Raising achievement and enabling students to develop is the fundamental purpose of education. It is the primary goal of educators, through the complex, multifaceted alchemy and art of teaching, to enable students to achieve the next level of their development, whether academically, socially, physically or emotionally. Yet, much of this progress hinges on educators and students identifying barriers and overcoming obstacles to understanding and to the acquisition of skills. At each stage of teaching the educator will need to assess the needs of his or her students and tackle issues as they arise, or preferably before they occur.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 edition of UKEdMagazine
Before formal schooling begins, the home situation and background of a student impacts their learning journey. While society has made great strides in providing equal access to educational opportunities since the inception of the formal education system in the late 19th century, social background remains a key factor in determining academic achievement in the 21st century. In a study of 5-7 year olds, it is stated that ‘Social class emerges as a powerful predictor of both cognitive outcomes and educational scores in children.’ They highlight that this is independent of the level of education of the parents and contrary to their expectations. ‘Surprisingly, social class is a more powerful predictor of these outcomes than parents’ education.’ This finding is supported by further research which concludes, ‘there were significant differences in the educational performance of children from different social groups in the data, even at 22 months.’
While the teacher and student play a decisive role, it should be noted that the learning environment is crucial and the ethos and policies of the school will have a significant impact on the achievement of its students. This is perhaps most evident in a school’s provision for children with special educational needs. In my professional experience, different schools have developed very different ideas about what SEN intervention should be, with the most striking contrast in provision being between primary and secondary schools. Naturally, each school must cater for the individual needs of the students. There seems to be many factors, both internal and external, shaping the support students receive, yet the goal is the same – to remove or manage barriers and allow students to maximise learning opportunities. The special educational needs coordinator (SENCo) is in a pivotal position to shape the policy, ethos and the direction of the wider improvement of the school. The SENCo is also the connection between the educator and outside agencies and professional support who can assist in raising the achievement of students with particular and often complex needs.
While there is a collective responsibly, the SENCo has the strategic overview for developing an inclusive culture within the school and ensuring that every pupil is able to access the curriculum to the best of everyone’s ability. Chivers (2014:99) writes, ‘Inclusion is, in reality, doing your job really well for each and every child for whom you are responsible.’ Inclusion should be the goal of every teacher. Inclusion doesn’t mean simply giving all students the same learning materials, but to differentiate and provide each student with strategies and support to allow that student to be able to access the learning opportunity fully. A teacher should always differentiate the lesson activities just beyond the current ability of where the student begins the lesson, meaning that with some active effort the student has a reasonable chance of succeeding. The SENCo provides an overview of care and can provide insight into strategies and support, but on a day to day basis it is the responsibility of teachers and support staff to provide this support, and ultimately this collective responsibility extends to the student him or her self, who should be active in managing their own difficulties as far as possible. Naturally, the pupils themselves has unique understanding of their own needs and often have a clear views about the sort of help they would like. Therefore, even if the student has difficulty surmounting a particular barrier at present, they can offer significant insight to assess the issues for educators to address.
Knowing what students understand and what skills they possess is essential in providing students with a bespoke learning opportunity through differentiated activities. No part of classroom practice and teaching is a separate entity, but a complex web of interactions. Each teaching skills affects all others and the influence of a single stand is not easy to separate, yet a central element in providing the best learning opportunities is continual assessment, and supporting children with special educational needs is no exception. In my own experience, the initial assessment and identification of a barrier to learning is the most difficult step if the issue is subtle. Sometimes a pupil simply does not make expected progress and the reason is not immediately clear. Naturally, there are a myriad of different assessment methods which a teacher may use to monitor the ongoing progress of the child’s needs. Most needs are transient and addressed by the teacher in collaboration with the student.
Once the needs have been identified, and irrespective of whatever support has been put into place to support inclusion, communication between staff is key, especially if a pupil is transitioning between year groups or between schools. In secondary schools, where pupils are taught by many teachers each week, the pupil’s form tutor has an important role in coordinating information to and from teachers who teach that student.
So far I have discussed special educational needs in very general terms, but meeting the needs of pupils is usually about the specifics rather than broad ideas. To this end I will discuss an example of particular need which affects many children and prevents pupils from fully accessing the learning opportunities available to them in the classroom unless it is carefully managed. Dyslexia is a collective term for a wide range of issues. The problems at the word level also have an impact on the sentence level and comprehension of the text. Much of our education system is build around the written word and students are at a severe disadvantage if they are unable to access the learning opportunities available to them and communicate their own ideas effectively in writing.
Assessment is one of the key tools when managing dyslexia. Many children with dyslexia will have realised they have difficulties compared to their peers and would have tried their best to hide the barriers they have faced from their classmates, parents and their teachers. Naturally, uncovering and managing such difficulties can be embarrassing for many children and the utmost delicacy and tact must be used. As well as being vigilant to the needs of the pupils in our care, an educator needs to have an open mind to many possible causes of reading difficulty. For example, an undiagnosed vision impairment may manifest many of the same difficulties and may account for a lower reading age, poor spelling, untidy presentation and other common features of dyslexia.
Dyslexia is a learning disability that is independent of an individual’s intelligence. Indeed, the discrepancy between overall ability and the individual’s ability in reading and writing is often the basis for a diagnosis. Therefore it is quite possible for high functioning students to be unable to access the curriculum and to academically underachieve as a result. With studies suggesting that around 10% of the population have signs of dyslexia with around 4% being affected severely, managing the barriers which dyslexia imposes is essential to raising achievement in a considerable number of people. The 4% figure would suggest that on average each class of 30 pupils would have at least one child who is severely disadvantaged by dyslexia. This has implications for the wider structure of the school in decisions about streaming classes and ability grouping within individual classes.
