Category Archives: Literacy


The madness that is our current reading policy

tt2We will look back at the reading policy of the early years of this century with amazement and disbelief. Why do we waste children’s time getting them to read words which are not words? The government policy on reading is totally prescriptive, opting for synthetic phonics where letter sounds are learned and blended in order to ‘read’ text. Children are tested on this at KS1 and will be remediated if they have not mastered the art of sounding out nonsense words correctly. So children get penalised for reading -im as him because they are using their knowledge of the English language to make sense of a nonsensical word.

Teaching children to correlate letters and sounds, and to blend sounds into sequences, is decoding. It is not reading. Nowhere in their future life will young people need this skill. Instead we will expect them to read for meaning, read critically and gather inferences from text. So why don’t we teach them these skills from the off?

Durham University researcher Andrew Davis used to be a primary school teacher. His research shows that children who are starting to read when they enter school are actually disadvantaged by synthetic phonics. He argues those well on their way to reading will be bored witless by reading books featuring only words for which they have been taught the phonetic rules in class.

His research can be accessed at

The Department for Education is sticking to its policy: ‘Research shows overwhelmingly that systematic phonics is the most effective way of teaching reading to children of all abilities, enabling almost all children to become confident and independent readers. Thanks to the phonics check 177,000 six-year-olds will this year get the extra reading help they need to catch up with their peers.’

Another way of looking at this is that 177,000 seven year olds will discover they are failures at the end of this school year

All this and Jo Brand too

The BETT awards are almost upon us and I can nearly get into my posh frock to join the glitterati at a new venue, the Brewery at the Barbican. This year we are in for a real treat as the awards will be announced by Jo Brand. Even if your company doesn’t win, you are assured of a good night out.jo2I have been looking down the list of finalists seeing who I would like to see win in some of the key categories. This is a purely subjective approach. I am not going to support anything which deals with assessment in any form as I now believe that this is just another way to cosh teachers, parents and children into submission and give them an inferiority complex.

There are many shortlisted products that I know and love. I am running two sessions on Audio Notetaker for dyslexia learners on the Sonocent stand C470 on Thursday at 1.30 and Friday at 2pm and they are on the list for the ICT Tools for Learning and Teaching section. I am of course familiar with all the products in the special needs category and I am delighted to see other old friends such as 2Simple, Twig’s TigTag, TextHelp and the Yes Programme.

But there are many products which I am less familiar with. Here is my top ten to look out for:
1. For early years one good choice would be Rising Stars Switched on ICT, a step by step approach to get young children using ICT in meaningful ways. I like Rising Stars and have written about some of their other products especially their e books.
2. I like the look of TTS Group’s Mini Mobile Phones: ‘Children will delight in developing their language using this set of 6 realistic mobile phones. Colour co-ordinated buttons make for easy use.’ This will at least stop children using their parents’ boring old iPhones. They have also been shortlisted for:
3. The NEW Ultimate Timer, a rechargeable stopwatch with a simple to use, lapsed time function. Anything which saves looking for batteries will be welcome in the classroom.
4. For primary I am going to opt for 3P Learning Reading Eggs a library with over 1,500 eBooks, for specific year groups, as an intervention/catch up tool and to support EAL and SEN requirements
5. Another good choice is Espresso Education – Espresso Coding that teaches students to code and make their own apps to share with their friends and parents. This will help children develop skills for their future working life which so much of the National Curriculum singularly fails to do.
6. For secondary I am going for English and Media Centre’s Arctic Adventure which works on ipads and has authentic video material, images and blogs from the Catlin Arctic Survey.
7. For ICT Tools for Teaching and Learning I like the idea of IGGY ,an online educational and social network for gifted 13-18 year olds from across the world with content for maths, science, history, politics, creative writing and life skills, and a safe environment for students to exchange ideas, debate and learn.
8. It’s a pity FlashSticks won’t be at BETT because the product looks excellent. It combines low tech post-it notes, foreign language vocabulary and smartphones. The notes are colour coded to help with gender recall (blue notes for masculine words, pink notes for feminine words) and a Free App channel means users can wave their smartphone or tablet over any note to call up a quick pronunciation video.
9. Visual Education’s Wordwall lets teachers make easy learning activities for interactive whiteboards. Apparently you pick a template, type in your content and with a few clicks you’re done. Alternatively pinch some ideas from their online community.
10. Finally I am on the look out for good maths resources this year so I am hoping that Jumpido will do the trick. It is billed as: ‘an exciting series of educational games for primary school. It combines natural body exercises with engaging math problems to make learning a truly enjoyable experience.’

