Building strength for deskwork

First in a series of infographics with ideas to help support development of physical skills and coordination for academic tasks. With huge thanks to the OTs who have enriched my teaching practice over the past decade.

As with all my infographics, this one can be downloaded for printing. There’s a link at the bottom of the page. It’s completely free, but please credit Sarah Gillie – Beacons Unique

Strength and stability

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Letters and sounds

As with all my infographics, this one can be downloaded for printing. There’s a link at the bottom of the page. There’s also a link to download sets of alphabet cards for the games.

It’s completely free, but please credit Sarah Gillie – Beacons Unique.


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Alphabet playing cards
Alphabet picture cards
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book stack girl

Apart from the fact that my mother always insisted on sensibly short hair for me and my sister, the picture above could have been me.

I love books. I’ve written before about the wonderful, illustrated book of nursery rhymes my paternal grandmother gave me when I was two years old. I can’t remember a time before books.

When we moved to Brazil, my parents briefly toyed with the idea of home educating us before deciding to send us to the local school. This meant that a few weeks after we arrived, a big trunk of textbooks was delivered. By then, we had been enrolled at the school, where we sat in formal rows, a far cry from the plowdenesque free-flow of the northern English infants classes we had left behind.

After a morning at school, I would rush home for lunch and an afternoon’s bliss with my box of books. All morning I had heard everyone around me speaking a language I did not understand. All morning I had been instructed from the front of a Victorian-style classroom. A classroom with a vast chalkboard covered with perfectly-formed italics that I couldn’t read.

Of course, before I could settle down with my books, I would have to complete a page of my own not-so-perfectly-formed italics. I didn’t even recognise some of the letters I was writing.

Anyway, once home and fed, I could while away the afternoon reading the books my parents had received via the Parents National Education Union. Two of my favourites were Andrew Lang’s Tales of Troy and Greece and the RJ Unstead People in History: From William I to Caxton.

Tales of troy and greece
Found on Pinterest

I’m pretty sure that a decades-old copy of this book is on the shelves somewhere in the house. It’s at least partly responsible for my abiding love of mythologies. Of course, I read the book many times before I found out how to pronounce Penelope or Ulysses, and many other of the character’s names besides, I’m sure.

Wm1 to Caxton
Another Pinterest find

I honestly don’t know how old I was when I found out that you’re supposed to say William the first, not William one, but it definitely didn’t happen during the 3 years or so in Brazil! I think I might not have realised before adulthood that Caxton was another William, or that he was in any way relevant to the mass marketing of printed matter.


Within a year I had read and re-read the entire PNEU curated delivery so many times that I moved on to my parents’ paperbacks. I ‘m sure that some of the John Whyndam titles I read aged 7 or 8 might have been better suited to an older child. And that some, if not all of the Wilbur Smith went over my head…

Of course, after the first few months, I was communicating freely with my teachers and peers, but the reading bug never went away.

For my sister, the story was a different one. She had not yet learnt to read when we moved, and being thrown into another school, language, and culture was truly overwhelming. She was eight when we returned from Brazil, and suffered om re-entry to the British system, too. We landed in a small Welsh primary school, relatively newly built and still under the influence of Plowden. Our tiny mixed form classes spilt into a communal area where we pretty much did as we pleased for the remainder of our junior years.


For some children, it seems to me, timing is everything when it comes to reading. Although my primary schooling was somewhat disrupted (5 schools), I was lucky that mum had the time and patience to work with me at home to support my early reading. My sister had to compete for attention with our younger brother and the school run, then the disruption of moving to Brazil and back again while she was still acquiring basic literacy skills. But it’s not that simple.

Our house is full of books. For years after we got together, neither of us would part with our copy of favourite books like Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird. By our second joint house move, we had two children, and pruning of duplicates was the order of the day as we packed, not least because of the wealth of children’s books we had acquired by then.

Our son has inherited this love of books from us both. When he discovered Horowitz, Pullman, Nix, and many others, I was thrilled to have the excuse to read these myself. I waited impatiently for him to be ready to feast on Tales of the Otori. We force-fed him Azimov.

