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. Sometimes parents are at a loss to support their children, entirely perplexed by this apparent mental block where numbers are concerned. Other times, one parent will confess that they, too, are unhappy mathematicians.

Some children experience difficulties acquiring maths skills as part of a wider learning difference. For others it is a co-occurrence. For some, it is the one thing that makes school difficult. We might think that makes it easier, but speak to a mathematician and you will realise that maths is all around us. If we are able to communicate, then technology can help support literacy skills in many ways. There is a tendency to suggest that in adulthood, we all use calculators, and that is true, but if a person has no feel for numerosity, the “numberness” of numbers, their difficulties will not be addressed by simply employing tech. Multisensory learning, employing physical props and manipulatives as well as a variety of visual prompts, catch phrases and memory boosters is as important for support in maths as it can be in literacy.

When children don’t automatically learn the alphabet, or take naturally to reading, there is usually support and understanding from school and parents. It may take time, and it’s not always perfect, but there are schemes aplenty promising to boost children’s literacy skills. So what should we do, if children don’t begin to display and record their mathematical knowledge in line with their peers?

Keep it light hearted

Songs, chants and rhymes are a great way to introduce children to number concepts. They are appropriate from a very early age, but can be adapted to suit children throughout the primary years. Use them to reinforce sequencing and concepts of time, number bonds and even times tables.

Make it relevant

If children can’t see the point of being able to do something, why would they put in the effort? Draw attention to numbers and quantities, talk about how many pencils you need on the table if all four children at the table need three colours each. How many people are here today? If there are 28 in our class and one person is missing, how many members of the class are in school? How many slices of cake/pizza do we need? How many chairs are there and how many people? Too many/not enough? (Adapt to suit the age and stage, but you get the idea)

Prompts and displays

Posters and displays can be really helpful, but children need to be taught to use them. Whether on a classroom wall or in the kitchen or bedroom at home, if the prompt isn’t pointed out, it may as well be just decoration. Start by showing them the poster, talk them through the concepts, teach them how to use the information on the poster to help them remember what to do, and make sure they know where the poster is in the room. If at all possible, place it where it will easily be seen by those who need it, without craning necks.

KNOW maths problems
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 Mathematical language

Teach this really explicitly. Talk about word origins and other related language. At the beginning of a new and unfamiliar unit of study, make a lesson out of this if necessary, so that children can be really comfortable and familiar with the terminology. This can be a real confidence booster. Have plenty of visual aids, including wall posters, desk prompts and pictorial mathematical dictionaries.

Physical props

See it, hear it, say it, do it. The transfer of knowledge for some will happen between hearing an explanation and seeing a demonstration, so that they are able to record what they have learnt. This will not be the same for every child. For many, being able to handle and count objects, or see and feel the difference in size, representing the difference in quantity, will unlock first counting, then comparison and simple addition and subtraction, and can be used very effectively to illustrate and practise multiplication and division. Look at Numicon, Cuisenaire rods and Mathlink cubes for ideas. There are all sorts of online resources using digital versions of these, but the physical props need to be truly familiar for these to make sense, if maths skills are not developing easily.

Recording ideas

Try to have a balance between developing and consolidating true understanding and recording things in writing. A written record is useful, but it is only meaningful to the learner if he or she is able to understand it and use it to model future calculations. Small hands lack the dexterity to write neatly, and so large books and whiteboards are more appropriate at the early stages of mathematical ‘literacy’. Later, the UK norm is for children to use books with 1cm square lined paper, progressing to 0.8cm. A wise dyslexia specialist recommended 0.7cm squares to me for my dyslexic learners when I was still a new teacher, and I have consistently found this helpful for them, where recording work more legibly is concerned.

Desk prompts and props

I have seen well-intentioned teachers design and provide double-sided A4 prompts containing every shape name, times tables, facts on the decimal system and many other reminders for Key Stage 2 learners. However, if a child needs a prompt, it needs to be clear and easy to use, not busy and confusing. One concept on one side of one sheet. If students are to keep them in their desk draws, include a picture of the prompt they need on your IWB presentation, so they can find it easily. The same goes for physical props: either supply the appropriate props when they are needed, or display them on the board, so that they can be accessed. Individual packs of resources in zip-lock bags/folders either in (TARDIS-like) desk drawers, or in a central classroom store.

These ideas can be adapted for whole class, small group, 1:1 and home use.

