Thursday, 20 December 2012

Technology & SEN - the good, the bad and the light

I've read two articles recently that are worth sharing. The first is an interesting article about a piece of software / app to coach students with autistic-type difficulties in recognising emotion in others. It is called 'Training Faces' - designed by blogger Therese Wantuch with help from her son Jack, who has autism. What I think is appealing about it is the fact it is designed as a questing game, which as Sue Palmer notes in '21st Century Boys', is a big motivator for boys. The app has a Facebook page and a demonstration video can be viewed on Youtube - it is also available for download on the major app sharing sites.

In terms of technology for supporting literacy, particularly those students with dyslexic-type difficulties, in my setting we use both 'Word Shark' and 'Lexia' as a part of our intervention programmes. Again, these are appealing to students because they take on aspects of more traditional gaming with them having to complete timed tasks, progress through levels etc.

However, with any of these new technologies, we need to be careful they do not become the intervention out of a belief that 'computers = undying interest'. My experience of working with students on these programmes is they will persist with it for 20 - 30min sessions once or twice a week. And they will often be exhausted after it due to the intensity of working in front of a screen for this length of time. Anything more than this and they generally start to view it as a chore, and in turn will disengage over the longer-term.

Also, we should not get too seduced by the apparent cost-effectiveness of these programmes. Comparing a Toe-by-Toe or Paired Reading intervention which typically involves 1-to-1 tuition with a Lexia intervention where you can have a 1-to-25 staff-student ratio (and perhaps even more, I guess) might lead us into buying into the Lexia proclamation that they truly are "The Future of Reading Education". Particularly so during times of reduced funding. However, it is my belief students continue to require connection and interaction - a human relationship - with a teacher or mentor, not just a computerised voice. This principle goes right back to the Orton-Gillingham approach which emphasises the emotional aspect of learning.

This then leads to a second article I found interesting and informative this week about the detrimental impact of low-energy lighting on some people. Having recently completed training in Irlen Syndrome (also known as Visual Perceptual Difficulties or Scoptopic Sensitivity), I have become far more aware of and in-tune to the needs of a significant proportion of our students. These are typically students who have struggled to acquire reading and writing skills at the same rate of their peers, often carrying an official diagnosis of ADHD or reports of 'dyslexic tendencies'. My main teaching classroom has two sets of lights, so you can switch one set off to dim the room slightly. I've surveyed a number of 'lower ability' classes over the past few weeks on whether they prefer this and the response is an overwhelming yes. And in turn, I've noticed concentration improves, and irritability with one another decreases, in a slightly dimmed classroom that tends to mimic natural light more closely.

This sensitivity to light also appears to be linked in with computer screens with a number of students I work with often asking for the lights to be dimmed when they are using the computers - I question whether this again is them subconsciously trying to cope with the artificial light.

Fortunately, and what I found really encouraging, is that something such as sensitivity to light - which appears to have complex roots in the microscopic labrynth of nerve structures in the eye and brain - can be solved quite simply through use of coloured overlays and a basic level of teacher awareness.

At the end of a long term, I keep reminding myself of this - special educational needs is complicated in terms of causes, but often relatively simple in terms of solutions. To use one of my favourite Einstein quotes, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A Note on Sandy Hook and Autism

Autism has been in the news recently following the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School with early reports in all the major news outlets stating that the perpetrator of the massacre had a diagnosis of the condition. With very little other details of the perpetrator's background, the danger in this reporting is that autism (ASD / Asperger's Syndrome) becomes mistakenly viewed as the primary cause.

Bonnie Rochman, writing for Time Magazine, has written a well thought out commentary - "Guilt by Association: Troubling Legacy of Sandy Hook May Be Backlash Against Children with Autism" - which draws attention to the upsurge in anxiety amongst young people with autism and their parents following the event. There is also a short video here discounting any link between premeditated violence and Autism which is worth passing on:

On a similar note, the University of Manchester today published a press release on research by Dr Judith Hebron highlighting some of the common experiences of students with Autism within the school setting. A statistic highlighted was 59.1% of students with autism demonstrate clinical levels of anxiety - sometimes because they are the victims of bullying, including physical violence, by peers hostile to their difference. The key quote for me came at the end, which has been borne out by some of the constructive work we've undertaken recently in school around this particular issue;

"This is a difficult problem to address as it is often hidden... But as children experiencing chronic stress and anxiety are more likely to suffer from mental health problems in the future, it’s vitally important we are aware of these issues and intervene early in order to minimise the risk.

...Many mainstream schools are doing excellent work in supporting and including young people on the autistic spectrum: there are ways to moderate their anxiety... It is also possible teach tolerance of difference to other children, but we hope this study will offer support for existing strategies and provide exploratory ideas for new ones.”

Monday, 10 December 2012

What's it like to have ADHD?

This is a fascinating website I happened upon late last night - ADHD Voices. The creators have interviewed 150 young people between 9 - 14 years about their experiences of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and then used their recordings as the narration / dialogue for a series of animated videos.

I recently heard a fellow SEN Coordinator say they have found that students identified as having ADHD are commonly 'more one than the other' in terms of the low attention, daydreaming aspect and the hyperactivity, impulsivity aspect - and that maybe the term should be split up. I'm not sure what position to take on this, because I simply don't know enough about it, but this video does seem to reflect this twofold difference in experience of the condition.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Automaticity, Darwin and Spiral Schools

We use a variety of literacy interventions at Thornleigh Salesian College - Toe-by-Toe, Lexia, Sounds-Write, paired reading primarily using Barrington Stoke books plus various other bespoke programmes. These are more often than not used with students who have 'dyslexic tendencies', commonly combined with a history of speech and language needs.