Our daughter loved the made-up bedtime stories told after lights were out. But though she would write quite confidently (with what she called ‘goodenough’ spelling) and though she had loved picture books in earlier years, she did not have the patience to sit and listen to a shared text read to her brother by one of us. Audiobooks were perhaps the closest she came to this experience, but then she was trapped in the car.

Of course, all of this was pre-diagnosis. Like her aunt, she may not ever read voraciously for pleasure, but she will sometimes decide to read something her friends have discussed at school, or something I have left hopefully on the bookshelves outside her bedroom. She has learnt to use her extra time and to interpret exam questions. She can now access the texts she needs to learn and revise from.

I used to love taking both children to the local independent bookshop after they had received their World Book Day tokens. In fact, I was thinking of those outings rather nostalgically this week, when she brought me down to earth with a hard bump.

Did I know that they give out £14 million worth of tokens?! she asked. I thought how wonderful that was, how special to go and choose a little book of one’s own. No, she said, just think what they could do with £14 million! How many families could be fed, clothed, supported? I tried to reason with her, to say that it’s not quite the same as literally giving away the money, that the value to some children of that book was beyond the token gesture, and that the cost to the industry was nowhere near the £14 million mark. She’s not going to come around to my viewpoint here, but I can understand hers.

I’m not going to stop fighting for the rights of children to equity in education, to access to libraries and services. But today, when I walk out in the snow to pick up some groceries, I’m going to buy a few books’ worth of extra tins and dried food, and take them, with a family’s supply of outgrown coats, to our local food bank.

Plus ça change…


I’m writing this on St David’s Day, so I must start by wishing everyone Dydd Gŵyl Dewi hapus! 

2018 so far has been crazily busy, and I have not had time to blog, but I feel I need to share some of what has been going through my mind.

January 24 is an important day in our family. It’s my mum’s birthday. This year, though, it was significant for a different reason. The long-awaited Additional Learning Needs and Tribunal (Wales) Act 2018 was passed by the National Assembly for Wales. This might be seen as a formality, since the Bill had already been passed in December 2017, but the expectation of change has been hanging over Wales for years.

Expectation. In the beginning, there is hope. I remember the positive expectation and enthusiasm in a room full of like-minded practitioners when we attended training to prepare us for the changes in England. It was 2012, and we were eagerly waiting to learn how the new SEND Code of Practice would improve things for our learners and their families, how the framework would clarify things for us as educators, how funding would be simplified, and everything made more accessible and democratic. I had not been involved in any way in education when the previous SEN Code of Practice came into force in 2001, so I had no preconceived ideas – it did not occur to me that the new Code would not come into force until 2014, or that the much vaunted Education and Health Care Plans would not be expected replace all existing statements only by April 2018.

By 2015, we were moving back to Wales. I had been aware that terminology around inclusion in Wales was changing, that policymakers had been observing events unfold in England, seeking to learn. Wales’s first devolved and still current SEN Code of Practice had come into effect in 2004. It is very similar to England’s 2001 Code. How would Wales’s new Code of Practice build on a decade of devolved experience and the benefit of this view across the border? The expected new terminology was already in use in many schools, adverts for the role of Additional Learning Needs Co-ordinator could be seen. Things appeared to be moving apace, with open consultations, much discussion and a great deal of optimism.

We have a word in Wales; hiraeth, it’s usually equated to a peculiar sort of homesickness, a rose-tinted longing for some better version of home (Wales) or the past… Everyone says it’s not translatable, but (always ready to find another angle, and with my Brazilian childhood), it makes me think of the Portuguese word saudade – a melancholic longing for a much-loved something or someone. We are so focused on this ideal provision, ideal access, ideal funding, this new, improved version of the Code, that I worry we have lost sight of what is really important here: the children and young people that the Bill, the Act, the Code are supposed to be about.

Over the past year or so, I have met numerous parents in Wales who have been told not to apply for a statement of SEN for their child, because the new system will supersede this. I have met parents who have been told by their schools that there is no point in pursuing local authority assessment because the system is in flux. So I’d like to make something clear…

Nothing has changed

Things are changing:

  • As in England, the new Code of Practice will include children and young people from birth to 25 years
  • New terminology
    • Additional Learning Needs replaces SEN (compulsory school age) and LDD (FE)
    • Individual Development Plan (IDP) replaces both statutory statements and IEPs
  • Learners’ views must be sought and taken into consideration
  • Multi-agency collaboration should become standard
  • Services at all levels must be available in Welsh

However, things have not changed yet. Some schools have already adopted elements of the draft Code of Practice. The 2004 SEN Code of Practice remains in effect and should still be followed. The new Code of Practice is subject to revisions and is not expected to come into force until 2019. IDPs will be officially introduced in 2020 following the implementation of the new Code of Practice. Existing statements are intended to be transferred to IDPs by 2022.

