When Oma Riggs (for whom the Riggs Institute was named) stumbled across Romalda Spalding's Writing Road to Reading in 1959, she was looking for something to help the students who were failing in her first-grade classroom. There were always a few, she’d noticed, year after year--a handful of kids who "just didn't get it." This bothered Oma Riggs.
Although her peers saw Oma as “the best Scott Foresman teacher” in her school, she wasn’t satisfied. Although she had the least percentage of failures, this was not good enough for her. And to make matters worse, Oma was unwilling to blame her students for their failure to learn to read and write. “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught,” she’d say--even when she was telling on herself. (Some call her stubborn.)
Sensing that she was missing something important, Oma walked the streets of New York City’s Spanish Harlem in the evenings, wandering in and out of her neighborhood bookstores and thrift stores, searching for anything that might help her to help her students.
When she found a used copy of Romalda Spalding’s Writing Road To Reading, she felt exactly how I felt when I found this method: she knew she’d found her answer. (This wsas before the Spalding foundation changed Spalding's method to include the use of decodable, or leveled, readers.)
Because Spalding's book contained a lot of information about phonetics and orthography, and because these subjects were unfamiliar to Oma Riggs (the reading program at her school did not include the study of such things, and Oma had never studied them in college), and because Oma was also unfamiliar with the teaching techniques described by Spalding, she signed up for a 40-hour training class. Not wanting to miss anything, she took the class three times. And she began to teach. And everyone began to learn.
One year she was given a classroom full of third to fifth grade boys who could not read, most of whom also behaved so badly that they were forbidden to join their fellow students in the lunch room. Oma was not intimidated. She went to work and taught them what they did not know, believing in their ability to learn it. By the end of the year she had them reading and writing at grade level and eating off of linen tablecloths, using impeccable manners. Every parent in Oma’s neighborhood soon came to know her.
Oma always said that she became a master teacher after she found Spalding’s program, after she studied it carefully and thoroughly, and after she adapted and extended it to work with her students in Spanish Harlem, many of whom had parents who did not speak English. She said she never met another child she couldn’t reach. Not once.
While she worked to perfect her teaching of this method, Oma Riggs was observed by Dr. Hilde Mosse (M.D.), who had become alarmed by the high rate of illiteracy in her student patients and who was now researching how beginning reading was being taught to the children in her city. When Dr. Mosse saw the difference in the way that Oma Riggs was teaching, she was shocked. Learning the method herself, she went back to teach it to all of her patients (over 1000), rethinking everything she thought she knew about learning disorders along the way. Dr. Mosse used over 50 pages in her Complete Handbook of Children's Reading Disorders to talk about the benefits of this highly effective language arts program, prescribing it for the prevention and correction of reading and writing disorders. “The prognosis for the treatment of reading disorders is excellent,” she said. “Only a small number of children with the severe organic type cannot be completely cured.” Oma Riggs would certainly agree with that statement.
After perfecting her teaching of this method, and after helping Dr. Mosse as she worked to help her troubled patients, Oma Riggs drastically changed her life. Although she had worked for many years in the New York City Public School system, she walked away from it, giving up her future pension to go out on the road to help others. Driving from city to city in her battered car, she gave free talks about this nondisciminatory teaching program, and she started training the parents and teachers of struggling children. When she arrived in Omaha, NE, she met--and eventually trained--Myrna McCulloch, and then she trained McCulloch’s teachers. When McCulloch saw what this program did for the children in her inner-city school in 1977-1979, she founded the Riggs Institute, where she and Oma Riggs began to do what the Riggs Institute continues to do to this day.
Who is Oma Riggs?
- A master teacher
- A servant
- An inspiration
This is an inspiring article of how the Riggs reading program was founded.