Thursday, 25 August 2011

The prettiest little squiggles of black

"Figures are the most shocking things in the world. The prettiest little squiggles of black looked at in the right light, and yet consider the blow they can give you upon the heart." 
H.G.Wells, The History of Mr Polly

The font that we choose can have a huge impact on our resource and how it is received by our students.  Are the letters too big or too small ?  Are they too grown-up looking or too babyish ?  What does the font tell them about the tone and subject matter of the resource?  There are many very good-looking fonts around these days (I should know - I spend long enough browsing them when I should be doing something else!) but are they just "the prettiest little squiggles of black" or do they really help us to say what we want to say?

I participated in a conversation about this on Twitter a couple of evenings ago.  @littlejessw and I were discussing which fonts to use in PowerPoints and other resources, in particular those intended for students with special educational needs.  The stimulus of this conversation was "is it OK to use Comic Sans for resources or should I use something more 'grown-up'?"

At one time, Comic Sans was my default font. Then I moved on to Arial Rounded MT Bold.  Now it's ordinary Arial.  However, the difference now is that I choose my font carefully depending on who the resource is for.  For PowerPoints I use Comic Sans for primary (have to use one that the school system will recognise, which narrows the choice considerably) and Arial or Verdana for everything else.  

In 1999, the SEN department at my school gave everyone a document called "Working with children with learning difficulties".   I found the sections on Legibility, Attractiveness/Layout, Instructions and Readability incredibly useful, and they informed and continue to inform my current practice when I am making resources.   Here are my favourite tips for producing resources for students with SEN or for primary school children:
  •  Choose a Sans Serif font with a "rounded a".  (This is why Comic Sans is useful.)
  •  DON'T WRITE THINGS IN CAPITAL LETTERS.  Lower case letters are much easier to read as they have rounder, more easily recognised shapes.  Capitals have more straight lines.
  • Choose a font size of at least 14pt.
  • Leave adequate space between lines and paragraphs - don't try to cram too much onto a page.
  • Include images and diagrams which are close to the relevant text.
  • Make headings stand out.  Use bold, a different font or a different size.
  • Make instructions clearly distinct from the rest of the worksheet.
  • Try to give a working example for clarity.
  • Produce a glossary of vocabulary.
  • Restrict the amount of information to be absorbed at any one time.

I have since found this document, which has been produced for teachers and parents who prepare texts for children with reading difficulties, particularly dyslexic children, and which has similar tips.

I have mentioned before that sharing resources is my thing.  Well my favourite part of the whole process is creating the resources in the first place.  I would say that I spend a disproportionate amount of time creating them, making sure that they look just right.  Over the last 16 years my style has changed and evolved, and I more or less have a template now:
  • Worksheets can be Portrait or Landscape.  Bear in mind that it's best to have text at the top (Portrait) or, because most pupils are right-handed, on the left (Landscape) and the space to write at the bottom or on the right respectively.
  • Put an eye-catching title at the top.  I often use a simple Word Art image for this.  I usually put the title at the top, but sometimes down the side.  In addition I often use a picture font to put a partial border on the top or down the side, or to add some images.
  • Put a box in the top right-hand corner for students to put their name.  Get them into the habit of naming their work!!  I put "Je m'appelle" on the French ones and "Me llamo" on the Spanish ones, just to drip-drip-drip how to say your name into them.
  • Fill in one of the answers for them as an example.  I use a handwriting font to do this to make it clear that it's a completed answer.  I often use my own handwriting font which I rashly paid for a few years ago.
  • Make sure that you give the students enough space to write their answers in.  Younger children in particular have big writing and they get frustrated when they can't put their answers where they're supposed to go.  1.5space or even double-space the lines for them to write on.
  • A new part of my template is the assessment box, which is inspired the system used by my daughter's ICT teacher.  There is an "I can" statement for the sheet to start with.  The children tick the appropriate face to tell me how they found it.  Then when I've marked it I put a face in the blank circle to show how they've done, and write a brief comment.  Hopefully this will encourage me to mark more (!) and enable me to assess more easily.

On the subject of fonts, these are the ones that I use the most for my resources:

For more information about the above pangrams, by the way, and examples of pangrams in lots of languages, have a look here.

Here are some other things about fonts that you might enjoy reading:

Do typefaces really matter? - an article from the BBC

What's so wrong with Comic Sans? - another from the BBC

Fantastic Fonts and where to find them - a very helpful presentation by Jackie Berry

Wednesday, 17 August 2011


During the summer term of 2010 the World Cup provided me with weeks of intercultural lessons.  However, it wasn't something that I could replicate in 2011.  This posed a problem with, among others, Year 2's scheme of work.

I decided to replace the World Cup with a similarly intercultural unit, about Guatemala.  I've mentioned it on Twitter a few times and thought I'd describe it in more detail here.

It lasted 6 weeks in total (45 minute lessons each time).  Here are the steps:

1.  We revised the 6 main colours (red, blue, yellow, green, black, white) and then the children completed a worksheet where they had to colour in the flags of the countries of Central America correctly. 

2.  We looked at a map of Central America and located each of the countries whose flags we had coloured.

3.  We looked at a map of the world and located Central America.

4.  We looked at some photographs of Guatemala, like this one and this one, and talked about what kind of country it is and what the weather is like.

5.  We looked at some photographs of Guatemalan fabrics and found out about traditional back-strap looms.  In particular, we noticed the shapes that are used traditionally in the woven fabrics - diamonds, triangles, zig-zags, stripes and squares.

6.  We made our own Guatemala bags, using this template, felt-tip pens and a lot of care and time.  Here is the one that I made and used as my model, to give you an idea:

This is the part of the unit that took the time!  Three lessons of very careful colouring followed by tricky cutting and sticking.

7.  I read "Silly Billy" by Anthony Browne to the class.  This beautifully illustrated book introduces the Guatemalan tradition of making worry dolls.

8.  I showed the class some real worry dolls (which are tiny) and then we made our own worry dolls.  You can download the instructions here if you want to have a go yourself.  Y2 were very taken with the idea behind worry dolls and were very proud of the dolls that they made.  We put them in their Guatemala bags and they took them home.  Some of them have since told me that they told their worries to their dolls and that it did help.  You can see the fruits of their labours on the school blog.

I was pleased with the outcome of this unit of work.  The children had furthered their knowledge of the Spanish-speaking world, as well as gaining specific intercultural knowledge of one country in particular, and we crossed the curriculum with the bags and the worry dolls.  It's definitely something I'll be repeating.