Helping Riggs Schools Get Back on Track

Sometimes teachers begin using the Riggs program exactly as written and then slip away from it (often through no fault of their own). Although they will start off completely committed to Riggs, they may slowly but surely begin to change key details, to drop important practices, and even to flirt with other programs.

Why does this happen? Usually because principals or lead teachers will seduce other teachers into believing that it is really okay to add a little of this and a little of that from other sources, not realizing that they are adulterating Riggs. It may seem innocent enough--until the students begin to learn less and less, and until both they and their teachers become more and more stressed.

As they attempt to balance that which should not--and really cannot--be balanced, some of these overworked teachers may eventually begin to panic. The Riggs Institute may even get a telephone call from their principal (if the teachers and students are lucky):

“Help! We’re floundering! And we don’t know why. Can you come out to our school, model some Riggs lessons for us, and help us get back on track?” And of course we say yes.

It happened again last month. The pre-k teachers in a "Riggs School" were dragging out the instruction and watering it down, and the K-1 teachers were trying to include two other programs (Reading Street and Power Writing) in their language arts time. Unfortunately, none of this was working out very well. (Their test scores were still good, but they were not nearly as good as they could be.)

Here, below, is a copy of the follow-up letter that I sent to the principal after working with the excellent teachers in this school. As you read it, you’ll see that I’ve outlined some suggestions that will help them refocuse their teaching time.

I’m sharing it with you because I believe that some of these suggestions might help you make your own teaching practice more deliberate, and I’m sharing it because this letter will show you some of the problems we see during our follow-up visits. (Note: the details below are true, but the names have been changed.)

Dear Principal Smith,

Thank you for inviting me to work with the pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first-grade teachers at Main Street Academy last week. As a part of the Riggs Institute’s three-day classroom observation/workshop, I was able to (1) respond to your teacher’s more advanced questions, (2) observe and model some of the Riggs Institute’s instructional procedures, and (3) work with your grade-level teaching teams to create streamlined lessons with accelerated timetables for the teaching of new skills. I hope your students will be well-served by my visit.

Unfortunately, your other duties did not permit you to be involved in our entire training session at MSA, but please know that a summary of those skills which are to be taught and practiced during any two-week period may be found in the detailed Skills and Performance Checklists in The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking. These lists can be found immediately before the tab sheet that separates the lesson sections (the first is on pages 97-99). If you will take a quick look at a few of them, I believe you will immediately see how they can be of use to you as you mentor your teaching team. As you can see, these Skills and Performance Checklists will keep you informed of what can be expected of your teachers, and they can help you to inform your parents of what their children are learning. (A glance through the checklist before writing home to parents may inspire your teachers in a similar way. I recommend their use by one and all.)

As you know, I had repeated opportunities to meet with your grade-level teams while at MSA, and we accomplished a great deal of work together during our meetings, and much of that was possible because of the fact that you balanced those sessions with time for me to do a great deal of in-class work (observations and demonstrations). I want to thank you, again, for the planning that made this good work possible.

Please allow me, now, to summarize some of the teaching decisions and agreements that were made in our brainstorming sessions--permit me to give you an overview of my thoughts, concerns, and suggestions. As ever, I’m hoping that these will be of use to you (and to your students) and that we may continue our conversation about using Riggs to teach children to read and write proficiently. So . . . where to start?

The pre-k team agreed to begin teaching the Riggs Institute’s lessons, as written, at the rate of about ½ lesson per day. Together we agreed that they will discontinue the use of all worksheets and discontinue tracing as a teaching technique in favor of teaching Riggs. They will begin at lesson one--penmanship practice, and they will directly teach each step and skill in that lesson, developing their student’s oral and written vocabularies through dictation procedures, as described in the Riggs text (and on the cards). They will teach step by step, focusing student attention on the accomplishment of worthwhile tasks, and they will have their students practice new skills in a step-by-step, specific, doable manner (e.g., “Begin at the dotted line; draw a line down to the base line; stop; check your work; does it touch the ‘checkpoints’?”). Their students will learn how to follow explicit oral instructions.

By the time you receive this letter, your pre-k teachers will be practicing for at least one hour per day (this may be divided). They will be playing oral phonemic awareness games with their students (no materials needed--maybe some counters for the kids), reading to their students from vocabulary-rich literature, and talking with them about what is being read. (See Riggs text and blog article about how to teach the first 10 lessons.) Finally, they will have begun explicitly teaching penmanship skills and the sound-symbol relationships of the English spelling system. (See pages 93 and 94 in your Level I teaching text for an outline of this month’s teaching activities.) They will be helping their students to develop the skills that are needed for writing on kindergarten-sized paper (though they may have used large motor skills to practice initially).

After several weeks of such writing practice (which is to be done as students are saying the sounds of each letter that is being written), teachers will begin to teach simple words in a separate activity (they will continue to teach the rest of the spelling patterns of English during most of their language teaching time). They will teach encoding, decoding, and blending skills directly with each new word (as described in their manuals). And they will have children practice blending and reading new words until they are mastered (another separate activity). They will teach systematically and sequentially without the use of any kind of worksheet.

