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[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Geoff Matthews on Special Education Needs and Reading

NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from author Geoff Matthews! – Sarah Chorn

Geoff Matthews began reading in the cot. His mother, at her wit’s end with the constant noise and unceasing activity, would plop him down on the soft mattress with an encyclopaedia full of pictures then quietly slip from the room. His father, ever the pragmatist, declared, that they should, “throw the noisy bugger out of the window.” Happily this event never came to pass (or if it did Geoff bounced well). Growing up, he spent Sunday afternoons on the sofa watching westerns and Bond movies with the self-same parent who had once wished to defenestrate him. When not watching the six-gun heroes or spies being out-acted by their own eyebrows he devoured books like a hungry wolf in the dead of winter. Beginning with Patrick Moore and Arthur C. Clarke he soon moved on to Isaac Asimov. However, one wet afternoon in a book shop in his home town, not far from the standing stones of Avebury, he came across a book by David Eddings – and soon Sci-Fi gave way to Fantasy. Many years later, Geoff finally realised a dream and published his own fantasy novel, The Stone Road, in the hopes that other hungry wolves out there would find a hearty meal. You can follow him on twitter or visit his website.

Special Educational Needs and Reading

by Geoff Matthews

One of our greatest gifts, our greatest pleasures, our most powerful agent for change, and most dangerous of weapons is language. In particular, the structure, use and understanding of language. Words change the world more than guns, bombs and the machinations of war.

You want evidence? There are many ‘good books’ in which people place their faith, look to for guidance, and build a school of thought, and sometimes a religion, around. Those books convey the thoughts of their author to the minds of the readers. Some choose to do good because of those words and sadly, others do evil. If we could communicate our thoughts and emotions perfectly then, perhaps, there would be only good in the world?

There are many great orators who have spoken of change and achieved it. Or spoken of fortitude and built the strength in others to endure and to survive. The Churchills, Kings, and Ghandis of the world have spoken clever words, full of meaning and altered the destiny of the world. There are others who have used the self-same skills to lead the world into darker places.

So much is said via speech, radio, TV, and internet that we exist in a world where information, right and wrong, is easily available and consumed at an ever-increasing rate. In the developed world, the rich world, the ability to find, understand and utilise information is valued and the root to riches. In the developing world, to discover new information and learn new skills can lead to increased yields, wealth and a longer life expectancy.

You want to know the most effective method to reduce the birth rates in developing countries and, therefore, increase wealth and health? Well, according to the UN, as early as 1954, one of the best ways to reduce fertility rates was to educate women. Give them the power to read, to take control of their own lives and body, to find out about family planning and to make decisions. In Kerela, India, they tried this approach and found that literate women tended to have fewer children and have them later in life. And not only that, living standards and wealth increase. The power to read changes lives and countries.

But even if we could communicate our ideas perfectly, what about those that understand imperfectly or for whom understanding language is a daily issue? What about those children who find reading a chore, find it hard to learn? Those that learn the mechanics of reading but not the understanding? If the greatest gift we can give them is the ability to read how do we do it effectively?

Now, before I go further, let me come clean about a few things.

Firstly, I am a teacher, mostly of Geography, in an English Secondary (High) school to 11 – 18 year-olds. It is a non-selective school in an area of selection. That means the top 30% (in Maths and English) of pupils go to Grammar Schools. The remaining pupils come to schools like mine. This means, of course, that we have a much higher percentage of pupils with a Special Educational Need (SEN) than the selective schools, about one-third of our pupils. Some of those needs are not ‘ability’ linked but can make learning a challenge others are linked directly to the understanding of language. We also have a specialist ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) unit which caters for pupils who have a Statement of SEN – the local authority recognises them as having a severe difficulty that requires provision above that which a school could ‘normally’ provide. The biggest threat to not achieving in the English exam system is the understanding of the written language.

Secondly, as well as my Geography degree I have a Diploma in Creative Writing and Literature .

Thirdly, I write.

So, there it is, my bias acknowledged. When Sarah asked me to write a guest post for her Special Needs in Strange Worlds column, we decided that it should be from my perspective as a teacher. I hope I do it justice. Teaching is a privilege and I have relied on the expertise of fellow staff members and the pupils to write this. I must also, for self-preservation’s sake, acknowledge the input of my wife (a primary school teacher who teaches children to read – she gives them that gift).

How do you teach children to read?

