Mistake-free zone

19th October 2007 at 01:00
Cut the criticism and heap on the praise, says learning support teacher Paul Blum.The last lesson of the day. Three sweaty teenage boys burst into my classroom, in physical overdrive from playing football. Two head straight for the back of the room, one begins crawling on the floor, another takes somebody's bag and begins running around with it. These pupils have been selected to be with me because they have reading ages of eight when they are aged 11 or more.

As a learning support teacher, I have, for many years, wrestled with the fundamental problem of how to turn this initial chaos into a situation where we can have a purposeful reading lesson.

Critical to this is making reading fun. To do this, you need a high frequency reward system and lots of verbal praise. Most school rewards systems are too stingy - you need to be catching pupils doing the right thing every few minutes. Try using a series of stamps or stickers to reinforce the learning process.

To nurture fragile pupil self-esteem, I use a teaching style based on creating an error-free environment. Teach them in tiny steps so it is almost impossible for a nervous pupil to get too demoralised by making mistakes. Give them opportunities for constant repetition and reinforcement - a technique sometimes called over-learning. The pace will be slow and pupils can practise just one reading correction strategy five times over a 20-minute session.

Synthetic phonics, although fashionable, probably won't calm reluctant readers. Although the vast majority will have poor sound-to-letter mapping skills, they may not take too kindly to long periods of structured phonics in a reading intervention. So I would recommend light touch phonics when pupils practise blending and segmenting words that they were reading in a story, rather than reciting abstract tables of words and letter combinations. For example, "competition" comes up in a story. The teacher can cover up part of the word, then another part, getting the pupil to read each part separately. Then it's back to the text.

An emphasis on "sight vocabulary" might be useful, rather than breaking down an unfamiliar word. Older pupils are often more adept at remembering the sight of a whole word rather than putting chunks of a word together.

Critical to any successful reading intervention for struggling teenage male readers is finding good texts, fiction and non-fiction. I found that there are not really many good texts for this purpose. Good factors are characterisation, good plots, conflict and drama. Publishers such as Barrington Stoke, Folens, Hodder Murray and Rising Stars all have some good titles. I suspect that many teachers, particularly secondary SEN, buy books without reading them, but enjoyment is the key - I find that if I like the book myself, my pupils will probably agree.

And when in doubt, use the pupils' ideas and write your own stories. I've had pupils who can do a good adventure or sports narrative. Sometimes scenes from their own lives make great storylines. I was able to tap into this energy and write a series of detective science fiction thrillers called The Extraordinary Files, aimed at being closer to the popular culture of The Simpsons and Dr Who that young people feel at home with

Paul Blum, deputy headteacher at Islington Green School, London, is author of The Extraordinary Files (Rising Stars).


Book - Draw on Your Emotions by Margot Sunderland, 7-14 years (Speechmark, pound;32.99). A manual with photocopiable exercises and illustrations designed to ease the process of talking about feelings. (www.speechmark.net)

Software - Wordshark 3s (White Space Ltd, pound;58.72 plus VAT). Games to aid word recognition and spelling, for individual child or paired activity. (www.wordshark.co.uk). Also, Numbershark 4 (pound;50.21 plus VAT), the numeracy equivalent. (www.numbershark.co.uk)

BookCD-Rom - Escape from Exclusion by Brian Marris and Tina Rae (Lucky Duck, pound;24.99). A practical programme to support anger management and problem solving, especially suitable for disaffected pupils and those at risk of exclusion. (www.luckyduck.co.uk)

Angie Rutter.

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