Tools to tackle spelling

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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When numbers don’t add up

Have you ever considered the proportion of nursery rhymes that include counting and numbers? There are plenty. For many children, these are their earliest encounters with number concepts. My son (and I) endured many hours of 10 green bottles as his poor, sleep-deprived father  attempted to croon something undemanding in the small hours to get us all back to sleep.

NumbersOnce his sister came along, they were facing away from me in the double buggy, but while he was an only child, he faced me, and I would chatter, chant and sing number rhymes at him. He used to love it when I would push the pram away (often uphill) and clap and count until I had my hands back on the handle. Before he even started at nursery, he had learnt to count to and write to 20, though he had not mastered signing his name. Looking back it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has just begun to study maths at university, but he was my first child, and I did not train to teach until he had started school, so I had no idea that things do not come so easily to all children.

Maths anxiety

My memories of our maths sessions during teacher training are of a classroom where around 75% of the student teachers were very unsure of their maths skills. Our lecturer was a self-confessed survivor of maths anxiety. This puzzled me. I had clearly passed through school oblivious to others’ maths phobia. I had not studied maths post-16, choosing foreign languages and English. Undergraduate studies in applied modern foreign languages had involved some numeracy skills for the economics module, and I had had to deal with numbers great and small in my city career, but I had never considered myself a mathematician.

Number sense

When I was entrusted with my first class, I found eight year olds who routinely dotted their exercise books as they counted from one to complete each calculation. This was a mystery to me; I simply could not imagine that the students who did this were doing so because they did not have a way of visualising each number to hold it in their short term memory and perform calculations. But that is exactly what was happening.


Our text books (luckily) conformed with the government’s prescribed numeracy hour at the time, and I was able to adapt planning available online to suit my students. Occasionally, the textbook illustrations would include pictures of physical maths equipment such as cuisenaire rods, but our overstretched inner-city school did not have such luxuries. (The stationery cupboard was locked, and in a locked room. Our glue-stick supply was exhausted before Christmas)

more rods


One of the first courses I asked to attend after completing my NQT year was run by BEAM (Be a Mathematician) and titled How to help dyslexics and dyscalculics who struggle with mathematics. It was eye-opening. I had sympathised with my students, and used everything I could find or make to try to ensure maths was accessible, but there was so much more I could do. That course transformed my maths planning, teaching, differentiation and resourcing in ways that I could not have imagined before.

Early Years

Later, when I worked in Early Years, first as a classroom teacher, then in learning support, the manipulatives, physical props and visuals came into their own. These, combined with the explicit teaching of mathematical language and concepts, can unlock numeracy for many children. I would like to see this kind of approach and equipment in use throughout the primary years.

more manipulatives

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing ideas to support children’s maths skills development. Do post any specific support needs in the comments, and I’ll try to address those in the blogs.

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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.


Why does he do that?

via Daily Prompt: Sympathy

Sometimes, a parent will quietly ask their child’s class teacher or another parent if what they see in their child is ‘normal’. Other times, a teacher might ask their student’s previous teacher whether a particular conduct or difficulty is typical for that chid, or they might seek the advice of a more experienced colleague or specialist.

Over time, teachers will see many behaviour patterns in their students. Most, if not all, are normal. Few, if any, are peculiar to one child, or even to one condition. Speech and motor coordination are two issues that can be highlighted as concerns by parents and teachers. Delays in either (or both) may mean nothing beyond the individual’s unique developmental timeline, but they may be indicators of possible learning difficulties such as dyslexia, DCD/dyspraxia, Developmental Language Disorder, ADHD or autism.


In previous decades, when teachers were concerned about a young child’s progress, but they could not put their finger on what might be holding them back, they would almost routinely refer to the local speech and language therapy service. Stretched services and mean that this is no longer viable or appropriate, but there are many reasons why a referral for speech, language and communication needs (SCLN) assessment and support might be the right thing to consider. Bear in mind that speech delays can be a result of a hearing impairment – concerned parents should ask their doctor for a referral to audiology or and ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.

