Live it, Learn it!

(Guest Blog by Beccie Hawes, of Rushall’s Inclusion Advisory Service)Ice world 3

Whenever I made one of those mistakes you make when you are growing up (the usual stuff: silly  coloured hair, ill-chosen boyfriends, falling off ridiculously high heels whilst drunk….) my amazing Nanny  Rene would often sigh as she wisely said ‘Well, you live and you learn!’

In thinking about how children learn best I think my Nanny Rene had a point. Many of the children that I  have the pleasure and privilege to work with often don’t have access to the life experiences that make  education accessible. The majority of the children that I meet are loved enormously but for a number of  social and economic reasons are unable to do ‘life stuff’ like visit the seaside or go on holiday to  faraway places. An example of this is when we tackle reading comprehension tasks. Often the children  can’t engage with the text to make meaning as – although they can read the words – they don’t have the life experience to back up their reading to make it personally significant. The impact is also evident in writing as many children don’t have a bank of experiences to build imaginatively upon.  Coming back to the ever astute Nanny Rene – if you haven’t lived it, it’ll be much harder to learn and use it.

Ice world 2 I often use Nanny Rene’s mantra to explain why we do what we do at Rushall. Our current theme is Ice Worlds. We are using this theme as the vehicle to teach  a creative curriculum. At the start of every term, before the children come back to school, we decorate the school to become the theme. As the children arrive  at school their faces are amazing as they discover and explore the new world in which they will live and learn for the term. We also add in as many relevant,  challenging and new experiences as possible. For Ice Worlds this has included a visit from Husky dogs and a pop up ice rink. I believe that this makes learning  truly multi-sensory as they can write from real experiences and with authority about how the fur of a husky dog feels and how their breathing after pulling a  sledge sounds. They can share facts that they have learned first-hand about hIce world 1ow ice is formed and melts. Language skills develop in a meaningful way as the  children have the experiences to ‘pin’ semantic links too. This beats any text book, DVD, teacher talk or demonstration as it is memorable and exciting. As  living it to learn it forms part of a rich tapestry of real world encounters.

Many schools worry that their budget won’t allow for a brand new learning environment every term with a menu of experiences and encounters to make the unlived burst into life ready to be learnt. I would ask you if you can’t afford not to. We owe our children the chance to sample everything and, by living it have the opportunity to learn it in the most realistic and memorable way

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.

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.)

Overcoming Dyslexia (Guest Blog)

Dyslexia Fence

Dyslexia Fence (Photo credit: The Nikon Guru)

Overcoming dyslexia- Florence Beastall

I am only four years older than my brother, so when it was first recognised that he was dyslexic I was still quite young myself. From my childish point of view, I just thought that he was a bit slower at writing than I had been. I knew that he was actually a very clever boy, and if you had a conversation with him, he was very engaging and knowledgeable, but if you’d have asked him to write anything down you’d have found it strange that it was entirely beyond him to transfer his thoughts to paper. There was one day after school that it hit home to me how serious and important recognising dyslexia is for a child. My Mum and brother in were in the living room, and aged 14 or so, he was crying because he found school too hard. It broke my heart. I had never had a problem with any of the work at school, being reasonably bright; the only thing I had needed to worry about was your usual teenage girl things like spots and not letting anyone know you fancied someone a bit weird. Going to school, having to deal with your usual teenage boy things AND not be able to do the work you’re asked to must have been horrendous. I can’t imagine it.

He got through it though. He had a scribe with him for his GCSE’s and did well. At college he had a scribe with him and got better A Level results than I did. And I couldn’t have been prouder of him. He’s now at university, studying Politics, planning to go and study in Norway for a couple of months at the end of the year, I believe the universities are in negotiation about what extra support he will be needing while he’s out there, which is fabulous. Entirely different from the struggle it was for him to get support when he was in primary school. I know my Mum worked very hard to get it recognised that he was dyslexic, and not just a lazy little boy. He got a statement in Year 4, and from then I think things were a little better for him. My advice would be that if you think your child is dyslexic and needs extra support, fight for it, because it can make a lot of difference.

