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My Starter for Five Contribution: SEN at Secondary

Starter for Five is a UK based advice blog for new teachers. You can find it on twitter here. Each post gives 5 quick pieces of advice on a particular topic for new teachers and trainees submitted by experienced teachers.

Here’s mine:

Name: Josie Mingay
Twitter name: @JAMingay
Sector: Secondary
Subject taught (if applicable): English and Literacy
Position: Literacy leader / Lead Learner
What is your advice about? SEN at Secondary

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1: No SEN label should cause you to lower your expectations of students. Do all you can to remove specific obstacles to learning in order for students to reach ambitious goals.
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2: Be explicit about praising students for effort and hard work, rather than achievement. Students with SEN need to see that the journey to the destination is rewarded too.
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3: Make use of your SENCo/Learning Support dept – a great resource, often with a wealth of knowledge. Utilise their expertise to aid your planning/teaching.
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4: Talk to your students! More than any official document listing suggested strategies, students usually know their obstacles best and can tell you what support they need.
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5: Model using metacognitive strategies. One of the best tools for students with SEN is the ability to think about their learning and select strategies to apply to given tasks.
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If you have a topic you’d like to contribute advice about, click here.

Illiteracy: What are we going to do about it?

On Saturday 28th March, I was invited to speak at a conference organised by the Reading Reform Foundation (RRF). The purpose of the event was to highlight the vital importance of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP)*. A great variety of speakers with different areas of expertise were asked to talk on the subject and it seemed many fruitful conversations were had by those who attended. I was invited to talk about my decision to use SSP with secondary school students within SEN, which will be available online shortly.

*Simply put:

Systematic Synthetic Phonics (or SSP) is a structured, repetitive approach to teaching reading with a total reliance on the smallest units of explicit sounds – in both spoken form (‘phonemes’) and written form (‘graphemes’) – to teach reading. This method usually starts with the most common sounds and moves through to more complicated ones e.g. knowing a ‘dge’ makes the same sound as a ‘j’, and a ‘tch’ makes the same sound as a ‘ch’.

This is in contrast to analytic phonics, where students are often asked to read beyond a difficult word to the end of the sentence, then attempt to guess it using contextual clues. This approach, while helpful in the opinion of some, does not develop the reading skills of a student nor help them learn explicit sounds, since they have simply guessed the word through their understanding of the rest of the passage. This also often has negative impact for those new to English, since their knowledge of vocabulary at entry point to the UK is minimal, so there are flaws in the reliance of a guessing technique.

While I have been aware of the benefits of using a structured approach to reading for a long time, it has made me more sure than ever that this is the most targetted, reliable, efficient and, without wishing to go overboard, moral way to teach reading.

Unfortunately, official governmental guidance does not stipulate that a single methodical approach to teaching reading is key though does advise this. For me, a directive which would acknowledge the necessity of teaching reading through SSP would be a great step towards ensuring that far more students might have the opportunity to learn to read before they leave primary school.

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Not to add fuel to the fire in the debate around the phonics screening check at the end of Year 1, but I am a keen and outed supporter. Ensuring that any individual has a good grasp of the fundamental skills of reading and writing can surely only be a good thing.

With my SEN head on, however, there seems to be a flaw in the system. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of it is as follows:

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The DfE website states that:

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… And after that? What happens then?

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If, as educators, we acknowledge that children physically grow at different rates, mature emotionally at different times and adopt new knowledge at different speeds, is it okay that we let so many fall off the radar beyond Y2 simply because their learning of our complex alphabetic code has not fit into our man-made termly organisation?

There seems to be a black hole for those students who have not grasped reading by this point and, in my opinion, this could be one key factor contributing to the situation I’m faced with as Literacy Leader of a secondary school, welcoming in substantial numbers of students arriving in Y7 who are still unable to read. Pass at Y2 or branded SEN. Hereth begineth the dreaded ‘gap’.