Managing the barriers for students with dyslexia is a complex task for both the teacher and student, and there is not one single approach or strategy with will benefit every child. Yet there are certainly a number of common approaches to try and many practices to avoid. Many common classroom tasks can be problematic for pupils with dyslexia and some simple measures and improvements to an educator’s classroom management and routine can enable the pupil to access the lesson more easily and raise achievement. For example, copying from a textbook or off the board can be very difficult for pupils with dyslexia and interacting with information on the e-whiteboard presents many possible difficulties. Certain colours impact on the readability of text for all students, but this is made more acute for pupils with dyslexia who sometimes suffer from visual stress from the glare of white backgrounds and dark text. The British Dyslexic Association suggest that using a cream background can mitigate the problem. The teacher should carefully consider the best place for a student with dyslexia to sit, as the correct position, with optimal lighting and a relatively close distance from the board, can improve their ability to access what is being presented, and may also be true for pupil with other needs.
The resources on the walls of the classroom can be highly effective at raising achievement or can cause problems, depending on how they are uses and designed. For example, providing students with a word bank wall with potentially useful vocabulary, which is bespoke for that particular lesson and activity, can be very valuable for all students, but especially for those who find spelling accurately difficult. This is more effective than relying on a dictionary or electronic spellchecker, as there are many words which may be confused. By building a collection of bespoke key vocabulary, this confusion is reduced. If similar words are included in the word bank the teacher may wish to include a visual clue to aid the student. This doesn’t have to be a passive process. The student or the whole class can either ask for particular vocabulary to be provided by the teacher, or the students can collaborate to build the word bank themselves.
Ordered, clearly spaced and visual information is more accessible for students with dyslexia and information visualisation tools, such as mind maps for both accepting and recording information may be beneficial. Technology has a role to play in this regard.
Presenting information visually and offering text in small, manageable segments means that pupils with reading difficulties are less overwhelmed and can focus on smaller reading tasks. If the learning objective of the lesson is not on accessing the text directly, the teacher may wish to use the latest advances in text to speech technology to attempt to negate the barrier all together. Audio recordings also may be useful in this regard, both for giving information to the student as an audio file and for them to record their thoughts on a digital device when face to face discussion is not appropriate. As the work of students with dyslexia is often poor in presentation providing students with a means to improve the appearance of their work can foster a more positive attitude to writing and improved self-confidence.
Reflecting on my own teaching experience, one group of students who need additional support, and whose difficulties are also unconnected to their overall intelligence, are pupils learning via English as an additional language (EAL). For me as a language teacher, but also a non-native speaker of English, this barrier to learning has real resonance. I have taught in both China and the UK and I have taught non-native speakers in both countries.
I currently teach Mandarin to a girl of Eastern European origin who has been in the UK for less than 12 months and who has limited English. Modern foreign language teachers are in a unique position in a school in that the majority of their lesson is conducted in the target language, meaning that all students begin at the same point in regard to their native language. I use simplified instructions in Mandarin and support this with visual stimuli and prompts.
However, colleagues teaching other subjects teach through English and must cater for the individual needs of children with EAL. Integration into class, rather than following an individualised programme, will expose the pupil to great language learning opportunities, even if the pupil is passively listening for much of the time. Allowing some time in a language rich environment is often enough to enable students to develop their language skills.
I also differentiate my classes to support a Year 7 boy who has red/green colour blindness. Forewarned with this information by the student’s form tutor, it was a relativity simple task to adapt my teaching resources for him individually, or more often the same adapted resources are used for the whole class, as this raises his individual achievement and does not adversely affect the success of the other members of the class. For example, in a recent Mandarin lesson on clothes, I removed any reference to green in the first lesson and any answers requiring red in the second lesson. I also listed all possible choices of answers, so all students knew which colours could potentially be used in an answer.
Furthermore, I teach two boys who have poor organisational skills and a diagnosis of dyspraxia. They have acquired a record for forgetting to complete or hand in homework. As a response I have homework buddies to remind each other before the homework is due to be handed in and I ensure the electronic homework calendar is up to date. However, for teachers the worst thing you can do is to over-compensate and do too much for the child. A teacher needs to carefully assess whether their support will improve the learning outcomes and hinder development of the pupils and adjust the level of support accordingly.
Over the years I have re-evaluate my understanding and approach to inclusion within my lessons and I now aim to provide individual differentiation at the planning stage, based on the needs of my pupils, rather than the three or four broad groupings that is expected at the school. Much of this will be achieved by giving ownership of learning to the students and by providing a space for the students to peer assess and peer mentor.
Ultimately, every student is on a spectrum of need. From the pupil with complex special needs who needs continual one-to-one support, to the gifted and talented student who requires guidance and direction to move to the next level, education is a process of identifying and then addressing barriers to progress. Quality teaching starts with teachers knowing their pupils well and understanding their potential barriers, where they are currently are in their learning and what their next steps will be. Removing the barriers to learning requires drawing upon the expertise of many people in the school community, but it is the student, with careful guidance from their teacher, who must make the progress. It is a delicate balance between supporting students in their learning, yet providing them with an appropriate level of challenge so they maximum their progress as they strive to understand or acquire a skill. A school and teachers can promote inclusion in many ways, but such efforts will be wasted if the young person fails to include themselves in their learning. We learn by breaking through the barriers, so it is important that it is the student who ultimately raises their own achievement and it is the role of the teachers and school to empower them to do so.