If your product is in the running for an award, good luck. If not, then just enjoy the entertainment. I am sure Jo Brand will be very good value.

Pupils to paint a picture with words in the Descriptosaurus Writing Challenge

nltPupils aged 7 to 14 are being invited to take part in a fun new descriptive writing competition from the National Literacy Trust, Alison Wilcox, creative writing expert and author of Descriptosaurus, and publishers David Fulton Books from Routledge.

The Descriptosaurus Writing Challenge is asking pupils to write either a story or a non-fiction description of an event or place – without using any dialogue! Developing descriptive language to communicate effectively is an essential tool across the curriculum. History is concerned not merely with dates and facts, but with describing and interpreting past events. In geography, children need to be able to describe the world around them. In science, they need to observe carefully and then be capable of describing what is happening in an experiment.

The competition will provide teachers and librarians with resources to support the development of children’s descriptive writing skills and will encourage pupils to explore and experiment with descriptive language. The piece of writing they produce can be on any topic, giving teachers the option to either give their pupils free reign to choose what they want to write about or integrate the competition task into a current class topic.

Entries should be no longer than 250 words and will be judged in three age categories:

1. Lower Key Stage 2 (Years 3 and 4)

2. Upper Key Stage 2 (Years 5 and 6)

3. Key Stage 3 (Years 7, 8 and 9)

Alison Wilcox will judge the competition entries alongside Routledge’s editor, and pupils who enter will stand a chance of winning: • For themselves: £50 worth of book vouchers and a brand new tablet computer • For their school: £250 worth of David Fulton/Routledge books, membership to the National Literacy Trust Network and a school visit from Alison Wilcox to run writing workshops for the pupils and training for staff The shortlisted entries will be read by thousands and will feature in a gallery on the National Literacy Trust website.

Susie Musgrove, the National Literacy Trust’s Schools Officer says: “It is so important that young people are equipped with the skills and vocabulary to effectively describe and interpret the world around them (and in their imaginations!). We hope that the Descriptosaurus Writing Challenge will support them to develop these skills and vocabulary, whilst having fun with language along the way.”

Alison Wilcox, author of Descriptosaurus, says: “I am really excited about this competition as I am passionate about the power of descriptive language to enable children to develop the vocabulary and techniques to communicate their ideas and express their individuality. The restriction of the word limit to 250 words should enable the children to focus on their choice of words, and experiment with sentence structure and length to develop their text into something which they are proud to share with an audience.” The competition’s deadline is Friday 8 November – good luck with the Descriptosaurus Writing Challenge! To take part and download the teacher’s resources visit:

I am honoured …


I am delighted to receive Texthelp’s Dyslexia Champion Award for 2013. The award recognises, ‘someone that goes beyond the call of duty to help people with dyslexia and promote awareness.’ It is the first time my work in the field of dyslexia has been recognised.

I taught for many years at Coventry Technology College and for five years ran the BEN Unit, a large basic skills unit with over 500 learners, so I came across plenty of people of all ages with dyslexia and soon came to realise two things. First they were mostly really clever because they often hid their problems from family and employers and managed to cope with all the written text that life throws at you. Secondly that dyslexia was much more than a spelling problem or even a reading and writing problem.

I have written 5 books about dyslexia, including How to Help your Dyslexic and Dyspraxic Child published by Crimson Publishing which looks to bridge the gap between home and schools. Right now I am finishing off a series of conversation cards for Fink  called Dealing with Dyslexia at Home and Dealing with Dyslexia at School

When I worked at Becta the government agency for ICT I came to realise that technology could help people overcome the problems associated with dyslexia including literacy, short term memory and organisational issues.

Technology can help people be more independent. It ensures that their text is legible (not always the case with handwriting), can easily be edited and looks professional. But technology now is so much more than just the word processing software of a few years ago. Now it can read text, provide a picture dictionary, change the colour of text, help learners with study tools and fulfil many more functions.

TextHelp is one of the world’s leaders in the field of dyslexia software. They are in the vanguard of developers who make software easy to use for people who struggle with reading and writing. They don’t make ‘special’ software. They create tools which open up the web and standard software to everyone.

