Stevenson Learning Skills

A Taste for Mnemonic Instruction

The Stevenson Program uses visual clues to help teach the full range of word attack skills, from learning letters to recognizing vowel patterns to unlocking multi-syllable words. Below, you see the mnemonic clue that teaches the letter c.  Along with this clue Stevenson provides multi-sensory activities and direct instruction to elicit the  hard sound of c and associate it with the letter shape. This approach to sound/symbol correspondence is thorough, but not unique. The Stevenson Program, however, takes this approach a step further.

After mastering only five letter sounds, students are ready to read two words and decode their first vowel pattern. The program personifies the letters o and a and presents a brief, mnemonic story that depicts these letters as friends. Through the story, students draw on their own personal experience to determine which letter makes a sound and which is quiet. Pupils then combine the oa friends with consonants to make words. A special decoding strategy is taught to help students resolve crucial blending difficulties. Students continue to learn new letters using mnemonic pictures, and each time they do, they also use the letters in context with the oa friends to make new words.

After a few lessons, students are ready to generalize. More than one hundred words fit into a structure that is illustrated by a single mnemonic – the crunchy peanut butter and jelly sandwich pictured at the left. Here the vowels are sandwiched between the consonants. You can hear the crunchy peanut butter (the letter that is sounded out) as you chew, not the smooth jelly (the silent vowel). In addition to words that contain oa, words like rain, feed and heat also fall into this category.  Other reading programs call such words “long vowel CVVC” words and then expect students to memorize and apply rules in order to decode the words accurately.  The sandwich is a mnemonic image of a concrete reality that is already stored in the student’s long-term memory. It is easy to retrieve and easy to understand.  It also lends itself to an easy – and tasty – multi-sensory lesson.

More Than a Memory Aid

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a mnemonic designed to facilitate memory. Just as importantly, however, it is a clear model that illustrates an important linguistic structure. By removing one slice of bread, you can create words like eat, oak or aim.  By removing the other slice of bread, you can make words like see or tea.  By using a thicker slice of bread you can create words like brain, float or clean.  As a model, the sandwich allows students to picture the alphabetic code and manipulate it comfortably and effectively.  The sandwich makes abstract elements concrete.

The second major model that the Stevenson Program introduces is the layer cake. Here, vowels are layered with consonants (and only at this point does the program begin to use abstract terms like “consonant” and “vowel”).  The first consonant is the first layer of cake. Then comes a layer of filling which contains jam and chips that you can hear as you chew. The next layer of cake is a consonant and the last layer of frosting is creamy, smooth – and silent – letter e.  Words like late, pole, bite and cute all fit this model, and the cake creates possibilities similar to the sandwich.  You can remove the first layer of cake to make ate, or add a thicker layer of cake (angel food) to make drive, stone, etc.  One of the most interesting possibilities of this mnemonic, however, comes when you work with the frosting.  The cake is an excellent vehicle for teaching students about suffixes – without even having to use that abstract term.

For example, consider adding an ing suffix to the layer cake word ride. Many LD students will try to spell the word as rideing (which certainly makes sense when you think about it).  And when they see riding they will often try to read it as if it were a short vowel word (i.e., ridding).  In the Stevenson Program, students learn about suffixes as different kinds of frosting.  Rather than making a mess by trying to put one frosting on top of another, pupils learn to scrape off the creamy (and silent) e frosting and put on a different one (that makes a sound).  Of course, if you were adding frosting (or, marshmallow fluff, if you prefer) to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich word, you would not have to scrape anything off.  You could put it right on top.  In addition to frostings, the program has other suffixes called “decorations” and prefixes called “doilies.”

In this description we can only provide a sample of our special clues.  We do, of course, cover all the major linguistic structures of English.  Below you will see some other mnemonics that help teach the short vowel o sound and the digraph ou.  Click here for the Scope and Sequence where you will see a full list of the language units that Stevenson teaches, using a very unusual order. We hope these examples have given you a taste of how a few mnemonic clues – carefully chosen and related – can unlock hundreds of words and facilitate the entire decoding process.


Thorough comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading instruction.  Recent research has indicated that explicit phonics instruction plays a key role in helping students overcome reading problems, so this description has focused on the unique approach that Stevenson brings to phonics.  The Program, however, includes a variety of strategies for teaching a variety of skills, and comprehension is key amongst these.

The most important prerequisite for effective reading comprehension is mental imagery. Students must make a picture in their minds of what they are reading while they are reading it.  Sometimes students struggle so hard to decode words, they do not also visualize the meanings of the words.  Even some students who decode well do not make a mental image of the content of the reading material.  Therefore, the first step in building comprehension skill is building the habit of visualizing information.  The Stevenson Program works on this process by introducing Imaging as the first of several vocabulary building steps.  Other meaning-based exercises (illustrating, demonstrating, defining, categorizing and more) are also applied.  As the program proceeds, it also develops the student’s ability to answer comprehension questions.  Students not only learn to read with comprehension, they learn to answer questions about passages in complete sentences in writing.