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…

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.)

Card Games for Learning: 1) Rummy

Polski: Rummy (game)-card configuration.ext

Polski: Rummy (game)-card configuration.ext (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In these digital days we can forget how much children enjoy card games. And apart from the social interaction involved in playing card games, the multisensory processes involved – kinaesthetic (making and manipulating the cards), visual, and auditory (reading them out and listening to each other) contribute to effective learning as well as to the enjoyment of the activity.

A lot of learning is about grouping things in sets, whether it’s spelling families, numbers, scientific classification, whatever: “this belongs with that” is one of the fundamentals of the learning process. Rummy is a game that puts “this” with “that”.

Introducing Rummy

Rummy is a simple set-collecting game that can be played by children as young as 6 or 7, or by older children with some learning difficulties. Although simple, Rummy is a “proper” card game, and is also therefore a good activity for older children and adult learners. It’s a good idea to play the original game with playing cards first, then move onto adapting it (see below – you can either make the 4-card version or play with seven cards and two sets) to your teaching needs. Enjoy!

How to play Rummy (2-4 players can play)

Deal 7 cards each. The players do not show their cards to other players.

Place the remaining cards face down in the centre of the table. This is the “draw pile.” Turn over the top card and place it face up next to the pack. (This begins the “discard pile”.)

Object of game: to collect two sets of cards which can either be 3-4 cards OF THE SAME SUIT in sequence, or 3-4 cards OF THE SAME VALUE e in different suits.

Play: players take turns to pick up ONE card at a time, either from the top of the draw pile, or from the top of the discard pile, and then placing one card on the discard pile. The discard may be the card that has just been picked up, or it may be another card. Through this process of selecting, matching and discarding, players build up their hands until the winner places his entire hand on the table in two sets, and discards one card.

The winner: the first player to collect two sets as described above.

In a learning situation it is often appropriate just to concentrate on collecting single sets, so here is a single-set adaptation of the game: 

How to make and play 4- word Rummy

Divide a sheet of A4 card into 16 squares. Using a coloured felt-tip, write one set of four words (eg HAY SAY DAY PAY to learn/reinforce “ay” spellings) in the top four squares. Write the same words in a different colour on the second four squares, and again in the third and fourth rows, so you have a set of four words written in four different colours on your sheet. On a second sheet, do the same with a second set of words belonging to a different family. Cut them up, and you have your deck of cards. The deck will just be targeting these two families/sets.

Winning hands would be either


This example shows how rummy can be used specifically for teaching spelling families, but of course the possibilities are much broader. Rummy can be played with sets of topic vocabulary, with number families (multiples of 4, multiples of 5 etc.)- basically in any context where grouping in sets or matching to patterns is the object of the activity, from basic work with letters and shapes to advanced exam vocabulary.

A useful preparatory exercise for a 4-suit rummy game is to write on the board (if you’re at school) or on a large sheet of paper or flipchart the four sets of words that are going to be used, WITHOUT GROUPING THEM. Children must group them first, in their books or on paper; or by cutting up the sheet and physically putting them together.  (Of course this could also be done on a computer, but part of the object of this activity is to use the kinaesthetic channel and engage children in the social activity of the game.) The correct grouping is then shown. Equipped with card and felt-tips, children then work in groups to make the playing cards themselves and finish by playing the game. An appropriate written follow-up or homework would be to put the words to use in sentences or cloze passages.

A MEMORY element can also be added to rummy so that actually MEMORIZING word groups or particular statements becomes part of the winning strategy of the game. To play “Memory Rummy”, the first player to get a set must commit it to memory, close up their hand and put it on the table, then repeat the sets from memory when their turn comes round again. If they can’t do this correctly, they are out of the game.

(THis article is adapted from Bob Hext’s book “Learning, Games, and Puzzles“, available at