The class concerned was a small challenging group of 12 male pupils, a low set in Year 7, with one pupil with a full statement for emotional and behavioural difficulties and several others on the special needs register. It was hard to get the pupils to sit still at the beginning of a lesson.
The group had managed to get involved with some smaller talk tasks when I decided to try out the Alien Coat Game. I told the class that we were about to play a game in pairs to learn how to give precise instructions.
I emphasised my instructions at the beginning of the lesson and asked the pupils to identify and discuss them. We talked about the word instruction, considered the type of language used when giving an instruction, eg, use of the imperative, clarity of the sentence, and the tone of voice and body language needed to reinforce a command.
I then placed a coat on a chair and asked for a volunteer. One pupil went out of the room to become the "alien". The other pupils were told that an alien had arrived from outer space who did not know the meaning of the word "coat". The alien entered the room and I modelled some precise instructions, such as "Walk forward towards the desk and then stop" without using the word coat, telling the alien to move around the room and eventually to put on the coat.
I then chose the statemented pupil to be the alien. To the delight of the pupils, the teaching assistant and myself, the alien became far less passive and obedient. It adopted a series of Dalek-like murmurs and began to clink and clank. This pupil, who was an audacious performer, gave the alien a strong identity. Now all the pupils wanted to be the alien and it was hard to get them to work in pairs to take on both roles - to rehearse giving instructions as well as receiving them.
Here was a chance to perform and be foolish, naughty and dumb and be applauded for it. The exercise allowed the pupils to be orally inventive, to use their imagination and performance skills. Writing came later when they asked to be allowed to turn it into a play. If you can successfully involve pupils with special needs in talk, they will begin to shine
Valerie Coultas is a teacher educator at Kingston University and the author of Constructive Talk in Challenging Classrooms, published by Routledge, 2007. Next week: Louisa Leaman returns for a series on how to be a special needs teacher.