SEN & Multisensory Learning

Summary – What is it and why is it different?

Active Phonics is a specialised approach devised for children and young people requiring a new innovative method to teach them where others have failed.

Active Phonics is a tool to teach synthetic phonics to children and young people from the age of five to eighteen through physical education who have not made the expected progress when learning to read using traditional methods and well-founded interventions. It is a structured programme teaching synthetic phonics through physical games such as trampoline activities, throwing balls at letters and into hoops. These activities all have phonics learning integrated.

What is the Active Phonics rationale about?

In a climate where theories challenge the ways in which instruction should be delivered (Pressley, Graham and Harris, 2006) this rationale explores the reasons Active Phonics is a positive development in the field of teaching phonics. It considers the characteristics of Active Phonics and how these meet the learning needs of children and young people with a Specific Learning Disorder, dyslexia, and other vulnerable or hard to reach groups.

Dyslexia takes a president here because it is the most common Special Educational Need (SEN) in the UK (Solvang, 2007). The SEN Code of Practice (2014) emphasises the requirement for teachers to identify and provide appropriate interventions for pupils with a SEN. Significantly children with dyslexia show decreased activation of key phonological areas of the brain (Goswami, 2008; Richardson, Thomson, Scott, 2004; Jefferies & Everatt, 2004), Goswami (2008) suggesting they are significantly in deficit. They have substantial problems mapping letters to sounds (Ehri, 1992; Vellutino et al., 2004).

The Rose Review (2009) definition of dyslexia identifies phonological processing as one of the three key areas of difficulty in the dyslexic child or young person. Dyslexics difficulties with phonological processing (Griffiths & Snowling, 2001), phonological awareness and verbal short term memory are constantly recognised traits and individual variations are consistent with differences in the severity of phonological difficulties (Snowling, 1998).

Are we meeting the phonics learners’ needs?

In 2010 17% of young people were functionally illiterate when they left school. There are many factors that contribute to this statistic, one being the teaching of and a child’s ability to learn phonics. Their lack of phonological knowledge or the ability to make connections between graphemes and phonemes means that they are unable decode words on a page in order to read and comprehend them. Goswami (2008) links phonological processing with difficulties in learning to read, while Snowling & Stackhouse (2006) regard it as a fundamental factor in the inability to learn to read and spell.

The number of phonological schemes has increased significantly between 2002 and 2007 (Brooks, 2007). Despite this young people are still leaving school functionally illiterate. The question that needs to be addressed is whether we are meeting all the learning needs of all our children and young people effectively? Dyslexia Action (2006) suggests that this is not the case for all learners with dyslexia. The barrier is not in the dyslexic learners’ ability to learn (Burden, 2005) but the lack of sufficiently well-trained teachers to meet the numbers students with reading difficulties (Vadasy & Sanders, 2008).

Coupled with this we need to consider the interventions used to teach phonics to the learner who is not making the progress expected. Brooks (2007) suggests that learners will not catch-up through class based teaching alone and require an intervention. The question of whether interventions in school are appropriate for pupils requires investigation Gibbs (2005). There is a recognised need for research of interventions (Pressley, Graham and Harris, 2006). We need a common vision between researchers and educational stakeholders to move, develop and alter the way we teach and the resources we use. For example, methods of teaching such as visualisation are undervalued in some school systems (Mortimore, 2008).

These factors are at the heart of Active Phonics. The programme takes elements of teaching phonics that research demonstrates as successful and adapts the process and resources to meet the specific learning needs of children and young people who have not learnt to read using conventional approaches.

What is Active Phonics? Why is it different?

As highlighted in the summary Active Phonics is a tool to teach synthetic phonics through physical education. It has been developed to teach phonics to children and young people form the age of five to eighteen who are not making or have not made the expected progress when learning to read using traditional methods and well-founded interventions. It is a structured programme teaching synthetic phonics through physical games such as trampoline activities, throwing balls at letters and into hoops. These
activities all have phonics learning integrated.

Importantly it is a creative way of teaching phonics where more conventional methods have failed. David Fallis, the developer, has taken a child centred approach, advocated by the SEN Code of Practice (2014), and made it work for the children and young people at Springwell Emotional Behavioural Difficulties (EBD) Special School and the Barnsley Pupil Referral Unit. The needs of these children and young people are complex and require specialist support. Fallis was tasked with two difficulties. The pupils at
Springwell (EBD) Special School and the Barnsley Pupil Referral Unit would not engage with any well founded reading interventions and there were few interventions available for secondary pupils.

