Will Riggs Work With Older Students?

We often get calls from teachers who are working with older students who are struggling. Can we help increase reading scores? Of course. But reading is not the only thing. Many students struggle because they can neither read, write, or spell proficiently. Many of them struggle with basic processing skills, struggle to stay in their seats and pay attention.

Although older students have usually been to school for years, they have not been given the ”keys” they need to unlock reading, writing and spelling. Most have not studied or have not been introduced to learning phonetics or learned the rules of orthography for correct spelling. These students know next to nothing about syllabication, prefixes and suffixes, or Latin and Greek roots. Like most of the older students who came to the Riggs Institute’s Literacy Center for help while I was Director, they can't write a correctly spelled sentence or paragraph, and they certainly are not ready for advanced skills.

Unfortunately, these students weren’t taught to read and write the old-fashioned way--using paper, pencil, and their minds to build skill upon skill, learning relevant content (like the spelling patterns of English) through rote memorization and practice by repetition. Instead they were “taught” to circle items on worksheets. Due to the lack of repetition and basic skills instruction, many older students are completely lost. They’ve never even heard of diagramming a sentence, and they certainly can’t do such a thing. Mastering the use of verbs and adverbs? Exercises in parsing? Forget it. Most older students have not studied--much less mastered--such things. They still need the basics. They need Riggs. Here’s why:

Two years before Myrna McCulloch founded the Riggs Institute, she was drafted to be the principal of a failing school in a poor part of Omaha, Nebraska.

Once she got over the shock of being drafted, she called Oma Riggs. “We need to start using a program that works for all children--the program you recommend,” said McCulloch, “but my teachers don’t know that program. Where should we start? What do we do for each grade level? Will you help us?” So Oma went to Omaha to train the teachers.

When the school year began, McCulloch’s teachers followed Riggs’ suggestions and lesson plans, which were adaptations and extensions of Romalda Spalding’s Writing Road to Reading (and which are now incorporated in the Riggs Institute’s Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking). They took things one day at a time, and they had their students do the work that was required of them.

Everyone started with the first lesson. They learned how to form their letters correctly, they learned how to read and write the basic spelling patterns of English (Riggs phonograms), then learned to spell and read words using these patterns, they learned to analyze these words, and then they learned to write sentences containing correctly spelled words. And so on. They learned the rules of orthography as they were encountered in their Spelling-Vocabulary Lists, learned to apply a marking system so that it could function as a memory aid, learned to write and read correctly spelled and properly punctuated sentences containing these words, and studied the function of each of the words in their sentences.

Working steadily and systematically, they went from the part to the whole. They learned how to apply the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, learned to analyze their own writing and the writing of others, and so on. Step-by-step, day-by-day, with each class being kept to a challenging pace and each student working harder than he had ever worked in this life, they did their lessons. As they built success upon success, they began to thrive.

Putting down line upon line, they created Spelling-Vocabulary Lists at their own levels, but each word in every list was correctly-spelled, and each word had been analyzed by the class before it was practiced to mastery.

Following step-by-step instructions, the students at McCulloch’s school built their own charts/graphic organizers to define and illustrate the key concepts they were studying, just as Riggs students do today. They made their own Reference Notebooks--running records of all that they were learning--to use during classroom discussions and for independent study.

Under Oma Riggs’ mentorship and Myrna McCulloch’s supervision, the teachers at St. Agnes learned how to teach like they had never taught before. As they worked their way through Oma’s adaptation and extension of the Spalding program, the students at St. Agnes began to shine. They learned how to study efficiently. They learned how to work frugally and diligently. They learned how to think carefully and critically. By spending half of each instructional day on basic skills during the first half of the first year, they were soon able to read and write about other core subjects, making excellent use of their educational time. Working systematically and sequentially, they traveled far.

Guided by Riggs, McCulloch, and the teachers at St. Agnes, the youngest students used the program to prevent their own reading and writing disorders while the older students used it to correct them.

At the end of the first year, the youngest students finished grade one reading from the World Book and spelling at a 3rd to 7th grade level, and every student in the school wrote legibly and creatively with proper grammar, syntax, capitalization, and punctuation. Their teachers read to them from classic literature, both for enjoyment and to increase their vocabulary levels, and the students read classic literature themselves for that same reason.

After fourteen months of instruction, the students in grades three through eight had increased their composite class average scores by 65.5 percent, and the students in grades one and two were reading above the 90th percentile. Myrna McCulloch was amazed, to say the least. Borrowing $2,000 from her husband to pay for the start-up costs, she opened the doors of the Riggs Institute, a  nonprofit literacy and teacher-training agency, and began to help other teachers and parents.

McCulloch spent the next twenty years working at the institute. She worked for at least 12 hours a day--without pay--helping parents and teachers as they worked with their students. In the year 2000, she finished the Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking, the institute’s main text, which covers the basics of the Spalding program as adapted and extended by Riggs and McCulloch.

Since this program is appropriate for any student who has not yet mastered basic skills, it’s appropriate for your older students. In the same way that the teachers at St. Agnes used it to help their older students, you’ll use it to help yours. You’ll start at the beginning and move as quickly as possible as you build skill on skill.

You’ll use the Level I text to create the foundation, and you’ll jump into the Level II and III text as soon as possible so you can teach advanced vocabulary words as your students are mastering spelling rules. You’ll teach syllable rules, Greek and Latin Roots, and so on. Before you know it, your students will be studying grammar systematically, sequentially, and with the help of classic texts like Harvey’s Elementary Grammar and Composition. You'll also use Harvey's text along with Mary Daly's diagramming book to engage your students in a study of syntax, which will deepen their critically thinking skills. You’ll be amazed by what is happening in your classroom.

You can do it. We can help. And since it’s our purpose to do that, you can count on us. All you have to do is trust us enough to get started, and then you must start. All you have to do is believe that what happened at St. Agnes, can happen in your classroom. All you have to do is believe--in us, in yourself, and in your students.[See St. Agnes testing results on our website

If you nurture their minds with the truth about English, and if you nurture their spirits with daily successes, and if you nurture their hearts with approaches such as those recommended by the Children’s Success Foundation, your students will thrive.

Just remember that reading is never enough. The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking is a complete language arts program. It will help you teach your students to write, speak, spell, think, and study while it teaches them to read. It’s a comprehensive, low-cost, highly effective program that prevents and corrects learning disorders in children of all ages. Because it can easily be individualized to meet the needs of older students, this is an excellent program for any student who has not mastered foundational skills. 

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