Catch up and keep up: times tables

Some students really struggle with times table facts. TT Tock Stars just makes them stressed.

The symbol itself can cause some confusion as it’s close to the addition sign and is taught initially as repeated addition- further confusing some chdn. An image which integrates the symbol with its meaning can be helpful, ‘lots of’:

What else do they need?

Firstly, multiplication is commutative, therefore not every single fact needs to be learned. However, chdn need to know and understand this concept eg 8×6 = 6×8

This table shows the facts that need to be learned:

Only these facts need to be learned.

In addition, a sequential order is not always the best for learners. The 12x table is easy when you consider partitioning – it’s the 10 and the 2 times table put together. Why not teach it earlier in the sequence?

This is a proposed order:

1) 10x 2) 11x 3) 2x 4) 12x 5) 5x 6) 9x 7) 3x 8) 4x 9) 6x 10) 7x 11) 8x

The 2x table is not easy for all chdn and one way to teach it is to show them doubles using hands/fingers:

Another times table which many chdn pick up with ease and others struggle with, is the 5x

This visual method works well and emphasises partitioning:

Manipulatives like cuisenaire can help students to explore number bonds and these are key to understanding number relationships and building fluency – both in TT (times tables) and all areas of maths:

The Rekenrek is a great way to look at how times tables are constructed and here the beginning of the 8 TT is demonstrated.

The 9x table has an interesting pattern:

Many chdn will not learn times table facts by simply repeating them, try different methods to help the knowledge stick. Practise often using division and word problems where students have to think flexibly about number.

Supporting SEND

How can teachers and TAs be best supported to support SEND or ‘catch up’ learners?

Effective communication (between the school and campus)• Support and supervision of the SENCO and initial training school-based tutors.

In terms of improving the experience of learners who are behind in school, perhaps the real focus should be on initial teacher training, where the most impact can be made. The challenge to train all teachers to teach children with SEND is recognised internationally (Booth, Nes and Stromstad, 2003; Sharma, Forlin and Lore, 2008). The social model of SEND based on inclusion and the human right to be part of mainstream activities can work with the individual model, wherein additional provision is linked to individual characteristics. In their study Norwich and Nash (2011) used a Personalised Learning Framework to support trainee teachers in their work with SEND students. Aspects which were identified as critical to the success were :

Effective communication is a key theme, and what this suggests is that schools need to view SEND as a priority in order to make time for communication. A survey carried out by Norwich and Nash (2011) suggested that teachers require more practically based lectures covering aspects of SEND, the aspects that they would most likely experience in the classroom. Some other specific suggestions were practical guidance on the following areas:

How to accommodate these pupils • How to work with TAs • More work on differentiation • More about hands-on teaching of children with SEND • How to write an IEP.

From this, it can be understood that teachers actively want more support to enable them to meet the needs of children with SEND, which includes dyslexia, in the classroom. Teachers should not be placed in a position where they perceive they do not have the relevant skills to carry out their job to a satisfactory level. Considering the notion of how emotion impacts on the individual, how does this impact on their stress levels, self-esteem and ability to self-regulate? Teachers may perceive they do not have the required expertise, but do specialists differ in the way they teach children with SEN? It seems there is no clear-cut pedagogy or simple answer.

Lewis and Norwich (2004) suggest 3 elements:

curriculum, teacher knowledge and pedagogy.

The implication from their study was that the difference is in intensity of general teaching approaches, which can be thought of as personalised learning: ‘to know how to make effective personalised provision’ for those with SEN (as was set out in teachers’ New Qualified Teacher Standards Q19; TDA, 2007). The requirement was already part of the Standards, but it seems that teachers didn’t feel sufficiently equipped in terms of practical, hands-on advice and experience, according to Norwich and Nash (2011). It seems then, that the answer might be to provide more practical training around SEND for teachers. Underpinning this perhaps, is also a need for an ideological shift in perception; for teachers to believe that they can impact positively and that dyslexia and other SEND is not outside of their skills set. Neoliberal and accountability policies currently mean that emphasis is on attainment for the majority, yet there is much rhetoric around inclusion, aspirations and choice, but choice for whom?

