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.

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.)

SpLD Central Update

As some UK readers will know, we are launching a new conference on June 20th this year, called SpLD Central. It will have a dyslexia focus, and we are delighted to have the excellent Neil Mackay presenting two keynotes on the theme “Getting it right for Dyslexia, getting it right for all”. There’ll be about 15 exhibitors (not just ourselves!), excellent food, a free shuttle bus from the station, b&b on site if you want it – the full monty. Basically, we’ve been to so many events since we started in 1993 – good, mediocre, and absolutely dire – we think we know how to put a good programme together. If you want to know more, visit

There have been two changes to the programme since the conference was launched. Here they are:

1) A new workshop. 
Originally I (Bob Hext) was going to present “Visual Stress: What it is and what to do” in both the afternoon workshop sessions (we’re running two sessions of 9 parallel workshops in the afternoon, so there’s plenty of choice), but I decided a few weeks ago that I would present “Dyslexia, Learning, Games and Puzzles” for the second session. I used to do this workshop regularly before we got so involved in visual stress support, and it was always popular, so I’m looking forward to doing it again: it’s going to be a bit of going back to our roots.

2) Stress management (not visual!) timetable change
A contact of ours with a background of teaching lower ability FE students for core skills subjects has started a stress management consultancy. We originally thought it would be helpful to include a short session (including relaxation exercises) on “Stress management in the workplace” as part of the main programme, with an alternative option of detailed presentations on flagship products from selected exhibitors (TRUGS, Wordshark, and others including ourselves). However we have now taken this session out of the main programme, and included “Identifying and managing stress” and “Product related workshops” in the workshop options, making the timetable less cluttered and allowing more time for input that relates specifically to outcomes for SpLD students.

I’ll also post profiles on our speakers on this blog, but I’ll keep these updates short and sweet.That’s it for now.

Bob Hext 11/2/15

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

Seven Lessons on teaching maths, learnt from the students.

The seven points below are taken directly from Steve Chinn’s summary of a workshop he will be delivering a Feb 17th. I thought anybody involved in teaching can benefit from a reminder of these important principals, and having read in this morning’s paper that proposals exist for sacking head teachers who fail to have 100% of students able to repeat their times tables from memory, I would suggest that they are daubed in large letters across every wall of the Department for Education – ideally accompanied by an appropriate illustration by Banksy…

Steve used to be the principal of a beacon specialist school for dyslexic students, and has advised the government on numeray strategy. They really ought to listen to him. This is what he says:

“After 17 years of successful teaching in University and mainstream schools I had a reputation for being a ‘good’ teacher, but then the lessons from my first experiences of trying to teach maths to dyslexic students taught me that I wasn’t good enough. In this session I will explain the significance of the ‘seven lessons’:

Lesson 1: Rote learning does not work for all students

Lesson 2: If they can’t learn from the way I teach, can I teach the way they learn.

Lesson 3: Know which students have poor working short term memories.

Lesson 4: Making students anxious does not help learning.

Lesson 5: Asking students to do mental arithmetic, or any maths question, quickly is rarely productive

Lesson 6: Children rarely learn from their mistakes in maths (but teachers can).

Lesson 7: It’s complicated!”

Nicky Morgan, please read.

Steve is an excellent speaker and a leading authority on maths and dyslexia. You can get  a series of low cost teaching videos by Steve at

He has written a number of books and articles on the subject: NEW for 2015 is ‘The Routledge International Handbook of Dyscalculia and Mathematical Learning Difficulties,’ edited by Steve Chinn, with 30 chapters from experts around the world.