Much of these address issues with phonological awareness - which in very basic terms means the sounds and structures of spoken words. Phonological awareness is developed via the following broad stages:

However, reviewing a student's formative assessment findings this past week has re-tuned me into the fact phonological awareness is sometimes not the priority when seeking to address persistent basic literacy difficulties. The use of a rapid naming test, from the CTOPP assessment kit, demonstrated that for some students the priority is addressing issues around processing. In basic terms and in relation to literacy, processing refers to the speed and accuracy with which the brain thinks of or sees / hears a word, breaks it down into discrete sounds, and then associate each sound with the visual representations (letters) that make up the word. 

For students who experience difficulty with both phonological awareness and processing, this is often referred to as a 'double deficit' - a classic theoretical model of what lies behind the more severe dyslexic-type difficulties.

For those wanting to find out more, the processing aspect is associated with the 'phonological loop' - even more so when language and/or numeracy difficulties are also evident.

Attempts to address processing deficits / difficulties centre around two key concepts within education - automaticity and overlearning.

Automaticity refers to the concept of undertaking an action with little thought. There are some things we humans are pre-programmed to do with automaticity - breathing probably being the first one! But from there, skills like feeding, non-verbal communication, walking, speech all develop quite naturally in most children, so long as they are within a nurturing environment. This is a result of evolution - we have evolved to do these things quickly and with automaticity as part of our survival plan.

There are other things - such as riding a bike, swimming, driving a car -  that, generally speaking, our minds and bodies are also coincidentally built to learn with automaticity. The same could also be said of literacy skills. However, as Maryanne Wolf put quite strikingly in Proust and the Squid;
"We were never born to read. Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evoltuon of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections amongst its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience. This plasticity at the heart of the brain’s design forms the basis for much of who we are, and who we might become."
The key point here is that this is dependent on existing 'neurotypical' structures - but for those humans who are not 'neurotypical', the predisposition is less obvious, less conducive, less easily adapted to reading and writing. They can usually be coached and cajoled into developing these skills but it takes longer and requires a less typical approach.

So, returning to practical matters, how can we address problems with processing - and in turn develop automaticity - amongst learners struggling to acquire literacy skills? The short answer is another key concept in education - overlearning. Overlearning refers to the continued practising or study of a skill or concept long after it has seemingly been learnt, so that it becomes to an extent mastered. In many ways I think it is best represented by a forward moving spiral growing in size, or more simply, a spiral staircase.

In terms of basic literacy, the Active Literacy Kit has automaticity built into it throughout with timed activities used as a matter of routine. We have recently purchased this and I will be doing some training with the team to get them au fait with it, ahead of using it with those students for whom rapid naming is a specific difficulty. In many ways, this is the 'medical model' approach in action with us actively seeking to 'cure' or 'fix' a difficulty experienced by individuals. It is an approach frowned upon in some circles but if we look at some of the new science of learning and the research around the teenage brain, there is good argument that some students can to an extent be 're-wired'.

But there is also the need for 'social model' responses, in terms of how we shape our everyday curriculum to embody automaticity as a key principle, with sufficient opportunities for overlearning throughout. There is a well-reasoned and long-standing argument that a school culture centred only on targets restricts time for consolidation and enrichment - as one teacher put it, "It's as if a train is leaving the station at the end of every lesson, and every time some of the children are being left behind." If we are to genuinely effect positive change within young people, then room needs to be made for students to learn - and then re-learn - and then re-learn again to the point of mastery.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Forget Stamp Collecting

Just a quick Sunday evening blog to let readers know I've spent some spare time recently collecting together all the major policy / review documents relating to SEN and Pupil Premium in UK schools. I've also collected together the old 'Literacy Progress Units' which had become a bit scattered on the DfE online archives. I've uploaded all of these en masse to Scribd where they can be accessed at a single point, both at a glance and through a quick'n'easy download system.

The documents are grouped together in collections:

The SEN and Pupil Premium policy / review documents are also listed individually via our Information Hub. This part of the site has been updated substantially over the past few months to include a wide variety of websites focusing on aspects of SEN / SpLD - each link is reviewed for usefulness / quality of content, and generally speaking they are the ones I refer to most often.

Enjoy! (kind of...)

Thursday, 22 November 2012

What is FASD?

As part of the National SENCo Award programme, I took part in an interesting introductory session to Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). It is a label / condition I was aware of, but had little knowledge on. Since then I have started to use the excellent website of the National Organisation for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome UK to find out more.

The following NOFAS-UK video provides a good further introduction to FASD and could be emailed to colleagues across a school or better still, shown to them as part of a staff meeting and then discussed in relation to specific students.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Royalty, Robots and Einstein's Brain

I have not blogged as regularly these past few weeks because my spare time has been taken up with schoolwork and undertaking various courses relating to SEN / SpLD including Elklan, Irlen Screening and the National SENCo Award - these courses are not really of the academic / theoretical variety but more focused on the practical, ground-level skills that SEN coordinators and teachers need. I recommend each one - although, with the benefit of hindsight, not in unison!

There have been a number of interesting articles in the media relating to SEN / SpLD that I've been favouriting as I come across them, waiting for a quiet moment to share them with colleagues. Here is a round up:

>> James Middleton and Dyslexia - The brother of Kate Middleton gave an interview with the Daily Mail recently speaking eloquently about what it can mean to have dyslexia. Interestingly, he said, "I would still choose to be dyslexic because I feel it helps me to see things in a different way," which highlights that dyslexic differences often run deeper than literacy skills, and that additional needs can come with additional gifts.

