Poetry for less able writers | Trevor Millum
One of the most difficult tasks for any teacher is to start the writing process. I have sometimes compared this to gliding - to get the glider into the air takes a lot of energy but once it's up there, given some thermals and a bit of luck and skill, it can be kept going for a long time.
As a result I have used a number of techniques to get over the blank page or blank screen syndrome. Many of these will be familiar to teachers already - starter sentences / paragraphs, writing templates and so on. Given my liking for poetry I have often used the patterns provided by poems as a way of helping LAWs (less avid writers).
The simplest of these is the ‘Ten Little Somethings’. May years ago I wrote a poem called ‘Ten Little Schoolchildren’, which begins
A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
Ten little schoolchildren
Standing in a line
One said too much
And then there were nine
I found that if I removed text from the middle two lines from each verse we had an ideal way of providing a structure for writing.
Ten little schoolchildren
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
One - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
And then there were nine
Less able writers had a feeling of safety as well as a delight in ‘something for nothing’ in that for every four line verse, two were already written and could – if using a word processor - be copied, pasted and slightly altered for each successive verse.
Even so, the positioning of the rhyme and the scanning of the lines does not always come easily. Reading aloud is therefore always recommended – both in the process of writing and on completion. It can also help writers of all abilities if you provide rhyme lists, either print-outs or separate word documents which students can refer to alongside their writing area. If you have time, get students to help you create these lists. If you already have them (made by another class) try to get them to add some new words.
Of course, it does not have to be 'Ten Little Schoolchildren'. Ten little dinosaurs, dinner-ladies, astronauts: whatever you like. I have a ‘Ten Little Aliens’ poem floating somewhere in cyber-space.
Another structure that has gone down well with writers of all ages and abilities is the cumulative poem. This version is based on the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ but others can be based on ‘This is the House that Jack Built’ – and there must be further models out there.
The seven days of dieting
On the first day of dieting
The only thing I ate
Was a piece of crispy rye bread
On the second day of dieting …
The only things I ate
Were two - - - - - - - - - -
And a piece of crispy rye bread … and so on
Once again the word processor comes in handy. Establish the pattern and then build a list using students’ suggestions of all those things one might consume when on a diet. Don’t be judgemental, add everything: cauliflower, yoghurt, sunflower seeds, minute steaks…
Then start to add them to the poem. You may find the line doesn’t scan and that you have to seek adjectives to get the right number of beats (a good opportunity to revise word classes). Having modelled the process, students can write their own.
All sorts of patterns for poetry can be found if you look around. Songs, chants and traditional verse are good places to look. Copy and paste, change, re-invent; cannibalise to your heart’s content.
Genius spelling strategies for special needs kids | Phil Beadle
My class control borders on the over permissive and my differentiation is shoddy. Specific successful strategies for special needs kids have I none, other than the obvious: believe in them and let them know that you believe in them.
Having said this, there is a lady called Cynthia Klein whose ‘Spelling Strategies’ can be enough to transform the lesson experience for any kids you might have in the class with seriously low level literacy. She is a genius and her method is this:
|1. Go through a child’s work and identify ten words that they either can’t spell correctly, or will need to spell correctly at some point in the near future.
| 2. Type the correct spellings of these words onto a PowerPoint in a point size so large the word takes up a whole page.
| 3. Ask them to go through the first word and see if they can spot any words within it. ‘Government’ for instance, contains, ‘men’, ‘me’, and ‘govern’; ‘regale’ contains ‘Reg’, ‘regal’ and ‘ale’.
|4. Then they should use a pair of scissors to cut it up in whatever way they fancy. They might cut government up G-OV-ERN-MENT, or they might cut it up as GOV-ERN-MEN-T. There is no correct way of doing this, they should cut it up the way they fancy.
|5. They should then mispronounce the word out loud several times, preferably they way they have cut the word up. So they first example would be 'Gee-of-earn-meant', the second 'Guv-earn-ment'. In getting this mispronunciation in their bonces, you will find they are suddenly and miraculously able to spell the word.
|6. And onto the next one ... remember they have ten words. It should take them a full ten minutes to do all of them before they are back at your desk asking for more work!
