Toe by Toe

The name Toe by Toe was chosen to signify that a student makes progress by the tiniest steps - one toe at a time.  However, even though the steps taken are small, the student can clearly measure his or her progress right from the first page.  The student's confidence and self-esteem are boosted as a result. 

Over 25 years of fieldwork went into the development of the system and it is this research which makes the method so easy to use.  You don't have to be trained in any field of Education to tutor with Toe by Toe.  In fact, the manual often works better with  non-professionals using it as they do not come to the task with any pre-conceived notions and thus simply follow the very detailed instructions to the letter.

The unique syllable division employed by Toe by Toe is very easy to use though it is not the syllable division generally used for the teaching of reading.  Once the sound of a phoneme has been taught using the 'polynons' (nonsense words), these rules can then be applied to any multi-syllabic word and  students find a whole new world of reading opening before their eyes. 

No matter what the nature of the student's literacy problem, they can be taught to read using Toe by Toe.  The severity of their problem may only be reflected in the length of time needed to get through the book.  Indeed, if the system is used with a 'non-dyslexic' child (i.e. one without learning difficulties) the rapid improvement in reading age is truly astonishing.

Toe by Toe F.A.Q.s

1.  How old do students need to be before commencing Toe by Toe?

2.  How long does it take to complete Toe by Toe?

3.  What are the multi-sensory pages for?

4.  How do we work on the non-phonetic words (‘sight words’)?

5.  Who is qualified to act as a Toe by Toe  tutor?

6.  Will Toe by Toe work with every struggling reader?

7.  Why are there so few graphics and pictures in the book?

8.  How long should a Toe by Toe session last for?

9.  How frequently should we do Toe by Toe?

10.Why are nonsense words so important to the Toe by Toe method?

11.Why does Toe by Toe  use an unconventional syllable division?

12.  Toe by Toe and Comprehension - 'Barking at Print'...?


  1. How old do students need to be before commencing Toe by Toe?

Answer:  Usually we say that a child should be 7 years old before starting the scheme.  If a child is younger than 7, (you will know the child best so whenever you consider that the time is ripe...) we would suggest that you 'drill' the short and long vowel sounds and the initial consonant blends to the point where there is little or no hesitation beforehand.  This would be adequate preparation for the first part of the book since it would ensure that they got off to the ‘flying start’ which can be so important for confidence and motivation.


  1. How long does it take to complete Toe by Toe?

Answer:  The length of time necessary to finish the scheme depends very much on the severity of the students’ reading problem.  With a student of average disability (dyslexic problems range from severe to mild) receiving 30-minute, daily sessions, the average time to complete the manual would be 5 - 6 months.  However, a severely dyslexic student may take much longer and – in such a case – it is vital that the student is made to feel they are making steady progress toward the ultimate goal and that what is, for them, a mysteriously difficult skill is well within their compass.


  1. What are the ‘Multi-Sensory’ Pages for?

Answer:  The Toe by Toe scheme begins by providing the student with the fundamentals of phonics.  The 'Multi-Sensory Pages' – occurring every 20 pages or so throughout the  first half of the book - are simply blank grids where any problem words can be worked on intensively. These words are usually not phonetically consistent and thus require a radically different approach as the phonic strategies used to synthesise (i.e. build) words will simply not work in such cases.  We introduce these words (we call them 'link' words) at strategic points in the manual.  You will note that note that - in the early part of the book - many columns of real words have these link words in the shaded boxes at the bottom.  In this way they are introduced alongside the phonic skills and this allows us to offer the student coherent pieces of text to read ASAP.  Reading real, coherent sentences so early in the scheme will represent a triumph for the student and provide a real sense of progress.  Whenever it becomes apparent that a particular word (it will usually be one that doesn't make phonetic sense) is causing problems then we draw a circle around it and move it forward to the next 'Multi-Sensory Page’  to be worked on intensively.


  1. How do we work on the non-phonetic words (‘sight words’)?

Answer:  Effectively, with words like this, it is our task to link sight with sound.  It is widely recognised that the best way to memorise these non-phonic words is to use a multi-sensory approach.  For example, if we take a very common 'problem word':  how.  Ask your students to trace the shape of the word on the desk with a finger whilst repeating the sound: "how".  Then ask them to trace it as accurately as possible in the air – whilst repeating the sound of the whole word (please note that it would be counterproductive to say the letter sounds singly...).  Finally, ask them to repeat the 'air tracing' procedure with their eyes firmly closed.  Please do this several times and then ask them to copy the word carefully several times in the appropriate column on the page.  Again, they should say the sound of the whole word each time they do so. After a couple of minutes of intensive work on this single word, we leave it and return to the page we were working on.  However, at the end of the session, go back to the multi-sensory page, point at the word again and see if they know the sound.  Of course, there will be a very good chance that they will have forgotten.  If that is the case, please do not be disheartened.   We simply repeat the previous intensive procedure.  However, at the start of the NEXT session - ideally after a gap of 24 hours - you go back to it, test again and give the obligatory tick or dot.  Repeat at the start of every TBT session until - eventually – it has been recognised on 3 consecutive sessions.  Only THEN can we consider it to have been 'learned'.  These words have to be taught in a systematic way and the utmost perseverance may be called for...