What are teachers feeling and experiencing and how can they be better supported moving forwards?

It is clear that to better support dyslexia: Teachers need more practical guidance in firstly identifying and in particular supporting such learners during teacher training. • They need greater knowledge of dyslexia and grounding in theory, offered at the training stage which can provide teacher agency.• Schools need to have explicit conversations around dyslexia and address any ideological differences amongst staff before any additional training can have a whole school impact.• They need policies which identify and support ‘at risk’children early, as suggested by research. • They need to be given permission to innovate (connected to teacher agency) and to have high expectations for every individual. Dyslexic learners may need a variety of approaches, especially visual ones.

Teachers and TAs need to collaborate and build trust to ensure that skills are transferred, both in terms of learning strategies for the pupil and to ensure that pupils become responsible for their own learning in the classroom, facilitated by the teacher.• Parents and educators also need to collaborate, supporting each other and the learner, sharing knowledge and experiences. This is potentially something that can also be addressed in teacher training.

Morphology: word grammar

Affix biscuits – yummy!

The term morphology was taken from biology where it is used to represent the study of the form of plants and animals. Its first recorded use is in writings by Goethe (1796). It was first used in relation to linguistics by August Schleicher (1859) to refer to the study of the form of words (Salmon, 2000).

Morphology now refers to the systematic form-meaning relationship between words and the study of the internal structure of words.

Take the word ‘talk’, if you were to look it up in a dictionary you would not find separate entries for: talks, talked, talking – these words are derived from/ examples of, the same word. Talk is a lexeme and talks, talked and talking can be qualified as word forms.

When acquiring speech (a biologically primary function) children absorb and apply these patterns automatically. However, in order to write them correctly (a biologically secondary function), children benefit from being taught explicitly about how words are formed – their internal structure – as part of the orthography of our language.

Moreover, an understanding and application of morphology improves reading too: both decoding ability and fluency. Together with syllabification, the ability to quickly recognise and apply affixes is crucial as readers progress.

The internal structure of words: like building blocks.

In teaching morphology to learners with working memory and word identification weaknesses, they are enabled to chunk words rather than hold a string of sounds in mind to blend them – something which becomes impossible as words get longer.

This is also true of spelling where learners might struggle to encode a long word by breaking it up into a phoneme at a time.

Discovering prefixes

In the activity above, students are invited to experiment, making words from the prefixes and root words offered.

Words consisting of more than one morpheme are polymorphic. There can be free or bound morphemes. Bound morphemes carry meaning but do not make sense on their own eg in talk: s, ed, ing can be added. In general, prefixes change meaning and suffixes change word tense or class.

Morphological rules have two functions: to specify predictable properties of complex words listed in the lexicon and to indicate how new words can be made.

Phonological properties of a word may determine which affixes are suitable and morphological structure may impact on the phonological form of a word. Consider how the stress changes from cooperate to uncooperative.

The assembly of the various affixes is known as concatenation.

Awareness of morphology can begin in Year One with ‘ed’ a perfect opportunity to teach spelling beyond phonics:

The suffix ed makes three sounds:
/id/ /t/ /d/

Once affixes are understood as units, this knowledge can be generalised and applied. It also helps with the tricky schwa sound as found in ‘ment’.

Further Reading:

The Grammar of Words (2005); Booij, Geert, OUP

By heart: why we should memorise poetry.

From Mindful

Easter 2019, I took my rather large volume of Mary Oliver poems to Cornwall with the intention of committing one to memory.

I had been inspired by an article written by Nicholas Pearson, then publishing director of 4th Estate. I kept this article for years. He had memorised T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land (433 lines!!) for his 50th birthday:

‘The poem changed me…I do believe great poetry has the ability to enhance your relationship with the world…’ (Nicholas Pearson)

I have always loved poetry and wrote copious amounts of it at Primary School. In fact, there was a group of us – I would think of it, someone else would write it down and we would all perform it. At home, I wrote poems as apologies, poems to demonstrate love and to make sense of the world.

I was a quiet child, my thoughts and feelings too big for my vocabulary. I couldn’t find the words to say but poetry presented a different way to communicate.