The myth of inclusion | Ian McNeilly
The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie - deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
John F. Kennedy
Perhaps you can help me out. I’ve been trying, for years, to think of a word or phrase to describe what are obviously punitive, disastrous, money-saving initiatives sold to the public by being wrapped up in liberal clothing. You know the thing, like ‘care in the community’, for example. A long time ago I came to the conclusion that ‘inclusion’ is another one.
I’m not sure if any of you saw the rather biased Dispatches programme recently about poor reading levels in schools, quoting the usual figures which give the impression that hardly any child can even bark at a text. It is a grave problem and one which needs to be addressed, of course. Children are being done a huge disservice if they are unable to read.
The programme focused on one teenage boy with behavioural problems and intimated that most of these stemmed from his inability to read. This may or may not be the case but it certainly won’t have helped. It was so disheartening to see the lad grapple with a science textbook and admit to a beleaguered science teacher in the midst of a cacophony of off-task talk that he had no chance of reading ‘sulphuric acid’. He did have in-class support and I’m sure it helped him to a certain extent. When he was at school, that is.
Teachers at the secondary school were being given training on phonics to try and mop up non-readers.
Children with reading difficulties don’t need this. Special needs teachers are special people, experts in their field and they – and the children they teach – should be treated as special cases, not dumped in a supposedly ‘inclusive’ environment which, in many cases, simply exacerbates both educational and social difficulties. Some inclusion, yes. Total inclusion is often not appropriate.
There are many reasons why some children can’t read and let us hope that the latest initiative given to teachers from on high goes some way to resolving the situation.
But how best to help those who currently have trouble reading? Don’t abandon them within the myth of inclusion. Listen to the special needs teachers. Give them what they need.
Ian McNeilly is the Director of the National Association for the Teaching of English and a teacher at Brantwood School, Sheffield
Paralysis by label | Harry Dodds
When we label pupils, we influence both the way they feel about themselves and the way in which we perceive them. Their aspirations and our expectations are equally skewed, often negatively.
It’s very easy to make our least able pupils feel like second-class learners. As a result, some may become timid and withdrawn, or aggressive, or seek security in the predictable consequences of negative behaviour. However they react, it can become difficult to build good teaching and learning relationships with them.
It’s equally easy to paralyse our most able pupils. Over-celebration of their ability can make them feel singled out, exposed every day to the prospect of failure, and alienated from their peer group. They may respond by concealing or under-using their ability, or by becoming anti-social, or even by self-harming or developing eating disorders.
When we plan learning for our less able pupils, it’s tempting to focus on building their ‘basic skills’, to ‘cure’ them of their affliction, or to offer them a diluted version of the mainstream curriculum. I think that’s the wrong starting point, especially as we are English teachers. I am convinced that we should begin by building relationships and by recognising their emotional and social needs and interests. Find out what they can do, and build on that.
Once you label me you negate me.
Typically, the less able are hampered by three problems:
- they find it difficult to structure thought and experience
- they find it hard to sustain writing
- they are irrationally perfectionist and will give up at the first mistake.
Equally typically, they often talk very effectively. Make talk the main activity in your classroom. Make explicit the editorial control – selection and ordering – that they naturally use to tell a good story, to make the transfer of skills to writing easier when the time comes.
Avoid writing – use storyboarding, sequencing, ICT – especially PowerPoint, (and let them play with the bells and whistles). They will begin to understand structuring and ordering as a result.
If written work is ICT-based, mistakes become much less important, as they’re so easy to put right. Screen and printed text looks much better, too.
Be flexible. Have high expectations, but build up to them gradually.
Above all, talk to them, and get them talking to you.
G and T
Interesting research from Oxford Brookes University’s Westminster Institute of Education here: http://www.brookes.ac.uk/schools/education/rescon/cpdgifted/wie-research.html
For insight into the ways in which gifted girls see themselves, visit www.smartgirls.tv – it’s a research site.