Running alongside this was another much less impressive article, from the Telegraph, which picked up on the interview. It is only worth noting for the aggressive tone in which the columnist writes about 'outting' James Middleton and for the way it foists some kind of responsibility on him for 'speaking up' for dyslexia.

>> The Unusual Features of Einstein's Brain - Following on from the article above, the Daily Mail published a report a few days ago about research into Albert Einstein's brain structure. This is something I was told about before by my lecturers whilst undertaking postgraduate study in dyslexia, but something I have not found much 'evidence' for in terms of published research / reporting. It could be a useful article to share with colleagues when talking about the concept of 'neurodiversity'. Albert Einstein is often cited in lists of 'famous dyslexics' but this can be misleading as he seems much more complex - and he was both uniquely and substantially gifted,which not all people with dyslexia are.

>> Sleep and Learning Vocabulary - Yet another good article from the Daily Mail recently (the paper, for all its faults, is quite good at reporting on childhood studies) highlighted research showing that sleep plays a major role in acquiring new vocabulary. The article reports on a study showing that children benefit from being  introduced to a list of key words, then being given a night to 'sleep on it', then returning to it the next day to consolidate their learning. In terms of what this means in schools, it draws attention to the concept of 'overlearning' - and practically, it highlights the importance of some intervention programmes / withdrawal groups, such as Toe-by-Toe and the Five Minute Box, running daily for students.

>> Time to Rewire Students? - I am not sure about the credibility of the programme reported in this article from the Sydney Morning Herald, and I am certainly not recommending it (yet!). However, it's interesting in that it turns a lot of what we think about how we should work with SEN / SpLD on its head. Instead of adapting the environment to meet a student's strengths alongside attempting to boost their  'coping' skills, this programme appears to focus intensively on 'mending' possible weaknesses that rest deep within the student. This brings us right back to the medical model vs. social model debate.

>> Youngest in Year Groups and ADHD - This piece from American broadcaster ABC News draws attention to a research project undertaken in Iceland which suggests the youngest children in year groups are 50% more likely to be put on medication for ADHD-type behaviours. The research did not conclude whether this was a matter of overtreatment of the younger students or undertreatement of the older students, but the discrepancy does provide food for thought about the significance of seemingly small differences in age within year groups.

>> Robots Not Teachers! - BBC Online published this article on their website a few weeks ago about a pilot study in the use of robots (which do cost more than a Teaching Assistant's annual salary) to help teach primary school children with autism. The most interesting point, for me at least, was the observation that autistic children in particular found robots more predictable than humans. I have found many young people with autistic-type difficulties interpret human interactions, and more specifically the diversity of personalities within a large community such as a school, as 'random' which in turn leads to anxiety. If anything, I guess it re-highlights the need for adults to maintain core routines and a level of consistency of approach.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

We Never Stop Learning

I was at Leeds Metropolitan University on Friday starting the National Award for SEN Coordination. I had previously started the same course at another university and found it to be over-complicated in terms of coursework, with very little support in terms of work-course-life balance. The course at Leeds Met, at least from the onset, seems much more practical and sharply focused.

There were a series of workshops throughout the day delivered by SEN Coordinators and teachers working in the field - with the final one being on dyslexia. I have previously undertaken postgraduate training in dyslexia and I think naturally you find yourself initially thinking, "I've done this already..." It could be interpreted as a kind of arrogance or complacency I suppose, but it is also borne simply out of the feeling time is so precious as a teacher and SEN Coordinator.

However, it never fails to surprise how you always learn something new when networking with colleagues.

Theoretically, the talk on dyslexia was particularly informative for me in terms of clearly distinguishing between working memory, short term memory and long term memory. I have long had a feeling memory drives much of the difficulties our 'dyslexic tendencies' and 'ADHD-type' learners face - and the next step will be to look into interventions and other means of practical support to address these issues.

The talk was also interesting in terms of resources, with a tip on software that can convert mindmaps into flow diagrams / writing frames - something I had been wondering about just the week before. We were also recommended the book 'The Dyslexic Advantage' by Brock L. Eide and Fernette F. Eide, which seems to follow on from an earlier book by Ron Davies titled 'The Gift of Dyslexia'. Through my recent work with mind-maps, I'd been wanting to scratch up on the non-literacy features of dyslexia (particularly the idea of linear and non-linear thinkers) and this suggestion seems to have come at exactly the right time.

Finally, in terms of developing further understanding of dyslexia in school, I was particularly grateful for the recommendation of the Kara Tointon documentary 'Don't Call Me Stupid' produced by BBC3 (which had completely passed me by). It's always useful to try view SEN / specific learning difficulties through the eyes of the beholder, and this does just that. I will certainly look to use clips from this in future CPD.

Dyspraxia - 'A Hidden Handicap'?

Following my previous post, I have since found out it is also 'Dyspraxia Awareness Week' in the UK which is focusing on raising understanding of initial indicators of the condition amongst parents of young children so that support can be put in place from an early stage. 

Here is a short NHS video about the condition:

The features of dyspraxia commonly overlap with other conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia and autism. In my experience these often predominate as categories used to describe a child's difficulties / peculiarities, possibly because there is more awareness of them by parents and professionals. But as with any label, it is only useful if it points to a constructive way forward, and it may well be that students being identified as dyslexic or ADHD or autistic would in fact be better served by an additional or replacement identification of dyspraxia, with a view to then accessing the specialist intervention that goes with it.