TextHelp are experts in ICT and dyslexia and I am honoured that they have recognised my contribution to the field.

Max is a champion of inclusion!

max blog
Max the Champion


Look at this picture. What do you see? Ordinary people going about their everyday life. At last: an inclusive book!

Max the Champion by Sean Stockdale and Alex Strick illustrated by cartoonist Ros Asquith shows a day in the life of a boy who is sports mad. Max also happens to have a hearing loss. He lives in the world most of us inhabit where there are people of different races and religions and some who have disabilities and additional needs.

It is lively and entertaining and comes with some free resources on including sticker templates and a lesson plan.

There is so much you can do with this book. Use this page as a stimulus for discussion, drama and creative writing. Here are some suggestions to start you off.
1 In groups choose names for the characters.
2 Which character will find it hardest to go shopping?
3 Which character will face the most prejudice?
4 Choose one character and create a Day in the Life. Write or perform it

The possibilities are endless!
Max the Champion is a hardback book available from all good booksellers or from the publishers

Dyslexia Behind Bars

Jackie Hewitt-Main is the driving force behind a remarkable project which might just revolutionise education in prisons in the UK.

Her project, based initially in Chelmsford Prison, has shown that up to 53% of prisoners may have dyslexia and that 21% have suffered a head injury which could have affected their behaviour. She has pioneered a cost-effective approach to help prisoners learn to read and write and there are clear signs that it could lead to a dramatic drop in re-offending rates.

Terry had been in and out of prison more than 40 times and was self-harming. He was totally frustrated with his inability to read and write and the fact that this was holding him back in a world where jobs, benefits and many social activities require good literacy skills.

He was assessed using Lexion software, a Swedish program which tests for a whole battery of skills and then provides carefully targeted exercises to build knowledge and confidence. He has made great progress and is now one of the prison mentors.

Jackie has adopted a grass roots approach. Learning doesn’t necessarily take place in a classroom because this is not a natural environment for those who have struggled and failed at school. She introduces learners to visual and tactile approaches and helps them find their own learning style.

“I was 40 when I found I had dyslexia,” said Jackie. ” I realise that my learning disabilities have been a big problem in my life. Many of the prisoners I met in my dyslexia and mentoring project at Chelmsford, including those with the most challenging behaviours, showed such great transformation and went on to help others with the knowledge they had gained.”

It is a shame that much of the publicity surrounding prisons this month centres on Gordon Ramsay – a man who can bully for England- and there is so little mention of the good work in prisons which can help offenders to turn their live around.

Dyslexia Behind Bars: Final Report of a Pioneering Teaching and Mentoring Project at Chelmsford Prison – 4 Years on by Jackie Hewitt-Main (Paperback – Jun 2012) can be bought on Amazon

Read All About It with Symbol Support

With the Olympics and the Queen’s Jubilee coming up, there has never been a better time to get young people interested in the news. But what if your children are not good readers? They may end up confined to the TV news which is so transitory that children cannot grasp it, let alone recall it.

News-2-You ( is an online newspaper aimed at pupils who need extra support for literacy. It has been created by special needs company Inclusive Technology, comes out fortnightly and costs just £99 for a single licence. It has speech and symbol support and brings over 200 pages of current affairs, features, activities and stories into the classroom.

Teachers can access News-2-You on an interactive whiteboard for whole class work or print it out for individuals. It has four levels of difficulty. The Simplified version gives a basic overview of the week’s key story topic with SymbolStix supported text. This is ideal for young people with learning disabilities who cannot access conventional print. There are three higher levels so pupils can progress.

In addition to the differentiated levels, there is also a text only version and all levels have a ‘speaking edition’. This means that the students follow the text as it is read aloud. Each word is highlighted as it is spoken.

Each edition features the story of the week which is the focus for a host of activities too. Recent topics including the Frozen Planet, Sports Relief Week, Animal Record Breakers and Star Wars – The Phantom Menace. It also has a World new section which has 2 or 3 substantial articles per fortnight and uses Google Maps to show where each story is taking place.

It is packed full of activities including worksheets for comprehension and literacy activities. But News-2-You is not all about the serious stuff. There is always a joke, a recipe for cookery lessons and some games.

My dyslexia book is proving popular

I have just received this lovely comment from handwriting expert Amanda McLeod, “Just to let you know it’s on my table and quite a few parents have looked through and then gone out to buy it. They like its practical nature.”

