This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2019. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here.
In the first two articles of this five-part series, I explained what SLCN is and how schools can correctly identify pupils with SLCN and offer them support so that they can access the curriculum, make good progress and achieve good outcomes.
The research suggests that pupils with SLCN would like:
- Opportunities to ask questions and seek clarifications.
- Teachers to use drawings and diagrams such as mind-maps to support verbal instructions.
- Teachers to explain what they need to include in their answers to questions.
- The use of bullet points instead of writing on the whiteboard and in handouts.
- To learn the vocabulary that they need to know before a lesson.
- Lessons where the teacher talks briefly and then they work in groups.
- Thinking time after a question is asked.
- Opportunities to work with a partner.
As outlined last week, at the heart of good practice are three key things: quality first teaching, in-class differentiation, and additional interventions.
Last week I began to explore what is meant by the term “quality first teaching”. I said that the best way to improve outcomes for pupils with SLCN, as with any additional and different learning need, is through quality first teaching because, if we improve the quality of timetabled teaching in the classroom, all pupils – including those with SLCN – will make better progress.
Four step teaching
In a previous article in SecEd (A four-step teaching sequence, June 2018: http://bit.ly/2RPjbiX), I argued that quality first teaching occurs when we introduce pupils to new curriculum content in four distinct stages: telling, showing, doing, practising.
Telling, I said, is the most effective, expedient way for pupils to acquire new information. It works like this: simply, the teacher – that educated, experienced expert at the front of class – tells pupils what they need to know. This is not to suggest that sometimes, for some purposes, other approaches are not also effective, but teacher explanations remain the most efficient method of teaching – not to mention the least likely to lead to misconceptions among pupils and a misunderstanding by the teacher of what pupils can and cannot do.
There are a few more tips to consider when using direct instruction with pupils with SLCN. Because pupils with SLCN:
- Find it difficult to listen to and understand lots of spoken language.
- Need more time to process spoken language.
- Can find it hard to separate out sounds, words, phrases.
- Can have visual strengths.
Pupils with SLCN will benefit from direct instruction in which their teachers:
- Cut down the amount of language used.
- Repeat important information several times.
- Build in time for processing answers to questions.
- Slow down and repeat instructions.
- Think aloud.
- Use visuals.
- Display key words on the board.
- Use sentence stems, mnemonics and other “schema”.
Showing, I said, is when teachers, having first explained something, make effective and plentiful use of models – exemplars of both good and bad work, as well as exemplars from a range of different contexts – which show pupils what a final product should look like and what makes such products work.
Good models demonstrate what works as well as what doesn’t. It is important to show pupils what excellence looks like by sharing models of the very best work, giving them something to aspire to and an understanding of how to produce high quality work of their own.
But it is equally important to show pupils models of ineffective work, work that isn’t quite the best, or perhaps is so very far from being the best, so that pupils can learn what not to do and how to avoid making the same mistakes themselves.
All the models, I said, should be dissected in front of pupils, with the teacher demonstrating the dissection process. Once pupils know how to dissect models, they should be afforded the opportunity to do so without the teacher’s guidance, perhaps by teaching other pupils.
In order to prepare pupils for this, it is important that the teacher offers encouragement, gives specific instructions, uses thought or sentence stems to provide pupils with the right language, and – as I say above – directly demonstrates the process first.
Doing is when the teacher, having modelled something at the front of class, does so again but this time with pupils’ help. Co-construction (or joint-construction) works well because the teacher engages pupils’ thought processes and helps them by questioning their decisions and by prompting further decision-making. The teacher’s role is not to construct another model themselves, but to ask targeted questions of pupils to encourage them to complete the model together, as well as to provide corrections and feedback along the way and drip-feed key vocabulary into the mix.
The teacher, therefore, will mostly be engaged in asking open questions such as, “Why did you choose that word?” “Is there another word which might fit better or have more impact?” “Why is this word better than this one?” “Should we use a short sentence here?” “Why/why not?” and “What is the effect of this, do you think?”
Practising, I said, is when pupils, having constructed a model together, do so again but this time do so independently. Independent practice not only provides a crucial third opportunity for pupils to practise (after teacher modelling and co-construction), it also enables pupils to demonstrate their own understanding and for the teacher to assess the extent to which they have “got it”.
Until a pupil completes a task by themselves, we – and perhaps they – cannot be certain they can do so or that information has been encoded in long-term memory. If pupils succeed, the teacher can move on. If not, the teacher can use the feedback information to guide further teaching of the subject, perhaps re-teaching key elements of it or engaging those pupils who have succeeded in teaching those who have not.
Ultimately, whatever form it takes, quality first teaching should ensure that all pupils, including those with SEND:
- Are engaged, in the sense of being active participants in the process of learning not passive recipients of information.
- Are highly motivated to learn and enthusiastic about learning.
- Are challenged by hard work and know that making mistakes is an essential part of learning.
- Receive effective feedback about where they are now, where they need to go next, and how they will get there.
- As a result of feedback, make progress over time and become increasingly independent and resilient learners.
