“Pupils to be taught maths the Chinese Way” (The Times headline, 12 July)

So: we’re going for wholesale adoption of “Shanghai maths” in the UK. 8000 primary schools will be switching to the traditionalist style of maths teaching used in South Asia. There will be greater emphasis on class teaching; children from age five will learn through drills and repetition; more work will be done from textbooks, and who knows – maybe in a few years our children will have made up the three years that we are behind Shanghai?

We have a Chinese lady at our church whose husband is a doctor in Beijing. They have a five year old son, who has just started school. Why has she chosen to live away from her husband for most of the year? Because of the education system in China. Because the pressure on children to achieve is such that they spend practically every waking hour either at school or doing school work at home. The average school day runs from 7.30 – 5.00, with two hours for lunch. A 12 year old will typically spend 3-4 hours a day doing homework, knowing that when he or she graduates in a few years they face the dreaded high school graduation exam, the Gaokao or “big test”, which examines high school leavers on their Chinese, mathematics and English, and another science or humanities subject of their choice. Shanghai maths is not just a system that can be cherry-picked off the whole Chinese education  cake: it is part of the mix. The 15 year olds who have achieved “mastery” have done so because they have survived spending their childhood in a pressure-cooker. However we are told nothing about those who haven’t…

The Gaokao
As a recent BBC TV documentary showed, a student’s Gaokao result will determine which university they can attend, and therefore much of the rest of their future, so they are under huge pressure from an early age. For the first time this year, any candidate caught cheating could face jail. Gaokao revision is all-consuming, often at the expense of the necessities of life. A good result means status and a high paid job; failing the Gaokao almost guarantees a lifetime of low-ranking employment, and family disappointment. The shadow of the Gaokao falls right back through the education system, so that even children of primary school age are under its thrall. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recently announced that about 500 children commit suicide each year under academic pressure brought about by the examination-based education system, often by jumping from the balconies of their high-rise flats.

From what I remember from my first school days 60 years ago, we used the Shanghai system at Hedsor infant school – or something pretty similar. Maths drills, chanting tables, whole class teaching – isn’t that it? And those “thick” children who just couldn’t keep up, and fell further and further behind – weren’t they in the picture too?

Of course the text book publishers will feast on this like sharks, and doubtless there will be children who will achieve higher standards. Meanwhile we will be around with our new dyscalculia kit, which will be out in September, to pick up the pieces as our schools are Shanghai’d back into a bygone age. Sadly, though, there are some pieces that can never be picked up. The cost will be a lot more than £41 million of textbooks and training.

Hands off or hands on: what has happened to multi-sensory learning?

multipurpose clear spinner

An instant multi-sensory resource creator.

Hands off or hands on: what has happened to multi-sensory learning?

I spent a day down at the BETT show in January, and came back with a bagful of fliers about the latest developments in educational technology. I sifted through what I thought to be the pick of the bunch, and put them up on the wall in the main corridor of our offices. Everything was apps and robots. At the time I thought: “This is the way education is going. We need to be doing more of this sort of stuff ourselves.”

Fast forward to the Education Show in March, where we had a stand. My attention was arrested by a product that I designed 17 years ago taking centre stage on a huge stand in the middle of the show. It was a simple thing: a clear plastic spinner, with rubber feet, that you can put on any surface or sheet of paper to create your own spinner game or activity. Except it wasn’t my spinner – yet there it was: smaller than mine, and circular rather than square, but exactly the same principal, even down to the four rubber feet. The company launching it clearly hadn’t pinched my design – they had literally re-invented the wheel; nonetheless I suddenly regretted the fact that I hadn’t patented the idea when we brought it out in 1999.

Since then it’s made me think, though – not just about the fact that we could have done a lot more to market such a useful little learning aid, but about where education is going and what learners need. I came back from BETT with an image in my mind of the technology train heading off towards the horizon, and Crossbow running after it with our suitcaserunning-after-the-train full of board games, card games, spinners, dice and other hands-on stuff. But there were computer games around – and good ones, too – when I designed my first card games with the dyslexic kids I was teaching at the school where I worked; and given the choice between playing a computer game or playing a card game, it was actually the card game that they usually preferred.

Have things changed that much? And more to the point, to what extent should we be encouraging activities in school where social interaction is removed? With today’s digitisation of leisure in a world where “all things are possible through the screen that strengthens me” (corrupted from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians), school is rapidly becoming the last remaining place where children can be positively encouraged to play socially.