The book in question is How to Help Your Child with Dyslexia and Dyspraxia which is available from Crimson Publishing and has a foreword by Tom Pellereau who won The Apprentice last year.

Handwriting expert Amanda McLeodThe McLeod Centre for Learning is in Pimlico (London SW1). It is a centre for children who are under-achieving in English and Maths. Children attend mornings and are taught by specialist dyslexia teachers in small groups, or on an individual basis. Children attend up to four days per week and usually stay for two to three terms. They go back to their main schools for the afternoons.

Making best use of symbols

Feelings grid from Mayer-Johnson
Feelings grid from Mayer-Johnson

I spent the afternoon in Leicester with teachers, teaching assistants, speech therapists and people from the NHS. We gathered together courtesy of Mayer-Johnson to learn more about practical uses of PCS symbols. This covered both print materials for displays or for children to take home as well as activities which have been devised especially for BoardMaker.

Carol Allen and Ian Bean, both national experts in assistive technology for schools, led off with three really good sessions:
• The value of symbolic communication in education – proven theories and practical strategies.
• Explosively exciting supported learning strategies to bring the curriculum to life.
• Symbols for transition & behaviour – symbol based strategies for tackling tricky areas and challenging behaviour.

There was so much to take away from the day. Both Carol and Ian have a fund of stories of children they have worked with. These included the child up a mountain who was so distressed because he had no idea what was happening or whether he would be stuck up there forever. Visual timetables are not just useful in the classroom but for showing what will happen next in real life.

Then we heard about the school which links symbols with physical activities so children walk round the school on a treasure hunt, looking for where copies of a particular symbol are hidden, matching symbols on a piece of paper with the symbols on a hopscotch grid.

We heard about useful life skills work.  Put symbols for a sequence on a digital key ring so a pupil goes off to a particular shop to buy certain items and bring them back to school. There is even a symbol reminder than they need to say thank you.

But you can also combine symbols with the animation program Crazy Talk. Take a symbol and make it talk to you so the symbol and the concept it represents come to life. Even better, many children with learning disabilities are able to do this for themselves so it should be within the realm of possibility for most staff.

EAL and other resources
SEN and EAL resources

Kerry Vacara of Mayer-Johnson rounded up the day by introducing the audience to profiles of different learners and staff. Groups had to decide how to provide support and what symbol resources would help.
For more information about Mayer-Johnson training events see They can also advise on in house training events.
Carol Allen and Ian Bean also provide training and consultancy. See

Go On: Be Brilliant!

image from Smart notebook
Classroom resource from Stanley School on the Wirral

Brilliant Ideas for using ICT in the Inclusive Classroom from David Fulton books has just been published. I wrote this with Angie McGlashon who is a great trainer and has her own website . The idea was to show the power of technology to make things happen in a classroom and to give less confident teachers some hints and tips as well as clear How to … sheets.

Young people are growing up in a world where visual images are as important as words. Some pundits claim that YouTube is beginning to challenge Google as a search engine. Digital video and podcasting are immediate and direct but many teachers still rely heavily on discussions, reading and writing even though it disadvantages up to a third of their class.

For technology to take off in a school, it needs to be easy to use and to solve a problem. If reading and writing are barriers for children in your classroom how do you get them to engage with the curriculum? Think digital animations: Newman School a Specialist School for Cognition & Learning in Rotherham did and now they have pupils who know all about King Lear which is pretty unusual for children at KS3.

Using digital video helped focus pupils’ attention at Frank Wise School in Banbury, “Using slow motion has been a great way to draw attention to a key point,” said head teacher Sean O’Sullivan. “For example, we might roll a toy car down a slope and then do it again on a rougher surface to show the impact of friction but if a child is looking away the point is lost. We can play it back in slow motion so they really focus on what is on screen.

Pupils in Redbridge used Nintendogs as the basis for an entire topic, while Longwill School for Deaf Children in Birmingham used Sony PlayStation Portables (PSPs) to improve language development in British Sign Language (BSL)and English. It also made spelling practice more effective and let children transfer news more easily between home and school.

Brilliant Ideas for using ICT in the Inclusive Classroom contains 50 amazing Brilliant Ideas with suggestions of how you can tailor them for different children and different curriculum areas.  We also have 20 Brilliant Starters to get you going. Enjoy!
You can order the book from Routledge