When Myrna McCulloch founded the Riggs Institute in 1979 to support those who wanted to teach foundational skills to pupils as a means to teaching them to read and write, she joined the few remaining American teachers who still had these skills. It had been almost three generations since "Dick and Jane" books had put an end to teaching explicit phonics in the classroom, so nearly three generations had passed since teachers had regularly studied the phoneme-grapheme correspondences of English in their colleges of education, which meant that nearly three generations of teachers had not been teaching these regularly occurring English spelling patterns to their pupils before they asked them to decode English words. Teaching foundational reading skills directly--skills like "decoding whole words using the phoneme-grapheme correspondences in English," were frowned upon during this dark period of our educational history. (It's sad, but it's true.)
What were the phoneme-grapheme correspondences of English, exactly? What constituted a working set, enabling beginners to encode (spell) and decode (read) hundreds of thousands of correctly-spelled English words? In 1979, when McCulloch founded the Riggs Institute, most elementary-school teachers couldn’t answer such questions, nor could the one-third of their students who were functionally illiterate, because they lacked such explicit, foundational knowledge. But Myrna McCulloch did not.
When McCulloch founded the Riggs Institute, she could tell you the answers to all of the above questions about phoneme-grapheme correspondences. Oma Riggs had taught her these English spelling patterns for speech sounds at an inner-city school in Omaha, Nebraska; and Riggs had learned them from her mentor Romalda Spalding (of the Spalding Foundation), who had learned them while working with Dr. Samuel Orton, for whom these spelling patterns were eventually named ("the Orton phonograms").
In the 1930's, Dr. Orton was famous neurologist. He treated children who were developing dyslexia, and he warned us that sight-word reading was creating disorders on an unprecedented scale, which was leading to huge amounts of psychological harm. Dr. Orton insisted--way back in the 1930’s--on the importance of teaching decoding skills explicitly, warning us that we should be using sight, sound, voice, and writing to teach basic phoneme-grapheme relationships to students before asking them to read and write whole words with them. But few people were listening back then. And they weren’t listening in 1979, either. And they weren’t listening in 2009. But now they are starting to listen.
A few years after founding the Riggs Institute, Myrna McCulloch wrote an article lamenting the fact that everyone claimed to be teaching phonics, while many of them seemed to be talking about completely different things. Since most people who claimed to teach phonics often failed to define their terms, “teaching phonics” could mean anything and everything, and sometimes it did. A teacher who taught her first grade students one sound for each of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, and nothing else about English orthography, insisted she was teaching phonics. A school system easily promoted a child to the third grade without helping him master most of the basic sound-symbol relationships of English (critical spelling patterns like sh, ck, ou, ay, and igh) and without teaching him to blend those sounds to form syllables and words, and nobody blinked twice when the system insisted that it had taught phonics. School systems were still busily trying to get their pupils to memorize thousands of words by sight back then; nobody had time to consider the greater wisdom of teaching children the same foundational facts and skills that have always enabled American children to decode whole English words. As American’s, we had forgotten our educational history back then, and few of us realized that we had forgotten it. We didn’t know there was a more excellent way. Instead, we insisted that our pupils were failing because of their learning disorders, or because of their parents, or because of their poverty. We didn’t know that they were failing because we were failing them. We didn’t know what we were saying--or doing. But Myrna McCulloch knew.
In her article called “Phonics is Phonics is Phonics--Or Is It?” Myrna McCulloch challenged educational experts--including beginning-reading teachers--and textbook publishers to define their terms. Which spelling patterns were they teaching, exactly? Was this a working set? Were their pupils being trained to use this working set--these common spelling patterns--to decode words? Were they practicing daily--sounding, blending, writing, and reading the spelling patterns in commonly-used whole words until they could read the words by sight? Was every teacher teaching what other teachers were teaching when they were teaching phonics? Were all pupils given the same opportunity that Riggs pupils were getting--were they acquiring essential knowledge and mastering foundational skills?
