## Learning braille

As regular readers of my blog know, I love learning new things. As a teacher, I think it’s important to continually put myself in the position of a learner so that I never forget what it’s like to sit on the other side of the table.

I recently set myself the challenge of learning braille. A friend of mine and her mum are braille teachers and I asked them to teach me As I don’t see them often I said I would teach myself some of the basics first so that they could then teach me the more complex parts, and I promised to write my friend a letter in braille when I had managed to learn some. I’m really glad I decided to do this, as I have learn so much more than just a new way of writing the alphabet.

First of all I downloaded a fantastic app called Braille Tutor and started learning the alphabet and numbers. I also used these lovely resources from Twinkl, and these (also from Twinkl), some of which were great from practising the alphabet in context, rather than just a letter at a time. The first thing I realised was that when I first started I was confusing some of the letters for each other.

Take a look at these two letters and you’ll notice that they are very similar. The i and the e are mirror images of each other.

Now look at these and you’ll notice they are like two sides of a square being rotated anti-clockwise by 90° each time.

This gave me a much better understanding of what it must be like to be dyslexic because I mixed up the i with e, and d, f, h and j in a similar way to how people with dyslexia confuse m with w, and b, d, p and q. Even though I knew that these were different letters and that the orientation was important, somehow my brain just kept flipping them over and turning them round.

Learning to read braille has reminded me of how much understanding you lose when you have to decode every word instead of reading fluently – I had to keep taking breaks to mentally recap what I had just read. I always encourage weaker readers to pause and consolidate what they have read before moving on, but my experience reading braille has shown me that I actually need to make them do this much more often with smaller chunks of text.

Once I was confident with the alphabet and numbers I decided it was time to try writing a letter to my friend. I quickly decided that a braille printer was waaaay outside my budget, and so I bought a slate and stylus from Amazon instead.

This was my second lightbulb moment.  Anyone who works in education will know the frustration of marking work and finding that there are no capital letters and very few full stops.  I wrote a post some time ago about this (Why do they do that?) but I now have some new ideas to explain this….

I knew exactly what I wanted to write, and I sat down to compose my letter. Half-an-hour later and my first three attempts were languishing in the recycling bin. I mentally crossed out most of what I had planned to say, and sat down again to write a very basic note. It took me an hour to write 5 lines, and when I read back over what I had written, I noticed that I had missed quite a few capital letters and some punctuation. Obviously I know how to use capital letters and full stops, so what on earth had gone wrong?

The problem was that it’s hard to write braille. You have to remember what the pattern of dots for the letter you want to write is and then you have to reverse it (because with a slate and stylus you work from right to left and mirror write, so that when you turn the paper over the embossed dots are the right way round) – and remember some of those letters are hard to tell apart anyway! You have to make sure that you have placed the stylus in the correct part of the cell and you have to use just the right amount of force – too much and you just poke a hole in the paper; not enough and the indent doesn’t show through clearly enough on the other side. I found I was concentrating so hard on all of this that there was no brain power left for anything else, such as remembering to add in the symbol that means “capitalise the next letter”, and so on a couple of occasions it just slipped my mind.

I’m sure it must be like this for many children in our classrooms, and this experience has helped me to understand exactly how much effort goes into writing a simple sentence. Hopefully, it will also help me to think of new ways to help them so that they become able to express what they want to say, instead of limiting themselves to what they feel able to say, and so that their punctuation is accurate more consistently.

There’s still so much more I need to learn for braille. I still have the contracted form to tackle- I haven’t even mastered double letters yet so that may take a while. I’m glad I’ve made a start though. It means I can send my friend Nicki letters from time to time instead of only ever communicating by text/email and I’ve improved my teaching practice at the same time.

## Attentional Dyslexia: A Different Kind of Reading Disorder

This is an interesting article for anyone interested in dyslexia. I came across this problem with a child last year – he kept complaining that the first letter of the first word in a sentence attached itself to the beginning of every other word, making it impossible for him to read and understand the rest of the text.

I wondered at the time whether it might be dyslexia, even though I had never heard of those symptoms before. I spoke to the school, who spoke to his mom, who got it checked out. For him it turned out to be a hypersensitivity to the flickering of the overhead lights, and coloured glasses to cut down the flicker solved the problem.

It was interesting to read this article recently though, which suggests that it is a type of dyslexia.

## Teaching sequencing and column addition to a child with dyscalculia

Recently a colleague asked me for some suggestions to help one of his pupils with her maths. She was having various problems, such as

• Difficulty with sequencing numbers
• Getting confused as to which way to move on a number-line to add or subtract single digits
• Getting confused as to which way to move on a number-square to add or subtract multiples of 10
• Not understanding whether an answer she got when performing a calculation was “reasonable” or way off
• Confusing the Hundreds Tens and Units columns and so not always starting in the correct place when performing calculations.

He suspected that the child in question might have dyslexia and / or dyscalculia, and if that is the case then I can understand why they might have trouble with column addition/subtraction. They’ll be concentrating really hard on left to right, left to right for their writing, and then suddenly column calculations go right to left – no wonder they get confused!