In speech, as with everything, children develop at different rates. For example one of the last phonemes that children learn to pronounce reliably is th -t he /θ/ sound. The expectation for this is from age five. Some children may pronounce the sound consistently in words by the the time they are four years old, and others may not master it until they are six years old. That gives a school year range from Nursery Year to Year 2, or four academic years, when the mispronunciation of that sound is within normal ranges. That does not mean that a referral is inappropriate if concerns are raised. If children are frustrated because they are unable to articulate a particular sound, or if they are unable to make themselves understood, or if parents are worried, a useful first step is to attend a local NHS Speech and Language drop-in clinic.

Often children will appear to stutter with excitement. This is quite normal. However, if this becomes more frequent and begins to impact on normal speech, seek the advice of a speech and language therapist. The British Stammering Association has a wealth of useful information on their website.

Sometimes, the way children put words together into sentences (syntax and grammar) can make them hard to understand. Again, it is part of natural development that children will put words together in different orders as they begin to discover the power of speech. Often they are learning and playing with language. Nevertheless, if speech patterns mean that children cannot be understood by unfamiliar adults or their peers, or if the speaker is distressed, professional advice should be sought.

It is not surprising that some children whose speech is delayed may also have delayed aural comprehension. The most obvious referral here will again be to audiology, but if hearing is within normal limits, this could instead indicate auditory processing disorder (APD), a language related condition such as developmental language disorder (DLD) or attentional difficulties (most commonly ADHD, but also seen in dyslexia, DCD/dyspraxia, autism and other neurological differences.)


Again, this varies hugely between individuals. Some children will sit or crawl early, others may develop focus and fine motor skills to enjoy simple craft activities ahead of their peers. Some children will love running, apparently aimlessly, or spinning until they fall over. Swings may be a delight or a terror, depending on each individual’s sensory appetite and balance (ENT again). It’s also worth checking whether vision has been tested recently – it’s called hand-eye coordination for a reason!

In countries where formal education starts later, there is little pressure to force short, chubby fingers around pencils to produce detailed work once considered the domain of a select few monks training to become scribes. In these countries, children focus instead on the types of activities that interest them, whether it is modelling with a range of malleable materials, cutting and sticking with no defined goal, sorting, threading and construction games and toys.

There is much discussion as to whether requiring children to master certain skills by a set time in a certain academic year is contributing to an increased need for occupation therapy or exacerbating children’s perceived deteriorating mental health.

I do not have the answers, but consider this:  your parents and teachers – and by extension you – know when you are supposed to be able to to complete certain tasks independently (according to goals set and imposed by lawmakers with little knowledge of child development or pedagogy). The task in question is beyond your current capabilities, whether this is due to slow skills development or another, physiological reason. Part of our role as educators is to provide adequate support before difficulties begin to impact on self-esteem, whatever the reason.

Falling over in the playground? Tipping a chair? Dropping stationery? Chewing on pencils? Occasional incidence of any of these is all part of normal behaviour. The key to recognising when it is something more is noticing frequency, triggers and any resulting impact on friendships, health and academic performance.

As well as the better recognised motor coordination issues associated with DCD/dyspraxia, some of these behaviours may be related to sensory processing difficulties. Some students may avoid sensory experiences as they are overpowering, others may seek sensory experiences. Some may seek certain sensory feedback and avoid others, and some may vary between the two. Talk openly with parents, take advice from experienced colleagues and professionals, and do not be afraid to refer to Occupational Therapy.

What next?

Plan and carry out support using all of the resources and information at your disposal. Review support regularly, adjusting and adapting, reflecting on what has worked and what has not. Remember, some things will work quickly – a wobble cushion or writing slope may bring immediate results, but therapy or specialist teaching may take time to have a noticeable effect in whole class situations. Adjust support to incorporate specialist resources and advice when this comes – it may take months for an appointment, and longer still for an assessment report or resources to arrive in the classroom. You may at times feel angry or frustrated that things take so long, but your students do not need your sympathy, they need your positive action.