A different language | Gareth Calway
There is a special needs pupil in your class who speaks a different language, or might as well do. He or she does not mix well with the others at breaktimes, lacking access to the prevailing discourse. He feels the teachers do not really communicate with him or even like him. He feels they resent his demands and are not really equipped or inclined to serve them. He is a problem pupil. His future is not recognisably mapped out in any of the school documents nor in the example of previous pupils or parents, careers advisors or other post-school agencies. He cannot read his future in the prizes or awards or the celebrations of achievement assemblies or the career paths of peers or other cohorts. His ambitions are alien and the school’s ambitions for its pupils make no sense. He is lonely. He is a minority – to him, it seems of one. He feels surplus to the school’s requirements, that the mainstream of its policies and mission statements do not really include him. The school exists for 'the rest', not him. He is, above all, excluded by the school’s inclusion policies.
It takes little talent to see what lies under one's nose, a good deal to know in what direction to point that organ.
He is of course ‘gifted and talented’. And I have not made him up – I have coached many real students who fit this description over the years, particularly at A Level. These students are in a very difficult position. They are mostly being taught by teachers who are less bright (though more informed and experienced) than they are - yet who must teach them. This is difficult for the teacher too, of course. At SATs, their intelligence is being measured by an exam that is easier to mark than to show real intelligence in – I have known pupils who got A*s at GCSE, A at A Level and a level 6 at SATs. Such students are all too often being advised about their subject choices and later higher education applications against inappropriate and distracting – or even incompetent – advice, based on the school’s generic guidance and on policies designed for ‘average’ students. (Actually this generic policy approach seldom benefits anyone, including that 'average' student, but it is fatal for the gifted and talented student facing his or her own particular and acute pressures.) At A Level, I have known female students whose considered advice from the school’s Oxbridge Application Committee is ‘look them in the eye and wear a skirt’. Public school pupils by contrast get ‘insider coaching’ in making the very best of their abilities and in how to represent themselves at interview and so on.
Very bright students are scary through all key stages. They put teachers out of their usual comfort zone and they can upset the teacher-pupil balance of knowledge that exists in the class. For instance, a lesson plan that was designed to lead a class towards the grasp of some particular concept about five minutes before the bell might have succeeded with the G&T student five minutes in. What do they do then? The frustrations and antagonisms they can express are also often threatening in clever and subtle ways and we may not have the ability to help them achieve the demanding levels of attainment that the world outside school requires of them. For instance, while it is possible (and vital) to make a ‘low ability’ special needs pupil feel valued (and the teacher feel successful) within a school by ensuring we have school achievement awards in place – a certificate for any academic achievement that by that pupil’s standards is a high one is a common example. But for a G&T pupil, the standards are set outside of school – they must achieve that poetry or public speaking or drama excellence in competition with other very high attainers, those three A grades at A Level etc.
Don’t assume they know everything you do just because they are quicker than you at what you’ve told them.
Set up absorbing and genuine tasks that they can do on their own.
| Don’t feel intimidated by their ability. That doesn’t help them. Show them how to use it.
| Tell them how good they are and how much you appreciate them. They often don’t get this and just because they’re academically advanced doesn’t mean they are any less vulnerable or lacking in sense of self worth than the most academically challenged. In fact, I think they are often among our least confident and supported pupils – even if they are going to save the world or the arts with their intelligence later. We need them! So tell them so.
Gareth Calway is a NATE consultant on creative writing
More able students of English | Geoff Dean
Interest in more able students has grown significantly during the last fifteen years or so. As a society, we are beginning to realise that if we do not meet their very special educational needs in school, we will not only unforgivably fail those particular students, but all our lives will be potentially diminished at a time when we need to draw on all the talent we can muster to thrive in a frighteningly competitive world.
Talent is only the starting point.
Until relatively recently, it was often difficult to persuade English teachers to make focused provision for their more able English students. It was generally believed that the most effective way of dealing with able students was to expect them to write longer essays, and/or to read ‘harder’ books. Mostly, however, their special abilities were ignored and, not surprisingly, many of these students were bored and felt unchallenged.
