Teachers in the twenty-first century classroom are under great pressure to achieve outstanding results for all pupils. We are working in an increasingly data-driven education system and, regardless of the way in which this data is gathered, this level of data collection looks set to persist or even increase in the future. This leads us to an educational climate of non-negotiables, of high levels of accountability and full inclusivity, where children with SEN are expected to make excellent progress and achieve within the mainstream environment in the same way that children without SEN do. While this vision is theoretically commendable, the key question to ask is how we are to deliver this on the ground. How do we engage, motivate, excite and challenge children who don’t believe in themselves or who are already feeling stigmatised? I believe that using a handful of simple, easy to implement ideas, inspiring and revolving around high-quality classroom talk, can revolutionise both writing perception and attainment, not only for children with SEN, but for all children.
Getting the idea
Picture this scenario: you are seven years old and your teacher asks you to write a story. You sit there, panic raising in your chest like a volcano. The children around you all seem like they are immediately starting to write – they all know what to do instinctively – but you have no idea how or where to start. Too embarrassed to admit your helplessness, you automatically pick up your pen and stare at the paper in abject terror. Eventually, you scrawl a few words. It makes little sense and you know that. It is defunct of structure and you know that too. Ultimately, its only result is to confirm what you already knew: you are rubbish at writing. Sadly, this scenario is extremely common in our schools, especially amongst children with SEN.
The reason these children fail is simple; you cannot teach children to write until you have first taught them to generate ideas. Idea generation must come first, because, without those initial ideas, how can anyone expect to be able to write and achieve? Playing regular sixty second idea generation games across the curriculum on a daily basis can revolutionise both engagement and progress, and develop children’s ability to think creatively for themselves. How do young children begin to write, for example, a description of a forest, when they are sitting in a classroom? They don’t necessarily have the automatic ability to access their verbal imagination in this sort of pressurised activity. So what do we, as teachers, do when we know that children will struggle with an activity? We scaffold. And how do we scaffold idea generation? Well, it helps to give a visual or kinaesthetic prompt at first, even if it as simple as displaying an image on the whiteboard. Children can simply play word association with the image to come up with a list of exciting, interesting verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs with which to begin to construct their description. However, these sorts of activities are confidence building and, with practice, children begin to realise that they don’t need these prompts. By the time we reach that all-important SATs season, giving the children sixty seconds to play word association with a single word will generate up to forty fantastic pieces of vocabulary to slot into their work. This is a non-pressurising approach, particularly for children with SEN, because they are not asked to share how many words they have come up with, they are not immediately plunging into the realms of sentence construction or whole-text construction – instead, they can simply write a few words, which takes away that fear of a blank page and gives them the initial building blocks of their text.
Say what you see
A powerful example of this I used recently was when I displayed an image of a toy city made from building blocks to a Year One class and gave them sixty seconds to write down anything they could see in the image on their individual whiteboards. Crucially, the class teaching assistant and I played the game as well on the flip chart, allowing the weakest children the opportunity to borrow our ideas if they got stuck. In effect, the adults in the classroom were positioning themselves as writers alongside the children. You will notice that I didn’t ask them for “exciting vocabulary” at this stage. I merely asked them to “say what you see”. This is a very non-threatening request, which doesn’t plunge the children into that immediate fear that they won’t “get it right” or that they can’t be creative enough – simple noun spotting is enough for now.
From this point, I progressed to asking the children to imagine they are standing in the city. Based on the things they have spotted there, what do they think they would be able to hear? What would they be able to smell? They can do this verbally, initially, or they can share their ideas with a talk partner or the whole class once they are finished. Children not only love the pace and excitement of these games, but with frequent practice it is not uncommon for all children in Year Two to be able to generate fifteen or more words in a minute, and by Year Four this number often increases beyond twenty-five for the majority of the class. Once children are practiced at this sort of game, it’s fun to take out the initial noun-spotting task and start with an imagination activity. For example, ask the children to think of as many ways as possible to cross a river. They can be as wild and wacky as they like and I’ve loved some of the fantastic things my children have come up with in the past – a Year One girl who suggested “gliding across on a swan”, for example, or the “blue-sky thinker” in Year Three who wanted to “pull the plug”. They enjoy it, it sparks their creativity and, crucially, it gives them a way in to the task. Suddenly, they have the bare bones of an effective plan – and all in sixty seconds. It is important, though, that the games should be fully integrated into the lesson and should act as a stimulus for it, rather than just being a series of unrelated activities.
A sense of adventure
Another simple way to reduce the fear many students with SEN feel when confronted with a writing task is to remove their concerns over spelling. Ask them to be as adventurous with vocabulary as they are able and simply to pop a dotted line under any word which they are aware they may have misspelled. Often, the break in the thought process caused by children struggling to spell a word or changing their vocabulary to fit in with their spelling capability completely shatters their train of thought and leads to an imagination hiatus, from which it can be difficult to recover. Removing that anxiety leads not only to higher quality structure, vocabulary and creativity, but also to greater familiarity with the spellings of more complex words, which, in turn, may lead students on to be able to spell them correctly.
The games and activities I have suggested here all give the children the opportunity to talk about their writing. This is not a by-product or an optional extra. Indeed, for me, it is the most crucial thing of all. As adults, if we have a challenging task to complete, nine times out of ten our first instinct is to talk it through. In so doing, we are recognising the importance of talk in the thought process. Allowing children the opportunity to air their ideas in a safe environment where all suggestions are valued gives them confidence and room to develop their imaginations. I firmly believe that talk is thought. And by using talk as a teaching tool, allowing children to generate interesting and innovative ideas and removing the fear of failure, we can create classrooms full of fun, creativity and, ultimately, learning.
Published on 18 August 2014