My sister-in-law introduced me to Mary Oliver by sharing the recital of Wild Geese on WhatsApp:

Already a Ted Hughes fan, I loved the way Oliver wrote about nature and when she died, I enjoyed how others connected with her poems and the broader engagement which her death brought with her writing.

My copy of Devotions arrived and it sat around the house for a while. It seemed I was always too busy to pick it up, perhaps my mind was too busy.

It can feel intimidating to hold a large volume of poetry, where to begin? Collections of poems are not to be read cover to cover like a novel but discovered and savoured (like wild strawberries).

I took the book on holiday to Cornwall. I flicked through: back to front, front to back; eyes moving up and down the titles. I had read and enjoyed ‘Why I wake early’ and decided to focus on that section, quickly settling on Mindful.

It spoke to me, I decided to memorise it.

It is not an overly long poem but enjambement is used and there is no rhyming scheme to help fix it in memory.

I studied the poem and attempted to recite it aloud, one verse at a time. At first, the family were mildly interested. Discussing language choices: ‘like a needle in the haystack of light’, helped me to remember them but the family quickly grew bored.

Learning a poem by heart is ultimately a solitary pursuit – it inhabits your mind and body – a secret ritualistic chant. It made me unavailable at times; whilst from the outside appearing unoccupied – preoccupied.

The parts of the poem I misremembered were of the greatest interest to me. At first, ‘kills me with delight’ was remembered at ‘fills me with delight’, ‘leaving me’ instead of ‘that leaves me’, ‘a haystack’ instead of ‘the haystack. The use of the definite article is powerful. The use of ‘kills’ is devastating.

It felt disrespectful to misremember even the smallest word when the poet had chosen them so carefully- it led me to consider the importance and impact of EVERY word choice made by a writer.

I remembered well those sections in which a particular phrase resonated:

‘To lose myself inside this soft world’

or a vocabulary choice or metaphor intrigued me:

‘The untrimmable light of the world’

I connected strongly with the overall theme of the poem – pleasure, worship in the small wonders of nature, the glory of something as common as grass – and in this time of lockdown my gratitude for the beauty of nature and of poetry has grown. The poem is part of me now.

‘prayers that are made out of grass’

Mindful, Mary Oliver

From Devotions
Devotions, New York, Penguin Press (2017)

Catch up and keep up: blending CVC words.

Great improvements have been made in the teaching of phonics, however some children – whilst they know their sounds STILL cannot blend. WHY?

These children may have a dyslexic-type profile, they may have some dyspraxia – they are likely to have low working memory.

What to do?

Ensure that their sounds are ‘pure’ ie without an additional vowel schwa sound added at the end, see here for a demonstration of pure sounds:

Pure sounds

These children can say the sounds in CVC words but cannot blend them to make a word. Typically, the vowel sounds falls out of working memory. There is no proprioceptive feedback from a vowel sound as they come from an open mouth.

When teaching and modelling sounds encourage exaggerated enunciation and ask students to FEEL the sounds, in this way they do not have to rely on the phonological loop which may be weak.

See here for modelling blending, stretching the vowel sound: showing the sequencing and movement of the jaw:

Modelling placement of the vowel CVC

In addition, continue to read, enjoy and practice short words in books. Sometimes, the vowel sound is first eg ‘and’, practice words which are only two letters: if, at, up and add an initial sound (onset and rhyme) eg at becomes ‘cat’, up/cup – do this using wooden or plastic letters.

I read an EP report recently which said the child would never learn to blend.

Blending improves with reading and instruction, as the brain slowly rewires.

Phonemic awareness and dexterity improves in a reciprocal relationship with reading.

Lovely book for encouraging an enjoyment of sounds (children have this anyway but may not link to phonics):

Here are my phonics cards FREE on Teachers pay Teachers, they integrate digraphs and trigraphs with a picture.

Phonics picture cards

Do not give up!!


Catch up and keep up: letter shape

The current situation presents an opportunity for consolidation and catch up for those children who may be some way off where they need to be in terms of their learning. Where to start?

