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.)

Rage against the dying of the light


Loading… (Photo credit: Matt Biddulph)

Who remembers the overhead projector?

When I was still teaching it was the pinnacle of technology in the school where I last worked. We used to hear rumours about these wonders called Smartboards in schools more budget-rich than ours, but I had never actually seen one, let alone used one in any of my lessons. So – OHP it was. And it worked, too: like moths, children were drawn to the light (actually, aren’t we all?). But what has prompted this blog is the fact that I was taken back ten years to those days at the dyslexia conference where we had an exhibition stand last Friday. The keynote speaker was a children’s author, and his impassioned plea to the gathered teachers was that they should be teaching children to love reading, rather than train them to pass phonics tests. And he was no power-point monkey: no bullet-points for his presentation. For his visuals he used an overhead projector.

I thought about his presentation- and technology – when I saw a couple of articles in the newspaper yesterday. One referred to a statement from one “expert” (I don’t know if this person had ever taught children) who said that the thousands of parents who came into schools on a voluntary basis to listen to children read were not sufficiently qualified to do the job properly; and that it should be left to trained teachers. The other was discussing the decline in standards of children’s literacy since the year 2000, when UK was about 7th in the world, to the present times where it is lower than 20th (25th in 2009, although it may have gone up a bit since then) What struck me is that the decline in standards pretty well tracks the demise of the OHP: as technology has improved, learning has diminished. And the more we measure, the more we fail. The more children drill, the less they read. Listening to a child read aloud doesn’t produce a measurable outcome that can tick an Ofsted box: what it does is give that child a sense of audience, and the opportunity to feel words and enjoy the sound of them with all the multisensory feedback that entails.

Interestingly enough, I went ot a conference on Saturday as well, and the keynote there was “beyond phonics”. Is something changing (I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the NFER recognising that children need “a variety of approaches” to learn to read)? I hope so. Because the question is –  are these two articles connected? Is the decline precisely because the light has gone out of literacy learning? Children are being taught to segment words, but not to love them . But “without Love, I am nothing…”    I very much doubt if the person who wants to withdraw the army of parent volunteers from schools would use an OHP to present her arguments.

Dylan Thomas loved words: he served them up like a gourmet dinner. The title of this article is from one of his most famous poems:

Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light…”

Bob Hext

On winning awards: light and gloss…

It’s a month since we won the Supplier of the Year award, so it’s about time I put down a few thoughts.

Firstly, yes it was great to win for the second year in succession. Thanks to everybody (usual acknowledgements – boring to hear/read – Oscar winners excruciating blah blah comes to mind! – but nonetheless true).

A little bit of detail about the award.  The Educational Resources Awards are run by the British Educational Suppliers Association. Again – think of the Oscars, and all the different categories: ERA is the same, so there’s stuff like best ICT product, best exporter, even best marketing campaign (I’ve never worked out what that’s got to do with Education, but whatever). Our Reading Rulers were finalists for best non-ICT SEN product (think “Oscar Nomination”) again this year. So – Supplier of the Year is the “biggie” (think “best film”), and there are three categories: under £1,000,000 turnover; £1-3 m turnover; and 0ver £3m. We won the first category this year and last year, and we were finalists in 2011 as well. The company has continued to grow, so next we’re we’ll be in the middle (£1-3m) category.

So where am I going with this? Well this blog is not so much about us, as about all the other winners as well. Like in any industry, the small business like ours rub along with the big names – the £3m + people. Companies like Findel and TTS come to mind, with huge pots of money to spend on product development, marketing etc. I used to know the guy who started TTS – he’s been to our house. But he sold the company to RM Nimbus, who are huge, and I don’t know who owns them. Findel are a public company who also own one of the door-to-door catalogue companies – Kleeneezie or Bettaware among other interests. Companies like ours are usually started and run by teachers with a genuine interest in children and teaching, who have developed something that “works”. In my case it was the card games I devised with my secondary school dyslexic students. Unfortunately the “big names”  of this world are often owned and run by people whose main interest is money, not children and teaching. I’m not painting myself whiter than white here: I enjoy making and spending money! But here’s the thing: not one of the “big boys” won a major award at the Educational Resources Awards 2013!!  Even though their names may have been splashed across the stage as sponsors of the event, their sponsorship bought them nothing – except a four-figure sum on their marketing account.

The £3m + winner was Rising Stars; an independent publisher. I hadn’t even heard of the £1-3m winners. And even though one of the “big boys” had entered their SEN brand into the under £1m category (how does that work??), they didn’t win, because we did. I was really heartened by this: the judges – all teachers and other Education professionals – were not impressed by the gloss that money can put on a company or product, but by the shine that came from its quality.

Which brings me to my last point: if anybody involved in organising conference exhibitions reads this, please take it on board. This year’s ERA awards show that people want genuine shine, not superficial gloss. Light, not polish. Yet some Conference exhibition organisers charge huge amounts of money for the “marketing opportunity” of exhibiting to a hundred or so people at their events. So who is going to exhibit? The companies for whom hundreds or thousands of pounds are just another line on the marketing budget. Gloss, not shine. Polish, not light. If you ever wondered why you only see the same old names  exhibiting at some of the events you’ve been to, just ask the exhibition organisers how much they charge for exhibition space…

And finally – if we do ever end up being one of the “big boys” ourselves, I hope and pray that we don’t lose sight of the values that make us what we are at the moment. If we can be a bit of light in the world, that will be good.

London Special Needs 2012

On October 12th,, the Crossbow team descended upon London’s Business Design Centre for this year’s London Special Needs. As previous attendees, the team were used to the hustle and bustle of one the UK’s largest and best followed SEN Exhibitions.

We caught up with Director Bob Hext to get his opinions and experiences of this year’s show, and how it compared to previous years.

  • Why do you choose to exhibit at Special Needs London?

We’ve been exhibiting at Special Needs London since Crossbow was founded in 1993, when the event was hosted at the Cumberland Hotel, and we displayed just three games on a little table. We still exhibit there today, as it’s the biggest and longest established SEN event in the UK.

  • How was the experience?

Well, it’s always good to meet teachers and SEN professionals to talk face to face, as well as catching up with old friends in the trade. And we always enjoy the buzz of a busy show, which London Special Needs always delivers.

  • Were there more people there this year than previous? How busy was it?

This year, as always, it was very busy in the hall. I’d say the amount of people was about the same as last year.

  • What comments were being made by people visiting the stand?

Most people were commenting on our reading rulers, as a best seller it wasn’t unusual to hear the noise of ‘Ahh there they are’. Other people commented on how much we had grown as a company, still remembering when we were but a small company with a few games.

  • Any new experiences?

Yes, this year we had good international contacts. I was speaking with someone who was setting up an SEN resources centre in Cameroon. As well as this, I spoke to two different people targeting SEN growth in France where historically it’s been something of a Cinderella Story.

  • What were customers interested in?

As well as homing in on visual stress, they seemed to be a lot of interest in comprehension resources this year.

  • Was it enjoyable?

Yes it always is, we’re already re-booked for next year!

Remember, Crossbow has products for both Dyslexia and Visual Stress, be sure to check out our new website, as well as follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates and news.

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