A special intervention to get formal reading right

15th July 2016 at 00:00
One senior leader offers some top tips for mainstream teachers on the methods that special schools use to get their students ready for reading

LEARNING TO read is complicated. Not only does it rely on numerous skills that can often develop independently from one another, but those independent skills can be context-specific – they might be applied successfully in one situation but become problematic in another.

So deciding when to move a child on to formal reading – or trying to pinpoint where a child that is struggling to read formally may need some assistance – is tough. Perhaps an example of effective practice from special schools applied to the mainstream classroom might help?

At Frank Wise, the school at which I teach, it is important that decisions about what to teach are made objectively and are informed by evidence of the child’s understanding, rather than on a professional hunch. We make sure this happens by adopting a broad portfolio of assessments that help us establish the specific developmental point that the child is working at.

How this works in practice when it comes to reading will be of interest, we believe, to those teachers working in mainstream schools.

It starts with the basics. We assess children to ensure that the following building blocks of reading are all firmly in place.

1 Short-term memory Being able to recall information after a short period of time is essential if a child’s reading is to be both meaningful and purposeful. It may also be valuable for teachers to consider the difference between visual and auditory memory and how they tend to interact. This interaction may have an impact on the degree to which a child is able to read successfully.

2 Shape matching

In order to engage with reading phonetically, one of the requirements is that the child should be able to consistently recognise the individual graphemes.

Therefore, before beginning to read, shape matching needs to have been thoroughly mastered. There is also some value in looking at the child’s ability to orientate abstract shapes spatially, developing the visual skills helpful when discriminating between the letters of p, b, d and q.

A well-developed understanding of shape may help to ensure that the complexity of the different shapes that are created by graphemes, and, in some cases, their similarity, doesn’t lead to confusion for your budding readers.

3 Left to right sequencing

The Western convention around the presentation of text is ordinarily in a left to right, top to bottom order. To be able to read, you need to access a series of abstract shapes presented in a sequence moving from left to right.

For this, teachers need to ensure that pupils’ ability to understand the concept of sequential presentation and then replicating those sequences is well-developed and that they can process the words phonetically and in the correct order. We want the child to be able to focus on the process of reading, instead of being challenged by sequencing.

4 Temporal sequencing

Much of what we read presents information that is sequenced over periods of time, particularly in fiction. The ability to retain and understand the logical combination of different pieces of information within that sequence, in order to understand the nature of the narrative, is a fundamental component of literacy. Laying the foundations of this as an intellectual concept is important. We do this by introducing simple photo sequences, before moving on to more complex generic sequences, such as the process of cleaning a car.

5 Language comprehension

It would be unusual, in my experience, to encounter children whose functional reading skills are significantly ahead of their broader language skills. Therefore as part of evaluating whether a child is intellectually ready to begin reading with a formal reading scheme, we would assess them using the Derbyshire Language Scheme (see bit.ly/DLScheme). This assessment looks at the language development of the child from the point of view of comprehension and expression through using simple sentences. In doing this, we are trying to ensure that language development is secure enough that the sentence structures and the breadth of language are not going to provide additional barriers to reading successfully.

We have found that while the children could demonstrate one or maybe two of the above areas at once, having to use them all interchangeably when reading was causing some pupils to plateau. Our reading scheme, which was developed within the school, provides a developmental stepping stone and has led to a greater number of pupils making the transition to formal schemes.

It works by providing the child with simple sequential narratives, within which they have to identify which of four illustrations correspond to a written sentence. If the child can consistently select the correct picture, we can surmise that they are actually reading the words, rather than guessing.

This approach has had a profound impact in our setting, and it highlights the importance of using high-quality assessment to inform high-quality teaching.

Simon Knight is deputy headteacher at Frank Wise School, Banbury @SimonKnight100

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