Some Ideas about Teaching



Teaching Special Needs Classes


They arrive like a horde of wild things. You can’t get them settled, so the lesson objective becomes to try to get them to behave. It is a tense hour, and you rush round trying to satisfy a continual stream of shouted demands: ‘need a pen’, ‘he’s annoying me’, ‘this is boring’. You fly through reams of work that took ages to prepare, and at the end of the lesson it’s all half-done, badly-done rubbish. They are the class you dread.

I often say to young teachers: ‘Autumn Leaves!’ In autumn, piles of leaves lie on the ground. When a stiff wind whips up a few of them into the air, the way to settle them is NOT to flail about, shouting and creating – that just makes them worse! The truth is that many SN pupils cannot focus, not that they don’t wish to focus. So calm not confront. Sit at the front and exude calm. Don’t try to energise with your starter, but to engage and quieten. Be kindly and grandfatherly. In the SN classroom, Listen with Mother works much better than Multi-Coloured Swap Shop.

Plan the lesson as much to address the pupils’ special needs as to teach them an historical lesson.
To address the pupils’ Special Needs, you will need to know what they are. I use ‘whole class EPs’, rather than IEPs, so that a teacher can see the range of SNs at a glance. You MUST know which pupils have dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, emotional or social problems etc. If you have a decent SENCO, you will also know those who have problems with phonology, sequences, organisation, visuo-spatial awareness, auditory and visual working memory and things like that. Use the pupils’ CAT or MidYIS scores to identify learning strengths and weaknesses. It is essential you are familiar with the pupils’ problems, for only then will you be able to compensate.
A good teacher’s lesson objectives will normally include different outcomes for ‘more able’, ‘most pupils’ and ‘less able’ pupils. In the SN classroom, they must also include different provision for each special need, though you may be able to treat together children with the same deficit.
Having said this, it often makes little difference to your lesson activities in any practical sense. What is provision for one SN pupil’s strength will be practice for another pupil’s special weakness, and a good lesson will involve both. Include an element of Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic learning in every lesson, aware that a child – e.g. – with a kinaesthetic leaning will be able to thrive during that section of the lesson, but may be challenged during the other parts of the lesson. SN teaching is essentially just a development of this technique – if you introduce a phonetic exercise into the lesson, some pupils will be able to show off their ability, whilst for others it will be a vital piece of learning, tenuously appropriated. The key is to know what is difficult for whom, and to be able to adjust your approach accordingly.

The pupils must sit where YOU put them, without question, every lesson. If you have not been doing this already, they may moan, but most SN pupils like the consistency and security.
Social engineering via an effective seating plan supports learning and is key to securing good behaviour. Put the wriggly ones round the edge of the classroom (not, as you may have been told, near to you) and create a buffer between them and the rest of the class using a row of pupils who are quiet, easy-going and phlegmatic. Hyperactive children, in particular, need a location where there is the least opportunity for distraction (not only windows, but colourful classroom displays unsettle and over-stimulate, many SN pupils). Put those with learning difficulties in the centre front, where you can get to them easily to help. And then place for mutual benefit – sit the autistic or socially reticent child next to a friendly talkative pupil, and the limited pupil who can nevertheless read well next to the dyslexic pupil who brims with ideas etc. Girl-boy pairing in the secondary SN classroom is often a recipe for disaster, and be aware that SN pupils have very unstable social relationships – never try to make two pupils sit together if they are falling out today, but they will probably be friends again tomorrow.

The four-part lesson
Whatever you have been told about the three-part lesson, ignore. With an SN class, your lesson should have these four parts: starter, main learning, work activity, bribe.
Whatever you do, make sure that everything is to hand and ready-to-go, for it is at the seams that lessons fall apart. Also, in a ‘primary school’ kind of way, end each section of the lesson with a ‘clear away what you don’t need/ get out what you will need’ exercise – SN pupils often lack basic organisational skills, so you have to do the thinking for them.

I like to start a lesson with something that sets the principle of the learning outcome in the pupils’ own experience (if the lesson is about death on the western front, for instance, I might chat about how we feel when a loved one dies). SN pupils especially enjoy hearing relevant tales from your own life and family.
If you are very confident with a class, you may alternatively wish to play some basic skills games – e.g. simple spelling exercises (e.g. using the New Words and based around identifying phonetic elements or visual shape), or memory games (based on the concept of ‘I went to market’), or ordering tasks (especially those which involve reasoning). This tends to be easier with younger than with older pupils.
One extra thing, I ALWAYS start each lesson with a clear description of what they are going to do during the time, in terms they will understand – ‘first I am going to chat with you, then we are going to read round, then…’ etc.