I have no doubt that schools in the majority do their best to scaffold the learning of students who fail to pass the phonics check at Y2. It is our moral obligation to ensure that our learners are equipped as best as possible for the education journey they walk. However, there are questions we need to be asking here:

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  1. What does the research suggest and how are we applying it to our own classrooms?
  2. If there are so many students failing to grasp reading across the UK, are we really using the most suitable approach that meets the needs of ALL our students?
  3. How else can we support students beyond this stage if they haven’t learnt it by the end of Y2?
  4. Have we done all we can to ensure this student is able to access the curriculum?

 

Disclaimer: I have been a primary school teacher. I have seen the amazing job that primary school teachers do, day in, day out. This post is by no means an attack on the teachers who deliver phonics to younger students. My intention is simply to verbalise my thoughts on the current situation I observe from a secondary perspective and explore ways we might overcome some of the flaws in the system.

 

If we are to see illiteracy in the UK reduce by any significant measure, we have a duty to ensure that:

  1. the most targetted, research-based, fail-proof, methodical approach to teaching reading is employed
  2. ALL students are supported to a point where they are able to read and write independently as early as possible (and beyond!) 

By achieving these two points above, I am almost certain that we would see numbers of those arriving at secondary labelled as ‘SEN’ dramatically decrease, since there would have been no gap (or at least a much smaller learning gap) to close. I’m sure we would begin to witness less students arrive at secondary who are clearly able in many areas of the curriculum, extremely competent in verbal responses, but branded with a ‘Specific Learning Difficulty’ in reading. I do acknowledge that there will always be some level of need in this area, which is likely to extend to education in the older years. I do also recognise, however, that we are clearly doing something wrong at present and, until it is addressed and corrected, we are failing a great number of our students.

The Dyslexia-Friendly Classroom: One Student’s Wish List

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Have you ever had one of those unexpectedly heartwarming conversations with a student before? You know – the kind that you’re really not expecting, but when it comes it hits a nerve and makes you want to reflect on it/ act on it/ share it with someone? I had one of those this week and felt it was far too important to keep to myself.

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I was teaching a 1:1 session on Wednesday, working with a year 8 girl who has severe dyslexia. While ‘Kelly’ is making good progress with her literacy and it is obvious to see she can now read far more independently than when she joined us a year ago, inevitably the gap between her and her peers is still wide and, sadly, it continues to grow. Perhaps surprisingly, the sadness in this for me is not the fact that Kelly is ‘behind’ most of her peers. Nor is it that she is having to work so hard in order to keep up. What I believe to be the saddest thing about Kelly’s situation is the fact that this is not how it has to be.

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In the quite brief but almost-epiphanic conversation I had with Kelly, she revealed a number of ‘wishes’ she had in relation to her learning experience. She gave such an impassioned speech, I couldn’t not write it down.

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Kelly’s ‘Top 5’ Wish List

1. “I wish I could get a piece of homework that I could complete entirely on my own without help from my Mum.”

2. “I wish I could show I understand in a way that doesn’t need me to write loads.”

3. “I wish I could just have a print out of the lesson PPT next to me, so I can use the time to process the information rather than copy loads of words I can’t read from the board.”

4. “I wish I didn’t have to copy out tables/charts but get blank examples instead so I could fill them out and show I know what to do.”

5. “I wish my teacher wouldn’t ask me to read out loud.”

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(I should say at this point… wherever I refer to “Kelly’s teachers” I don’t mean ‘all‘ but ‘some’. I also intend the word ‘teachers’ to mean teachers generally – across the profession, in a number of schools.)

Kelly is very bright. Her verbal recall is pretty impressive, her understanding of concepts and ideas across the different curriculum subjects is good and her emotional intelligence is high. She has the ability to relate to people incredibly well – on a deeper level than many other students I’ve come into contact with – and can express how she feels eloquently. All that said, she is not showing progress in many of her lessons and crucially, in her end of unit graded assessments.

This leads us to assume the position of an enquiring young child in that all-important developmental phase where they relentlessly follow a series of steps, asking that essential (if a little annoying) question:

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So let’s use it.

FACT: Kelly isn’t showing progress.

But…why?

REASON 1: Because she isn’t being given the opportunities to do so.

But…why?