  1. Who is qualified to act as a Toe by Toe tutor?

Toe by Toe is written to allow non-qualified people to use the scheme.  i.e.  Any literate person can act as a Toe by Toe ‘coach’.   However this is a highly structured method and it is important that they follow the very detailed instructions to the letter.  These simple instructions are in the red ‘coaching boxes’ on the facing page of every grid and many of them are repeated throughout the book.


  1. Will Toe by Toe work with every struggling reader?

It is our contention that the proportion of students who cannot learn to read using Toe by Toe is miniscule – perhaps 1-2% of the population.  As long as the instructions are followed to the letter, Toe by Toe will successfully provide almost every child with the ability to read.  Where the scheme has ‘failed’ in this objective, it is because the instructions have not been followed rigorously enough or – more likely – the student’s low self-esteem and/or negative attitude to the task in hand have not allowed the scheme to succeed.  Without a student’s active co-operation in any activity, it is difficult to make real progress.  It is often the case that a struggling reader will have developed low self-esteem and may have already convinced themselves that they are simply too ‘thick’ to learn to read.  Naturally, the longer they have been struggling, the more difficult it will be to convince them otherwise.  As a consequence, the coach’s first objective should be to make the student believe that they can – in fact - do this thing.


  1. Why are there so few graphics and pictures in the book?

Some critics of Toe by Toe complain about the lack of colour, graphics and pretty pictures in the manual.  However, what these critics fail to appreciate is that dyslexic children do not need pretty pictures.  What these students crave is to succeed in what is - for them - a mysteriously difficult skill.  Toe by Toe provides a sense of progress and momentum from Day One and it is this that keeps them motivated and ‘on task’.


  1. How long should a Toe by Toe session last for?

We recommend 20-30 minutes for a Toe by Toe session.  However, as anyone who has worked with severely dyslexic students will know, even 20 minutes may be much too long.  The key element for optimum results is frequency.  Even 10-minute sessions done on a daily basis will yield tremendous results.


  1. How frequently should we do Toe by Toe?

If at all possible, Toe by Toe should be done every day.  Reinforcement and overlearning are key elements of the scheme and experiments have demonstrated that a gap of 24 hours is the perfect length of time to maximise this effect.  The mental struggle to bring back a sound or the image of a word - just at the point where it may be beginning to fade – is essential for what we are trying to achieve.


10. Why are nonsense words so important to the Toe by Toe method?

Guessing is one of the first coping strategies that many struggling readers turn to.  Literacy tutors often find students decoding the first syllable of a word and then guessing the rest or even working out the sound of the first letter and guessing the rest!  As far as Toe by Toe is concerned, guessing is exactly what we do not want.  On the contrary, we want students knuckling down to the task of decoding.  One of Keda’s major breakthroughs in the long process of development of Toe by Toe was the year when she tried nonsense words with her ‘guinea pig’ group and – at the end of the year – found them so far in advance of her control group that it was obvious they were a major element in those students’ success.  It seems that the use of nonsense words pre-empts the tendency to guess.


11.Why does Toe by Toe  use an unconventional syllable division?

During her research, Keda discovered that the conventional syllable division (using 'closed' and 'open' syllables) was proving to be a major stumbling block for her students.  As a result she developed her own, simplified way for students to ‘attack’ longer words.  It would be far better, in her opinion, to use a division which - though not applicable in every possible case - was so easy to use that dyslexic students could easily understand and apply it.  She found that students adapted easily enough to any exceptions through usage.   We should also bear in mind that the only students who actually need a syllable division are struggling readers.  If you are not struggling with reading, the task of reading is so trivial that longer words do not require any kind of attack strategy…


12. Toe by Toe and Comprehension - 'Barking at Print'...?

Toe by Toe is basically a 'decoding' manual so it does not specifically address comprehension issues.  Therefore - in common with all phonics-based schemes - it lays itself open to the (rather glib...?) accusation that it only teaches 'Barking at Print'.  However, we counter this by asking how MOST words enter a person's vocabulary?  Surely, 'Barking at Print' is how we all start to read in the first place...?
We would maintain that by reading words in context it is possible to gain a rough idea regarding meaning which will be reinforced when the word is met again.  How else does a child pick up oral vocabulary than by hearing words in the context of speech?  Of course, this doesn't preclude use of dictionary for checking spelling or for the meanings of unfamiliar words nor the role of a teacher to extend knowledge of words and phrases more rapidly than just waiting for them to come up in conversation or in a book.


Link to Toe By Toe website