Old Teachers and New Technology

I graduated in Art at Central St Martin’s in London and gained my teaching qualification at Brunel University in 1999. I have taught at primary and secondary level and have always gravitated towards teaching children with special needs. I became a qualified SENCo in 2013. Most recently I have specialised in working with children who have complex behavioural needs and who have been excluded from mainstream education. I have also been an Assessment and Intervention Adviser to schools in the local authority where the aim has been to help re-integrating students back into school or onward to more specialist provision.


Twenty years in the classroom have flown by, and with it I have seen a lot of evolving technology, changing methodology and pedantic pedagogy. Now, with my grey hair (which I feel I have well and truly earned) and my varifocal glasses pushed up to the top of my nose, I write and blog so that you can @askthesenco for my support. I work for Scanning Pens as their Head of Education and am privileged position to be able to research, advise, create resources, and share ideas. I have time to think, talk and write about how assistive technology is changing the landscape of teaching and in particular, the experience of pupils with special educational needs.  


Slow technology and lack of access to appropriate technology remains a frustration for teachers in most schools. The new budget looms and the money is already allocated or spent and our wish list goes back into the drawer. Access to computers and speed of processing is significantly better than when I started teaching. I had a Research Machine computer in my classroom for the first six years and no printer. It took half an hour to load up and I saved all my planning to 3 ½ inch floppy disks that had 1.44mb of space and YouTube didn’t exist. The library was my base of operations and the photocopier was my best friend, unless we were waiting for the Xerox man to come and fix it.  

My mum was a primary school teacher and her best friend was the Banda. In the 1970’s this messy machine would reproduce worksheets which were often smudgy and resulted in inky fingers, and oh, the smell.


Grappling with new technology takes time - something which is always in short supply when most of it is taken up doing our actual job. But we know that when we have invested our precious hours in mastering new technology, students flourish, and we have the satisfaction of doing our job well.

I’m delighted when students show me more efficient approaches, put these tools to good use and develop greater independence. Teachers, and in particular those of us who have been around long enough to know that everything comes around again, only in a different package, have a duty to try to keep up. For better or for worse, the tech journey is linear, not circular and this is the world that our students are going to inhabit. The shift to gamification of learning won’t change any time soon. Our technologically enabled students find the apps and shortcuts, create wireless hotspots when the school internet goes down and use their phones to do everything from magnifying insects to plotting constellations. These are the future techno flyers; they are hard wired to adapting to the pace of change even though they may have not mastered playing reciprocal board games or speaking in full sentences.


I remain deeply concerned about the students who can’t access learning because their literacy skills are impaired through dyslexia or decoding problems, or because they have not been engaged in conversational skills at a formative stage so have not built the vocabulary. Often, the support needed does not happen at the right time, for a variety of reasons, and as the learning journey continues, self-esteem erodes and the desire to learn is flooded by a feeling of failure.


Many young people with reading difficulties turn to their electronic babysitters and drift out of the desire to learn or make progress, and don’t become inspired by or feel passionate about something they have experienced in school. The students we should have identified and supported go under the radar until poor behaviour becomes the refuge for students who are unable to communicate their lack of confidence and weak self-esteem. For me, the heart of the matter is in ensuring that basic literacy is mastered. We need to present opportunities to read wonderful books so that they can unlock the doors to the cultural capital that reading brings. We must identify our weaker readers and support them at an early stage, and this means supporting families and communities too. Technology may have been the cause of some of this problem, but it also provides us with some tools.  


Assistive technology is now so important that there is an All-Party Parliamentary Group that regularly meets to discuss the potential benefits of technology in classrooms. If you are looking for a window into the new technologies available, I would direct you to have a look at the BESA.org website where technology is reviewed by teachers. For our dyslexic learners there is at last, a whole raft of supporting tools that work well. Text-to-speech and speech-to-text, image capture, and accelerated phonics programs with virtual rewards for playing. There is so much more choice than ever before and the door is open and hopefully, with smarter technology, we may be able to reduce the human cost of dyslexia with better interventions. 


Telling Stories – how a young reader masked his difficulties in my class

One of my previous students, let’s call him Stuart, loved telling stories. His imagination was fantastic, his language was rich, and he could tell me how people were feeling and what their motivations were without pausing for breath. In fact, he had a back story for everything. “You see”, he would say with eyes sparkling, “the reason that she is so sad, is because her auntie is on holiday, and she always makes the dinner, so mum has to cook, and she burns everything.” Stuart could make all the correct connections with good reasoning and flights of fantasy. He was in his element when describing and sharing ideas and looking at the pictures in his reading book.

I soon realised that Stuart was always chatting, and mostly avoiding getting to the business of reading aloud. During paired reading time he would look at the pictures, skip through the text, take a reasonably good guess at what was happening, and then, he would start talking as fast as he could.

The dynamic changed from enjoyment to frustration as soon as I started to unpick what he was doing. I pointed to the text and said, “Okay, let’s start with this line here and use a piece of paper to hide the words underneath.”  His reaction was to fidget and squirm. Then, when I hid the picture, Stuart ran out of the room. 

By the age of seven, Stuart had already constructed coping strategies to avoid reading, which were very effective. He was praised for his imagination and enthusiasm; he could explain what was happening by looking at the pictures and guessing the content. He could charm anyone into a conversation that would last for the whole of his paired reading time. At home his love of stories was supported with audio books. He was confident with the content of the whole class reading book because he had already listened to it at home and he could put his extensive vocabulary to good use.

As time went on Stuart developed a bladder problem. His mum had told us, “If he asks, he really needs to go!” Toilet breaks were frequent and often coincided with the challenge of reading.

I wonder if this story sounds familiar to you. If so, this is my advice. Keep sharing reading time and allow stories to be shared and imaginative journeys to happen. Make some notes about any avoidance tactics that you have observed.  Keep a close eye on self-esteem. This can be a time when self-defeating behaviours emerge, like negative self talk, hiding, perfectionism, quitting half way through a task, and aggression.

How can we help children like Stuart? Share what you are seeing with friends and professionals. Have you all noticed the same patterns of avoidance? A Google search for visual stress disorders will give you some indicators about how some people struggle to see printed words. You could try asking Stuart to compare sound patterns with letter patterns to see if he is making the connection between the letter and the sound.

For example,

-a as in apple           - o as in orange        - i as in ink         - u as in umbrella           - e as in egg

These short vowel sounds are important building blocks and may give you a clue as to whether Stuart has processed these properly or at all.

Try to keep learning activities fun for Stuart and ask for some advice from the school SENCo. We don’t want him to lose his self-esteem or confidence. He already delights in using language verbally. Continue to encourage him and consider using resources like cards that match pictures and sounds like Letterland Reading Flashcards and Letterland Phonics Touch and Spell Flashcards. I have had lots of success with these cards (and they are not expensive).

At a later stage, or if you can’t spare the time to make these smaller changes, you may want to investigate assistive technology like the user-friendly, discreet, Scanning Pens. They scan text and read individual words or sections aloud or through personal headphones.

The important thing is to recognise that Stuart has a reading difficulty, but that he can be helped. We don’t want his avoidance strategies to escalate or become a barrier to his learning. But we also don’t want to stifle his confidence and creativity. Keep your communication with him positive and start each learning episode by celebrating his strengths. You may have experienced a student just like him.