One way to enable pupils to become increasingly independent and resilient is to employ the popular “3B4ME” method, which encourages pupils to persevere when they get stuck and overcome challenges by themselves. It works like this: when a pupil experiences difficulty, before they ask for help, they must first use:
- Brain (think for themselves).
- Buddy (ask a peer).
- Book or board (use classroom resources including wall displays and textbooks).
It’s good to (teach) talk
It is also helpful to teach pupils with SLCN how to engage in classroom discussions, and for the teacher to consider the way in which they and other adults speak to pupils…
In order to help pupils with SLCN engage in classroom discussions and question-and-answer sessions, teachers need to teach pupils how to talk and work in groups.
They need to provide plenty of opportunities for pupils to talk in class, to a partner, to a small group, to adults, and to the whole class. Teachers should also scaffold the questions they ask in order to build pupil confidence. They should give pupils time to process questions and instructions, building in “thinking time”. And they should make pupils aware of the range of resources available to support them.
It is important that teachers and support staff carefully consider the way in which they talk. For example, they should be cognisant of the length and complexity of the language they use with pupils, and consider the range and level of questions pupils understand. They should encourage pupils to engage in discussions with peers. They should model and scaffold if needed, and teach pupils how to recognise when they need help and how to ask for it. They should frequently check for understanding, perhaps involving other adults in the class where relevant.
The importance of literacy
The Educational Endowment Foundation’s report Preparing for literacy (June 2018) argues that approaches that emphasise spoken language and verbal interaction can support the development of communication and language and, in turn, communication and language can provide the foundations for learning and thinking and underpin the development of later literacy skills.
While being aimed at the early years, the report might prove helpful for key stage 3 teachers of pupils with SLCN. As such, perhaps you might consider activities to develop communication and language including shared reading, story-telling, or explicitly extending children’s vocabulary.
These activities should be embedded within a curriculum of rich and varied experiences. Developing vocabulary is important for later literacy development, but it should not – the EEF warns – be seen as a silver bullet: “It should form part of a broad approach to improving communication, language, and literacy.”
In terms of shared reading, the EEF recommends using the PEER framework and this might be a useful tool to help pupils with SLCN to read aloud. It is a simple sequence that can be used to support shared, or “dialogic”, reading. When reading together, adults can pause and:
- Prompt the pupil to say something about the book.
- Evaluate their response.
- Expand their response by rephrasing or adding information to it.
- Repeat the prompt to help them learn from the expansion.
There are five main types of prompts that can be used as part of the PEER sequence. The prompts can be remembered using the acronym CROWD:
- Completion: leave a blank at the end of a sentence for pupils to complete (this works particularly well with books with rhymes or repetitive phrases).
- Recall: ask pupils about something they have already read (these prompts support pupils to understand the story plot).
- Open-ended: often with a focus on pictures in books (this works well with illustrations and encourages pupils to express their ideas).
- Wh: prompts that begin with “who”, “what”, “where”, “why”, and “when” (“what” questions can be used to develop vocabulary).
- Distancing: connects the book to pupils’ own life experiences and provides an opportunity for high quality discussion.
Some more quality first teaching strategies that work particularly well for pupils with SLCN (and indeed for all pupils) include KWL charts, dual coding, including the use of mind-maps, thinking time, and explicit vocabulary instruction.
One common diagnostic technique and a means of acquiring data on pupils’ starting points is asking pupils at the beginning of a lesson or new topic to identify what they already know (or think they know) about what they are about to study.
Their responses can then be listed in a table or graphic organiser. The contents of the first column provide us with a sense of pupils’ prior knowledge, while also unmasking any misconceptions that may exist and therefore may need to be addressed.
Next, we should ask pupils to identify “what I want to learn” about the topic and ask them to raise any questions they may have at this early stage. These responses can be recorded in the second column to serve as indicators of areas of interest.
As the unit unfolds, the knowledge and skills that pupils begin to acquire should be recorded in the third column, providing a record for pupils of “what I have learned”.
An alternative to this is to begin a lesson or topic with an initial assessment, perhaps a low-stakes multiple-choice quiz. The results of these pre-tests can yield invaluable evidence about pupils’ prior knowledge and misconceptions and, when repeated at various stages of the teaching sequence, can provide evidence of pupils’ growing knowledge and understanding.
Regardless of the approach taken, information from diagnostic assessments can guide us in our planning so that lessons are more responsive to pupils’ needs and existing knowledge-base – surely the very definition of differentiation.
An important practical implication, of course, is that we must remember to plan opportunities for assessments and allow sufficient “wriggle room” to make adjustments based on the feedback garnered by these assessments.
In-built flexibility like this is not just advisable, it is a key aspect of effective lesson-planning and differentiation because it enables learning to be personalised to match the needs and pace of pupils’ learning – which is essential if we are to support pupils with SLCN. It also ensures that gaps in pupils’ learning are identified and filled, which in turn will avoid an off-the-peg, one-size-fits-all approach to lesson-planning and enable good progress to be made by all pupils, irrespective of their additional and different needs.
I will continue to explore these additional quality first teaching strategies when I will focus on dual coding, including the use of mind-maps, thinking time, and explicit vocabulary instruction.