Break down those barriers

16th January 2004 at 00:00
When discussing a particular pupil, my colleague will inevitably ask: "What is the barrier to learning here?" Sometimes it is poor handwriting, spelling problems or dyslexia. It may be dire home circumstances. Often it is poor motivation or attitude. Maybe the child was absent a lot in primary, or finds concentration hard.

Whatever, we can't begin to help unless we can work out why they are not learning what is on offer.

Sometimes the answer is simply that they don't have the ability. These kids can be well motivated and keen, or scruffy, obnoxious little toads. But the Government can set all the targets in the world, and these kids are not going to reach level E by the end of S2. In fact, level D might be pushing it.

After a while, the gap between those who can and those who can't gets bigger, and by S4 their reading age will be sliding backwards at a rate of knots. It can be hard to "keep up" in secondary schools where differentiated work is still not the norm. So jotters become messier, there is more unfinished work, less completed homework and the Standard grade Foundation course becomes another label for failure.

Yes, they can't write very well and their spelling is getting worse. And yes, their reading is pretty bad and they avoid it whenever possible. But if they like a subject or a teacher - or better still both - then they will learn. The problem comes when we assess this learning. Standard grades are written, they all involve a lot of pages and a lot of words. If you are a bad reader, you are not always going to comprehend what the examiner is asking.

I do a lot of scribing and reading of exams. Why, I ask myself, can't a television screen be used for every single Foundation pupil? Everyone would hear, as well as see, and therefore know what the question was. It would help them pace the exam so they don't panic their way through, only to finish half an hour too soon. It would help their concentration because most kids would gain a minute or two between questions to switch off, before being drawn back in.

Those who do read well could get their heads down and go at their own pace.

I can't really see why this would be difficult to introduce - it's already part of the PE exams. We talk a lot about different modes of learning, but our exam system uses one way, and only that one way, to assess it. Tough for the auditory and kinesthetic learners.

You might argue that reading is part of the exam. But I might argue back that the real aim should be to establish what the child actually knows.

Exams are expensive and stressful. Isn't it time we gave all the less able kids a hand over their barrier to learning? Can't we even try?

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