Now he’s at university, I know that the support hasn’t stopped there. He has a special program on his laptop called “Dragon naturally speaking”, which types whatever it is that he says into the microphone, meaning he is able to dictate his essays to his laptop and it does the spelling and writing for him; therefore taking the problematic “getting the ideas to paper” bit of essay writing. It does mean that he gets some wild mistakes in his writing, when he mumbles something and you get a random, nonsensical word in among the argument, but that’s what sending your work to your sister to proof read is all about. For the planning of his essays he uses “inspiration” software, which helps him make mind-maps and set out his thoughts clearly so that he can get straight into writing the essay without having to physically write a plan himself.

Having dyslexia doesn’t mean that you’re not intelligent, and that you can’t get a degree in something as rooted in reading and writing as politics. I have a politics degree myself and I know that there is so much reading to do, and essays are very complicated to plan, but if my brother can do it, there is no reason that someone else as determined couldn’t too. It’s all about having the right support.

I think it is so important to get the right provision as early as you can. My brother is an example of how something as simple as having a scribe with you for your exams can make the difference between getting A Level results that will see you safely into university, and not.

A Student Teacher’s Perspective (Guest Blog)

Dyslexia Awareness Hotline

Dyslexia Awareness Hotline (Photo credit: Scott M)

From a student teacher’s point of view.- Florence Beastall

As a PGCE student, I have had a university lecture on special education needs. One two hour lecture. And now I am expected to have a reasonable grasp and understanding of the infinite number of different needs that the children I am going to teach in the future might have.

Dyslexia is something I have a bit more knowledge of, and it is something which I am determined to assist my students with in whatever ways I can.

In my last teaching practice, there was a girl in my maths class who was dyslexic, but found it easier to read information from pink paper rather than white. I was aware that the colour of the paper can make a difference to how easy it is to read, at home we have reams of a pale yellow paper for my brother to print all his stuff out on as he finds it useful. I wasn’t aware, until I met this student, that pink is another colour that can make reading easier, and that the colour of paper is a very personal choice, varying in usefulness from person to person. Having found this out, I printed everything I could on pink paper for her, until the school ran out of pink paper and I moved onto card, I wasn’t having her struggle in my lessons for the sake of a bit of card!

I also have found that a coloured plastic wallet can be a cheap and easy way of making a book easier to read. The problem with a book is that you can’t change the colour of the paper, they’re all printed onto a dull white page, but if you found a pink, or light yellow coloured thick plastic folder, chop it up to a 20cm x 10cm rectangle, children can use them when reading a book to make the page their preferred colour. It can also help you to follow what line it is you’re reading, which is handy too. What’s more is that the children can use it as their bookmark and it doesn’t necessarily draw attention to the fact that they have something addition to help them with their reading, which may become important as children get older and more self-conscious about themselves and their special educational needs.

Whilst I was trawling the internet looking at other things I might be able to do to help my students, and perhaps mention to my brother, I came across a font which claims to make reading easier as it is “weighted” at the bottom, supposedly meaning that the letters cannot spin around as much as they might as you know that the “fat” bit of the letter should be at the bottom. I haven’t had the chance to test this out yet, but it is interesting and something that I am going to try. It’s called “open dyslexic” and is easy to download from their website, and it’s free, which is great.

From what I have experienced of dyslexia, there are many small adjustments that a teacher can make to aid a student with reading and writing. It is just a case of knowing about some of the easy things that you can do, which might make the world of difference to a child- which is where blogs like these come into their own.

Editor’s Comment from Bob Hext at Crossbow:

As well as being dyslexic, this child obviously suffered from Visual Stress , as about 30%-35% of dyslexics do (see the top article link below). As well as yellow and pink, blues and greens are common colour choices. The five most popular colours of our overlays and reading rulers are sky blue, aqua, grass green, yellow and pink.

PS our reading rulers do exactly what the little coloured plastic squares do, and come in ten colours. They cost £8.99 + VAT for a pack of ten , or $16.99 if you’re  in the USA.