Consider those essential skills which underpin all learning. For many children, the skill of writing is acquired with minimal instruction. In reality, this is a deeply complex skill and one of the most challenging acts of coordination we have to learn. The brain rewires to write, just as it rewires to read.

It’s helpful to strip any skill back to it’s foundation. The ability to write begins with memory of letter shape, of course fine motor grip and posture also come into it.

Letter shape comes before sentence structure.

The beauty of the writing 8 exercise is that students can practice even if their fine motor skills are a weakness.

Writing 8: part one
Writing 8: part two

The template and instructions for the alphabet writing 8 can be found for free on Teachers pay Teachers: link below.

FREE on Teachers pay Teachers

How to teach handwriting, some pointers:

Many schools use a figure 8 tracking exercise but do not integrate alphabet work in it:

Testing, testing: memory working?

This blog will look at the impact of low working memory on behaviours across the curriculum.

See my original tweet on how auditory working memory is measured here:

Alan Baddeley (2007) describes working memory as follows:

■…a temporary storage system under attentional control that underpins our capacity for complex thought.

■Key points:

■Temporary storage

■Under attentional control

■Underpins capacity for complex (higher order) thought.

Understanding of working memory is a work in progress! Baddeley suggests the following components:

Read More

Hands up!

Memory and ‘hands up’.

What is it about whole class questioning?

There was controversy recently when Jo Boaler suggested using lolly sticks was like cold calling. Katherine Birlbalsingh, ever the contrarian, suggested this was simply checking understanding and part of good practice.

What my students with working memory difficulties tell me is that hands up/lolly stick methods of checking understanding are immensely frustrating for them. Demoralising.

They often have a sense of the right answer but under pressure and with time constraints are more likely to pretend they need the loo (bottle out) or say the first random thing that comes to mind.

What ‘hands up’ does do is serve children who have good memories and are considered ‘able’. It confirms their rank in class and gives them, and the teacher, a little dopamine rush.

Why is it so problematic for children with weak working memory?They have to word find, arrange syntax and then rehearse the response over and over (phonological loop) until they are picked. Exhausting.

Moreover, in a question such as ‘Give me 5 number bonds to 10’, without a visual cue eg what ‘number bonds’ are, it might be difficult for them to remember the concept as they often lack fluency around terminology. Has the term ‘number bond’ or what ‘bond’ means in this context ever been properly explained?

What is the alternative?

Before questioning, ensure all terminology is explained and understood.

Have the whole class whisper the answer, whisper to each other, write it down.

Use Kagan techniques, such as think, pair share.

Give low working memory children thinking time and scaffold them for success.

How to conquer divide?




The word ‘divide’ comes from Latin: dividere “to force apart, cleave, distribute,”

Division as a concept is fiendishly difficult to teach. Most children can understand ‘sharing’ objects and move on to sharing on ‘plates’ but does this naturally lead to more formalised methods of division?

According to Nunes and Bryant (1996), division as an operation in not the same as sharing and a notion of ‘sharing’ does not ensure an understanding of the inverse co-variation between division terms.

Moreover, Bus Stop method LOOKS weird. The written algorithm works left to right and does anyone ever explain WHY it’s called Bus Stop?! A picture can help.


Division builds on previous understanding in mathematics, involving all of the operations. Furthermore, additional skills and knowledge are required such as:

  • estimation and times table fluency
  • division is not commutative, unlike multiplication and addition
  • it is the inverse or opposite of multiplication
  • strong working memory, as information has to be held in mind whilst attending to something else

Williams and Shuard outline 3 stages in understanding division:

  1. using grouping and sharing as different operations; solving problems using concrete apparatus.
  2. relating sharing to grouping
  3. using knowledge of multiplication to deal with both types of division by the same numerical procedure.

Vergnaud (1990, 1997) : ‘Understanding the concept of division is often confused with skill in operating algorithms’.