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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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Even more skills for writing

So far, we’ve looked at physical, fine motor coordination skills, phonic knowledge and orthography, which includes spelling conventions. All of these play an important part in learning to write and spell in English. Another aspect that is particularly useful in English is morphology.  Read more

More skills for writing


Orthographic knowledge includes the understanding of a language’s spelling conventions (as well as aspects such as capitalisation and punctuation). Some languages have regular spelling patterns, meaning that an unfamiliar word can be decoded for reading, or encoded for writing, with relative ease. Read more

Early skills for writing


Phonological knowledge is only one of the skills required for writing and spelling in English, but it is the one that tends to be taught fist, and the one that many literacy support programmes will focus on, so we’ll begin our exploration of strategies and resources to support writing and spelling here.  Read more

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

Displays and visual prompts

Anyone who has visited a mainstream primary school classroom cannot have failed to notice the plethora of displays decorating the walls. Sometimes these expand to cover doors, windows and may even be suspended from the ceiling or pegged out overhead, washing-line style. Often these consist primarily of presentations of the children’s work, perhaps each pupil’s version of a particular activity, or a different noteworthy piece from every child. These adornments may boost young learners’ self-esteem, which is important to developing confidence in a learning environment, and teachers may, from time to time, use them to remind their pupils of previous accomplishments to encourage efforts on the task in hand.

Such adornments have their place, serving to acknowledge and celebrate pupils’ efforts and to showcase the learning that has been taking place for the benefit of carers and parents on open days and at pick-up or drop-off. Most children are only too delighted to point out their masterpieces with great pride. However, for some students, these colourful exhibits can serve as a distraction. For others, they might bring back almost painful memories of seemingly endless toil and disappointment. Teachers must keep these scenarios and others in mind when planning their displays to create a safe and enabling learning environment.

Other displays can be lost on adults as they tour these joyful looking spaces, but it would be surprising if the classroom did not also contain visual prompts, designed to ease the smooth running of the school day or to provide information and reminders on any number of subjects, from simple colours, shapes, letters and numbers to historical timelines, foreign languages and complex scientific formulae and data.

The further children progress through education, the more likely it is that wall displays will consist predominantly of such prompts rather than their own work. As they progress through school, they will probably find themselves in different, subject-specific learning spaces for each lesson, making the job of filtering out what is relevant to each lesson somewhat easier, though they may still occasionally be confused by posters related to topics not yet covered, which are nonetheless relevant to older students using the same space. Ironically, in this way we make the displays easier to access only after most of our learners have already – possibly independently – developed the skills to benefit from them. By contrast, an infant classroom may be decorated with multiple displays of past work, with information relevant to multiple current topics squeezed into the remaining available space. These are at best developing readers, yet we risk overloading them with visual stimuli.

Children’s attention and focus develops over time, being intimately linked with their evolving executive function (EF) skills. Although teachers have their learners’ interests at heart when planning and setting up displays, the learning prompts intended by the provision of e.g. a visual timetable can be inaccessible for younger pupils, especially for those with learning differences and EF challenges, including dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and autism. Classrooms can have excellent age-appropriate displays, with clear potential to enhance learning, but if the pupils do not benefit from referring to these displays, then they are simply ‘noise’ on the walls.

This does not mean that we should not make use of posters and other appropriate visual cues to support classroom or home learning. It does not mean that classrooms should become dull-looking spaces whose walls are bare. It means that displays should be selected for their suitability to the students, their learning needs and the lesson’s objectives. It also means that learners should be taught how to use the displays to support their own learning. It is not enough to simply put up a poster and assume that all children will instinctively know where to look and what to look for, let alone process the information in their schoolwork.


To go back to basics: if the youngest children are explicitly shown where the visual timetable is in their classroom (or individual, home or other learning space), if it becomes part of the everyday school (or home etc.) routine to refer to the images, to note which have passed, perhaps cover or remove the icons for activities that have been completed, then they will develop a better sense of how their day is progressing. Visual timetables can be bought, made or downloaded from the internet; I would recommend a whole school approach, where the same images are used throughout. The timetable itself can adapt to suit the age and development of each class, from large images and velcro to a daily or even eventually a weekly poster, so long as there is continuity and the timetable is referred to regularly enough for it to be part of every pupil’s working understanding of the classroom.