REASON 2: Because Kelly’s teachers aren’t providing differentiated work for her.

But…why?

Now, I realise I’m putting this out there without huge amounts of investigative research, but through observations and conversations, I’m quite confident of the following two points…

A) I’m quite certain that the lack of differentiation in some (not all!) mainstream classrooms is NOT because Kelly’s teachers are lazy. I know the hours that teachers work. I am one! I see the time and effort given to planning lessons, both within my own school and in others.

B) I’m also sure that Kelly’s teachers aren’t so mean and cold-hearted that they’d refuse her requests for help, should she pluck up the courage to ask.

No. What I think is more likely to be the case (and am pretty sure is common across many primary and secondary schools), is this:

REASON 3: Kelly’s teachers don’t necessarily know the best ways to support her.

In this profession with time as precious as it is, as a mainstream teacher we may hear the word ‘dyslexia’ and, not knowing enough about it, can almost mentally pass the responsibility of that child’s progress onto the SEN department, because “they’ll surely know how to provide for Kelly best, and will support her with the work she clearly can’t do on her own. Right…?”

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WRONG.

The word dyslexia takes it’s root meaning from two Greek words:

Dys = ‘difficulty’

Lexia = ‘words’

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Kelly has a problem with words – with reading, writing and spelling – FACT. But, Kelly has potential for great success too – FACT. Kelly can understand. Ask Kelly to respond verbally, and she’s got it. Ask her to draw it, to act it, to explain it and she meets the lesson objectives. However, ask her to write her answer down … fail.

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Don’t get me wrong. I realise I’m simplifying the situation. Believe me, more than most I’m fully aware of the fact that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ nature with our students. I’m not so naive to believe that every student with literacy difficulties could easily match the ability of their peers if it wasn’t for the reading and writing aspect. Some students positioned on the spectrum of dyslexia are also low-ability in some subjects and would not be able to grasp some of the concepts taught in a mainstream classroom. I’m not professing that it’s as simple as handing out a mindmap and shouting ‘abracadabra!‘ and instantly the ability gap is miraculously closed.

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What I do believe, however, is that there are some incredibly simple but powerful ways in which we can support students in the mainstream classroom, making the learning far more accessible.

steven-spielberg-dyslexia

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Give Kelly a template to show her understanding rather than demand that she copies out the table like everyone else, and she’ll show you what she can do.

Give her a device, an app, a programme to work on instead of asking her to write every single word by hand and she’ll be able to prove she knows what’s going on.

Give her a flash of colour on a PPT slide instead of black and white and she’ll be able to follow along without losing interest so quickly.

Don’t demand that she reads aloud in front of her peers and she won’t kick off like she normally does.
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The document below is definitely not designed to be an exhaustive list or a miracle cure for students with literacy difficulties in your classroom. However, it may be a handy visual reminder to help you create a more dyslexia-friendly classroom.

PREVIEW: The un’4’gettables in a dyslexia-friendly classroom

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CLICK TO DOWNLOAD: The un’4’gettables in a dyslexia-friendly classroom

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Invention of an Intervention – Top 10 Tips

Last week I blogged about differentiation – see here. As Literacy Leader based in the SEN department of a fantastic secondary school (biased but true), I’m not at all hesitant to begin this post by briefly highlighting once again the importance of differentiation. As a teacher who is fortunate enough to spend the majority of their time supporting students with SEN, I see the provision of differentiated work in mainstream lessons as the lifeline for so many along the education journey – be that in literacy or in another area of learning.

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A significant number of frank conversations I’ve had in the past with students (including many very able but frustrated ones) who struggle with literacy, lead me to believe that if we – as a collective body of teachers within schools – could master the art of providing targeted, effective differentiation for our students so that they might reach the objectives/targets we expect them to meet, so many other aspects of school life would fall into place. I’ve encountered a vast range of different students with varying needs, who have gradually become disengaged with school life because they find themselves repeatedly struggling to access the learning in lessons, sometimes on a daily (hourly, even) basis. This reality can, not always but often, lead to further complications as a result:

  • increasingly disruptive behaviour
  • growing tensions between students and their peers/teachers/parents
  • lack of motivation
  • loss of confidence etc.