What students need to understand:

  1. that parts must be the same size
  2. the size of the whole is the number of parts multiplied by the size of the parts (plus remainder)
  3. the inverse co-variation between the size of parts and number of parts (e.g. more parts = smaller size)
  4. the whole must be distributed until the remaining elements are insufficient
  5. the remainder CANNOT be larger than, or equal to the size or number of the parts

Selva (1998) outlined 3 difficulties for students:

  1. Type of division problem
  2. Difficulties understanding the inverse c0-variation between the terms when the dividend remains constant
  3. Difficulties dealing with the remainder

Partitive question type:

Charles bought 15 pencils to give to each of his 3 friends, how many will they each get?

This question is easier because it involved the action schema of sharing which is understood from a young age.

Quotative question type:

Charles bought 15 pencils. He wants to give 3 pencils to each friend. How many friends will get the pencils?

This type of understanding appears to be acquired later, through teaching.

Haylock and Cockburn (2008) make some great observations about division and language in their excellent book Understanding Mathematics for Young Children.

12 divided by 3 = equal sharing structure.

In this example the language of ‘share equally between’ is appropriate.

However, just as valid in answer to the same question: how many 3’s make 12?

This is the inverse of multiplication and involves grouping into sets of 3. This reinforces the earlier points made by Williams and Shaurd. Haylock and Cockburn feel that perhaps there is an overemphasis on sharing when introducing young children to division. This results in a tendency to attach the words ‘share’, ‘shared between’ etc to the symbol. They propose that in the long term, the sharing structure of division is limited and of less significance than the inverse of multiplication structure.

What to do:

  • Take a Big Picture view of how division is taught across the school from Early Years to Year 6.
  • What are the teachers’ views and understanding of division?
  • Is the language used consistent?
  • Ensure that concrete manipulatives are used across the school: counters, cubes, cuisenaire, tape measures
  • Ensure that whilst ‘sharing’ can be a useful concept (and one easily understood) it is not overly emphasised.
  • Explain what Bus Stop is, point out explicitly the differences between it and other algorithms
  • Encourage children with low working memory to jot down times table facts, think out loud and annotate during division as this will ease the cognitive burden.
  • Practice, practice, practice…to automaticity! Division is great because it’s an opportunity to practice an array of maths skills and to build fluency.


Read the excellent blog by Laurence Holmes @LHteaching on the importance of practice in maths here:

Interrupting the forgetting

Excellent study looking at difficulties hindering division practice:

Division difficulties: Brazilian study

Useful blog:

N Rich article division difficulties


Further Reading

Williams, E. and Shuard, H. (1994) Primary Mathematics Today. Longman

Derek Haylock and Anne Cockburn (2008) Understanding Mathematics for Young Children SAGE

Dyslexia and memory: lessons to learn?

blackboard business chalkboard concept
Photo by Pixabay on


What works for dyslexics and literacy is well documented.

Increasingly, a personalised provision within a structured, multi-sensory program is viewed as a ‘critical driver’ in the teaching of literacy (Rose, 2009). Continual formative assessment is also vital. It is generally accepted that the most effective interventions for dyslexia have the following elements :

  • Multi-sensory
  • Phonics based (especially early in reading i.e. KS1)
  • Systematic (structured, cumulative and sequential)
  • Include opportunities for overlearning/’little and often’.
  • Teaching learning strategies is also considered important – this might also be considered ‘metacognition’.

(Rose, 2009, Singleton, 2009)

Many programmes are available, however Conquering Literacy (Kelly and Phillips, 2011) contains all these elements to excellent effect, addressing the weaknesses dyslexics are known to experience, whilst harnessing their strengths.

With budget cuts, schools cannot afford specialist literacy teachers, what can be learnt from specialist practice and applied to Quality First Teaching?

The Rose Report (2009:33) attempted to provide a working definition for dyslexia. The characteristic markers of dyslexia are specifically said to be difficulties in:


  • Phonological awareness
  • Verbal Memory
  • Verbal processing speed

(Snowling, 2008, Vellutino et al., 2004)


Phonological awareness is the ability to identify, process and manipulate, speech sounds. To understand how letters and sounds relate to each other, the child needs to also understand the alphabetic principle – the fact that letters represent sounds. Verbal (phonological short-term) memory, is the ability to retain an ordered sequence of verbal material e.g. list or instructions, this implicates working memory. Verbal processing speed is the time taken to process familiar verbal information. Ramus (2014) found that it was access to phonological representations i.e. retrieval, which was problematic for dyslexics, rather than the representations themselves.