There are a number of problems all teachers face when intending to provide for more able students; a few of the more important issues are considered in this article.
Identification, of course, begins with agreeing universally shared criteria to distinguish those who are clearly ‘more able’ than their chronological peers, in whatever field of the subject. Yet, as the textual experiences embraced by ‘English’ continue to grow exponentially, English teachers must readjust their perspectives about which students might qualify as ‘more able’.
The formerly understood stereotype of the fluent reader, tackling ‘difficult’ books without much external support, able to write well-developed essays, and articulating assured oral responses – in short, those students dreamed of by all A Level English teachers – will no longer serve. Not all more able students in English will go on to read the subject at university. Yet those students should still be identified and fully supported. Young people are involved with a huge number of textual encounters beyond the classroom, although many of these are rarely actually validated in school. Some make and edit films; others play sophisticated computer games; many write blogs or construct websites and are learning skills of podcasting; large numbers will be expert at reading and understanding the many conventions of graphic novels. These activities require high levels of communicative skills and should be recognised by teachers if well-focused starting points for further learning are to be successfully established.
In order to meet the needs of their more able students, whatever their age, teachers of English might:
| rethink the nature of the subject beyond the guidelines of the National Curriculum – what should ‘English’ tuition be capable of supporting and creating?
think beyond ‘levels’ and other limited assessment boundaries – national tests are irrelevant to more able students
| think personalisation – which possible distinctive learning pathways might these students wish to negotiate?
| think flexibly – students might need to access ideas and textual material well away from the classroom and even the school itself
|think self-evaluation – these students need to develop the skills to scrutinise their own programmes and progress
| think progression – students should always be guided to a ‘what next?’ position
| think subversion – these students should be encouraged to go beyond the normal boundaries, in whatever medium, to explore linguistic possibilities outside the safe and clichéd
| think intertextually – making meaning in a post-modern world requires familiarity with the many overlaps and ‘borrowings’ text-makers freely employ
| think ‘playfulness’ – encourage these young people to have fun with language, structures and messages
| think experts – try to provide times when your most able students can learn from professionals
| think creativity – urge your students to make, to compose, to practise in their chosen areas of textual expertise, and to build a portfolio of their achievements
| think celebration – find opportunities to celebrate and share their outcomes with audiences in and beyond the school community.
Planning in mixed ability situations
More able students are often considered in planning only as an afterthought. Proper attention to the more able should not be divisive, or regarded as pandering to some exclusive elite. Those students have rights in any institution describing itself as fully ‘inclusive’. Indeed, properly serving the needs of the most able should lead to raised expectations for absolutely all students. Occasionally, it can be salutary to plan first for the more able and then to adjust those intentions for other learners of different abilities.
Planning can be used to bring about situations likely to benefit the more able by moving learning experiences from:
- the concrete to the abstract
- the simple to the complex
- the basic to the transformational
- fewer facets to multiple facets
- smaller leaps to greater leaps
- the more structured to the more open
- less independence to more independence
- the quicker to the slower.
But, above all, more able students require planning which should fully challenge and be based on clear notions of progression. They should be exercising ‘higher order’ thinking and operational skills, designed to motivate and engage.
In the 21st century it will be increasingly necessary for all students to establish much more independent habits and attitudes. They should be able to show initiative, establish and generate problems and raise appropriate questions. They should be able to marshal their developing skills and abilities, negotiate and decide upon approaches and then embark confidently on discovering worthwhile learning through the engagements they have helped to set up. We need to ensure that, at the very least, our most capable students are able to accept and properly exploit independence. Too many students have become used to asking their teachers the ‘meaning’ of texts, without developing the courage to tackle problems in their own ways, or without the wherewithal to seek a possible range of meanings, depending on their own careful readings.
Playing to quirkiness | Geoff Barton
The term ‘G&T’ feels an increasingly appropriate abbreviation when you listen to government policy for our brightest pupils. Pass the gin bottle, someone; I’ve got the tonic. Their latest wacky wheeze is that schools should be made to publish league tables of pupils who are gifted and talented.
A person who is gifted sees the essential point and leaves the rest as surplus.
