It is literacy hour at New Fosse Way School in Bristol, and Judy Baker's class are continuing their work on The Tempest. Already her pupils have soaked up a good deal of Shakespeare's language, learned Ariel's song and formed a strong understanding of the plot and the main characters. They have also put on a version of the play themselves, which they are discussing this morning, before working in groups on sections of the text and compiling a class book with photographs of their production.
Their sense of excitement, as they recall the parts that each played, is infectious. Were this a mainstream primary class, the level of involvement would be commendable enough. What makes it more so is that all Judy Baker's pupils have severe learning difficulties. These children are 14, but working at a comparable intellectual level with children half their age and less. In fact, for many members of the class, just enunciating words is a big challenge.
For Judy Baker, much of this high-quality work has been made possible by a new series, Inclusive Readers, aimed at children with profound, severe, complex or moderate learning difficulties. Val Davis, deputy head at New Fosse Way School (for children from six to 19 with severe learning difficulties), is a co-author of the series, together with writer and teacher Maggie Walker and former education adviser, Ann Berger.
"If somebody had said to me four or five years ago that I could do Shakespeare with this class, I would have laughed," says Judy Baker. "But the National Literacy Strategy has encouraged us to do things I didn't think we could, and this book of The Tempest has made it so easy for me. I could do with more books like it."
The Inclusive Readers series comprises 12 titles across a range of genres, including fiction, poetry, drama, myth and a story based on letter writing. Their intended audience is seven to 11-year-olds, although several of the titles, such as the Shakespeare and the poetry anthologies, will also stretch older children.
"Finding appropriate reading materials for these children is really difficult," explains Val Davis. "Although our children are developmentally and intellectually delayed, they mature emotionally in the same way as other children their age. We find they can understand and empathise with some quite complex concepts. In this series, we wanted to give them a chance to explore ideas and feelings that are more appropriate for their age group."
In The Tempest (which includes Shakespearean language alongside more straightforward narrative), Judy Baker's pupils are getting to grips with the danger and excitement of a storm and magic, Miranda and Ferdinand falling in love, a father grieving for a lost son, as well as some clowning sailors for light relief.
The Old Town Road Shop raises difficult issues of racism when an Asian shop is vandalised, while Dragonfly, beautifully illustrated with just the right degree of detail, provokes closer study of the natural environment. A couple of stories focus on children with special needs, and these are particularly popular, says Ann Berger. In What Are You Afraid of? for instance, an autistic boy's fears when he finds a different teacher in his classroom reach a nice resolution when the teacher also turns out to be feeling scared.
Each title consists of a handsomely-produced big book to be read aloud by the teacher, a teacher's book (with weekly plans, work sheets and ideas for the multi-sensory activities), and pictures and words to be cut out and laminated. For the children's own reading, there are three levels of text (to be photocopied and turned into books) from symbols to simple sentences.
Some mainstream schools, as well as special schools, have already started using the books with groups of weak readers, says Ann Berger. "I'm hoping that more special needs co-ordinators in mainstream schools will also realise their potential."
One of the distinctive features of the series is that the big book presents each story in a rich and stimulating format, which is then condensed and simplified in the children's own books, while still retaining the flavour of the story. Ideally, a group works with one book long enough for its language to become deeply familiar.
"Children don't have to be able to read the big book themselves to get under the skin of the story," explains Maggie Walker. "It is wonderful to think of them knowing Prospero and Ferdinand, Miranda and Caliban. That's the most exciting thing for me: children who are reading very few words on a page are still carrying the images and the context from the big book, so they will feel that they are reading the whole story. I think that this is really liberating for them."
Inclusive Readers series by Maggie Walker, Val Davis and Ann Berger, David Fulton Publishers, pound;25 each.
David Fulton is offering TES readers a 10 per cent discount on orders before February 28.Contact Harriet Baulcombe on 020 8996 3610 quoting TES Teacher