Rapid automised naming tasks (RAN) are used as measure of speed of processing (Bowey, 2005). Wolf and Bowers (1999) suggest a ‘double deficit’ wherein some learners have poor phonological awareness and poor rapid naming.

A 2001 description (Peer 2001:3) mentions slow processing, short-term memory, visual and auditory difficulties and sequencing as some of the additional difficulties dyslexics experience. This definition says of these children, ‘All have strengths’. A sound intervention should build on an assessment which has highlighted both strengths and weaknesses in the individual (Andreia et. al., 2004).

Reading and phonological skills are interrelated. Phonological skills do develop with reading but struggling readers do not get the same practice. Analysing what ‘good readers’ do can be misleading, non readers will of course have poor phonemic awareness. Nevertheless, studies looking at predictors of reading success give valuable insight. Muter et al (1998) found that letter knowledge and phonemic segmentation skills work together to advance a child’s proficiency in reading. As a result, both fluency around grapheme-phoneme correspondence and letter knowledge, must be taught. A study by Torgesen et al. (1999) indicated that the most effective one-to-one intervention includes direct and focused instruction in phonemic awareness and decoding (phonics).

It is useful to look at reading models to better understand the acquisition of reading.

In Frith’s 1985 model of reading, children learn to read whole words first, perhaps by their shape and form, using first and last letter clues – the logographic stage. They learn to read certain words by sight. It is thought that as they then learn the alphabet, this takes them naturally on to the next stage which is phonetically decoding or ‘sounding ‘out’. It is believed that dyslexic learners can become arrested in the logographic stage, as the alphabetic principle needs to be explicitly taught.

Torgesen (2005), one of the most eminent researchers in the field, sums it up thus:

“We know…that it is possible to teach almost all children to accurately apply the alphabetic principle in decoding novel words, even if they have struggled to acquire this skill during the first 3–4 years of schooling”.

The Magnocellular theory (Stein, 2001) suggests that abnormal magnocells distort temporal processing – involving visual and auditory information. Difficulties might present in eye tracking, keeping place in text, transposing letters, reversing, and letter confusions e.g. b/d m/n. The latest expression of the theory suggests that as magnocells are present throughout our bodies, the cerebellum and co-ordination are implicated. This brings the theory closer to the Cerebellar theory (Nicolson and Fawcett). I have always felt the obsession with visual processing is a bit misleading as we read with our brain, not the eyes.

Stein (2008) claims that the differences in dyslexic profiles (visual, auditory, phonological, kinaesthetic, sequencing, memory and motor), are due to the particular magnocellular system they have inherited. It points to the need to tailor learning. Conquering Literacy has eye tracking exercises when a new letter or sound is introduced and this will help the learner to co-ordinate movement of the eyes. It will also help them build scanning skills for reading text.

The Conquering Literacy programme is fully multi-sensory, engaging all the senses (touch, sight, sound, kinaesthetic). Multi-sensory teaching is an important aspect of any programme and helps to ensure information goes into long term memory by using as many senses as possible simultaneously. Gillingham and Stillman were pioneers in multisensory teaching. Their technique:

“…is based upon the constant use of associations of all of the following: how a letter or word looks, how it sounds and how the speech organs or the hand in writing feels when producing it”. (Gillingham and Stillman 1956, p17)

The intervention reviews by Brooks (2007) and Singleton (2009) show the sheer number of different interventions available. They include primarily reading interventions e.g. Toe by Toe and FFT Wave 3/Reading Recovery, spelling interventions such as Individual Learning Styles in Learning to Spell (Brooks and Weeks, 1999), and programmes to build reading fluency e.g. Phono-Graphix programme (McGuinness & McGuinness, 1998). The impact is mixed and no one intervention suits all pupils. This is why personalisation is the key to success.