When Myrna McCulloch asked those questions while founding the Riggs Institute to help parents and teachers, we didn’t have a set of Common Core State Standards that included a list of the most common phoneme-grapheme correspondences of English, so we couldn’t answer her question by referring to such standards and lists. But now can. We can know what we mean when we say that the Common Core State Standards call for graduating kindergarten students to be able to:
- Identify every letter of alphabet (name each of them)
- Write every letter of the alphabet (recognizably)
- Produce the primary sound (or each of the most frequent sounds) for each consonant letter (see fig 8 in Appendix A)
- Produce the long and short sound for each of the five single vowels (see fig 9 in Appendix A)
- Use knowledge of phoneme-grapheme relationships, along with word analysis skills, to decode common words
- Use knowledge of phoneme-grapheme relationships to distinguish between similarly spelled words
- Read hundreds of common high-frequency words by sight
- Read their own correctly-spelled sentences (literary and informational texts)
- Read emergent-reader texts (like “Are You My Mother” and “Green Eggs and Ham”) with purpose and understanding
Because the Common Core State Standards have been published, we can look at this set of expectations while looking at the list in Appendix A of the standards (Figures 8 and 9) to see what sounds are being discussed in them. We can talk about phonics by using the same language; we can know what Riggs teachers are talking about when they say that the Riggs Institute’s finely sequenced lesson plans have always enabled kindergarten pupils to exceed the CCSS for phonics and word recognition at the kindergarten level. We can understand when they say that Riggs Level I Lessons enable students to meet or exceed the Grade 2 Phonics and Word Recognition and Fluency strands in the CCSS.
Phonics and Word Recognition:
Know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words.
Distinguish long and short vowels when reading regularly spelled one-syllable words.
Know spelling-sound correspondences for additional common vowel teams.
Decode regularly spelled two-syllable words with long vowels.
Decode words with common prefixes and suffixes.
Identify words with inconsistent but common spelling-sound correspondences.
Recognize and read grade-appropriate irregularly spelled words.
Read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.
Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.
Read grade-level text orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.
Use context to confirm or self-correct word recognition and understanding, rereading as necessary.
If Myrna McCulloch had lived to see this day, she would have been happy about the fact that we can now have a more productive conversation about who is teaching "phonics" to whom, because of these standards. But she would have been happier if the standards had been set higher, as usual, and she would not have been surprised to know that her curriculum enables students to exceed the standards in each of the ELA-LITERACY strands of the CCSS. I'll talk some more about these strands in following posts. For now, please take a look at Appendix A of the CCSS.ELA-LITERACY K-5, where you will find the following charts, which begin on page 17 of that document, and which list the common phoneme-grapheme correspondences in English, among other concepts, all of which are mastered by Level I Riggs students, who study the science of orthography.
- Figure 8: Consonant Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondences in English
- Figure 9: Vowel Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondences in English
- Figure 10: Consonant Grapehemes with Definitions and Examples
- Figure 11: Vowel Graphemes with Definitions and Examples
- Figure 12: Six Types of Written Syllable Patterns
- Figure 13: Examples of Inflectional Suffixes in English
Did you notice that these charts show us what beginning readers need to know about English graphemes, syllables, morphemes, and words? What do you think of that? Did you notice that the subject has finally (and hopefully for all time) been defined? What are your thoughts on that? Did you know that everything in these charts is practiced and mastered by Level I Riggs students? Myrna McCulloch would have noticed these things--and more. She would have been happy the subject has been defined, and she would have called 2010 English Language Arts Standards in the CCSS . . . a good start. She would have encouraged us to talk about the standards while urging Riggs teachers to continue to do what we've always done: use the Riggs Institute's cost-effective, nondiscriminatory program to teach foundational skills to children so they can meet or exceed the Common Core State Standards for ELA-LITERACY.
What are your thoughts on this subject? Let's talk about Riggs and the Common Core.