More maths-related posts can be found here

Downloadable resources related to maths are here

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5 memory boosters

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5 fun ways to foster maths skills

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5 thoughts on homework

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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… The upside is that you can be very efficient and check out exactly what you’re interested in pretty quickly. The downside is that you can get rather blasé about what’s on offer and risk missing some new innovation, a gem that might transform some aspect of your teaching or a student’s learning.

So, after a two-year hiatus, I was eager to explore the exhibition centre fully, and really make the most of my trip to London.

One benefit of catching a ridiculously early (cheaper) train, was that I arrived in Islington in plenty of time to attend the National Autistic Society’s MyWorld Teachers’ Networking breakfast. MyWorld is a great resource for teachers to find autism-related information online.

We heard from Tim Nicholls, who addressed the question of how well the education system in England works for children on the autism spectrum, reporting on the findings of the parliamentary enquiry into autism and education. The full report and recommendations are due to be published early in November, with a practical guide and resources for teachers to follow.

Next up was Gianna Colizza who talked about autism and anxiety in the classroom. It was a really inspiring talk from an educator who believes, as I do, that inclusion and reasonable adjustments are just common sense (I’d say common human decency, too). I’m compelled to share two quotes:

They are the children, we are the adults.

We must remember that all behaviour is a form of communication. Stimming or repetitive behaviours may indicate that something is causing upset or concern. Often, a small change that is out of reach for the student but within the contol of the teacher, can prevent the extremes of shut down or melt down.

Children have one childhood. They need to spend it with other children.

Many of us who have worked in schools will have experienced this. That one child for whom the classroom is considered just too much. They may end up in the corridor working with a TA, or missing break times to catch up or make up for some perceived misdemeanour. This is not the answer. There are so many great resources and training opportunities nowadays that I honestly believe EVERY teacher in EVERY school can be autism aware. If your school isn’t already in touch with them, do check out the Autism Education Trust and ASD info Wales for this.

The event closed with an “Ask the experts” panel which I’ve summarised as:

MyWorld quote

I was pleased to meet other teachers, an education coordinator for the Museum of London (they offer regular autism-friendly openings), parents and a researcher to whose doctoral research into social stories I contributed in some small way (I know from personal experience how precious each response is!).

That done, I dashed to the conference centre to meet up with ex-colleagues from my days teaching in London. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to hear that  every classroom at school now has a sensory corner.

I always find it hard to decide when presented with a choice of speakers. After much deliberation I had signed up to watch and listen to Wendy Lee presenting on Supporting children with social interaction needs in primary schools. Anyone who has worked with me or read my blogs will know that this is a passion of mine. What was interesting and new for me was to hear the ideas from an experienced speech and language therapist’s perspective. I loved her regard for other professionals, crediting the Communication Trust‘s What Works, Lynn McCann and Alis Rowe.

The other presentation I had booked was Tricia Murphy: Transition for those with cognition and learning difficulties. It was geared towards school-based teachers preparing for inspection, but I wanted to hear what she had to say, because this is very significant to me as an assessor when making recommendations for my students regarding transition between classrooms, subjects, key stages and transition to senior school, further education or university. I know what I would like to insist upon, and it was reassuring to know that she believes these are indisputable rights and necessities. Of course, we’d all prefer it if no-one had to make these claims, but It’s good to know that we are on the same page.

I was really hoping to catch Professor Amanda Kirby’s workshop: What is the relationship of nutrition / diet / supplementation in managing behaviour in ADHD? Amanda Kirby comes at specific learning difficulties as a parent, medical professional and academic, with decades of research and practical experience, so it’s always interesting to hear her take on how we can adapt the environment to improve outcomes for young people. Unfortunately, promises I’d made to friends regarding resources, and the rare opportunity to catch up with people face to face (coupled with time constraints brought on by my ‘cheap’ train ticket) meant that I was not able to hear Amanda speak on this occasion, but I heartily recommend her If you ever have the chance. I count myself extremely fortunate to have heard her speak before, and to have had the support of the team at the brilliant Dyscovery Centre during my research. I’m not sure whether I was more reassured or bereft when Tricia recommended her during her talk. Do check out the Do It Profiler and the Box of Ideas if you work with adults and young people at risk of SpLD.

It was a busy day, and well worth going. The entrance ticket is free for both days, as are the exhibitor workshops. Entrance to seminars is by paid ticket, but there’s usually a discounted rate if you book early (usually before the end of the summer term, so keep your eyes peeled). I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.


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