Working with alphabet letters, using the tactile sense, helps my pupils to build automaticity around the alphabetic principle. Regular visual and auditory memory work has helped to improve strategies for memory retention. Sometimes ability to recall letter strings as auditory input is stronger than visual. An auditory presentation indicates a basic ability to remember and use phonological information. Visual presentation assesses the strategic use of phonological coding in the short term memory (Henry, 2012) this indicates that some of my students’ difficulties are linked to visual memory of graphemes.

The Baddeley model of working memory (2000) shows short term memory (STM) as split between visual semantics (Visuospatial sketchpad) and the verbal STM (Phonological loop). These two areas are not directly connected but interact with the episodic buffer, which transfers information to the long term memory. It would appear that in dyslexia, certain information does not get readily stored in the long term memory (LTM). The phonological loop has 2 components: the phonological store and the articulatory rehearsal mechanism. Auditory information is held in the store where it rapidly decays. The articulatory mechanism rehearses the information so that the rapid decay is avoided. It also recodes, turning symbols into speech. In dyslexia, this is thought to be impaired, as tested using Nonword Repetition (Roodenrys and Stokes, 2001).

However, there is evidence to show that the visuospatial sketchpad is not impaired in dyslexia and may even be a strength (see meta-analysis by Swanson, 2006). This is important as it suggests that this can be used in interventions to boost confidence and improve outcomes, using areas of strength to support weaker areas, i.e. Hebb’s law: “Neurons that fire together wire together”. When taught simultaneously with the strong one, the weaker modality becomes strengthened.

Functional brain imaging studies show less activation during reading in the left hemisphere temporo-parietal regions in dyslexics, compared to controls (Price and McMcCrory, 2005). In interventions, possible dyslexic strengths, such as visual and kinaesthetic methods of learning can be used to bolster working memory, this will lead to better connections between the left and right hemispheres.

Within the Conquering Literacy programme, there are opportunities to use visual information to boost memory. The Reading cards (used to build fluency in letter sounds) have a clue word and picture on the back. If my learner struggles to remember the sound, I encourage them to visualise the picture. The alphabet is laid out in an arc so that the student has it all in their gaze, helping them to visualise it in their mind. The Concept Cards, which supplement Teaching points (points of spelling and grammar), have pictures on the front so that pupils can fix the concept to something concrete.

The programme can be personalised by using unifix cubes to help the student when remembering a sentence. A cube is placed down to represent a word, the student rehearses (encouraging the phonological loop), pointing to the cubes. I use an easi speak mic to record sentences for rehearsal and to record letter names in Simultaneous Oral Spelling (SOS – a multisensory spelling technique where learners use letter names).

When planning worksheets, I ensure pictures are included. I either draw my own, or print them off the internet. I enjoy being creative with learning, helping information to be retained. Gathercole and Packiam Alloway write about using LTM to boost WM (2008), they suggest chunking information gets it into LTM. I also like to use humour and harness autobiographical memory e.g. if teaching a high frequency word, I ask the pupil to make up their own mnemonic. Discussion also boosts memory (Reid, 2009). A dyslexic student’s episodic and semantic memory is thought to be good.

Another way to boost memory and self esteem is to give the pupil control over learning. When I assess my students, they often say, “I don’t know”, or “I can’t remember”. They are discouraged by memory failure and low self esteem impairs their ability to form strategies, rendering them helpless. Through the discovery learning component of the programme, where the pupil uses clues to predict or guess new learning, the pupil becomes empowered and more engaged in the learning process.

Metacognition is encouraged i.e. learning/thinking about how one likes to learn. I make the learner explicitly aware of learning modalities and we discuss how they like to learn. Recently, when trying to remember something a student said, “have we got an action for it?”. I encourage my students to actively engage their memory and have explained that trying to remember and make connections will make their memory more efficient.

Teaching the rules of grammar and spelling helps pupils to attach learning in semantic memory is important. Conquering Literacy also teaches syllable division, analogy (words in words) and morphology (smallest units of sound with meaning), it encourages students to generalise, analyse words and look for patterns. When writing letters, after being given the sound prompt, the student has to identify where the sound is found in words i.e. Beginning, Middle or End, and this further encourages word analysis.

