Mrs Beasley's Blog

Learning from a tutor's perspective

Toe by Toe

What is ‘Toe by Toe’? It is rather concerning to me that many teachers have never heard of it, and some of those who have label it ‘laborious’ or ‘time-consuming.’ Strangely, all the parents and children who have used it through my recommendation love it, and cannot praise it too highly.

It is a very carefully constructed method of learning to read, and believe me, it works! Let me give you a little background information about the author and the book. Keda Cowling, who wrote the book, grew up desperately wanting to be a teacher. Sadly, in those days, there was no money available to support her, and so she had to go and find work in the mills (she lived in Yorkshire). She was amazed one day, many years later, when confiding her youthful ambition to a friend to be told, “You still can be a teacher. You can be a mature student.” She lost no time in applying to go on a training course, and after qualifying as a teacher, began to work in a village school near her home.

She stayed in the same school for the rest of her teaching career, and she stayed with the same Year Group – Year 2, or Top Infants, as it used to be called. During this time, Keda worked tirelessly, trying to help all the children in her class to learn to read, but there were always about four who never really “got it”. 

One evening, quite unexpectedly, there was a knock on her door, and when she opened it, there stood one of her old pupils, now grown up and married. He had come with a request.

“My wife sits with a book, laughing out loud. I don’t know what she is laughing at, but I want to be able to do that. Mrs Cowling, will you teach me to read?”

This spurred Keda to try and invent a method that would help children and adults of all ages to grasp the concept of reading. In the course of time, and with the constant encouragement and support of her family, and also the head of the school where she taught, she came up with the idea of  ’Toe by Toe.’

“You see,” said a friend, “it isn’t quite step by step – it’s smaller than that. It’s more like toe by toe!” And so the name was born. It has now become a global success. It is used in countries across the world, as well as the UK. It is used in prisons, where one in three inmates cannot read, and it is used in some – but not all – schools, where there are enlightened teachers, carrying on Keda’s aim of helping everybody to become literate. 

So, how does ‘Toe by Toe’ work? It uses phonics, that wonderfully sucessful method of teaching children to read, which got thrown out by the trendy educationalists somewhere in the eighties, and replaced by ‘reading with picture books’,  or  ‘choosing a book you like’  (regardless whether it matched your reading age). Suddenly, colour-coding for different reading levels was ‘out’ – (old-fashioned) – hearing children read on a regular basis was out – (not necessary), graded reading schemes were ‘out’  (old-fashioned as well)and all the careful work done by experienced, caring teachers was abandoned. (I know, this happened at a friend of mine’s school. She is now one of my tutors.)

Then, suddenly, someone realised that the new, trendy methods were not working, and standards of reading were going steadily downwards. So what did we get then? Why, phonics, of course. Only this time, rebranded as ‘synthetic phonics’ and the Department for Education, in its wisdom, brought out yet another of their helpful books, called “Letters and Sounds” to guide us on our way!

Some of us oldies never actually stopped using phonics, because we know this method works, and if you look at ‘Toe by Toe’, you’ll see exactly why it works. The book is most carefully graded, and every exercise must be completed before moving on to the next one. The book uses sound names for everything including capital letters, and words are broken down into chunks, so that they can be decoded.

The book is actually written to help dyslexics, but it can be used by anyone of any age, who struggles to learn to read. Read this  from a 10 year- old boy, and hear how he felt.

“Before “Toe by Toe”, I was living in a deep dark hole. Everyone else understood things, and I didn’t. When I was given the book, I felt a rope ladder had been thrown down to me. It didn’t have any rungs…I had to build them myself and that has taken time. Now I feel I’m near the top and I can see daylight. I feel sorry for anyone stuck at the bottom.”

Edward C  (Aged 10  )  Nantwich, Cheshire.

‘Toe by Toe’ also helps with spelling. Most people learn to spell by constantly seeing and subconsciously remembering the written word. Reading and spelling become a mutual activity. If you can’t read, however, you  are disadvantaged, because you can’t pick up a book and read either for pleasure or  for information. Your spelling, therefore, never improves. As a tutor, I often use some of the ‘Toe by Toe’ sentences as dictation with weak spellers, as they can easily spell them phonetically, and this builds up their confidence.

Finally – some of my success stories:

Robert, who was still working at Level 2 when he came to me in Year 6, barely able to read and write. After setting him off on ‘Toe by Toe’, and with the constant support of his mum, who worked with him every day, (including  holidays at their caravan),  he achieved Level 5  in his English SATs (above average for his age.

The 6 year-old twins, whose reading ages increased by 6 months during the 6 week’s summer holidays of 2011, (we tested them before the holidays and at the end of them) and who both went up three reading levels at school, thanks to their mum, who also worked with them on a daily basis.

Olivia, 6 years old, in the same class as the twins, struggling to make sense of reading, and getting switched-off in the process. I tested her reading age two days ago, and she is now reading 5 months above her chronological age. She, too, has gone up three levels on her school reading scheme. (Again, thanks to mum.)

Then there was Alex, in Stockport, who was dyslexic, and who got no help from his school, because dyslexia was not accepted. He was ‘just slow.’ He worked with me for three years, and, at the end of it, was awarded the headteacher’s prize for the child who had made the greatest progress in English in the whole school.

I could go on and on. If you want to read some amazing and heartwarming stories, go to the ‘Toe by Toe’ website, and find out more about it. If you want to try it with your child, you can order it from the ‘Toe by Toe’ website, or you can get it ( a little bit cheaper!) from my shop. It is an easy book to use, and I will be glad to help anyone get started. There are coaching pages right through the book, and parents are just as good as teachers when it comes to using it.

One word of caution – the book demands commitment! I have started many children off on it, only for the parent to give up after a few weeks. You need to understand that it will probably take a year to work through the book, and the work should be daily  (Monday to Friday)  for 20 minutes a session. Unless you are prepared to put this level of effort in, then it is not for you. If you are, then the sky’s the limit. Trust me, I know!