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
More here

 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

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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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.

More maths-related posts can be found here

Downloadable resources related to maths are here

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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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ACAMH Dyslexia Conference

Dyslexia: from assessment to intervention

Last week, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend ACAMH‘s conference Dyslexia: from assessment to intervention, one of many events to mark Dyslexia Awareness Week 2017.


Professor Maggie Snowling talked about how research is confirming the links between language and literacy development and the heritability of learning differences. (Read her thoughts on developmental language disorder (DLD) and Dyslexia)

Continuing the Dyslexia Debate, Professor Julian Elliott said that all learners struggling with literacy acquisition must be given appropriate and timely support.

Dr Gavin Reid shared practical advice and support recommendations across the curriculum to help develop the skills and confidence for children to become successful learners.

All of the speakers agreed that early identification and support of learning differences is the key to unlocking education.

6 software solutions

Online resources, software and assistive tech at the TES SEN Show 2017

In previous years I had attended the show with my school-based teacher’s hat on. For four or five years I had chosen seminars to develop my understanding to support existing pupils and fill the gaps between experience and INSET. This year I was returning without a school, and with a very different perspective.

Before I might have had a tiny reclaimable budget from school, enough to maybe buy a book or game I’d wanted but only seen online or in a catalogue. I would invariably supplement this, as shelves and boxes at home testify. This year, though, I had promised friends and my students’ parents that I would look out for particular resources.

As I’ve collected rather a stash of brochures and information, I thought I’d share it while it’s still fresh!


Claro’s range of assistive software includes some free text to speech apps.


Clicker  (primary) and DocsPlus (secondary upwards) are from Crick Software. The programs are designed to develop writing skills and provide tools for planning and drafting as well as proofreading and editing. Traditionally considered a school-based option, a growing number of families are using Clicker at home.


Dynamo Maths is an evidence based programme that begins with a standardised assessment (for 6-9 year olds) to determine a clear profile of strengths and needs. This can then be followed with their intervention programme for 6-8 year olds. School and home versions are available.


Dyslex.io aims to be a one stop shop for information, advice and signposting. It’s still in development and for the time being only available as a website rather than an app, but is very accessible and has sections for dyslexic children and adults, parents, teachers and employers.

Kaz type

Kaz Type has a range of touch-typing training programs, and has just launched a new, dyslexia-friendly version produced in consultation with the Dyslexia Research Trust complete with coloured filters to minimise visual stress, choice of typefaces and font colours and sizes for optimum readability as well as a ‘speaking key’ function.


Scanning Pens offer a range of reading devices that include models with built-in dictionaries and a simplified version that is JCQ approved for exams. Schools can (and should) buy these in bulk.



Classroom visuals and displays

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

Classroom visuals

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Colour Blind Awareness Day

via Daily Prompt: Elevate

It’s the start of a new school year in the UK, and we are gearing up for a series of important events and days (weeks/months) to foster inclusive practice in the education community as well raising awareness in the general population. But how much do you know about colour blindness and how it can affect daily life?

Colour blindness, also, and perhaps more correctly, known as colour vision deficiency (CVD) affects around 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women (NHS, 2016). This means that a mixed class of 30 children is statistically likely to contain at least one student who has CVD.

Over the years I’ve known colourblind colleagues – there was Nick, who, to much office hilarity, had no idea his wellies weren’t green back in the days when that was the pretty much the only colour available (snow day). My own godfather was colourblind. Classmates and pupils have announced their colour blindness, but then simply shrugged it off as something they simply had to deal with.

It was not until I met a student whose learning was significantly impacted by CVD that I realised

  • the prevalence of the condition
  • the effect that CVD can have on a person’s access to information

Here’s an example of how simple colour-coding can make a working adult’s life harder:


Top right is normal colour vision, and I have selected the maximum degree of each type of colour blindness on my filter.

These mop heads that have been colour-coded for specific use in public places such as schools and hospitals. Depending on the type of cleaning or spillage, a different mop must be used to avoid cross contamination. Sensible, but completely unhelpful if you have CVD. It’s not necessary to lose the colour coding, but adding an identifying icon or written label would make all the difference.

Colour-coded charts and tables online or in magazines are similarly confusing, and any weekend afternoon on Twitter will reveal sports fans who are unable to distinguish their team’s colour from the opponents’.

Particularly in primary classrooms, where life experience and developing reading skills may not be enough to unpick the intended meaning, colour can sometimes add confusion rather than eliminating it:


As adults, we have enough experience to know which continent is which. Imagine for a moment, though, how a seven-year-old might feel, moving into his (or her) first KS2 classroom at junior school.

Its a small addition to a busy workload, but if every teacher add simple wording, and icon or other clear illustration to classroom displays and objects such as coloured pens and pencils, then perhaps one chid in every classroom could have a better start to the academic year.

As well as this, and thanks to excellent advice from Colour Blind Awareness, I now routinely check any resources I use or produce with a free CV Simulator app. It’s a minor adjustment to my practice, and if it elevates a student’s spirit (not to mention access to learning opportunities) once in a while, then that’s well worth the effort.

Warning signs in the Primary 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


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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

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

What to do?

Over the years, teaching colleagues, students’ parents and my own family and friends have often asked what the ‘best’ way is to promote this or prevent that when it comes to behaviour, development or learning. Sometimes, but not always, the question is one that I’ve handled before, or frequently faced myself. We all know that every human is a unique individual, and that no two combinations of personality and circumstance are likely to be completely identical, so I must suppress my impulse to respond immediately in an effort to please.

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