This isn’t  about the social benefit of games, however, so much as the educational benefits of the type of materials that traditional games employ. Research evidence of the benefits of multi-sensory learning are overwhelming – not just for dyslexic learners, but for everyone. And multi-sensory means what it says: the exercise of multiple learning channels. Visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. Put that in the context of a well-designed social game where game play requires reading and vocalisation of target language, and add to it some of the shortcomings that can still affect both the process and the outcome of reading on screen as opposed to paper*, and some of the educational benefits of digital learning seem to be disappearing along with my imagined train that is carrying them.

This is not to say that all digital learning is bad: far from it. Paper media cannot compete with the accessibility, the versatility, the wealth of content, the level of engagement (so strong that it can become addiction in some cases) that good digital games and other resources provide, and there has to be a place for the best that technology can offer. What concerns me is that we don’t lose track of what we have learnt about the benefits of  multisensory learning in the rush to pile on board the next all-singing, all-dancing app train that pulls into the station. Because when it moves off, we (that is Crossbow Education) will now be quite happy to tip out the contents of our old-school suitcase into the gap that it has left behind.

Anyone fancy as game of cards?

PS Check out our conference SpLD Central on June 9th. Lots of multisensory stuff going on there.

Bob Hext, April 2016


*(Dillon, A. (1992) Reading from paper versus screens: a critical review of the empirical literature. Ergonomics, 35(10), 1297-1326.)

Coloured overlays, bad science, and the B B C (The Windscreen Analogy).

Last week the BBC reported on a study by researchers from Bristol and Newcastle which cast doubt on the efficacy of using coloured overlays to help with reading difficulties. Now that the storm  has died down a bit, I thought it’s time I put in my penn’th (is that how you spell it?).

“Dyslexia not linked to eyesight”, trumpets Sean Coughlan of the BBC. Absolutely right. But who said it was? Therefore coloured overlays don’t work for dyslexia, infer the researchers. Indeed they don’t. However, what they do work for is visual stress, which happens to be a condition of the visual cortex that quite a lot of dyslexic people suffer from, but which has no direct connection with any of the ophthalmic data that the researchers analysed.

Basically there are four separate threads here: Dyslexia, the eyes, coloured overlays, and visual stress (linked with the visual cortex). Because (despite the efforts of Bruce Evans, Arnold Wilkins and other academics), confusion and ignorance still generally prevail over the relationship between dyslexia and visual stress, the researchers have looked at their data on eye conditions (short-sightedness, convergence problems etc) and responded to questions from concerned parents with the following logic:

“We find no statistical correlation between dyslexia and eye problems, therefore a coloured filter can’t make any difference to how words appear to the reader” .

I was trying to think of something that would illustrate the failings of this logic, and decided it was a bit like saying “The demister in your car doesn’t affect the rain on the windscreen, so you’re wasting your time using it on the condensation.”

If you don’t make sure your car windscreen is free of condensation, you run the risk of crashing your car. Sadly, some parents will have listened to the bad science promulgated by the BBC, and run the risk of crashing their child’s reading as a result. And the BBC will be responsible for the crash. You can phonic a child to death, but they will never read with ease and comfort until the words stop moving around – and in many cases the only way to achieve that is by reading through colour, because nothing else deals with the hyper-excitation of the visual cortex that causes visual stress.

Incidentally the Daily Mail, who picked up on this story as well, ran an article on our reading rulers a few years ago entitled “Now you can read through colour”. Obviously it made a good story at the time – 2008, I think it was. Now, in 2015, it makes a good story to say the opposite. Hello? Is anyone out there interested in the truth?

Bob Hext, 5th June 2015.

The DIRM Factor

ProtractorgateBy Beccie Hawes,

(Head of Service, Rushall’s Inclusion Advisory Team)

DIRM stands for ‘does it really matter?’ and it is fast becoming my mantra of choice for many of the issues that I am encountering in our schools! I have the pleasure and privilege of getting to know the many children and young people referred to our service. Often, the conversation starts something like this: “I have this child who no one knows what to do about.” This then leads to: “We’ve exhausted everything we’ve got to offer and were hoping you and your magic wand could come and have a look.” At this point I always agree to go in because I love a challenge and am yet to find the unteachable child. This is because I believe that children and young people who are experiencing learning difficulties actually have teaching difficulties. The difficulty belongs to us – the teachers – it is our responsibility to adapt our teaching until the child learns.

My latest DIRM outing for a supposed unteachable child led me to work with an amazing thirteen year old male. Upon arrival to his maths lesson for an observation Jay (name has been changed) was sat in the back corner of the classroom wearing his baseball cap and hoodie (hood up) whilst complaining loudly about a protractor and another detention. It turned out that he had received yet another consequence for not having a protractor in his pencil case. The teaching assistant in a hushed, red-faced tone told me that a protractor wasn’t needed – it was a multiplication lesson but rules were rules and the rule clearly states what equipment should be present for every lesson. This had led to the cap on, hood up complaining situation which was apparently the tip of a humungous iceberg. According to the teaching assistant Jay forgets everything and is always angry because he has a terminal case of detention attendance.