Quite how this will work, who it would serve, and how it will help our brightest pupils is unclear. It’s a sign of an administration that thinks gifted and talented pupils are important but hasn’t a clue what to do for them.
So as English teachers, let’s seize the agenda. First, let’s understand the nomenclature. Gifted pupils are bright at everything (think of the ‘G’ of gifted as meaning ‘general’ – these are the generally bright pupils). Talented pupils are exceptional in a specific area – such as music or sport. In English lessons, we’re probably therefore talking gifted.
Next, let’s avoid the stereotypes about gifted pupils. These include assuming that gifted pupils have the neatest handwriting, are meek and conventional, are passive and conformist. In my experience the most gifted pupils of all in English can be as abrasive as sandpaper and as unconventional as, er, well something very unconventional. They are the Amy Winehouses of the English classroom – hugely able and hugely troublesome.
Third, let’s avoid the awful counterproductive approach that penalises our bright pupils for being bright. It’s too easy when a pupil finishes an activity to say, “Have a go at the next question.” More of the same often feels a disincentive, encouraging our gifted pupils to conceal the fact they have finished a task. Instead, let’s give them something different, unexpected and preferably wacky to do. This will play to their quirkiness, entertain them, and show that being good at something and finishing it quickly leads to something more interesting.
| give them cartoons, text removed, and ask them to think of captions.
ask them to take the text you’ve been studying and produce a bite-size, 30-second version for a different audience
| take a text and make a version of it using stick-men to tell its story
| convert it from one genre (newspaper report) to another (soap opera script)
| give them puzzles such as Countdown conundrums (9-letter anagrams) or the Brainteasers you get in the Weekend Guardian
| or - if you’re confident about their reliability and well resourced - send them off to make a video or podcast of something around the school.
All of this serves two important purposes. It challenges our most able pupils with something creative, more challenging, and innovative. And - just as importantly - it sends out the message to all our pupils that being good at something can have its rewards, is something to be celebrated and not to be hidden away or feel embarrassed by.
It’s a way in which English teachers can, once again, set the standard for the kind of culture we ought to see generally across schools.
Webwatch | Rhiannon Glover
When faced with the practicalities of implementing and reviewing particular government policies in the classroom I always think it’s worth reminding ourselves what the policies actually are. A helpful Overview of the National Agenda for Gifted and Talented students, produced by Sue Mordecai for the National Association for Able Children in Education, is available from Oxford Brookes University's Gifted and Talented Professional Development site. The DCFS Standards site has a Gifted and Talented area, with outlines of government policies, advice on identifying students, news and information on relevant events and opportunities for students beyond the classroom.
QCA guidance on Identifying gifted pupils and monitoring and evaluating polices specific to English makes useful reading, as does the KS3 National Strategy Framework for teaching English, which includes guidance for teaching gifted and talented students and inclusion of students with special educational needs.
A valuable catalogue of resources and up to date information for G&T co-ordinators, lead teachers, and gifted and talented students can be found at the Young, Gifted and Talented website, while the National Association for Special Educational Needs has useful links and information about topical issues and courses.
Disappointingly, I found few resources or websites specifically for students who have been identified either as having special educational needs or as gifted and talented in English online. For the former, SEN Teacher and Special Educational Needs Resources offer some useful free resources for teachers and students, and I enjoyed browsing through the imaginative Latin website Minimus and felt there was much to value at Converse: The Literature Website, both of which are aimed at the latter. Minimus, aimed at 7-13 year olds, would certainly engage able students and broaden their understanding about the development of the English language, while Converse would be particularly helpful in supporting and challenging those studying English Literature for A Level, especially students looking at war literature for AQA A and anyone preparing to study English at university.
English, Media and Drama teachers are obviously becoming increasingly expert at creating and adapting resources to suit their students’ individual needs. Teachit’s Tweakits, the new SEN page and the opportunity to share ideas and experiences on Teachit’s staffroom pages should prove particularly helpful if you are looking for suggestions for new ways of adapting old favourites or are interested in supplementing or reviewing your school’s provision.