I know of schools that have begun creating Individual Development Plans and sending them home, without involving the parents or the students in their creation. Such erratic cherry-picking of elements from the draft Code, without regard to current laws and rights, adds insult to injury. Parents are left not knowing who to believe or where to seek correct information.

I have even spoken with a parent who has been told by a senior figure in the Welsh Assembly Government that they should wait for the new Code of Practice before beginning to seek assessment and support for their child. If they were to follow this advice, the earliest they could hope to obtain a statutory IDP would be 2020.

Despite the flaws in the current system, and despite the acknowledged need (I’d like to say right) for school staff to receive ongoing training, both to remain current and to deepen subject and pedagogical understanding, there is no intention to add even a single INSET day to provide training. Given the pervasive nature of the misinformation already circulating, I sincerely hope that this oversight is fixed.

There are huge positives in the new system as it is envisioned. The draft code refers directly to the 2010 Equalities Act. The provision of templates and use of IDPs should ensure consistency and continuity. If decisions really are made at the most local level possible, and if the system is “simpler and less adversarial” as planned, then this will be a great improvement. I look forward to 2022 fulfilling those hopes, the hiraeth I have experienced sine 2012. I’ll be thrilled if the implementation of the new Code includes something as accessible and meaningful to our children and young people as this wonderful initiative from Children’s Right Wales.

Back to Saint David…

Along with many claimed miracles, he is credited with making the leek our national symbol. This was perhaps one of his less saintly acts, as it was, allegedly, his idea that Welsh warriors should wear leeks into battle, in an early effort to avoid ‘friendly fire’. Nowadays many choose instead to wear a daffodil on Saint David’s Day. Some say this is a linguistic confusion between the Welsh words for leek, cenhinen, and for daffodil, cenhinen Bedr (literally, Peter’s leek). Others say it is due to Lloyd George’s habit of wearing a daffodil on 1st March. Still others say the leek gave way to the daffodil to avoid offending the English descendants of those ancient Saxon adversaries. Maybe it’s just a less pungent and more decorative way of celebrating.

Let’s hope neither the daffodil nor the ALN Act is just dressing something up to make it seem more palatable. There’s a saying in France, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose… I’d prefer we took Saint David’s dying advice, “Gwnewch y pethau bychain mewn bywyd” and do the little things that can make a big difference for our learners, every day,

Understanding numbers

In an earlier blog I mentioned maths anxiety. This can be crippling for some children. We don’t know quite what’s at the root of this, perhaps it is the perception that, in maths, things are either right or wrong. The very thing that makes maths a joy to some children, makes it seem inaccessible to others. Read more

5 memory boosters

As with all my infographics, this one can be downloaded for printing. There’s a link at the bottom of the page. It’s completely free, but please credit Sarah Gillie – Beacons Unique


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5 fun ways to foster maths skills

As with all my infographics, this one can be downloaded for printing. There’s a link at the bottom of the page. It’s completely free, but please credit Sarah Gillie – Beacons Unique

5 games to foster early mathematical skills.png

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5 thoughts on homework

As with all my infographics, this one can be downloaded for printing. There’s a link at the bottom of the page. It’s completely free, but please credit Sarah Gillie – Beacons Unique

5 ideas to make homework work for you

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TES SEN Show 2017

TES-SEN-17-Web-Header-v7_LargeThe last time I attended the show was 2014. Before that, I had been going regularly for a few years and had probably attended every year from 2010 or 2011. When you go to a show in the same venue every year, it gets to be a bit like visiting your regular supermarket, you know where certain stands will be, where the seminar rooms are, the best time to get served quickly and find a seat in the café, even the loo with the shortest queues… Read more

Next Steps

My very first guest blog has been published on Mohamad Karbi’s site. Do pop over and check it out.