At this point there was only one course of action for me. So, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that irritants cause pearls and asked the sixty-four thousand dollar question: “Does it really matter?” Once I had made it clear to all parties that I do value and see the importance of whole school polices, rules and routines, we agreed that sometimes you have to let things go so that you can concentrate on the important and bigger issues.

I strongly suspect that the young man at the centre of the ‘protractorgate’ situation is dyslexic. We will work this out as I get to know him. Often, as a result of being dyslexic, organisation and memory difficulties are experienced. By getting caught up in the here and now of consequences the basic need had been overlooked because we’d forgotten to ask: ‘Does it really matter?’ I wonder if his possible dyslexia has always been missed because it has been masked by a whole host of small things that became the wrong focus.

So, next time we are faced with a situation we should all ask ourselves if what we are dealing with is the thing that really matters or is masking what we should be focusing on.

Crossbow are working with Beccie and her team to bring an “inclusion zone” of teaching tips to the crossbow website: keep an eye on for the new Inclusion Zone pages. To visit Rushall’s inclusion service website, go to

Beccie Hawes is presenting a workshop at SpLD Central on 20th June.

Are you dyslexic, or have you got dyslexia?

I read an article yesterday (which I’ll publish later as a guest blog) by an author who describes herself as a “proud dyslexic”.

I expect I’ve written about this already, but it just made me think again about the whole PC business of labelling people. The author, Sarah Chapman, says “I haven’t got dyslexia, I’m dyslexic!”  The PC police (sorry reader, if you are one of them – this is probably goodbye!) tell us we mustn’t label someone as being “dyslexic”; we must say they “have dyslexia”. But doesn’t that make dyslexia sound like some sort of illness? The same PC police correctly embrace, and even campaign for, the notion that dyslexia is not a learning disability; it is a learning difference. And indeed it is. How much poorer the world would be if Einstein, Churchill, Branson and all the well-known names in the gallery of the “heroes of dyslexia” were not different from the rest of us.

So why then talk about it as if it were an illness? Why not use “dyslexic” as an attribute in the same way as we use “creative”, or “analytical” or “funny” or “thoughtful”, for example? And as far as avoiding the label of dyslexia goes, I do not know a single dyslexic person (and I know some very well indeed) for whom the classification (I will avoid the word “diagnosis” because of its medical connotations!) of dyslexia has not been helpful in enabling them to understand their history and their uniqueness. If I find out that someone is dyslexic I expect two things: one; that they will have encountered difficulties at some level or another in their educational journey; and two, that they will give me a fresh take, a broader vision, another colour pallette, to bring to my view of the world. If you are dyslexic, you may have had some issues in the past, but you can give your bit of the world a brighter future.

Dyslexia is a gift, not a syndrome. It may be hard to unwrap at times, but we need to value it and cherish it; not pretend it doesn’t exist. You don’t have dyslexia; you are dyslexic, just like you are tall, or short, or blonde,  and possibly also creative, funny, brilliant, thoughtful, kind …

Of course you may also be various other things. But we won’t go there.

Have you Been Phoniced? (Guest Blog from Beccie Hawes)

We are delighted to be developing a partnership with one of our local Inclusion Advisory teams, based at Rushall Primary School, near Walsall. In this article, head of service Beccie Hawes asks the question…Beccie Hawes

Have you been phoniced? (Pronounced: “phonicked”)

I think I may have invented a new verb! In terms of tenses and in conversation it goes something like this:

“Today I have been phonicing some children in Year One” meaning that today I have taught synthetic phonics to some five and six year olds.

“Yesterday I phoniced some children in Year Two” meaning that yesterday I taught synthetic phonics to some six and seven year olds.

My problem lies in that sometimes we ‘phonic’ children and it doesn’t work and quite often these children have been phoniced for two or three years before someone scratches their head and says “I thinks we need to do something different!” It is at this point that my phone rings and I am asked the million dollar question “What do we do about our phoniced failures?” I have a simple answer…..send them to phonic rehab! What follows is not necessarily what all children will need but part of what should form a rich buffet of approaches for all learners to taste!

