important to let the child read aloud at first and to correct his pronunciation right away. It takes time for a conditioned reflex to be established and it can not possibly function until the child has developed reliable visual and acoustic images and formed a close connection between them. Silent reading cannot achieve this.

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. Another reason reading is best taught through writing is that the reading feedback is exactly what the child must do when writing--namely, proceed from his own sounding of the letter via the engram complex to the visual signal (i.e., the letter), so that he can write it down. With dictation he has to proceed from someone else’s sounding of the letter, and when he writes spontaneously, he has to start from his own acoustic memory image of it. All this strengthens the entire reflex. For this reason, the beginning reader should not be permitted to write something he cannot read or read something he cannot write, and should always say, or at least articulate, the letters and words while he writes them down.

The reading of words becomes reliable only after the child has acquired conditioned reflexes to letters and to fixed combinations of two, three, or four letters forming one single sound. Spalding calls the fixed combinations “phonograms” (Spalding & Spalding, 1969, p. 18).

Mosse, Hilde L, M.D., "The Complete Handbook of Children's Reading Disorders," 1982. Vol I, pp. 78-82


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