Thinking and Reading Comfort

Thinking and Reading Comfort

 

Two thought systems

I am in the process of reading “Thinking fast and slow”, by Nobel prize-winning author Daniel Kahnemann. The whole book is a fascinating insight into the workings of the human mind, and how we operate on two distinct levels: system one, which is our instinctive, “autopilot” mode; and system two, which you could call our rational over-ride; the processes of analytical thought which, when we allow it the energy that it needs to function effectively, monitors and controls the instinctive “gut-thinking” promptings of system one. System two needs mental effort; system one operates at an automatic level, feeding our mental circuits instantly with much of the information we need for daily life – “I recognise that face”, “I know that word”, “I understand that sign” etc. There is a lot more to the book, (if you’re interested you can check out the you tube video on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjVQJdIrDJ0 ), but what interests me here is how Kahnemann demonstrates a clear connection between reading comfort and thinking levels.

The  cockpit

cockpit

System one is like a cockpit, which maintains and updates current answers to key questions, such as: Is anything new going on? Is there a threat? Are things going well? Should my attention be redirected? Is more effort needed for this task? etc. In assessing this constant stream of inputs, system one is continually deciding whether or not more effort is required from system two. One of the “dials” monitored in this figurative cockpit measures cognitive ease, and its range is between “Easy” and “Strained:’ Easy is a sign that things are going well – no threats, no major news, no need to redirect attention or mobilize effort. Cognitive strain indicates that a problem exists, which will require increased mobilisation of System two.

Many inputs (including the mood you’re in, the familiarity of the task etc) affect this neurological “dial”, but an important one that relates to reading is the clarity of the font. The process of reading familiar words that are clear on the page is a system one activity operating in the “cognitive ease” range, which leaves system two free to work on what the text is about. However if the presentation of the text causes the dial to register cognitive strain, system two is activated to help decipher the font, which suggests that the cognitive resources available for understanding what the words mean are diminished  – especially for someone with dyslexia who has multi-tasking  difficulties.

Font size

This has important implications in at least two areas. One is the question of font size and font type in children’s text books and examination papers. Research by Wilkins et al shows that typefaces for children become too small too quickly: “Sentences presented in a font of a size larger than is typical for use in material for 5-year olds were comprehended by 7–8-year-olds more rapidly than those of a more conventional size. The difference in size approximated 19% and it resulted in an increase in reading speed of 9%. (Typography for children may be inappropriately designed, Journal of Research in Reading Vol 32 2009, UKLA). This increase in reading speed was statistically highly significant.

On the same issue, I spoke to a lady on the phone just yesterday, who was concerned about her 14 year old daughter’s progress at school. She mentioned in the course of the conversation that her school had reduced their test papers from A4 to A5 page format, with a consequent reduction in font size. Wilkins’s research cited above goes on to recommend 14 pt  (this is 14pt) as the optimum size for school texts. Shrinking A4 pages to A5, for the sake of saving paper, will obviously reduce the font size significantly. The implications for cognitive ease are clear. If school testing results are to be a clear reflection of a child’s ability to think, it is critical that font size and clarity are addressed.

Visual Stress

The second issue brings me on to my pet topic, which is visual stress – the experience of discomfort and text distortions that many people experience when reading black text against a white background. Huang et al (2003) suggest that a strong sensorial stimulation – such as a dense written text – might lead to a “reduction in the efficiency of the inhibitory mechanisms in the visual cortex, resulting in an excessive excitation of the cortical neurons, and thus causing illusions and distortions.”*  Wilkins and Evans later proposed (2010) that coloured overlays are effective because “they distribute this excessive excitation and thus mitigate the symptoms of visual stress, thus improving written text processing and reading.” In other words, as is now widely accepted and the many thousands of people who use tinted lenses and coloured overlay products would testify, reading against a coloured background tinted to suit an individual’s preference can move the cognitive ease dial from “strained” to “easy”.

And so the two areas of research come together, like an overlay on a page, even, with an inescapable conclusion:  if text clarity and font size are indicators of cognitive ease or cognitive strain, what is the effect of visual stress on our ability to think about what we are reading? How often do we read something, and it just doesn’t “sink in”? If this is a result of cognitive strain, we may be experiencing it because we are tired, or preoccupied, or because the ideas are unfamiliar, or because the text is faint or too small – or it may just be that we need to be reading against a different coloured background.

*This principal is known as “cortical hyperexcitability” and is the science behind the  coloured overlays, reading rulers and screen tinting software that we supply.

Bob Hext   Jan 2018

They Are Supposed To Be Like That!

Why there is no need to “fix” kids with “special needs”.
Guest blog by Shelley Johnston: Dyslexic, doctor, home-schooling mother.

If I am going to have a rant, I will say that I don’t see anyone classifying children as “SEN” because they lack the extraordinary physical energy and courage of my next-door neighbour’s son. In comparison to him, many other children are frankly pathetic. I will say that I don’t see any children being “statemented” because they lack the ability to handle animals the way my childminder’s son can pick up anything from a preying mantis to a chicken and it appears to become tame. Nobody sighs and says “Never mind, dear, we can work on it,” because they can’t write backwards perfectly, as though in a mirror, like my daughter.

But do you know what? When I am old and sick, if I have a heart attack at 3.00 am, I really hope I find someone in A&E who was like my neighbour’s son as a child, because they have the energy to still be firing on all cylinders at three o’clock in the morning.

