Using Explicit Instruction to Teach Penmanship Skills

Humans are born with the capacity to learn almost any skill. While some of us may learn a given skill more slowly than others, and while others of us may need someone to help us learn that skill, we can all master the skill if we practice it intelligently (efficiently and diligently), and we can all become fluent if we continue to practice until the skill becomes a habit.

Penmanship, for example--the technical skill of using a writing instrument to form the letters of the alphabet according to established specifications--is a skill that everyone can master. Since it is also a skill that students will use to help them master higher-order skills, Riggs teachers teach it in a way that allows their students to easily master it. How do they do it? They help their students study the topic, for starters, telling them everything they need to know to be successful, and they help their students practice each part of each subskill, teaching them to do so diligently, intelligently, and efficiently. Riggs teachers help their students see that work is the principal agency without which all others will fail, so they never omit this last step. (“Not transient and fitful effort,” said Frederick Douglass, “but patient, enduring, honest, unremitting and indefatigable work into which the whole heart is put, and which, in both temporal and spiritual affairs, is the true miracle worker.”

Riggs teachers begin by deconstructing the skill for their students, showing them how all of the letters of the alphabet can be formed with just seven basic letter strokes, and showing them how to make each of the strokes with the help of four paper checkpoints (baseline, middle dotted-line, top baseline, bottom dotted-line) and four checkpoints on an imaginary clock (2, 10, 8, 4). Riggs teachers help theirstudents form each of the letter strokes in an efficient and effective way (see pages 76-81 in the Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking). They use explicit instructions to teach students the “checkpoints” for each letter, and they show students how to use these checkpoints to self-correct while practicing. After helping them practice letter strokes until they have been mastered, Riggs teachers begin to show students how to write alphabet letters, using the previously learned strokes (see Riggs lessons 1-8).

The letter i, for example, is known to Riggs students as a “short line-letter,” which they learn to write by following a sequence of well-defined steps: (1) picking up the pencil, (2) beginning at the dotted line,right next to whatever came before it, (3) drawing a straight line down to the baseline, (5) picking up the pencil, and (5) putting a small dot immediately above the letter. (See Riggs text and phonogram cards for detailed instructions regarding teaching letter formation and the 71 spelling patterns of English.)

For quality control, Riggs students are taught to analyze their letters. After writing the letter i, for example, Riggs students check to see if their letter has met the established criteria, and they “cancel” [cross out] and rewrite letters that do not meet the criteria. The letter i, for example, must begin at the dotted line and stop at the baseline; it must be dotted.

Knowledge about “letter-formation facts” (which comes when a teacher deconstructs the skill for them) gives many struggling students the power to master the formation of each of the letters. Since practicing in an orderly way accelerates learning, Riggs teachers teach their students to practice in this way. They know that given effective instruction and sufficient practice time, their students can master basic penmanship skills. They know that as their students proceed through the following levels of learning, they will gain the ability to write fluently.



As you can see, fluency is accuracy plus speed, quality plus pace. It’s having the ability to do the right thing automatically, with no hesitation.

Riggs students continue to practice their penmanship skills until they have arrived at fluency because their teachers are soon moving them into lessons which require them to use their penmanship skills to master the basic spelling patterns of English. It’s important to have penmanship skills mastered as quickly as possible, because if students are still focusing on the details of forming each letter, their minds are not entirely free to attend to the sound-symbol relationships of the spelling pattern being studied.

Using their penmanship skills to write and read the Orton phonograms (the sound-symbol relationships of English spelling) increases decoding skills, so Riggs students are building skill upon skill. The are using the first skill as a tool to help them master the second, and they will soon be using these skills to help them master the spelling and reading of whole words. This is learning at its finest.

Since Riggs teachers use sound principles and a sound curriculum to teach these beginning writing and spelling skills to their students, and since Riggs teachers have extremely high expectations for all of their students, Riggs students quickly become fluent in these subject areas and begin studying and practicing the next highest skill. Soon they are writing and reading whole words (then sentences), all of which are made of these learned spelling patterns, which are made, in turn, of alphabet letters. As you can see, teaching penmanship skills can be a highly-effective use of one’s time, and teaching them in a way that allows all students to master them can easily be done by those who teach Riggs. This is because the Riggs Institute’s teaching materials and practice procedures are designed to encourage rather than obstruct fluent performance.

When my students begin their Riggs lessons, I encourage them to believe that they can master them. "All of you will learn this," I promise. "Not everyone will learn it on the same day, but you will learn it. You're very smart, and I will help you." I work with students to help them practice one letter at a time, teaching them to write it carefully and showing them how to judge it after they have written it. I keep things simple for us. If the letter touches all of its "checkpoints," we call it "excellent." If the letter does not meet the criteria for excellence, I ask my students to tell me what we do with letters that do not touch the checkpoints. My students then draw a line through the incorrectly formed letter, and they say "cancel" (telling their brains to forget that). I say, "Excellent." And I smile. And then we continue. Right or wrong, my students are right, and everything they do is excellent, beginning with the first lesson.

As they practice each Riggs lesson, I help my students practice it in this way that allows them to master the material. We don't move on to the next lesson until my students know and can do what they are supposed to know and be able to do by the end of the lesson. (See the Skills and Perfomance Checklists for teachers at the end of each set of lessons in the Level I text.) If some of my students need extra practice time, I make that happen for them. We build knowledge on knowledge; we build skill on skill. If it takes us three or four days to master the first lesson, we take three or four days to master the first lesson. We keep things simple. We practice to mastery. 


Why is this not started in pre school or kindergarden? Before we try teaching them to write their names they should learn to write single letters at a time using this method so they know what the letters even sound like. Kids are such fast learners that starting with this teaching before reading and writing whole words they would move up faster and be more willing to do the work without feeling like they failed before they even tried. Should we be teaching our kids this before we send them to school?

Submitted by Erin Wilmoth (not verified) on Thu, 03/20/2014 - 18:22

Hello Mrs. Wilmoth. Yes, you probably should be teaching your kids this before you send them to school. Unless your local school (including preschool and kindergarten) is using this or a similar program to teach beginning reading and writing skills to the children in your neighborhood, a significant number of them will develop a reading-related learning disorder. There is only way to be sure that none of these children are yours, and that is to teach them yourself. Are you in a position to be able to do that?

If so, Myrna McCulloch included over fifty pages of detailed instructions in the Riggs Institute’s Teacher’s Edition to help you teach the 160 lessons in the Level I text, and we are all here to help you. Designed to prevent and correct reading disorders, the lessons, too, are interspersed with helpful information, and these lessons will give your children a strong educational foundation.

By Lesson 160 your children will know the 71 most common spelling patterns of English; they will be able to write and read hundreds of correctly spelled words; they will be writing their own correctly-spelled sentences and paragraphs; they will be able to use excellent printing whenever they wish to do so (for their final copies); and they will be reading vocabulary-rich children’s books, with fluency and comprehension. Their brains will be hard-wired for success.

Please remember that you can call the Riggs Institute with your questions whenever you get stuck, and you can post questions to this blog.

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