Source: Next Steps

I must start by thanking Mohamad for inviting me to write a guest blog. It’s a great honour!

My inspiration for this post is taken from our original interaction back in February this year, when Mohamad was the very first  parent to comment on my blog. I started blogging to share information and ideas with mainstream classroom teachers and parents. I wanted to raise awareness and share tips that can make our lives simpler as parents and teachers, but more importantly, I hoped that my blog might support some students who otherwise could get lost in the vast labyrinth of education. Mohamad’s comment on that early post let me know that the task I had set myself was worthwhile.

As new parents we have so much to be grateful for: often we are consumed by a brand new kind of love that we had not anticipated, no matter how many friends had tried to explain the overwhelming nature of this emotion, this primal need to care for, protect and nurture a new life. Each new milestone is celebrated and recorded and now, more than ever, shared globally via social media. Where before parents might consult a single, rather dry, parenting manual, and dusty annual photographs of themselves for reference, new parents today are bombarded with competitive images of their infant’s peer group. It is possible to know each intimate detail of someone else’s child’s development, from sleepless nights, teething and first words to school and university graduation.toddlersWe know that every child is an individual, that each develops in their own unique way. One may walk early but talk late, another may progress from sitting to walking, bypassing any stage of crawling. Some will be petite, others tall, eye, hair and skin shades vary, as do hands, feet and noses. It’s easy to accept that some will be gifted performers, artists or athletes from an early age, whereas others will find their talents later on. What’s often harder to grasp, is that the development of skills necessary for academic success can be just as varied. In a class of 30 four and five-year-olds, the age difference between the youngest and the oldest can be 25%. If we accept that any two children who are exactly the same age will not have identical patterns of learning, then we have to recognise that two children who are a quarter (or a fifth, depending on the perspective) of their own lifetimes apart, are likely to need significantly different input to achieve similarly, let alone equally.


So, parents and teachers can sometimes wonder whether a particular child’s apparent difficulty with a certain classroom task is due to a developmental difference. Whilst I would argue that it is important to understand as much as possible about a child or student in order to best support them, the reality is that there are many techniques that can be implemented at home and at school, whether a perceived delay is due to age, experience, individual stage or a difference in learning and development. What is vital is for parents and educators to communicate openly and to agree on and implement support strategies, if necessary, as early as practically possible. This will not necessarily eliminate the need for referrals for specialist assessment and individually tailored intervention, but, crucially,  it can prevent further gaps opening and the ensuing risk to self-esteem. Children may have co-occurring developmental differences, or they may experience a single area of difficulty.

Development and learning – and a few ideas for support


Children develop speech at very different rates, and it can be dangerous to compare individuals. It’s really important for adults not to correct errors children make in speech, as this can lead to loss of confidence and result in slower progress. Instead, adults can repeat the word or phrase accurately in a responding sentence. This reassures the child that they have been understood, as well as providing an error-free model.

Have you ever watched something on TV where the sound is out of synch? It can make the dialogue much harder to process. We often don’t realise how much of our communication is tied up in watching the people we are speaking with. Whenever possible, try to speak with children where they can see your face. This also helps them to learn and understand facial expressions.

Speech, language and communication needs can be assessed and supported by a qualified speech and language therapist (SaLT) in the UK. Routes to referral will vary from country to country, but your local health or education department will be able to advise. Remember that speech is closely connected with hearing, so a referral to audiology may help.

Listening and understandingdeep-thought

Children sometimes need longer than we think to process what we have said. This applies to all children, but particularly to those with learning differences, including attentional difficulties, speech, language and communication needs, and e.g. dyslexia. When it appears you have not been understood, or if an answer does not come immediately, try to resist the urge to repeat or rephrase. Give more time (10 seconds seems like an eternity) and, if necessary, repeat with the same wording, modelling (acting out) where appropriate.

Imagine you are listening to someone speaking a foreign language. You know enough to get by, but you are at the stage where you have to translate in your head before you understand, and again to translate in your head before you can speak. A kindly foreigner, instead of giving you time to answer, begins instead to ask the same question again, perhaps in another way, before you have finished processing what they said the first time. You have to start all over again. It’s embarrassing, demoralising and frustrating.