Top Ten Quotes about ADHD

Following on from the last seven days which saw 'Dyslexia Awareness Week' take place in the UK, interestingly enough this coming week in the US it is 'ADHD Awareness Week'

Below are ten great quotes I have found that either speak directly about ADHD-type learners or have some relevance to thinking through what it means to be diagnosed with this condition. They might be good for SEN teachers trying to raise awareness and understanding of the condition in their schools - with emphasis on the fact that the traits of this particular area of human diversity are much deeper, and more interesting, than inattentiveness.

>> "I prefer to distinguish ADD as attention abundance disorder. Everything is just so interesting . . . remarkably at the same time.” - Frank Coppola

>> “AD/HD = A Dynamo, Highly-Driven.” - Joan Brennan

>> "If we run every class the way we run it for kids with ADHD, we'd probably have a much stronger education system." -  Robert Reid

>> "I don't think you can make a child have ADHD. A child is born with a predisposition, and the environment will make or break that predisposition." - Donna Palumbo

>> "The same right-brained children who are being labeled and shamed in our schools are the very individuals who have the skills necessary to lead us into the twenty-first century.  These children process visually and randomly, and think holistically.  They are intuitive problem solvers who get the big picture.  They thrive on visual imagery and stimulation; these "attention deficit" kids can spend hours with computer and CD-ROM programs that mirror their thought processes.  It's no wonder they are attracted to computers.  The use of computers is congruent with the way right-brained children think." - Jeffrey Freed and Laurie Parsons

>> “It is better to be high-spirited even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent.” - Vincent Van Gogh

>> "I see myself as an intelligent, sensitive human, with a soul of a clown which forces me to blow it at the most important moments." - Jim Morrison, musician

>> "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." - Henry David Thoreau

>> "Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible." - Frank Zappa

>> “They say a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind. What then is an empty desk a sign of?” - Albert Einstein

In March of this year I delivered a training session on ADHD to colleague at my school, Thornleigh Salesian College. The entire session and accompanying resources can be freely downloaded here, and a quick view of the session can be freely accessed here.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Phew, Here Goes

Aside from the busyness of being a SEN Coordinator at this time year, I have also spent a great deal of spare energy (and evenings) developing some resources for supporting lower-attainment / SEN students in English.
In many ways this is not really an extra to the role as this is currently my particular subject area and day-to-day teaching commitment - plus I believe a central component of being a successful SEN Coordinator in secondary schools is to provide a substantial, specialist input into the development of subject areas. In short, we have to look beyond the walls of our Learning Support rooms if we are to truly make our schools inclusive.
However, I would say strategy and resource development - which requires a real focusing of brain power on finer detail - is very different to the 'operational' role of the SEN Coordinator which typically involves 'on-the-hop' problem solving and crisis management, and a lot of bureaucratic paperwork.
The resources I have uploaded to TES Resources this week hopefully reflect this commitment to whole-school inclusion and the care I have taken with them. They include a major piece of work around APP English Writing - an attempt to break down the official descriptors into more precise, practical steps. And from there, a look at how we assess written pieces of work in general - with a view to making them more 'Dyslexia Friendly'.
I have also uploaded a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) short guide to using PowerPoint in the classroom, again with my SEN Coordinator hat on, titled 'PowerPoint Killed the Classroom Star'. This has been one of those projects that I started a long time ago and have finally managed to finish.
Sharing resources online often feels like the final stage of the project, having already shared them with colleagues in school. And so now, I can rest a little and then re-focus on other things.
And as with all the resources I share online, I do so not to make any personal profit, but simply because I believe in the spirit of catch-free cooperation amongst teachers.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

What's it like to have (visual) dyslexia?

Coventry University have created this useful animation to provide an insight into the dyslexic experience:

It is worth pointing out that the video does tend to focus on the visual perceptual difficulties associated with dyslexia, and sometimes identified more specifically as Irlen Syndrome / scotopic sensitivity. There is more to dyslexia than this, as highlighted in this article from, but this video is nonetheless useful as a snapshot.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Top Ten Quotes about Dyslexia

This week in the UK it is 'Dyslexia Awareness Week', with the theme 'Empowering Teachers'. Although I suppose there could be an argument made that efforts to raise awareness of neurodiversity, particularly within our school communities, should be an an all-around-the-year project, these kind of themed weeks are good in creating extra impetus and connecting together people who share the same passion.

To mark the beginning of 'Dyslexia Awareness Week', I have compiled ten quotes either directly about dyslexia or with relevance to the 'dyslexic experience'.

>> “I was dyslexic before anybody knew what dyslexia was. I was called 'slow'. It's an awful feeling to think of yourself as 'slow' - it's horrible.” - Robert Benton

>> “The biggest problem with dyslexic kids is not the perceptual problem, it is their perception of themselves. That was my biggest problem.” - Bruce Jenner

>> "Being dyslexic can actually help in the outside world. I see some things clearer than other people do because I have to simplify things to help me and that has helped others." - Richard Branson

>> “I'm a human being, I'm not a machine. I'm 72. I'm dyslexic.” - Robert Blake

>> "Being dyslexic, I had to train myself to focus my attention. I became very visual and learned how to create mental images in order to comprehend what I read." – Tom Cruise

 >> “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole life thinking it’s stupid.” - Albert Einstein

>> "It's a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word!" - Andrew Jackson

>> “If children can’t learn the way we teach, then we have to teach the way they learn” - Robert Buck

>> “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I see and I understand.” – Confucius

>> “For too long, we've assumed that there is a single template for human nature, which is why we diagnose most deviations as disorders. But the reality is that there are many different kinds of minds. And that's a very good thing.” - Jonah Lehrer

Within my own setting I have tried to raise awareness of this particular type of learner with various training sessions, including:
There is also an interesting article published in The Telegraph today, by Sally Gardner, titled 'Ten Tips for a Dyslexic Thinker (like me)'. Coinciding with this is a short blog by Martin Chilton which looks at dyslexia-friendly books, focusing on the publisher Barrinton Stoke which we regularly purchase reading materials from at Thornleigh Salesian College.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

TeachMeet Bolton

This morning I put my name forward for TeachMeet Bolton on the 23rd Novemeber 2012. I have not come across this network before, but really like the concept behind it:
"TeachMeets are FREE, informal "unconferences", all about creating opportunities for those interested in education to take the lead, share practice, discover new ideas, network and be inspired all during the course of one CPD fuelled evening! Anyone can get involved, share great ideas they've trialled in their classrooms, ask important questions or simply sign up to take part in learning conversations. All are welcome."