Main Learning
This is the part of the lesson where you impart to the pupils the knowledge that they are going to use in the work activities later in the lesson.
The amazing thing about this is that – for SN pupils to enjoy your lesson – it does not need to be very exciting and often goes better if it is not! It is usually wise to avoid talking for very long, and I always warn pupils if they are going to have to listen to me for any length of time, and show them on the clock when I promise to stop, finished or not.
The key is to convey the knowledge necessary for the work activity as simply and clearly as possible. It is NOT the case that SN pupils appropriate information more easily from visual than written materials, and a busy picture can often be confusing. Similarly, cartoons are often far too hard, requiring, as they do, additional peripheral knowledge to interpret the allusions.
Provided you have a textbook with text at an appropriate reading level (or if you write your own text), most SN classes love to ‘read round’. I have never believed that dyslexic pupils should automatically be excused this, just as I cannot see why timid pupils should never be asked questions – that is the ‘challenge’ element of their lesson. But it is important to get the classroom ethos sorted out firmly. I always explain at the start of the year that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and no one in the class is allowed to mock or comment if anybody falters. I am cleverer than all of them, but I won’t make any of them look or feel stupid, and they must obey the same rules. The second rule, when reading round, is that I decide when the reader has struggled enough and needs telling the word – there is no ‘helpful’ shouting out of words in my lessons. I usually read the passage at least twice – first with pupils ‘reading round’, and secondly I read it to them, while they listen and follow.
Strangely enough, you will find you can revisit the same pages two, or even three lessons in succession, providing the lesson focus and consequent work activity is different each time. SN pupils enjoy this, because they become familiar with the content, and can show off their knowledge, and enjoy success. Thus, a documentary source about waiting to attack the German trenches might be used in three successive lessons – once towards a comprehension exercise, once as the basis of a drama, and once as the basis of some empathetic writing. By the third occasion, most of the class are desperate to read aloud because (like very young children taking their first reading steps) they know as much from memory as they are decoding from the page.
Make a lot of use in this part of the lesson, also, of paired work. I usually tell the pupils what questions I am going to ask of the materials, and give them time to think about them with a partner (jotting ideas in the back of their exercise book if they wish) before I ask the class any questions. Again, it is part of a process of giving them every chance to succeed, for nothing succeeds like success.

Work Activities
Always try to build into every lesson a section of at least 5-10 minutes where the pupils work on their own in silence. Where poorly-behaved classes find this exceptionally hard, run it as a competition to beat last week’s time, with rewards for the whole class. I sometimes play Mozart during this time as well, and some classes enjoy ‘our working music’ – it certainly gives a clear definition to the time when they are expected to work alone in silence.
The key here is to make sure that EVERY pupil listens to, understands, and has appropriated the instructions. Make sure the instructions are available in different forms – tell them orally, but write them on the board/ draw a flow diagram of steps etc for future reference. Much SN disruption occurs because the pupil has not listened and tries to ask his partner, or gets frustrated because he doesn’t know/ has forgotten what to do.
I often try to avoid a written activity altogether, and use drama, freeze-frame, speeches, interviews, spidergrams, diagrams, and other non-written forms of expression. Where your work activity does involve writing, be aware that there is a difference between work which is to stretch and develop, and work which is to consolidate and rehearse. There is a time and place for both. Many SN pupils – whilst they will cause trouble about writing which requires thought – love to copy the textbook. This is because they can do it, and it involves minimum mental effort.
When I wish to set a written activity, I usually offer the pupils a set of alternatives, and let them choose which they want. Sometimes the alternatives need be no more stimulating than: 1.Copying a passage from the textbook, 2. Completing a cloze exercise based on the textbook and, 3. A piece of free writing using a writing frame. However, it is possible to include more exciting alternatives such as wordsearches, drawing etc. Whatever you offer, once they have chosen, require the pupils to work on their own in silence, each individual doing what s/he can, sorting out his/her own problems, without recourse to you or their friend, taking responsibility for their own product.

The other KEY element of any successful SN lesson is a time at the end – 10 or 15 minutes – of something they like, which you give them on condition that they have conducted themselves during the lesson exactly how you required. It is sometimes necessary to be incredibly OTT and sulky about this, taking minutes off the bribe for poor conduct, and adding minutes back on from good work or answers, throughout the lesson – just hope that a normal human being doesn’t see you posturing and pouting! The obvious bribes are a film or a quiz, but I trust to your ingenuity for other ideas.
Make sure that it relates to the content of the lesson, and you can call this the ‘plenary’!

Posted on: Dec 16 2003, 11:28 PM





To cite this page, use:   CLARE, JOHN D. (2003/2006), 'Teaching Special Needs Classes',  at Greenfield History Site (