At home, and at school, it can be very helpful to set clear routines and expectations for listening times. Whether this is a bedtime story at home or whole class story time at school, listening skills may not always develop automatically. This is not about mindless discipline, but about having explicit cues and clues that it’s time to listen. That might be a sound (spoken phrase, piece of music) or a set of actions, or something else entirely – the choice is yours, but it’s important to be consistent.

Auditory and attention skills develop differently for individual children, but if home and classroom adjustments do not make a difference even when given time to bed in, it is wise to refer to audiology for concerns regarding hearing or a paediatrician for attentional concerns.

Motor coordinationImage result for hand

As with all areas of development, some children may find certain activities easier than others , or they may take longer to gain confidence and require support as well as time to acquire skills. Many old fashioned games, toys and activities promote fine motor skills, and grandparents will often bemoan the proportion of time spent in front of a screen rather than outside or enjoying crafting activities.

The pace of life nowadays can often mean that there simply isn’t enough time to do many of the things that earlier generations took for granted. Our modern sensibilities do not encourage banging kitchen pots with a wooden spoon, and I certainly do not have a button collection to equal the one my grandmother allowed me to play with, develop a pincer grip for pencil control as well as sorting skills. I’ve written at length on fine motor, with suggestions for home and classroom activities. Where there are concerns regarding coordination that is not age appropriate despite access to and experience of a range of suitable activities, a referral to occupational therapy (OT) is advised.


The role of vision in learning and development cannot be underestimated. Hand-eye coordination plays a huge part in traditional academic tasks and sporting activities. So much is communicated to us by what we see in those speaking. For instructions to be clarified, we often benefit from some kind of visual stimulus, whether that is in the form of a poster, or someone demonstrating what we need to do. All of that before we even mention reading and writing.

When children do not make the expected progress in learning to read and write, their parents are almost always recommended to book an optician appointment for a thorough assessment of vision. For some, a pair of glasses will unlock a world previously shrouded in mystery. But visual processing is more than sight.

Visual processing includes the ability to spot patterns and make sense of visual stimuli for reading. Children with visual processing difficulties may have perfect 20/20 vision, but they are not able to access visually presented information with the ease and efficiency of their peers. This makes the process of learning to read and write quite exhausting. Copying from a classroom whiteboard can be torturous, and mistakes may be almost inevitable. This may co-occur with other learning differences, such as dyslexia or ADHD, but it can also be the only processing difficulty a person has.

Someone with visual stress may find it easier to read from or write onto pastel rather than bright white paper. Sans-serif fonts are more readable, and it is helpful for text to be larger and well spaced. People with visual stress describe symptoms such as text swimming in and out of focus, individual letters and words moving on the page and blurring. Coloured overlays can make a huge difference, and some people find specially prescribed tinted lenses essential. Not all opticians are familiar with visual stress, so it is important to find someone properly qualified to assess.

Colour vision deficiency (colour blindness) can also have a big impact on learning. Consider the bright colours of a classroom, the use of graphs, charts and other diagrams to illustrate a point. Imagine the frustration of a colouring task for a young child or decoding data graphics for a budding scientist. Most opticians can check for colourblindness, but it’s worth remembering to ask for this to be done, if vision is being tested anyway.


Thank you for reading this far! I’d love for you to visit me over on Beacons Unique, where I’ve gone into more detail on these and other areas of learning and development.

I hope that some of the information I’ve shared is helpful. Please feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comments.

5 ideas for an inclusive classroom

As with all my infographics, this one can be downloaded for printing. There’s a link at the bottom of the page. It’s completely free, but please credit Sarah Gillie – Beacons Unique

Inclusive classrooms

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Fine Motor Support for Writing

Parents and teachers will often wonder why a tried and trusted technique for helping one child or young person does not always seem to suit another. Although we know that each learner is unique,  the cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all was for so long engrained in education and mass-produced materials and publications that it is sometimes hard to fully appreciate just how many processes must come together in a certain way for such homogenous learning to happen. Read more

It will get easier

Sometimes classroom teachers or students’ parents express their frustration at the time or effort it seems to take a learner to complete a task the adult feels should be within their reach. When that happens, I ask them to try this activity, which was once demonstrated to me by an OT. Try it for yourself: Read more