Visual Stress and Visual Processing Difficulties

Visual Stress and Visual Processing Difficulties

This is a slide presentation by Matt Grant, a UK Special Needs Co-ordinator and Irlen trainer. Apart from the fact that it is very detailed and informative, it is beautifully put together, and worth looking at just for some of the graphics alone. His blog site is called “Humans not Robots“. If you don’t know much about Visual Stress, this is a good place to start. I’ve only got it as a pdf file, so you’ll have to click on the title link (below the picture) to enjoy it. The image is from one of the slides.

The eye is the window of the soul...

The eye is the window of the soul…


Guest Blog: Diane Allen Homeschool

This week we’ve going to be looking at a guest blog from Diane Allen’s homeschooling. Diane was given a pack of Crossbow’s Eye Level Reading Rulers and asked her honest opinion about her thoughts on the products and their usefulness.

As you’ll soon see, we were pleased with the response!


Everyone who’s taught a child to read knows that using a straight-lined reading guide, or a convenient finger tracing along under the words, helps keep young eyes focused on the words and tracking left to right.

The truth is, students who continue to struggle with reading often can benefit from continued use of some type of reading aide.  Crossbow Education has produced a set of colored, transparent, Reading Rulers to help these students.

As a member of the Schoolhouse Review Crew, I received a full set of these overlays from Crossbow.

The benefit of using colored overlays is well documented by education specialists.  The HSLDA’s special needs section includes the following quote:

At times, a child will experience a mild scotopic sensitivity syndrome, which means that the reflection of the white background of the paper makes it more difficult for the child to see the black letters that compose the text.

This syndrome is also known as Irlen Syndrome.  A quick Google search leads to a wealth of information on this problem.
Using colored overlays to reduce glare and sharpen contrast reduces eye strain.  Different readers will benefit from different colors.  A simple way to determine which color works is to purchase the  variety pack of 10 rulers in the 5 most popular colors.  Crossbow provides a helpful brochure of instructions that guide parents through a process of elimination with their student.

My daughter is old enough to figure things out for herself, so I basically just handed her the set and then asked for her opinion.  I was actually surprised that she took such an interest in the process, but in a few minutes she had settled on blue and purple of a particular shade.   Ginger said she could tell a difference in letter contrast and that her eyes felt more relaxed when reading.

Well….. just when you think something as simple as color transparency can’t possibly be helpful…….

While we chatted about how this product was working for her, Ginger reminded me that she hated the early readers I had her use when she was 7 because they came on brightly colored, glossy pages.  She said the blue books were OK, but that the red one and yellow one hurt her eyes.  When I questioned her about why she didn’t tell me that rather then crying and complaining she reminded me, “I was 7!  Would you have believed me?”.

Lesson learned mom.  If your young child is avoiding reading, complaining about reading or seems to fatigue easily while reading, they could be struggling with glare and print contrast which causes eye strain and fatigue.    Colorful overlays could be just the solution you are looking for.  I know that Ginger repeatedly asked for “her overlay things” and finally ended up using her favorite strip as a bookmark in her literature book.

While some reading overlays cover the whole page of a book. Crossbow Reading Rulers incorporate the transparency with a transparent reading ruler that also helps with eye tracking.   The old conventional wisdom advised parents and teachers to force children NOT to track with their finger in the mistaken belief that this would slow down their eye movement.  The reverse is actually true, especially if they struggle with tracking to begin with.

Who would use this product?   Parents of children who

  • complain about reading and avoid it when possible
  • grow tired easily while reading
  • covers one eye while reading or lay their head on the table
  • have a slow, halting reading speed
  • have trouble focusing on a printed page

Even if your child doesn’t verbally complain or show dramatic symptoms, you may find they “enjoy” reading more with transparencies.  It could be they are just unable to articulate their struggle to you.

Older students, like my daughter, who struggled with reading in the beginning often continue to have trouble when the print size decreases in advanced texts.  While my daughter doesn’t dramatically struggle with reading, most of the time, we have both noticed that she struggles with books that have lots of small print on a page.  That is why she has willingly and spontaneously used the reading rulers in two of her high school literature texts – the kind of books with pages of text in one column, and no pictures..

As an adult I might also use this for keeping my place on a field of many problems or lines of text.

The great thing about these reading ruler overlays is that they are small and inconspicuous.  They can be used as a bookmark, where they are conveniently at hand.