"You can talk about anything that has inspired you, has worked well in class, a tool, a strategy, a topic... The list is endless. The one rule here is NO SELLING! Let's also agree not to cause any PowerPoint induced comas and remember technology may not always be your friend... REMEMBER: You do not have to present anything, you can always be an Enthusiastic Lurker!"
I'm currently undecided about whether to present or simply be one of the audience. I might look to do something around reviving mindmapping in schools - any ideas or opinions on mindmapping would be appreciated. Simply leave a comment...

Monday, 17 September 2012

Quotes from the Paralympics

I think it's important we continue to celebrate the summer of sport, particularly the London 2012 Paralympics - and particularly so in schools where they can be used to challenge stereotypes from an early age and motivate students. We have created a display on our main corridor to do this, using quotes from the speech delivered by Stephen Hawking at the Paralympics Opening Ceremony. I have uploaded to TES the bits and pieces I've made for displays over the past year, which can be accessed here.

Below are some more inspirational quotes I've collected throughout the past week. These might be useful for assemblies or reflections during form / circle time. 

"If the Paralympics have accomplished anything it is confronting people with the abilities that disabled people have. It's also an indicator of progress. So many people have come here; they don't have to pay money to come and watch disabled people play sport. They are here because they want to be here, because they see it as a worthwhile event. I think that people were ready for the Paralympics," 

(Luke White, Paralympics wheelchair rugby star) 

“It was absolutely amazing and I think that the Paralympics has scrubbed out that line that there’s always been between disabled and able-bodied athletes,”

“All of the Paralympic and Olympic athletes were mixing and I think that the Games have stopped people looking at disabled athletes as just people with illnesses or disadvantages.” 

“I’ve already had so many messages from people saying that I’ve inspired them to get back in the pool or back on a horse and that’s just amazing. That’s always been the main goal and I’m so glad." 

(Stephanie Millward, winner of 5 medals in Paralympics swimming) 

"Paralympians have overcome so much - they have fantastic stories to tell.”

"Swimming saved my life - I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't been able to get in the water and compete.” 

"There might be others out there who don't reach Paralympic level but that is not the point.” "It is about giving you something. The Paralympics are giving people hope." 

(Margaret McEleny, former Paralympian and swimming coach) 

"I think this is going to inspire disabled children and adults to get into sport,"

"It is also amazing when able-bodied adults and children come up to me and say we've changed their perception of disabled people and inspired them to do sport as well.”

"We have the can-do factor, and us doing what we do I think inspires people to just try that little bit harder, whether they are able-bodied or disabled.” 

(Lee Pearson, Paralympics veteran and dressage star) 

I have grown up in a positive household. I’m a normal person, just a lot smaller. I get on with it. Everybody should do that. You only live once and you need to enjoy life, to go out and achieve whatever you want to.” 

(Ellie Simmonds, Paralympics teenage swimming sensation) 

“I think back to Ivan. As every parent, you think about all the things they can’t do, but at the Paralympics they are superhuman, you see all the things they can do.” 

(David Cameron, British Prime Minister) 

“Although we have many differences, there is one quality we all share, one thing all of us have in common: human spirit.” 

(L/Cpl Rory Mackenzie, Afghanistan War veteran and Paralympics Closing Ceremony participant) 

“We were watching human beings overcome what we had always assumed was a basic limitation of our species to break a barrier that was physically or psychologically insurmountable. We were watching a triumph of the human spirit…” 

(Boris Johnson, Mayor of London) 

"In this country we will never think of sport the same way and we will never think of disability the same way," 

"The Paralympians have lifted the cloud of limitation." 

(Sebastian Coe, Chairman of London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics Games committee) 

”My motivation, one of my motivations, is I truly believe I was meant to do this journey," 

"I want to do my nation and my family proud." 

(Martine Wright, 7/7 survivor and Paralympics volleyball star)

And last but not least, a fantastic Paralympics picture slideshow from BBC Magazine, with commentary from US broadcaster John Hockenberry.

Monday, 10 September 2012

CCET Follow-Up

From the end of March to the beginning of August, I have worked intensively on the Certificate of Competence in Educational Testing (known as CCET) delivered collaboratively by Real Training and Dyslexia Action, with accreditation from the British Psychological Society. The course was funded by the National Scholarship Fund for teachers and support staff.

I could already access many of the 'closed' standardised assessment tools used by educational psychologists due to my existing postgraduate qualifications in SEN and Dyslexia, but felt this course would both refresh my understanding and skills - and develop and validate them further. Having now completed the course, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking to go down the same CPD route, particularly colleagues who have to organise access arrangements. Although I would add that it is not a box-ticking exercise and requires real investment of time working in school - and brainpower - which is probably what ultimately makes it so useful.

