Twelve tips to help students with SEND revise

2nd March 2017 at 12:15
When it comes to enabling students with SEND to revise for exams, teachers need to offer extra guidance. Jules Daulby serves up a dozen revision tips you can try...

There are many things that a teacher needs to think about when it comes to helping students with special educational needs and disability (SEND) to revise for their exams. A detailed knowledge of the student in question and the assistance of the Sendco should be the beginning point of any strategy to help the individual succeed, but there are some general tips that can provide a framework for properly supporting the revision of students with SEND.

Here are 12 things to consider:

1. Break revision down into small steps

Even when being bespoke in terms of a topic to revise, for students with SEND we need to push the specificity of a topic and instructions even further.

So let’s take the periodic table as an example. You may set the class the task of remembering a certain number of elements. When helping students with SEND to revise, you might need to scaffold this further. You could create a resource with a picture of each of the elements down one side of A4 and dotted lines next to each. Ask the student to describe the symbols in one to two sentences. Following this activity, give the sheet out again and see if they can repeat the exercise from memory.

Such an approach can be adapted across subjects.

2. Visual prompts are really useful

If you’ve been studying The Tempest, ensure a student with SEND has created lots of images, mind maps and spider diagrams to revise from. Not only is making these visual reminders useful for memory but for those with SEND they can also be a comfort blanket through what for many feels an ordeal.

Help students cluster this information around specific areas. This should be incredibly detailed, not just key quotes or characters but clearly structured "what, when, why, where and how".

3. Partnerships

Getting students to work in pairs can be incredibly effective. We use flashcards created by our teaching assistants that pose questions and give answers so that students can quiz each other.

4. Never underestimate the power of song and rhythm

Turning things into songs can be incredibly powerful. For example, learning the parts of the body for PE to the tune of Old MacDonald can work wonders, especially if actions are included. It has to be multi-sensory: sing it, physically touch the area to feel where the parts are, write it out, say it, put it in a sentence, then answer some practice exam questions. You may observe some students quietly acting out the actions in the exam hall.

5. Narrative is key

If students can attach a hook to something, they are more likely to remember it. A great way of doing this is to create a narrative around the topic. I heard of a great lesson like this from an architecture lecturer at a university. In order for students to remember building regulations, she put them into pairs, holding a cup of coffee and role-playing conversations with a building inspector.

The "inspector" would ask concrete questions such as “Why is there no door going into the conservatory?” and the student would have to answer using the regulations. Visualising conversations may help many students with SEND memorise information by setting it in real-world contexts. 

6. Mnemonics are really useful

I still use the phrase "big elephants are ugly" so I can spell "beautiful" correctly. These little verbal exercises are incredibly effective and engaging, particularly for those with SEND, but you could go one step further.

I have found that visual symbols can be really effective. For example, to memorise a key phrase in the assessment of dyslexia – "phonological awareness is the ability to reflect upon and manipulate the sound structure of words" . I was taught by my tutor to break it down into the following:

  • A mirror for "reflect"
  • An elastic band for "manipulate"  
  • Lego for "sound structure"
  • And a dictionary for "words"

The items were laid out in front of us and we would say the phrase, while picking up and using the object. It’s one of the only phrases I have ever learned off by heart. Even after three years, the memory of the props can trigger retrieval if I forget.

7. Active listening

To a class the teacher might read out a section of text, having asked students to listen out for and feed-back on one specific area. If reading Macbeth for instance, you might give students different characters to listen out for, or if you are studying a poem, give out different words.

For those with SEND, it can be a useful way of not overloading the student and ensuring that they are not intimidated by trying to spot everything. What this actually ensures is that they do listen to the whole much more attentively than they would have done otherwise.

8. Decoding exam questions 

I like to train the students to differentiate between the command words of a question and the subject specific words. It’s worth having two separate colours and getting students to highlight which are which.

What should be left is extraneous carrier language which can be ignored. For some students with SEND, this can be incredibly important in enabling them to process what exactly it is they are being asked to do in an exam.

9. Making connections

Some students, particularly with autism, may struggle connecting what the exam question is asking them to do with the subject knowledge they possess.

Lots of practice contextualising and understanding the question will be required. Again, spider diagrams (linked to the decoding exercise above) may help the students to literally "see" the question and think around the topic. 

10. Categorisation

Students may have a raft of knowledge, but can they tell you what topic it is part of?  When studying wind turbines, for example, can the students tell you it is part of "renewable energy"?  Without initially learning the category, it’s very difficult for students to learn, and then retrieve the information correctly. For history, I made flashcards of all the key words linked to an "American history" unit. 

11. Practise using key vocabulary in sentences

While this may seem obvious, there are many students who have memorised key words, learned to spell them, even say them, but who are less comfortable using them in a sentence. Rather than getting students to merely explain what a word means; students need to practise using the words.

12. Literacy Doughnuts

This idea has come from speech and language therapists, too. Using three circles (we’ve blown them up on to A3), prioritise the important information or words into the inner circle, then the middle and the outer.

It allows students to revise in a slightly different way to concept maps but can also prevent some students from panicking as they can initially concentrate on memorising the inner circle.

Jules Daulby is literacy and language co-ordinator at Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester, Dorset

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