For each new language skill introduced, pre-k teachers will:

  1. Model the new skill by clearly explaining each task and by leading students step-by-step through the process. (Teachers will keep students actively involved during this guided practice by “thinking aloud” and using a Q&A format: “Is this a line letter or a clock letter?” “Where do I start?” Etc..)
  2. Guide first practice (teachers will use explicit oral instructions to dictate letter formation, etc.--see Riggs lessons 1-8)
  3. Reteach based on observation during guided practice.
  4. Have students practice the new skill independently until it has been mastered. (Children who need more modeling and guidance may receive it during this time.)

The kindergarten team, which has three hours per day for language teaching, agreed to maximize student learning by teaching one Riggs lesson per day and by:

  1. Discontinuing the use of all worksheets
  2. Discontinuing the use of conflicting materials (Reading Street, etc.)
  3. Following the Riggs Institute’s guidelines re: having students use paper, pencil, and their minds to directly practice the English language skills in each new lesson.

To help students acquire a solid, unshakable foundation in the English language arts, your kindergarten teachers will begin to use all of their daily language-arts time to teach the Riggs Institute’s language-arts curriculum. As a team, they will follow the teaching guidelines in The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking. For example, they will use explicit instruction and guided practice to teach the following language skills (which will be introduced sequentially, so that students may build skill upon skill):

  1. Handwriting (manuscript printing)
  2. Phonological Awareness and Phonics
  3. Vocabulary & Spelling
  4. Oral Reading Fluency
  5. Reading Comprehension and Writing

Since studies show repeatedly that explicit instruction in these skills is beneficial in moving kids forward in literacy learning, kindergarten teachers will teach these skills directly, introducing about one new lesson per day and ensuring that each day’s work includes:

  1. Teaching, modeling, and practicing specific and measurable language skills
  2. Assessing written language skills
  3. Reading aloud to children from vocabulary-rich literature
  4. Classroom (and peer) discussions (and oral summaries) of what is being read aloud
  5. Classroom memorization of poetry (daily oral practice)

By the end of the third quarter, kindergarten students will have over 300 words in their spelling notebooks (and in their sight vocabularies). They will be using these and other words daily to write and read correctly-spelled sentences beginning in Lesson 36, and by Lesson 46 they will be using their word knowledge along with decoding skills to read well-loved emergent readers (books like Ten Apples Up on Top; Green Eggs and Ham; Go, Dog, Go; Put Me in the Zoo; and Are You My Mother?​ which are to be introduced in that order). They will begin reading poetry (starting with the poems that have been memorized).

Next, instead of using the leveled readers required by Reading Street (which are not vocabulary-rich texts), kindergarten students will begin reading (aloud, together) books that interest and educate young children while developing a love for good reading and a taste for good writing. Here are some suggestions:

As they move into their last quarter of the year, kindergarten students will continue to review any unmastered lessons (practicing daily until fluency rates are achieved) and will begin to study base words and derivatives while adding 30 words per week to their spelling notebooks.

“Only one thing should be taught at one time,” says an important educational maxim, “and an accumulation of difficulties should be avoided.” The pre-k and kindergarten teachers at MSA will model this maxim as they practice and master the finely-sequenced language lessons in The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking, unhampered by conflicting curriculums. Like pre-k students, kindergarten students will build knowledge on knowledge and skill upon skill. They won’t be asked to do what they cannot do with understanding. Because their teachers will have used the Riggs program as it was designed to be used, your kindergarten students will be ready for first-grade work.

Unfortunately, first-grade teachers at MSA will be required to use a hybrid of three curriculums (Riggs+Reading Street+Power Writing) to teach language skills to their students. Instead of using Riggs as a sequential, systematic, and comprehensive course of study for the teaching of reading and writing skills (as kindergarten teachers are using it), first-grade teachers will try to use Riggs to teach phonics and spelling skills while using Reading Street and Power Writing during the rest of their language teaching time. Unfortunately, RS and PW conflict with the Riggs curriculum in significant ways. Since they also ignore well-tested educational maxims such as the one above, they may cause your students to experience unecessary fear, failure, and frustration.

While Riggs is composed of finely-sequenced lessons that engage students in focused, deliberate practice activities that build skill upon skill, Power Writing is a curriculum that requires students to do what they have not been prepared to do--it asks them to skip foundational learning steps. With Riggs, for example, paragraph writing does not begin until after the children can quickly and easily write the words and sentences of which paragraphs are composed. With Power Writing, on the other hand, I observed students who were being asked to write paragraphs before their spelling, decoding, and sentence-writing skills had been established.

While Power Writing asks children to do that which they have not yet learned how to do, Reading Street, the third part of MSA’s language-arts hybrid, asks children to do what they do not need to do. For example, it asks them to work with “blends” as though these things were meaningful units (which they are not), and it requires children to work with “leveled readers” instead of with vocabulary-rich, award-winning children’s literature. It seems to me that such activities may cause confusion and hamper the progress of some of your students (which may lead to preventable discipline problems). But I could be wrong.

Again, thank you for choosing Riggs, and thank you for inviting us to come out to MSA to work with your teachers and students. It was a pleasure to be of service to you, and I hope you will feel free to call on me if I can be of any further help.

Best regards,
Stephanie Ruston

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