Special education - Pull some strings

Teaching aids from traditional puppets to a hi-tech reading pen can be useful in unlocking the door to figures, says John Dabell

John Dabell

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Making maths accessible for children with special educational needs can be particularly challenging, given all the different starting points and barriers to learning.

Areas of special concern include the language of maths, sequencing and memory. Pupils with problems in visual perception may find orientation difficult and confuse maths symbols and numbers. Those with physical or sensory sensitivities may struggle with spatial elements of maths and pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties may find concentration difficult.

Multi-sensory teaching is essential for SEN (special educational needs) learners, using a range of media and techniques. Where possible, make your resources visual, concrete and co-operative, combining hands-on with minds-on experiences. Use 3-D apparatus, props, drama, raps, rhymes, songs, 2-D pictures, maths diagrams, mnemonics, coloured activity sheets, interactive games, DVDs and computer technology.

Puppets are also a reassuring and powerful way of building pupils' mathematical and personal self-confidence. You can use them to introduce a topic, teach words and methods, purposely get things wrong for children to correct, help with a guided maths session, or act as a maths buddy to support paired work. They also give instant feedback. Children like puppets, especially when they show a gap in their understanding that mirrors their own. They give children hope because they don't feel so alone or insecure.

Another confidence booster and an excellent visual tool to use in any maths setting is a concept cartoon - simple drawings featuring conversations about a maths idea using speech bubbles. They use a minimal amount of text, so don't place heavy demands on a reader and are a "safe" means of allowing unconfident children to take a risk and venture an idea. If it's wrong, they can blame the cartoon character. Other ways of helping children access mathematical language are:

- Taking maths outside and exploring the environment.

- Displaying the language related to a topic around the class on a word wall.

- Giving children vocabulary sheets and pictures in advance of a new topic.

- Asking pupils to build their own maths dictionary or bank of word cards over the year.

The language of maths can be especially confusing for dyslexic pupils, but there are tools available that can help them understand the meaning of words and concepts. An excellent device is a reading pen, a small, portable hand-held scanner that can be used to read out difficult words and display meanings. It shows scanned words in a large font and pronounces them clearly. The pens can also be used with headphones.

Another piece of technology worth thinking about is a talking calculator that can read out individual digits, whole numbers and transactions. Talking calculator software can be purchased for using on the interactive whiteboard too.

Although SEN children shouldn't be regarded as a collective whole when teaching maths, there are some general pointers. Be clear when giving instructions, use training memory skills, regularly revisit learning areas, extend abilities steadily, encourage goal-setting, good timekeeping and praise achievement.

The success of any strategy or resource working formatively depends on the quality of our interactions with children, the questions we ask and how we promote dialogue and discussion. A child with special educational maths needs should have their needs met; our efforts should promote independent learning and minimise dependence on adults. Teaching maths to children with special needs can be an exciting and rewarding experience for everyone.

John Dabell is a Year 6 teacher and maths co-ordinator at Forest Fields Primary and Nursery in Nottingham.

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John Dabell

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