If students are scaffolded in a way that enables them to access the learning, albeit in a slightly different way to others in the same class, there would be little reason for them to have to trail behind their peers as they move through their education.

But, what happens when that effective, targeted differentiation mentioned above is provided and there is still a problem? What if this ‘lifeline’ in class does not breathe the life into learning that we hope it will? It is at this point that alternative routes need to be explored…

Waves

If, at the ‘Wave One’ level of support (quality first teaching, differentiated work in class etc.), it appears that a student cannot access the topics/skills/concepts that are being taught and therefore is still not making the progress they should be, then the only option is to adapt. In our profession, that’s what we do, right? And it is at this point that ‘Wave Two’ support – group intervention – must be considered.

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But what, and how?

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Over the past few years in my role, I’ve established a number of group interventions and whole-school literacy programmes, some that seemed to kick off and run a little smoother than others. Many of the reasons for that I’d put down to experience – learning from the successes and failures of previous efforts and recognising potential pitfalls to avoid along the way – and some I’d attribute to the fact that there is no ‘one size fits all’ method, pausing for a moment to remember that, ultimately, we’re working with students who are all entirely different people. So what might work incredibly well for one student with a literacy weakness, may not work very well for another.

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Nevertheless, while we may do our best to get close, teachers are not (and will never be) superhuman. Nor do we have the capacity in schools to provide individualised learning opportunities for every single student in our care. What we can offer, however, is some form of relief for these students by way of an intensive, worthwhile intervention, in order to support their learning of topics taught back in mainstream lessons.

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As I write, I’m very conscious that I don’t want this post to merely become a passionate plea for teachers and school leaders to recognise the importance of interventions in education. I’d hope I can take that as a given. (This I spoke about at the PiXL Club Curriculum Conference in early December 2013 and would be happy to discuss in detail, if you feel this would be helpful…)

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No. More than that, what I’d like to do here is simply share my Top 10 Tips for anyone approaching the important task of inventing an intervention. The Top 10 Guide you will find below has been kept simple intentionally, in the hope that it will be useful to a large number of people and can be applied to a wide range of possible interventions in their embryonic stages.

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Click on the blue link below to view the full size document.

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Intervention Top 10 JMingay2013

Please do read, digest and use, and let me know how you can see it being utilised best for you. As always, I welcome feedback – the good, the bad and the ugly(!) – and would be happy to have further conversations as mentioned above, should you have any more specific questions or comments.

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(I should also just say, while I’ve tried to be direct and succinct with this Top 10 Guide, this is not an exhaustive list and, depending on your unique situation, the points listed may be helpful to you but work better in a slightly different order.)

However this guide might be used, I hope the content is helpful and clear.
Thanks,
Josie
Find me on Twitter… @JAMingay

The ‘D’ Word

Okay, so it may be a long.  It make be considered awkward and downright cumbersome for any fellow logophiles reading this. I’d even go so far as to say, that if it were a dish listed on the menu of a cafe named ‘Vocabulary’, I’d probably not even pause to scan the list of ingredients because it sounds so incredibly dull.

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Here it comes…

Differentiation.
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There, I said it.

Now…who on earth wants to write a whole blog post dedicated to something so tedious and so enforced in what should be such an innovative and liberating profession, especially as their opening effort on a brand spanking new blog?
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Me. That’s who.
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Why? Read on…

Forgive me for having to take a guess at the range of perspectives and levels of expertise coming at this post as you read, but I’d hazard a guess that, for many, this word – which is so often mentioned in staff meetings and probably recorded on hundreds of aide memoirs, pinned up on school noticeboards up and down the country – is quite possibly the aspect of lessons that is not really explored all that much.  I get it. The last thing any busy teacher wants to face after countless hours of planning and copious amounts of marking, possibly having developed mild symptoms of RSI in the hand department from the grip of that ruddy red (or green…) pen, is having to come up with some alternative option for those students that seem like they just can’t be bothered to put as much effort in. The very thought that, as a teacher who – hopefully – is in tune with the needs of their class and therefore able to pitch the work appropriately,  should then be required to differentiate the work for a handful of students who appear disengaged anyway is just not something we want to be giving any of our precious time to. Right?