As side note, at school I struggled at Maths due to being placed in a set too high for my ability, and certainly some of the theory took me back to a place where my brain seemed to immediately ache when looking at certain equations! I guess that's just how many of our students feel when confronted with tasks others can do with ease, and perhaps something we need reminding of from time to time. To help myself, and any colleagues who experience the same difficulty with Maths, I have put together 'revision guides' for this aspect.

Since undertaking the initial four day intensive course in Sheffield, I have assessed around half a dozen students on a 1-to-1 basis - not just to meet the criteria for a CCET pass and subsequent British Psychological Society registration, but more importantly, because the students concerned clearly needed some kind of support plan or intervention but we weren't entirely sure of the nature of their additional needs. The kind of things we were coming across was underachievement in written work in particular subjects (but not others), lack of concentration in particular classes, signs of anxiety and frustration with learning, and on a few occasions, an existing diagnosis for a specific learning difficulty that just didn't seem to fit. With each one, the assessments have confirmed suspicions, challenged existing opinions and, most important of all, pointed to a more targeted way forward. And, crucially, finely-detailed assessment of this kind can prove to be a powerful tool in encouraging students to understand themselves better as learners.

As with much of what I do, I tend to really focus in on the project at hand. As a result, I have spent great time and energy over the past few months trying out new tests (which I have profiled on an at-a-glance A4 document) and developing resources to assist with formative assessment in school - to make it as reliable and accurate as possible, and as easy to deliver as possible (keeping in mind that as a SEN Coordinator, I have a dozen other plates to keep spinning at the same time). I've also developed resources to help make the results of assessment, and subequent reports, as accessible as possible to parents.

I have to say a big thank you to the educational psychologist I work with, Michelle, who has been a constant source of advice, support and encouragement. What we hope to gain from this is a system whereby I can undertake a first wave of 'industry standard' assessment, thereby filtering our referrals to the educational psychology services and other agencies so those most at need are prioritised.

All the resources I have developed are now on TES:


Who Wants A Replay?

Last night saw an deeply moving end to the Paralympic Games - and a fitting finish to a summer of amazing sport overall. There were so many highlights, so many bits that left you wanting to rewind. It's also heartening to know 1 billion people tuned in from across the world.
The good news is the entire footage is already on YouTube:

The Paralympics in 2012 was rightly described as the 'greatest ever' with 19 more nations competing than in Beiijing, rising from 165 to 184 to participating countries. In Rome in 1960 just 23 countries took part.
It was also the first Paralympics where all tickets were sold at full price, totalling 2.2million - an incredible feat when compared to Sydney in 2000 where the majority of tickets were given to schoolchildren. Television and internet audiences have broken records with 6.7million British viewers tuning in to watch Britain's Jonnie Peacock take gold in a 100m showdown with South Africa's Oscar Pistorius.
Ahead of last night's opening ceremony, Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay, was quoted as saying:
“Being asked to play at the Paralympic closing ceremony in our home town is a huge honour.. We can't actually imagine a bigger honour. This will be the biggest night of our lives.”
Rihanna, who also starred, said:
"Being at the Paralympics is the biggest honour... These athletes are gladiators and are a true inspiration to me..."
Sebastian Coe, London 2012 chairman, said:
"I don't think they will ever see disability in the same way again..."
Whilst, Liz Nicholl, UK Sport chief executive, said:
"The London Paralympic Games will be remembered as a time when we saw ability first and disability second."

(H/T: Global Briefing and BBC Sport)

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Pistorius Shift

Most people I've spoken to about the Paralympics are tending to watch it on and off - a majority tuning into the highlights on Channel 4 each evening. I think it is a pattern no different to Olympics viewing habits or any other international sports tournament for that matter. It perhaps represents a shift with Paralympians moving towards parity with Olympians.

Yet there is an argument the shift won't stop there. The focus of attention this week has tended to rest on Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius and his claims Alan Oliveira cheated (for which Oscar Pistorius later apologised, though only for the timing) by using prosthetics longer than what his legs would be if they were intact, thereby increasing stride length.

I think though, before we go further, attention needs to be drawn to Alan Oliveira who had the limelight taken from what was a fantastic achievement in the T44/43 200m race - the BBC has published a good write-up on him.

Alan Oliveira, Champion

The controversy was arguably fuelled by a possible undercurrent of unease towards Oscar Pistorius for his desire to compete in the Olympics. This is allegedly coming from some Paralympians who quietly believe he views their tournament as second best and by Olympians who quietly fear the continued development of technology that has gained him access to their tournament - as Dominic Bastulto notes for the Washington Post, there is a possible shift towards viewing Paralympians as 'more than human' rather than 'less than human'. This is a great thing about the Paralympics, it challenges our perceptions from various angles.

This particular issue also raises an interesting aside question, if a little more daydreamy and less practical than what I usually post on this site, about the development of technology to assist people with disabilities. And this does not necessarily need to be confined to the 'purity' of sports competitions, it could also eventually apply to the 'purity' of exams. The question is, at what point will technology move from having a  therapeutic role to an enhancing role?

For example, as the Ideas Bank blog of Wired Magazine geekily discussed this week, would you swap your biological eye for a bionic one with additional functionality? This is of course just futurology, but it got me thinking further - if there were a readily available pair of glasses that followed a student's eye movements and read aloud into their ear, would this address an inherent difference / difficulty such as dyslexia, or move the user's capacity to learn beyond that of peers?

Ultimately though, it's a muse, a question we don't yet have the luxury of having to confront - because there's a long way to go yet, as Chris Bryant points out in his column for The Independent.

On a more practical note, I've recently been exploring greater use of technology to support students in my setting, particular those with needs such as dyslexia, autism, hearing impairment and visual impairment. The technology section of the RNIB website has proved particularly informative. And there is some interesting observational commentary about the uses of iPad for children and teenagers with ASD scattered across the internet. This 'Free Ipad Apps for SEN' list from is also well worth a look.