Nunes and Bryant (2006) have found that where children have been taught grammar and morphology in spelling, this leads to better and sustained positive outcomes for all. Berninger et. al. (2009) even suggest that having a ‘deep’ orthography in English i.e. complex, could be an advantage if morphological approaches are taken, building bridges between language and comprehension. This fits with the Simple View of Reading *Hoover and Gough (1990), whereby reading and comprehension are interrelated as two axis, both with a ‘poor’ to ‘good’ continuum.

Whilst much attention has been given to reading, problems with spelling tend to persevere for longer and cause more frustration for dyslexics (Ellis, 1993). Nicolson and Fawcett’s cerebellar theory (2006) highlights the importance of automaticity around learnt (procedural) skills such as reading and writing. This points to overlearning and is a recognised characteristic of an effective programme. It is suggested that it will take a dyslexic person much longer than the average  person to learn a procedural skill like writing (Nicolson & Fawcett,2006:87).

In Conquering Literacy, reading and writing of the same letters is practiced at every session. The letters and sounds are built up gradually, in a sequential manner so that the learner does not get overwhelmed. All reading and writing is ‘in structure’. Only sounds that have already been taught are used in the programme, apart from known HFW, or any shared reading. The sequence of letters and concepts introduced has been carefully thought out. In this way, confidence and mastery can be achieved, as the pupil builds steadily on prior knowledge in a process of overlearning i.e. repeatedly going over the same knowledge in reading and writing. As this process becomes automatic, it frees the pupil up to process the rules of spelling and grammar and to generalise.

The automaticity theory (Nicolson and Fawcett, 2006) might in addition go some way to explaining the problems with sequencing/coordinating sounds in reading and writing that dyslexics experience, presenting with particular difficulties reading consonant clusters and multisyllabic words (Miles, 2006). Overlearning of this in a structured programme such as ‘Conquering Literacy’ can help to build mastery.

New letters/ sounds are practised with the Stimulous Response Routine (SRR) as they are introduced. This is excellent for building automaticity. The routine involves all of the senses ensuring full knowledge of a letter becomes embedded in memory: letter sound, name, grapheme and clueword are all practised.

Self esteem is connected to being a successful and independent learner (Burden, 2008). If my learner hasn’t understood a concept, I know I have not taught it correctly. In my planning and sessions I strive to build confidence in my learner by helping them to achieve success. The relationship between teacher and pupil is integral: 

Building strong and trusting relationships between teacher and child is an essential prerequisite for accelerated learning (Brooks, 2007: 31).

Another important consideration is clarity. As the working memory is already under strain, it’s important to keep instructions brief and to the point. Within the tight structure of the Conquering Literacy programme, I am always striving to make learning meaningful. I have tried to engage my learners in the structure of the programme so that they know what comes next and they anticipate it.

In conclusion, the key elements of teaching literacy to dyslexic learners are:

  • Multi-sensory
  • Phonics based (especially early in reading i.e. KS1)
  • Sequential
  • Include opportunities for overlearning/’little and often’.
  • Metacognition


Much can also be done to personalise learning and this is one of the great privileges of working one to one. However, there is also a move away from differentiation to personalisation in classrooms. By working closely, one can be dynamic in delivering learning so that it has maximum impact on the learner. I feel that the learner has as much to teach me, as I have to teach them.


Appendix A: Conquering Literacy Lesson Plan – one hour


Lesson Plan for 1 hour

Name ____________________________________________ Date ___________________________ New Teaching Point(s)

Time Content/Item Comments
1. Alphabet/dictionary (8 mins)
2. Memory training (4 mins)
3. Revision (5 mins)
4. Reading Pack (2 mins)
5. Spelling Pack (3 mins)
6. New Teaching Point (10 mins)

· Discovery Learning

· Tracking/relevant exercise · Listening activity

· Make new Reading Card · Cursive writing

· New Spelling Card


7. Handwriting (3 mins)
8. Reading in structure (3 mins)
9. Written exercise to practise new learning (3 mins)
10. Spelling in structure (3 mins)
11. Dictation in structure (5 mins)
12. Quick review (2 mins)
13. Supported reading (4 mins)
14. Game (5 mins)



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