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Wrong.

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A brief bit of necessary context:
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Following my undergraduate degree and teacher training I began work as a Primary School teacher. I started teaching Year 4 at first and then was quickly moved to Year 6 where, while I had a degree of flexibility on what to teach, due to the impending SATs each year I was limited with regard to the level of creativity I could bring to my role. For this reason, and also the gradual realisation that for me personally, I preferred working with older students, this first teaching job – in what had been an incredibly supportive and positive environment – still left me feeling very claustrophobic a lot of the time, leading me to explore alternative options within the world of education.

Thankfully, an incredible and perfectly-timed opportunity arose at a nearby secondary school, where there was a vacancy for a Specialist Literacy Teacher based in the SEN department. The school were welcoming applications from primary-trained teachers for this particular role – due to the obvious nature of the job and the range of students it would involve working with. Tentatively, I applied. Unreservedly, I accepted.

As Literacy Leader three years on I can honestly say I’ve not once regretted the move. Not even as we reach the end of Nativity season either…

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Why is this even relevant?          Stick with me.
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I’ve learned an absolutely mammoth amount to get me to this point – in all the challenges I’ve accepted, the small successes I may have had, the minor (and the major!) mistakes I’ve made – and all this, in what for some, is only a short career so far. By far, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned on both an educational level, but even just on a human nature level too, is that people are just so different. Across the vast range of whole classes and small groups I’ve taught, never yet have I ever found a pair of students the same when it comes to how their brain approaches learning. It’s fascinating to watch in a small group setting over the course of a year, just how different students can be as they approach the same task, all possessing very similar needs. And that’s why I’m so passionate about such a potentially passion-punishing piece of vocabulary.
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One thing primary teaching instilled in me from very early on was the necessity to differentiate effectively. Even within a streamed ability set for Literacy or Numeracy, I’d be differentiating three ways on a daily basis.  Even now, for some of my groups where I only have 6 students, I will present learning activities in a range of ways for the different needs in there. As an example, I may have a regular text to read for one, a simpler version for another (and this doesn’t just mean less, it means less complicated vocab sometimes, or presented differently – a storyboard perhaps, rather than endless words on a page etc.), I may have attempted to translate the work for students with EAL, pictures on the board, just finding ways to make the learning come alive.

It’s not the same as teaching mainstream, I know.  The pressures are very different. Preparation – huge. Differentiation and tailoring for individual students needs – huge. Pastoral support – huge. Pressure (and genuine desire!) to help them close the gap between them and their peers – huge. Marking – less. Behaviour management issues – less. It’s not the same, I know.
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However, I have one intended point to make and my message is simple. Please allow me to just return to the original analogy I used of a menu in a cafe named ‘Vocabulary’.

Differentiation should not be listed as a dessert – an optional extra…
“Oh dear. You’re struggling. Just copy this into your book instead.”

It certainly should not be listed among your teas and coffees and your after dinner mints – as an afterthought…
“Oops, I forgot. You should have told me. Next time put your hand up and I’ll help.”

Differentiation should be your main meal, your nutritious protein, your indulgent feast.  Differentiation should be listed somewhere between your energy-giving starter and your sustaining plenary… if you’re working to a conventional lesson model, that is.
“I know you’re here and I know the needs of my students. I recognise you have the potential for success, but I also know you struggle with ‘x’ sometimes, so I’ve varied the task for you. This way, you can strive to meet the same learning objectives and achieve the same outcomes as everyone else in here.”
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Maybe I’m preaching to the converted. Maybe I’m not. Who knows?
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Whatever your thoughts on this, at the very least it surely can’t be a bad thing to just take a moment to be reminded that this is an essential aspect of lesson planning in our profession. As qualified facilitators of learning, we’re called to engage, inspire, empower and, essentially, educate – something that’s quite impossible to do without the ability to meet the needs of ALL our students.