I think that whilst education naturally has a long way to go with assistive technology, the Paralympics creates a healthy optimism that it can only get better and better. And as Steven Stanhope rightly highlights in his blog entry for the Washington Post, technology developed for 'special populations' tends to find use across the population (an argument I often use with SEN teaching strategies). This is another reason why we should celebrate the difference SEN and disability bring, rather than view them primarily as difficulties to be cured.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Stephen Hawking's Paralympic Wisdom

Three great quotes I picked up from Stephen Hawking at last night's Paralympic Games opening ceremony: 

“Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

“There ought to be something very special about the boundary conditions of the universe, and what can be more special than that is there is no boundary… And there should be no boundary to human endeavour.”

"We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit. What is important is that we have the ability to create… This creativity can take many forms, from physical achievement to theoretical physics… However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Contact Form - Please Read

It's come to my attention that the previous contact form installed on the site, from Kontactr, was not transmitting the sender's email address. I have now installed a different contact form from EmailMeForm which should be more reliable.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Meet the Superhumans, part 2

Following on from my last post, I think this is a great ad campaign ahead of the Paralympic Games and for disability awareness in general. These are currently posted all over the UK (or at least on the long, drawn-out route between Gatwick and Manchester!).

Saturday, 25 August 2012


I've now returned to the UK following a holiday in Cuba - the statistics around their education system are fascinating, although I admit to having done zero 'on-the-ground' research into this.

Whilst over there our only English-language news came from CNN and an item that caught my interest was research coming to light that suggests a possible link between autism and the age of the father. The theory is that older fathers pass on more random genetic mutations, particularly as they reach the over-40 bracket. The research was originally published in the scientific journal Nature, which means we can give it more credence than say, a Daily Express headline.

On my return to the UK I looked the story up again on the internet, and found that this research has been picked up by our media. Amongst others, The Independent carried it although it concerned me that Autism was described as an 'illness' by their writer and a 'disease' by the quoted researcher

I think Autism, at least from an educational perspective, is best described as a 'condition' - with honest acknowledgement of the difficulties it brings matched with a focus on the possibilities and opportunities, as demonstrated by this article from the This Is Plymouth website.

Thinking of the students identified with ASD that I've worked with over the years, many of whom love comic books and science fiction, it made me smile when one of the CNN commentators observed that the reported genetic mutations are in fact what drives forward evolution  - and could eventually lead to a new breed of human being - the X-Men sprung immediately to mind...

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Find Your Island

I'm breaking my self-imposed summer holiday hiatus from blogging to mention an interesting article by Patrick Barkham published in today's Guardian newspaper - "What can athletes with ADHD teach us about the condition?"

The article is a well-balanced look at possible links between the condition and sporting success. Although, through my own work as SENCo in a large secondary, I would disagree with the comment that teachers 'scoff' at the disorder. My over-riding experience is that colleagues respond compassionately when a student is identified with an underlying learning difficulty - and simply want to know what they have to do make life and learning easier for them.

SEN teachers may sometimes apply a critical eye to ADHD but this focuses on legitimate questions around mis-diagnosis (because dyslexic-type difficulties, speech & language issues, attachment difficulties - and lifestyle - can all lead to low concentration) and the impact of medication used to increase attention / reduce impulsivity on the young person as a whole. Again, this is with a view to making life and learning easier for them.

The standout quote from the article comes from Andrea Bilbow, chief executive of ADDISS - a charity and support service for ADHD, who advises, "Find your child's island of competence and invest in it heavily."

Monday, 16 July 2012

How complex is English?

Following on from yesterday's short post about dyslexia and music, and the idea that learning music is easier than English language & literacy because it is more logical, I took to the web to find out more about how English compares with other languages. The Economist has an interesting overview on the subject, contending that English isn't that complex set against languages from far and wide.

I also happened upon this detailed comparison between English and Spanish which provides the following information:


26 letters
42 - 44 phonemes
27 letters + conditional rules
50% of words are irregular and not readily decodable according to set rules


27 letters and 3 digraphs (rr, ll, ch)
22 - 24 phonemes
7 conditional rules
99% of words are readily decodable according to set rules

This is particularly interesting for me in my own work as I know of two students within my setting who have a history of speech and language delay and present with dyslexic-type difficulties - yet, relatively speaking, they have excelled at Spanish. 

This is initially surprising because there is a understandable line of thinking (often put forward by the students themselves) that would suggest if a student cannot master their native language at the same pace as peers then a foreign language will be even more problematic. However, these two particular students are both quite literal ('black and white') in their thinking and maybe the more logical structure of Spanish is more suited to them than English?

Finally, looking around the web I was surprised to find out other major world languages including the Germans, French and Spanish have public bodies which attempt to 'regulate' their language - the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibun, the L'Académie Française and the Real Academia Española, respectively. However, before we get envious, I also found this 'A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling' by Mark Twain which satirises any similar attempt to proactively make English easier to read and write:
For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and Iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c", "y" and "x" -- bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez -- tu riplais "ch", "sh", and "th" rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Dyslexia and Music

The BBC News website published a short article yesterday, 'My three dyslexic sons and music', about the experience of three brothers with dyslexia - and how they found music to be both a strength and a barrier-breaker in terms of literacy development.

The reasons given for this breakthrough is firstly, that this may simply relate to their particular make-up and environment rather than the often cited 'dyslexic special talent' theory - and secondly, that music has a more logical structure than language, particularly so the English language.