One day I WILL finally persuade my husband that a large portion of our household income needs to be spent on horses, and if one of those horses gets colic, I’m going to desperately want someone like my childminder’s son to show up and be able to soothe the thrashing hooves and snapping teeth as the poor thing tries to kick and bite its own tummy.

If I need an engineer, I hope they can flip shapes about in their head as easily as my little girl can.

The biggest trouble our children with “special needs” face is our own short-sightedness; our desperation that they go along with the pack, fit the mould and jump through all the hoops – the hoops laid out by the National Curriculum and Ofsted and other well-meaning bodies of people, who don’t seem to understand that Normal Distribution is a bell-curve; that it is NORMAL for people to be abnormal, that whole populations work by having a balance between lots of people who are good at one thing and a few who are good at others.

If we spend all our time trying to narrow the bell-curve and cut off its untidy tails we will find ourselves up the creek without a paddle. We not only do our “special needs” children a grave disservice by teaching them that what they are good at and enjoy is secondary in importance to the things that they are bad at and hate doing,  giving them the impression, albeit unintentionally, that they have to pretend to be something else before they are allowed to be themselves. We deprive the rest of the world of their brilliant talents. We bury our mathematicians, our architects, our philosophers, our Chelsea Flower Show gardeners, our Einsteins, our Chopins under a wave of “Yes, dear; that’s nice: you can do it when you have practised your spellings/when you have learned to sit still in class/when you can remember to put your hand up before speaking/ got your marks in your SATS (ooh , don’t get me started!).

Perhaps they aren’t meant to sit still. They can learn to read standing up, lying down, walking around, or sitting up a tree. Perhaps being “good” at school, sticking to all the rules and interacting with 30 children at a time is just exhausting for the child who is so sensitive that they read the signals of a frightened baby animal. And that’s OK: they are meant to be wriggly, or sensitive, or able to write in both directions. It’s our job to give them space to bloom – whether it’s in a mainstream classroom, a smaller group, a quiet place to hide, or not even at school.

But it doesn’t matter what they need: that’s not what this article is about. It’s about how we look at our children, because that is how they look at themselves. Do we feel sorry for monkeys because they can’t swim, or do we let them climb trees?

PS Of course we have to buy a life-boat as well, because we are 21st century parents with a pathological aversion to risk, and even though the monkey lives in a dry jungle we have to cover all our bases, but more on that some other time…

Lifting the lid on “exam factory” thinking.

Lifting the lid on “exam factory” thinking.

In a direct challenge to the government’s performance tables fixation and the use of “exam floor targets” to label failing schools, Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, has said that some school leaders should be “ashamed” of the tactics used to bolster their league table standings. The Ofsted view is that some schools are simply becoming “exam factories”, burdening students with “meaningless exams” to improve their league table results.

Ms Spielman said, “At a time of scarce pupil funding and high workloads, all managers are responsible for making sure teachers’ time is spent on what matters most. This means concentrating on the curriculum and the substance of education, not preparing your pupils to jump through a series of accountability hoops… The idea that children will not, for example, hear or play the great works of classical musicians or learn about the intricacies of ancient civilisations – all because they are busy preparing for a different set of GCSEs – would be a terrible shame.”

The head of the inspectors in England continued, “All children should study a broad and rich curriculum. Curtailing key stage three means prematurely cutting this off for children who may never have an opportunity to study some of these subjects again.

“Rather than just intensifying the focus on data, Ofsted inspections must explore what is behind the data, asking how results have been achieved. Inspections, then, are about looking underneath the bonnet to be sure that a good quality education –one that genuinely meets pupils’ needs – is not being compromised.”

Answer the Question!
Is this the first breeze of a fresh wind about to blow through our Education system? More emphasis on teaching and learning as opposed to just focusing on achievement has got to be positive, and with the current state of uncertainty in the political landscape it is unlikely that the government will do much to oppose the direction Ofsted may be taking. This issue was highlighted in the context of maths learning difficulties at our SpLD Central conference yesterday, where Prof Steve Chinn (author of Maths for Dyslexics, The Trouble with Maths etc) was our keynote speaker. Steve pointed out that a frightening number of 16-19 yr olds were, basically, incompetent at maths. By incompetent I mean that they made fundamental place value errors; couldn’t work our simple fractions etc. By frightening we are talking about over 40%. At or near the top of the pile of achievement-based teaching (ie I want you to give me the answer to this question, now!) is learning times tables by rote. And in February this year we find Nick Gibb telling an education select committee that times tables testing would be returning to primary schools in summer 2019, as the government thinks “Times tables are a very important part of mathematical knowledge.”

Back to Basics
I don’t think any of us would disagree with the value of knowing what, for example, 6 x 7 equals. What Steve was showing us yesterday was the importance of making sure that children know what the numbers actually mean before we ask them to do sophisticated operations with them. In order to achieve that goal we sometimes need to go a long way back into very basic territory, then sometimes further back still, before we can put right errors and misconceptions that have been hard-wired into early learning experiences with number. What is easy to see in the context of maths learning applies right across the curriculum. Insisting on tests for times tables (and don’t forget, schools – we’ll be grading you on how many of your students give the right answers!) is just a symptom of the bigger problem which is driving the education standards it is desperate to improve.

So let’s hope Ofsted have their way, and get to inspect more of what is going on “under the bonnet”. Maybe we should send the schools minister one of our dyscalculia kits…

 

Shanghai’d

“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 www.crossboweducation.com for the new Inclusion Zone pages. To visit Rushall’s inclusion service website, go to http://www.rushall.walsall.sch.uk/inclusion-team.

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