So what happens in phonic rehab? Firstly, we recognise that not all children learn following a synthetic approach. Some children have limited working memory capacity which means that they can’t ‘hold’ all of the sounds that they need to synthesise. Others may struggle to sequence all of the sounds, fail to isolate individual phonemes or get locked into sounding out everything that they try to read. The next step is to explore a range of methods to find the way in which the child learns best such as looking at whole words, using analogy (if you can spell bat you could get to hat, mat, sat….), exploring onset and rime, mnemonics, word shapes, simultaneous oral spelling and anything else in your teaching armoury. All phonic rehab approaches much be multi-sensory so that children can truly experience the teaching focus in all modalities. It’s time to get back out the sandpaper letters, wikki sticks, magnetic letters, sand trays, slime and anything else that you can think of. This needs to be done whilst looking, saying, smelling and – where you can – tasting. Phonic rehab must also offer opportunities to over learn everything and chances to use what we have learnt in a real world scenario are essential! Opportunities to be in control of the learning such as selecting the words to learn foster engagement. The most crucial element is that phonic rehab starts early and acts like a dripping tap: little and often – a constant drip. We must stop phonicing our children and change direction as soon as we suspect it isn’t working and do something else.

Phonic rehab is a bit scary for some teachers because we remove the structured scheme of work that we believe we must religiously follow and bin the tick list of sounds that must be reader to prove that a child can read. I believe that instead of finding it scary we should embrace the opportunity to respond to what the child needs from where the child shows us their starting point is rather than a neat intervention group.

I regularly work with an amazing lady who has a brilliant saying: “Don’t tickle a pig!” Apparently, pigs are not ticklish so you can tickle them as much as you like but no one will get anything from it. I question if it is time to recognise that for some children synthetic phonics is a pig that is immune to laughter!

(Beccie Hawes is one of the workshop presenters at our conference SpLD Central, coming up on June 20th.)

Conflicting theories about Visual Stress

In his comment on my (fairly) recent post on “academic arguments and anecdotal evidence”, Philip Jones referred to the conflicting views of two academics, namely Professors Arnold Wilkins and John Stein, who put forth differing theories on the neurological causes of Visual Stress. I appreciated Philip’s comment: I don’t agree with him, but it’s interesting on a site like this to hear what other people have to say.

I am not a scientist myself – I used to be a  schoolteacher, and now I run a business, and I have to admit that I very quickly feel out of my depth in scientific discussions. As I have already made clear: if a lot of people, with no axe to grind, all report a common experience (in this case that, for some people, reading through colour alleviates distortions and discomfort when reading), then for me that is more real than analysis and more analysis of data. If you fly high enough above a forest to see the whole landscape, you lose sight of the trees that make it up – but it doesn’t mean they are no longer there.

Anyway – conflicting theories. Unfortunately I haven’t got time (no, really!) to explain them at the moment, but Wilkins (Essex University) suggests that Visual Stress is caused by “Cortical Hyperexcitablility”, and Stein (Oxford) theorises that the cause is “Magnocellular deficit”. The Cortical Hyperexcitablility model proposes that the correct tint to alleviate visual stress in an individual can be one from a wide range of colours across the spectrum; the  Magnocellular Deficit model suggests that the only colours that “work” are blue and yellow.

We (Crossbow Education) sell coloured overlays – thousands of them, every year. Our records of colours selected by thousands of customers consistently show, year on year, practically the same percentage of our ten tints sold. The figures are so consistent that they have statistical significance.  By far the biggest number sold are blue and yellow, but the point is that we sell thousands of the others as well – purple, pink, green etc.Visual Stress is perceived as a syndrome (often known as “Meares-Irlen syndrome), that is a collection of signs and symptoms that are observed in, and characteristic of, a single condition. Right now I have an itch on my leg. My skin is in an irritated condition. Is it caused by my varicose vein (yes I am that old)? Am I reacting to the detergent my wife used when she washed these trousers? Do I have an insect bite? These are all real causes of an irritated skin condition, and there are many more.

Generalising very broadly, there are more than twice as many people using blue and yellow overlays that any other colour. Is it possible that there is a condition called Magnocellular Deficit, which causes the symptoms of visual stress and which is remedied by reading through yellow or blue coloured overlays, and another condition called Cortical Hyperexcitability, also causing the same symptoms, and which is remedied by reading through a wide range of colours which also includes blue and yellow?

Arnold Wilkins and John Stein are men of great intelligence and integrity, who have come to their conclusions through thorough and painstaking research. As I said, I am not a scientist; but rather than seeing their conflicting explanations as cancelling each other out – and therefore destroying the scientific validity of using coloured overlays and tinted lenses to improve reading experience – I think that they could both be right. There isn’t just one scientific reason why reading through colour appears to benefit about 20% of the population to varying degrees: there are two.

Bob Hext, 10 Feb 2015