The big message here is that dyslexia is not simply about focusing on what a person cannot do, but about also understanding what they can do.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Slow Reading

On one of the walls of our Learning Support classrooms there is a poster quoting Joseph Addison, "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body." - accompanied by a picture of a weightlifter trying to hold up an oversized dumbell. I think this pretty much sums up the work our team has undertaken in this area within school over the past two years - and by that I don't just mean using up blu-tack!

I guess I am somewhat of a traditionalist in the way I approach reading with my students, many of whom experience wide-ranging reading difficulties. I take the simple (though hopefully not simplistic) view that they need to keep practising reading, keep plugging away at it - albeit in a supportive, encouraging environment (click here for a quick practical example of what I mean by this). I also take the view that whilst we have to recognise the nature of reading is changing in this new Information Age (moving to one in which scanning and skimming predominates), there continues to be a need for students to develop at least basic functionality in 'the art of slow reading'.

Reading Skellig by David Almond recently with a Y8 group has re-affirmed this as I've watched the students really consolidate and enrich their burgeoning reading skills (and concentration skills, and social skills, and so on) by taking over 2 hours each week to simply sit and read with one another - and then engage in some great discussions about the story's many themes and questions. It's what we've been working with them on for two years, often in a quite dry technical sense, and this has proved a fitting end of the year. As a side note, it's also directed me towards looking further into P4C (Philosophy 4 Children) as a possible way of raising the thinking skills of National Curriculum Level 3 English students towards the demands of Level 4 and above.

But slow reading is not just something we need to continue to engage students in. Certainly I have noticed that as the time between my university years and the present moment increases, and as my working life becomes more demanding, I read less books from cover to cover. Instead I tend to rely heavily on the internet and 'toedipping' into a range of sources. There are of course benefits in this method in terms of the ground covered and time saved. But as with Skellig, setting aside a few hours each week to read and reflect on a powerful book - such as Toxic Childhood by Sue Palmer or The Starfish and The Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom - remains equally beneficial in terms of really taking on board new ideas which than then be used to shape practice. Not forgetting the added benefits to maintaining well-being and performance, as with our students, that this brings.

And so, with these thoughts in mind, this weekend I have taken the time to create four recommended reading lists using Amazon's Listmania:
I've also added Barrington Stoke books to the links section of this site as, to date, these have proved the most successful collection of books in terms of progressively increasing reading skills amongst students who experience persistent difficulties in this area - usually via 1-1 paired reading sessions or small withdrawal groups.

Any suggestions on other good reads would be appreciated - simply leave a comment...

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Planner +

This morning I have uploaded the Planner+ booklet we use to help KS3 students with organisational difficulties. The booklet contains some advice pages focusing on spelling, staying organised, managing stress etc. - the centre bit of the booklet has a bundle of notes pages which subject teachers and parents/carers can use to stay in-touch with one another.

Although many of our parents/carers now use email, some still prefer this system. We have also had a positive response from our students as prior to this they were given an exercise book marked 'Home School Liason Book' and they felt a stigma was attached to it (plus they tended to get it lost amongst their other exercise books).

The booklet can be printed out on different coloured paper to assist students with using it and make it look professional / attractive. Pictures of the completed version are shown below.

Practical Inclusion

Today I've uploaded a document that provides guidance on common risk areas presented by students with additional needs / SEN when undertaking practical activities in Design Technology, Science and Food Technology - with a focus on Visual Impairment, Hearing Impairment, Noise Sensitivity, Motor Coordination / Physical Impairment, Attention & Impulsivity and Language Needs. The document was put together with help from a VI teacher, HI teacher and a teacher specialising in Autism.

It was designed to assist subject leaders in Science, Design Technology and Home Technology when completing risk assessment documentation and undertaking any staff training. It can also assist SEN Coordinators and LSAs / Teaching Assistants when writing IEPs and planning in-class support.

Probably due to the climate we live in, I feel the need to add the following disclaimer: it is not a legal document!

Friday, 18 May 2012

Olympian Plus

Ahead of the Channel 4 Paralympics coverage this summer, they've produced some really good trailers. This one, featuring Oscar Pistorius, is particularly inspirational:

He makes two really powerful points about accepting yourself and focusing on your strengths.

"I've got two disabilities, I've got millions of abilities..."

"If you can give me a Ferrari 999GTR, I'd rather take that than my legs!"

I'm going to be recommending Form Tutors at our school show these their students during registration times to challenge their assumptions and raise awareness (and respect) for people in this situation.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012


This morning saw proposed reforms to Special Educational Needs provision in schools hit the national headlines. One of the changes in the media spotlight - aside from the proposal for parents to have greater say in allocation of funding for their child - is proposed reforms to the way students are identified as 'special needs', specifically with a view to a reduction in numbers of students placed on SEN / Additional Needs registers in schools.

My own experience of this is that there has historically been a problem of over-identification and of students being placed on registers for a temporary difficulty, but then never progressing off them. The knock-on effect is Learning Support / SEN systems and staff become overloaded, particularly with paperwork (in the past, for every student we would write an IEP and so on) - this then distracts from practical action.

In our efforts at Thornleigh Salesian College to make our provision more efficient in identifying and addressing additional needs within our community, one of the first things we did was draft a criteria for who comes under the remit of Learning Support and importantly, who doesn't. This has allowed us to really target those students who need the kind of support we have to offer and to move responsibility for some other aspects of support to pastoral teams and subject teachers in Maths and English where, as specialists in these areas, they often have much to offer. I've uploaded the criteria we use to my TES page this morning for any colleagues interested in implementing something similar in their schools. This is an ongoing project, and any feedback is appreciated.