Elements of long standing interventions are evident in an Active Phonics lesson in conjunction with physical education activities and literacy resources played out in the school gym. It breaks the boundaries of teaching phonics in an environment which many pupils associate with fun and success. With the help of Kayleigh Dunwell, a PE specialist, they have devised thirty physical education games and incorporate the learning of phonics. These run alongside reading and writing stations where new learning is practised in context.

Phonological Interventions

It was the work of neurologist Samuel Orton in the 1930’s that influenced much of the remediation for learners with reading difficulties. Orton’s work was revised to form the ‘Orton-Gillingham-Stillman approach’ in the 1940s.

The methods they developed to teach phonology to children and young people with dyslexia were founded on Orton’s now superseded theories about dyslexia. Despite this the Gillingham and Stillman (1969) approach, now referred to as a multisensory teaching, provides the basis of many programmes teaching phonology (Singleton, 2009). ‘Alpha to Omega’ (Hornsby and Shear, 1974) and the Hickey language training course (Hickey, 1977; Augur & Briggs, 1992) were the first UK programmes based on Gillingham-Stillman. Subsequent publications include interventions such as the Bangor Teaching Programme (Miles, 1989) and the Aston Portfolio (Aubrey et al., 1981). The multisensory methodology refers to the learner repeatedly looking at a letter or letters, sounding or spelling them aloud and writing them. When the learner does this simultaneously they are using an integrated multisensory approach.

The long standing nature of these programmes is not to imply that they have lost credibility. Indeed, there longevity is testament to their success in teaching phonology to learners with a Specific Learning Difficulty. There is considerable evidence to show that phonologically based interventions are effective in ameliorating children’s word level decoding difficulties (Snowling and Hulme, 2011).

However, simply employing a successful multisensory programme does not mean it will be effective for all children with dyslexia (Reid, 2009). The suggestion is that they should have other skills integrated to meet the identified specific needs of the learner (Reid, 2003). Essentially the principles of well established programmes have been adapted in the Active Phonics programme and a new dimension has been added to meet the specific needs of learners. Its fundamental advantage is that it enthuses and engages the learner who has previously failed to learn, to read and is disengaged from the formal teaching of phonics. Interestingly Adams and Snowling (1999) give credence to the importance of assessing behaviour and cognitive ability when planning the ‘educational management’ of children and young people with reading difficulties. This suggests that the programme does not only need to meet the pupils learning needs but that account should be taken of their behavioural needs. Fallis has taken this vital element into account in developing Active Phonics. Recognising the correlation between poor behaviour and hyperactivity and academic attainment in reading and arithmetic (Adams and Snowling, 1999) he has devised a programme for teaching phonics that motivates and engages the reluctant learner.

What are the components of a good phonics intervention? How are
these mirrored in Active Phonics?

Three fundamental components need to be present when sourcing a well founded intervention to teach phonology. The programme must be structured, cumulative and multisensory. Thomson (1990) reviewed a range of established UK multisensory teaching programmes, referenced on page 13, for learners with dyslexia and identified the common characteristics as phonetic, multisensory, cumulative and sequential.

The Singleton Report (2009) suggests a similar format for an intervention for the dyslexic learner, that it is, progressive, has small steps, logical and facilitates overlearning. Townend (2000) extends this to include the teaching of useful transferable skills encouraging the learner to reflect on the learning strategies that work best for them and where the new learning sits outside of the lesson.

Research has established that intensive and explicit teaching of reading and ,spelling using a structured, multi-sensory approach does help children learn to read and spell (Snowling & Stackhouse, 2006; Reid, 2003). The structure refers to the sequenced content of learning including phonics and word building skills and ensures there are no gaps in learning.

Active Phonics uses the structure of the National Strategy Letters and Sounds. Not all programmes follow the same structured pattern which can cause difficulties when transferring new learning back into the classroom.

By using National Strategy guidance Active Phonics has the advantage of using the same structure being used for whole class teaching, thus making the transfer of new learning and the revisiting of learning in the classroom more easily facilitated.

It is crucial that new phonics learning outside the classroom is transferred and revisited in the class context so it is not seen as an isolated learning experience but has relevance and can be applied to broader learning. The lesson content of Active Phonics is shared with class teachers facilitating this element of an appropriate intervention suggested by Townend (2000).