Visual prompts can be brilliant for supporting everything from letter-sound correspondence and number recognition to grammar rules and mathematical techniques. They can provide factual information and technical reminders for every subject. They can be anything from large, commercially produced or teacher- or student-made posters to personal cards. The important thing is to teach students how to use them. So, if you are teaching a creative writing point, or a mathematical rule, or a foreign language, or… (you get the point) incorporate the poster/prompt you are going to provide into your teaching. Refer to it explicitly and frequently. In a classroom where multiple subjects are taught, have topic-specific areas, possibly colour-coded. Start with the youngest children, but do not assume that the routines learnt in one academic year or subject will automatically be generalised to the next year or another curriculum area. The key is over-learning.


Do not worry that this will hold back your most independent pupils. If you are using the prompt to teach a new point, they are still getting fresh input. They may not need to refer to the prompts after you have introduced them. Others will gain greater independence through confidence and familiarity with using the prompts. This will allow more time to be spent consolidating the points and reinforcing the use of prompts with those who still need support. Judicious inclusion of prompts in homework can also help.

Some learners who struggle with visual processing may need more support and other opportunities to consolidate learning. Look out for that in another post.

This article is based on training presentations for schools and parents. Please feel free to contact me for more information.


Graham, S. Harris, K. and Olinghouse, N (2007) ‘Addressing Executive Function Problems in Writing: An Example from the Self-Regulated Strategy Development Model’, in Meltzer, L. (ed.) Executive Function in Education – From Theory to Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 216-236

Johnson, J. and Reid, R. (2011) ‘Overcoming Executive Function Deficits with Students with ADHD’ Theory into Practice, 50 (1) pp. 61-67 [Online]. (Accessed: 22 January 2016)

Kaufman, C. (2010) Executive Function in the Classroom: Practical Strategies for Improving Performance and Enhancing Skills for All Students. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Meltzer, L., Pollica, L. and Barzillai, M. ‘Executive Function in the Classrooms: Embedding Strategy Instruction into Daily Teaching Practices’, in Meltzer, L. (ed.) Executive Function in Education – From Theory to Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 165-193

West Gaskins, I. and Pressley, M. (2007) ‘Teaching Metacognitive Strategies that Address Executive Function Processes within a Schoolwide Curriculum’ in Meltzer, L. (ed.) Executive Function in Education – From Theory to Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 261-286


Mathematics and Problem-Solving

Where learners’ EF (Executive Function) is underdeveloped and/or working memory is overloaded, mathematics can pose real challenges that go beyond understanding numbers or carrying our calculations. It’s common for EF to impact maths, not least because of the importance of sequencing, and EF difficulties can co-occur with dyscalculia as with dyslexia. Read more


Executive functions (Explained in more detail here: EF – an introduction) develop from early childhood and are seen as key predictors of academic outcome and life chances in the modern world. I discussed how EF difficulties might present or be supported in the classroom in EF and Learning – Classroom Survival.

Some students with underdeveloped EF find the demands of school overwhelming from the very start, whereas for others, classroom routines, resources and support can be a benefit. In both cases, homework is likely to pose a challenge, particularly as they grow older, since such independent tasks place significant burden on EF.

When a child or young person has underdeveloped EF they

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

Classroom Survival

Executive function (EF) difficulties commonly co-occur with other learning differences and specific learning difficulties, and they can pose life-long challenges. It’s important for those affected, their families, educators and employers to understand how EF impacts everyday functioning and what can be done to support this. For more on EF difficulties see EF – an Introduction.

Many of the challenges faced (and sometimes posed) in school and learning situations by students with EF difficulties are similar or identical to those experienced by their neurotypical peers. This is one of the reasons why teachers and parents can easily miss the signs that there is a support need. Unfortunately, all too often, the behaviours that actually signs of EF difficulties are labelled as immature, impulsive or even plain ‘naughty’.

So what might these behaviours be?

Read more

Executive Function 

The chances are that unless you have (or a family member has) a diagnosis detailing executive function difficulties, or you are an experienced clinical practitioner, assessor or special needs educator, you may not have heard of executive function (EF) at all. As part of a research project in the summer of 2016, I conducted an online survey of teachers to gauge their knowledge and understanding of a range of learning needs: executive function difficulty was the least well known by the 170 respondents. Research shows that students with specific learning difficulties are likely to have executive function challenges. Based on published prevalence figures it is statistically very probable that every mainstream class will include a number of pupils with executive function difficulties.

Read more