Hunt the cake and search for words

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Carolyn O'Grady sees how one speech and language school adapts the literacy hour

This month Dawn House school, a non-maitained special school for five to 16-year-olds with speech, language and communication difficulties, celebrates its 25th anniversary. It has a lot to celebrate, not least its excellent report from the Office for Standards in Education last year. Very good leadership and management, high quality teaching and excellent relationships among pupils and between pupils and staff and more, were just some of the qualities praised by OFSTED. It also drew attention to the fact that the literacy hour had been very successfully introduced at key stages 1 and 2 and is being piloted in Year 7.

Run by I CAN, the national educational charity for children with speech, language and communication difficulties, Dawn House has 80 pupils. All are referred by local authorities and have such severe difficulties that their needs cannot be met in local mainstream or special schools. It is a school which might be forgiven for using its non-maintained status to opt out of the literacy hour. But no. "We feel we have to be open to new ideas," says headteacher, Monica Uden. "We decided to reflect on its strengths and what we can gain from it."

They decided they could gain a lot and for two years now the school has been doing the literacy hour with Years 2 to 6 every day. Watching the "hour" in action it is hard to believe that "the biggest problem", as Monica Uden says, "was to get the teachers to move away from the notion that the teaching of reading was something done on a one-to-one basis and to persuade them that doing it as a whole class or in small groups can work." The school has adopted the structure of the literacy hour completely: using guided reading, writing activities and differentiated tasks to meet objectives for phonics, spelling, handwriting, vocabulary, grammar and punctuation. There is the range of genre, a balance of teaching methods and much differentiated small group work and independent learning.

Of course there have been major adaptations. The level of work is lower than might be expected for the age range: teachers pick what is most appropriate and go into it in great depth, constantly reinforcing and exploring how far the children are comprehending meanings. In the differentiated tasks they take account of a child's strengths and weaknesses and practice what is on their individual education plans. Signing, electronic communication aids, cued speech and finger spelling are all used to reinforce meaning.

Typically a teacher, a speech and language therapist and a classroom assistant work with up to 10 children in each class. Their already well-honed skills in using a wide range of visual and other sensory triggers to reinforce concepts fit well with the literacy hour's insistence on a diverse range of activities and methods. In a session for Years 2 and 3 devoted exclusively to three words - "over", "through" and "under" - and centred on the Big Book We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, teacher Violet Laird has taken photographs of the children under a table, jumping over a "stream" and going through a play tunnel. They talk about them in a whole-class session, write sentences in smaller groups, and go to the hall to "go on a cake hunt",which involves an obstacle course of going under, through and over things. In small group sessions, they do their writing, work at a "delta talker" computer, or learn their frequency words.

Finally they eat the cake. By the end of the lesson Violet Laird has laminated and produced a book with their photographs and sentences for them to read.

In a session for Years 4 and 5 based on the use of the Big Book Handa's Surprise by Eileen Browne about an African girl's trip to the market, the notion of adjectives is reinforced by passing round a mango: "How would you describe it? Is it red or yellow?" asks the teacher. "What does it smell like?" elicits more adjectives, as does "What does it taste like?" after the mango is cut up for eating.

Previously, teacher Sue Mellors has read the extract missing out the adjectives: "It'll sound just as good," she says in mock exasperation. "Look they're bored," responds speech and language therapist Jane Storer, reading it again, this time emphasising the adjectives. The children are enthralled.

Where activities take a lot of time they are carried over to another part of the day. A Year 6 session was devoted to biography, with a lot of time spent working out questions to use in interviews with people in the school. The actual interviews, which might involve writing - something for which these children need a lot of time - would be done later. Whole school policies on behaviour mesh closely with literacy hour objectives. Children are reminded often of appropriate classroom behaviour: in the biography session the differences between polite and impolite questions were explored, for example.

So far the results look good. Initial monitoring suggests that literacy levels have improved in terms of word lists and functional literacy, says Monica Uden.

"Literacy hour has raised awareness of different authors and genres, biography for example, and given the children a wider vocabulary. They have gained confidence and see themselves more as users of literacy. We hope this will show itself in their needing less support in accessing the curriculum elsewhere." Small group work, in particular, has enabled these children with a wide range of abilities and subtly different problems to learn from each other. "They can get very focused on what they can't do; in small group they can see how they can contribute," she says.

The emphasis on independent learning has worked well," comments Jane Storer. "It is very easy to give children more help than they need; the fact that they have to do it every day has improved their ability to work on their own in other lessons.

"But we do have to teach them the skills," she emphasises. "We have to explain what they must do if they get stuck, for example use a dictionary, ask a friend. And we begin with very simple independent learning task such as 'find your own pencil or scissors'."

But perhaps most important is that all the teachers agreed that the children enjoyed and thrived in the sessions. They appreciated the structure. "Our children like the routine," says Jane Storer.

Dawn House is a non-maintained special school run by I CAN, the national educational charity for children with speech and language difficulties. I CAN, 4 Dyers Buildings, Holborn, London EC1N 2QP. Tel: 0870 010 40 66

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