Where teachers make use of the new learning that occurs outside the classroom learning is more effective (Brooks, 2007).
Programmes must also be cumulative allowing the student to revisit previous learning while introducing new learning. A cumulative programme ensures that the crucial element of overlearning is facilitated in an intervention allowing the learner to revisit phonemes (the smallest unit of sound made up of one or more letters) which have already been taught to develop a level of automaticity.

It is important that a teaching programme has a carefully planned structure that takes automaticity into account Reid (2003). Without automaticity the reader will have to laboriously decode each word slowing the fluidity of the reading and reducing the ability to comprehend. Certainly in the case of learners with dyslexia this element of overlearning is imperative. Fawcett (2001) considers the impaired fluency and speed of reading and spelling due to a lack of automaticity and poor phonological awareness. Throughout the Active Phonics lesson the learner revisits phonemes previously learnt alongside the introduction of the new sound thus ensuring the cumulative
aspect of learning is met. Phonics should be taught using a multisensory approach which requires the learner to use at least visual, auditory and kinaesthetic methods (The
Dyslexia –SpLD Trust 2009) simultaneously.

“Multisensory teaching is simultaneously visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic-tactile to enhance memory and learning. Links are consistently made between the visual (what we see), auditory (what we hear), and kinaesthetic-tactile (what we feel) pathways in learning to read and spell.

Teachers who use this approach teach children to link the sounds of the letters with the written symbol. Children also link the sound and symbol with how it feels to form the letter or letters.” IDA (2000 p1) Visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning channels need to be operating simultaneously to ensure that learning is transferred from the short term memory to the long term memory (Moats and Farrell, 1999). Small-scale studies including Hulme (1981) also justify using a multisensory approach improves learning while Fernald (1943) suggests a multisensory method as the basis of good teaching practice for learners with dyslexia. The advantages of using a structured multisensory approach are true for all learners.

Active Phonics utilises multisensory methods but not the conventional Gillingham and Stillman, seeing, hearing, saying and writing approach used in established programmes. However, the writing station does enable the learner to practise an integrated multisensory approach relating the movement to the sound and visual element of the letter. Before practising the new learning in the reading and writing station, pupils see the letters they are learning and revisiting displayed in the gym, hear them, read,
repeat and reread them. Rather than writing the phoneme Fallis has extended the concept of kinaesthetic to incorporate gross motor skills. The more innovative kinaesthetic part of the lesson, throwing balls at large letters or catching balls while reading phonemes aloud, could be seen as the most controversial learning mode in Active Phonics. I believe it is one of the crucial aspects in its favour as it engages the learner more successfully than in a classroom context.

It has moved from the traditional sedentary system where the kinaesthetic aspect requires the learner to move their hand to write the shape of the letter to using gross motor skills. In principle this is not dissimilar to the well established Jolly Phonics method used by many schools to teach phonics to young children. In the Jolly Phonics programme children use smaller less energetic movements to match to a sound. This would be viewed by the older pupils as too childish. Active Phonics physical education
approach retains a kinaesthetic aspect ensuring that it is viewed positively by the learner.

Traditional methodology extends to the process of the lesson. Initially pupils use activities involving a large alphabet arch to practice alphabet skills. For example, pupils are questioned about the red vowels relating it to vowels in words they know and asked to find letters. A common theme is developing throughout this section of the rationale. That is, how the resources and teaching meets the needs of the older learner.

Programmes that rely solely on teaching phonological awareness without making the connections with text are less effective (Reid, 2009). The more conventional elements of the Active Phonics lesson, that is, the reading and writing stations, mirror the more formal methods of teaching enabling learners to make connections. The learner embeds the new phoneme into reading and writing. At this stage more traditional kinaesthetic element of the writing process is incorporated. This is an integral aspect to successful
learning ensuring that the phonics is transferred and implemented in the mediums of reading and writing rather than the learner seeing this phonics as isolated learning. They need the opportunity to make sense and utilise their learning into something meaningful. Those that use phonological teaching embedded into reading, enabling the learner to make links between letters in the context of written text are more effective than those that rely purely on teaching phonological awareness.

Additional Advantages for Learners

Motivating learners, who have consistently met with failure in the phonics lesson, as well as finding the learning significantly effortful, requires a creative approach. A key finding of the Sutton Report (2012) is that a lack of engagement often results in poor attainment and which can lead to negative behaviour. Active Phonics creates an environment in which the learner is motivated to learn eliminating poor behaviour. Children and young people are enthused and engaged.

