60 special minutes

Sue Palmer opens up the literacy hour to pupils with learning difficulties

The Government's literacy strategy aims to reduce that "long tail of under-achievement" which has bedevilled primary education for so long, and ensure that fewer children end up on the special needs register. In the meantime, teachers still have to cater for many children with reading difficulties.

Shared text work

Most teachers I have talked to feel special needs children benefit from this part of the hour. Watching the teacher demonstrate literacy skills helps them develop a range of strategies, rather than relying on their traditional "minimal phonics plus maximum guesswork" technique. Support from the teacher and others also allows them to join in studying texts they couldn't read independently.

Teaching suggestions

Successful shared work depends on how well you match questioning and discussion to the ability levels of pupils. The teachers' notes for Shared and Guided Reading at key stage 1 (in the National Literacy Strategy's training pack) include useful lists of Teacher Prompts for word, sentence and text level. These are given in roughly hierarchic order, so you can use them as starting points for developing differentiated questioning strategies.

Shared skills work

Some teachers fear the NLS's advice to aim skills teaching at the top end of the class's ability level means special needs children will be excluded. Where a child is unlikely to gain from working with peers, some teachers are using this session for withdrawal for one-to-one work, which can then be followed up during group time.

In most cases, however, differentiated teaching strategies do allow involvement, whatever the subject. For instance, when discussing the various uses of capital letters with the class, you can home in on basic uses (to begin a sentence, for proper names) with less-able children.

And limited time for skills coverage leads to an increase in the pace of work, often resulting in several short, sharp teaching points rather than an extended ramble. This type of teaching is particularly effective for children with poor concentration.

Teaching suggestions

Children on the special educational needs (SEN) register should have individual education plans (IEPs), defining specific objectives. Look for opportunities to target these objectives through whatever material you're using.

Try to keep skills fun, fast and multi-sensory. Use techniques like songs, action rhymes and puppets at key stage 1 and raps, role-play and language games at key stage 2. Fifteen minutes' high-speed, interactive teaching will keep all children engaged, and you can then set group work, which follows up your lesson appropriately.

Group time

There's a danger that, while the teacher is working with other pupils, the low-ability group will be kept busy with low-level "holding activities". To avoid this, the class teacher and the special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) can create a group education plan (GEP), subsuming the requirements of group members' IEPs. Directed independent work can then be planned in two ways: As a 20-minute follow-up to the shared work in class, homing in on an aspect of the GEP.

As a longer-term task (perhaps related to a published special needs programme, and perhaps supervised by a classroom assistant), set on Monday to be completed through the week.

Some schools are also using this 20 minutes for a structured intervention programme, such as Catch-Up or THRASS. These programmes often involve withdrawal from the classroom to work with trained assistants. They should, however, be for a specified time, and children's progress should be carefully monitored.

Teaching suggestions

The photocopiable sheets of teaching ideas in each module of the NLS training pack all begin with a stated Teaching Objective. Use the ones for younger age groups to design activities for special needs pupils.

Computer software is useful for consolidation activities. CD-Roms such as Workshark 2 provide enjoyable phonics reinforcement, and SEN programmes such as Wellington Square and Fuzzbuzz now have accompanying CD-Roms with talking stories and games.


An opportunity to revisit and consolidate the main points of the lesson is especially valuable for less able pupils, who benefit from a rapid follow-up. It also provides an opportunity to relate the SEN group's work to the overall learning objectives of the class.

Teaching suggestion

Try to target one or two of the points from the GEP on which pupils have been working.

Sources: These suggestions came from discussions with teachers, SENCOs and an interview with Sue Hackman, the National Literacy Strategy's special needs expert Resource details: Catch-Up (01865 485903); THRASS (01829 741413); Workshark 2 (White Space, 0181-748 5927); Wellington Square (Granada Learning Semerc, 0161-827 2927); Fuzzbuzz (OUP, 01536 741171)

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