My advice was to make the learning experience completely multi-sensory, even if it meant taking the learning outside.   These were some of my suggestions:

• Make a physical number line on the floor/front driveway/back garden/anywhere with plenty of space. Place one object with the label “1”, then two objects labelled “2”, three objects and a label 3 and so on to help her equate the number 3 with the value 3
• Chalk the numbers outside, and get her to walk along it counting forward, and then walk the other way counting backwards.  Get her to jump along it landing on every other number counting forwards in twos and then backwards in twos.
• Move on to a number square in chalk so that they can change direction to add on/take away 10. This should also help with “reasonable” answers because, for example, she would come to understand that she had to walk further to add on 49 than to add on 12.
• Always make the number square start with 1 at the bottom, rather than at the top like most number squares – then the higher numbers are at the top of the square and the lower numbers are at the bottom which also helps with understanding the value of numbers.
• Use an abacus for additions/subtractions instead of written methods. I’ve done this with Y6 children who had no concept of place value and it made a huge difference!
• When moving on to column addition and subtraction, colour-code the numbers in each column with a known sequence of colours (eg Red White and Blue so they do red units first, then white tens, then blue hundreds). Put the numbers either on coloured card – or even better use painted wooden numbers so she can pick them up and feel the shape of each number
• People with dyslexia tend to think in pictures, so when finally moving onto pen and paper calculations, try putting pictures of Strictly Come Dancing / X-Factor judges at the top of each column. The judges always sit in the same order on the shows, so it’s easy to picture them sitting in a row – then you know that you always have to add Bruno Tonioli’s numbers first!

One final tip I picked up at a session on dyscalculia to help children with sequencing numbers was to give them something associated with each number so that they have something to relate that number to – seeing how the number matches the object and handling the objects while they count makes it more of a multi-sensory experience.  For example if you want them to count in 6s, rather than giving them something generic like pictures of 6 spots or sets of 6 cubes, give them egg-boxes.

## Why MFL is good for children with SEN

A few days ago I read something that made me really angry. It was an article written by a parent about how the education system is letting her children down. At first I was sympathetic, and found myself nodding along with what she was saying. I agree that the education system isn’t perfect. I agree that sometimes, some children slip through the net and don’t get the help they need. But then she used the words that are guaranteed to infuriate me: “What’s the point in making them study French when they can’t even read and write English?”

It’s not the first time I’ve come across this attitude, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but it makes me cross and it makes me sad. I’m an MFL specialist so maybe I’m biased, but I can see plenty of reasons not to withdraw children from MFL lessons – including and especially those with learning difficulties. Let me explain….

What do French, Spanish, German, Italian and Dutch have in common? That’s right…they are all languages. So is English, so already we have identified something that English and whatever foreign language the child is studying have in common!

As languages, French, Spanish, German etc use grammar – just like English. And so here is my first reason for not withdrawing a child from their MFL lessons: in MFL we talk about grammar. We use words such as noun, verb, adjective, definite article, preposition….all the words the child is being taught in their English lessons are being reinforced in their MFL lesson. If they didn’t understand it first time, here is a golden opportunity to go over it again, in a different context. In MFL lessons we talk about the fact that verbs change their endings depending on who is doing them, and compare this to English “I look, you look” but “he looks”, so again there is more reinforcement of grammar. We talk about the different tenses and when to use them, and we look at how to structure a sentence and guess what…..we compare all this to English too. We look at similes and alliteration. We practise dictionary skills. In MFL, more than in probably any other lesson, we reinforce what they are learning in their English lessons.

It’s not just grammar that MFL helps with; it’s spelling too. In MFL lessons we look at spelling patterns and we talk about which ones are similar to English and which ones are completely different. More importantly, we think about how to remember the spellings of the words, and these techniques can be transferred to their English lessons.

It’s not just their English that benefits. When we learn how to count in a different language, or how to tell the time, we’re reinforcing their maths. When we look at countries where that language is spoken we are reinforcing their geography. The children study the culture of those countries (PSHE and RE), investigate the rhythm of language (music) and perform role plays (drama).

The other important thing about language – all languages – is that they are a means of communication. It isn’t just about reading and writing. Communication also involves speaking and listening, and we do plenty of that in MFL lessons. Just because a child struggles to spell, or to hold a pencil, doesn’t mean that they can’t excel at speaking, and just because a child finds speaking and listening difficult doesn’t mean they can’t do well with reading and writing. Last year I taught Spanish to a child who had several learning disabilities including dyslexia. He found writing difficult, but he really got the concept of adjective agreement and was able to show his understanding with the way he pronounced words when speaking, and he was really proud of his achievement. I’ve taught French to Deaf children because the school believed that they should have the same opportunities as hearing children. Some of them found it difficult, but some of them did really, really well with it. What a shame it would have been for those children if they’d been pulled out of language lessons because somebody decided it would be too hard for them.

My dream is for more people to take this attitude. To stop saying “What’s the point?” and to start saying “Why not?” Because maybe, just maybe, MFL could be the one subject the child excels at.