Active Phonics has achieved 98 per cent participation from the pupils at Springwell Community College as opposed to a 68 per cent take-up of standard interventions. It changes the perspective of the learner to view learning as fun. They are no longer in the classroom repeating phonics learning at a desk using methods that have already failed to help them make progress. Instead they are in an environment where the restraints of the classroom have been removed, motivating them so they comply with the structure of the lesson governed by the teacher.

For example, the learner with ADHD / ADD requires specific approaches for learning to be successful. Often the constraints of the classroom are not conducive to their way of learning. They crave variety and yet need structure and strategies to keep their attention. Their behaviour will vary according to the degree to which rules are managed, the amount of structure and support for compliance and the degree to which the child is interested in the activity (Gordon, 1992). Active Phonics creates the environment suitable for the needs of the learner with ADHD/ ADD through the continual movement during the lesson. Structure is provided in the procedure of the lesson while still allowing variety through the activities.

There is the additional benefit of instant reward, needed by the learner with ADHD, in the instance of being able to catch the ball.

There are few interventions suitable for secondary learners although Brooks, 2007 suggests there are several effective ones for reading.
Whatever the method employed to teach learners with dyslexia or reading difficulties they will need an ongoing ‘individualized approach’ over a number of school years (Snowling and Hulme, 2011). This generates an additional problem as many young people also perceive the learning of phonics as childish.

Active Phonics provides the medium for teaching and resources more suited to the more mature learner. It moves away from the use of wooden letters often and introduces large A4 letters displayed around the gym. The older learners perception of throwing balls at letters motivates them to engage at attend to the learning. They are being given to opportunity to learn in a way that has previously not been available
The learners self esteem is considered at the planning and delivery stage of the lesson. Lessons are planned at an appropriate ability level ensuring that previous learning is revisited alongside the new learning. The cumulative aspect has an additional crucial underlying purpose. It builds confidence as the learner is secure in the knowledge that they are working with only one area of new learning while all other areas of the lesson are familiar. Evidence demonstrates a link between dyslexia and low academic selfconcept Burden (2008). Not recognising the learners specific needs may lead to a sense of failure that persists into adulthood (Reid & Given, 1998).

By teaching phonics through physical education creates a context that many dyslexic learners feel confident. Deponio (2001) found that more than 50% of students with dyslexia felt they were better or on a par with their peers in PE.

There is an additional advantage to playing a range of games in a large gym. The games are set up in different areas of the gym necessitating the learner to move to alternative places. The place in which the learner was taught triggers the memory to recalling the learning. The practice of learning in different areas of a room is commonly used to trigger memory. The learner moves to different stations of the gym to engage with their phonics learning.

Visual disturbance difficulties or the Magnocellular Deficit (Stein, 2001; Stein and Talcott, 1999) sometimes described as a sub-type of dyslexia causes problems with fluent and accurate reading. To ameliorate these difficulties particular style, colour and font size need to be used. Fallis has ensured that the Active Phonics resources are in line with the needs of learners with visual disturbance difficulties using a cream background, blue (with the exception of red vowels) sans serif font.

Fallis has recognised the barriers to learning and made the reasonable adjustments necessary to facilitate learning. The lack a common vision between researchers and educational stakeholders (Fawcett, 2002) needs ameliorating. The project data shows that pupils participating in the Active Phonics programme made a 0.8 sub level progress in reading per term, compared with 0.5 sub level average of pupils in school. Over two terms pupils made an average of a sub level progress and a number of pupils making a full level progress.


Active Phonics is not purely a reading intervention. It is concerned with the specific needs of the child or young person. A teaching programme needs to meet the learning style and needs of a child or young person to motivate them to learn. To meet the specific needs of all of our learners we need to be open minded and flexible in our approach. To date this has not been achieved for all learners. No single approach has the answer to dealing with the difficulties of a dyslexic learner but rather a variety of programmes and strategies can be used together (Reid, 2003). Brooks (2007) found that although the schemes available worked well for learners with ‘moderate’ literacy difficulties they were less effective for those with more ‘severe’ difficulties.

Active Phonics is a specialised approach devised for a group of children or young people requiring a new innovative method to teach them where others have failed. It provides a reasonable adjustment for children and young people who cannot learn the way we traditionally teach. Never was the respected adage ‘If a child does not learn the way you teach, then teach him the way he learns’ (Harry Chasty) more apposite. Fallis has developed a viable alternative that captures the students whose needs have not previously been met using conventional teaching methods and providing them with the opportunity to learn to read and write.


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