Knowledge organisers have become increasingly popular in schools, and it’s easy to see why.
They specify what should be taught and set an expectation of the minimum knowledge students need to be successful. They also assist students’ revision and retrieval practice, and support teachers’ own subject knowledge by acting as a quick reference guide.
However, there are pitfalls to avoid when using knowledge organisers (KOs) if you want to make sure that they support students’ learning effectively. This is particularly true when you are working with students with special educational needs and disability.
So, how can you make sure that you are using KOs in a way that makes them accessible to all?
First of all, while it is tempting to use an “off the peg” KO, it is far better to create your own. One of the key principles of effective curriculum design is making reasoned choices about what to teach and why, considering the characteristics of your student population.
Secondly, be mindful of the volume of content to include. If your KO is four pages long and includes a seven-paragraph synopsis of a set text, it’s becoming more like a revision guide and won’t serve its intended purpose.
How to make your knowledge organiser accessible to SEND students
Finally, you can make sure that your KO is accessible to everyone, including students with SEND, by following a few simple rules:
1. Use a readable font in a readable size
Some of the ready-made KOs I have come across have had to be enlarged to A3 for the text to even be comfortably legible.
Whether students are dyslexic or not, if they cannot read the text, they cannot learn.
So, choose a sans-serif font (such as Calibri, Trebuchet or Arial) and a minimum font size of 11. This should suit most students. You can always enlarge to A3 for the students who benefit from larger print.
2. Use colour to organise the text
This is an easy way to clearly distinguish categories of information. Furthermore, it makes the prospect of learning all the information less overwhelming for students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Associating a colour with a category can be a very useful visual cue for many, including some autistic students.
And remember that avoiding black text on a white background reduces visual stress.
3. Number lists of information within each section
Not only does this make it much easier to refer to a specific part of the KO, it can also create a reassuring sense of predictability.
4. Use simple, unambiguous language
This isn’t to say that we should avoid “challenging” vocabulary for students with SEND, who have the same entitlement to learning high-level concepts as anyone else.
However, it is important that any definitions or explanations are easy to understand. Any definition of key vocabulary that requires students to look up a word from the definition in a dictionary is clearly counter-productive.
You should also avoid idioms and figurative language when explaining ideas, as this can be a barrier for some autistic students.
5. Use dual coding to help with retrieval practice
There is clear evidence to show that simple images act as visual hooks and memory prompts to help students to memorise new information more easily. They are great for quick quizzes and many English-as-an-additional-language students report finding them extremely helpful.
Including images around key concepts in your KO is, therefore, a good way to maximise understanding.
The beauty of following these simple steps is that they support the learning of all students, not just those with SEND. Everyone benefits from text that is easy to read, clearly organised and straightforward to comprehend.
Heather Greatbatch is a head of English and literacy at a secondary school in Greater Manchester