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Talking shop

Q I have a child in my class who refuses to speak. She is five. Her mum says she talks at home but never in public. I teach a mixed class of reception and Year 1, and I will have Shona in my class for another year. I have tried involving her in classroom activities and ignoring the condition, hoping she will grow out of it. I'm worried about next year as I have never heard her read. She is on stage 2 of special needs assessment.

A The fact that Shona has elected to remain mute challenges everything you know about teaching through communicating. I've taught two elective mutes, neither of whom had pre-school experience and both families kept themselves to themselves. Starting school may have traumatised these youngsters.

These are special children and need special relationships with teachers. Be bold, try the unthinkable. Don't speak to Shona - use gesture, facial expression and body language.

One way to establish closeness is to silently give secret gifts, such as the dried wing of a fly or one tiny flower petal. Work with her, show her a book and point to a quiet place. Choose a funny picture book with short sentences. Hold her finger to the pictures and indicate the story by using facial expressions. Create a language just for Shona. Question her with your eyes and don't show you want a verbal answer.

Aim for a response such as concentration or smiling. Try gestures that mean "again" as you turn back to favourite bits. Let her turn pages and show you things.

Progress gradually to pointing under words but don't make a sound. Later, whisper in her ear. Ask her if she would like you to whisper the words. Whisper them even if she doesn't respond. Allow her to whisper words to you.

You'll need to work with her parents on reading at home. Let Shona see you happily talking with her parents. Try observing them reading together if possible. But don't rush.

This strategy took two to four terms before the children spoke audibly, but I was amazed at what they had learned. The secret is proving to the child that it's safe to share their private world with you and that you'll stick with them as they step into the unknown.

Q I'm a male teacher and I have been told by my head to be careful about the way I comfort pupils in my class. Apparently I'm too physical and my actions can be misconstrued. I teach a Year 23 class. I feel nervous and my confidence is low. What can I do?

A Your head is giving you helpful information and trying to protect you, and the school. Ask yourself, are your actions sending the wrong messages? Have you touched any children "inappropriately", for instance, sat them on your knee when a kind look would have done? Don't forget, the children in your class are old enough to be embarrassed about being handled in a way that would be appropriate for younger pupils.

If you come from a tactile family and your pupils do not, adjust your actions. Are there cultural differences at play here? However, don't retreat into cold self-containment. Teaching does entail giving physical comfort when needed. No one would deny that children need physical affection from friends and adults. If we are not careful, and society's worst fears predominate, we will produce a society where physical communication is limited to contact sports, aggression and romance. As a male teacher, you're in a powerful position. Take great care to ensure that your physical actions are driven by the child's needs, not your own.

Q We've just had a school in-service day on classroom organisation. Now the head wants us to give up our teachers' desks. But I disagree. I use my desk a lot and simply can't imagine life without it.

A This has been a hot potato for a long time. Personally, I blame Lady Plowden! Come on now, just ask yourself does it really matter? What do you use the desk for? Your answer will tell you if it should be thrown out. If you reply, "as a dumping ground" or "for my things", then get a cupboard or tray and invest in a comfortable storytelling chair instead. If the reply is "to sit at while I work with individual pupils", that's fine, as long as there are no queues forming. If there are, it'll take more than one in-service day to introduce the range of strategies needed to meet the demands of today's curriculum.

Drop Sue a line : If you have a question, or further suggestions for this month's letter writers, you can send them to Sue Mulvany via the TES Staffroom (click on 'TES Staffroom' at the top left hand corner of this page).

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