I cannot remember a time when I could not read. There must have been a stretch of time between could not and could. I just cannot recall it.

In English primary schools, the focus has been upon the teaching of phonics (the bits of sound that words are made up from). One system is called Read, Write, Ink and uses a set of story books all written to a particular level of reading. Every day the children have a lesson of Read, Write, Ink and each book takes about a week to work through. There are activities based around the sounds to learn, the story to follow, questions to determine understanding and games to play. The mechanics are taught and checked every step of the way. Unlike many English school systems, based usually upon age not ability, these lessons mix year groups up by reading ability; an able five year old will be in a class with a struggling seven year old. Every six weeks the children’s reading is formally assessed and strategies are put in place to help those who struggle and push those who don’t onto further learning.

Alongside this, the pupils work together on guided reading in their ‘normal’, age based, classes. Groups of pupils read the same book at their own pace, question and support each other – with the teachers help. They study a range of texts from instructional to prose and poetry. Every book is related to a reading age and pupils are guided to books that they can access.

There is also home-reading. Each day, or whenever a book is completed, the pupil chooses a book from a selection to take home and read with their parent. This is where some issues can arise that need careful and considerate handling, perhaps the parent cannot read, or English is not their first language, or the book is too hard for the pupil. For the first two, primary schools do their best to help the parent, some have adult reading classes where the primary teacher teaches the parents to read. For the latter, well, really, does it matter? The child has chosen a book that interested them. Either the cover drew them in or their friends have read it and told them. It does not matter. The key here is interest and that little spark of interest must be kindled (not a plug) and kept alight. For some pupils taking home a book that is too difficult for them actually builds self-esteem; look at me, I am taking home Harry Potter to read!

It will not be a surprise to any that girls and boys have different tastes and interest in their choice of reading material. Encouraging reading via interest led teaching can lead to a gender divide in classes but rather than battle against it many teachers use it to motivate the pupils to read. It is always possible to introduce pupils to different stories, different writers, through other activities in class. And note the key word ‘can’ in that sentence above; at a young age gender can be much less of an issue and some girls love ‘boys’ books and some boys enjoy ‘girls’ books. In fact, in many cases those are the artificial pigeon holes that society creates almost by accident.

So, by the time that a pupil is ready to transfer to secondary school they should all be able to read. That is certainly the UK Governments aim and you cannot argue with it, they should. But reality is ever an enemy of idealism. Some pupils have needs, educational and social, that have made the process of learning much slower than others.

At Secondary school, they are tested again and any pupil with a reading age of less than 9 (two years below their chronological age on transferring) will need some specialist help to ensure they are able to access the curriculum. In my particular establishment we use a variety of strategies; reading intervention programmes, group reading, Lexia programme (for school and home) and in some cases one to one assistance. Some pupils use audible books to develop interest and some need outside assistance; speech therapists, for example, who can develop the understanding of language and confidence in its use.

Some of our ASD pupils are phenomenal readers. They read such a variety and amount of books that it is hard to keep up. However, some have very narrow interests and read only books, magazines related to that. It is almost impossible to force them to try something else. A subtle nudge here and there, often and consistently, is the only way to introduce new topics or interests. If it catches though, watch them go! A few have the mechanics learnt so well that it can seem as though they need no further help but dig a little deeper and you can see that all they have is the mechanics. Many of our ASD pupils struggle to understand the emotional content of language. Indeed they struggle with interpersonal relationships in school generally and need careful coaching to integrate. It is a testament to the staff of the faculty, opened by (and named after) a famous author with an autistic son, and our pupil body that we seldom have problems with them becoming a part of our whole school community.

How do you keep them reading? How do you develop autonomy?

Reading without being told to, for the pleasure of reading or, just because you want to is something I suspect many of the visitors to this website do as a matter of course. I suspect also that many of us think that teenagers do not read enough anymore – too busy on Facebook, twitter or with computer games. I surveyed about 8% of my school population (all years and about half of them with SEN, half without) revealed that only 0.6% of those surveyed said they never read.

One of the biggest hits, with our ASD pupils, has been a regular newspaper. The one we subscribe to, especially for them, is called First News but we also have the ‘i’ delivered to all our tutor groups and SEN departments. The small, snappy stories from around the world are perfect for the pupils to read. Not only can they learn about the wider world around them but they are reading for information.

We have recently built a ‘book corner’ in our canteen. Here pupils can take a book, for free, and read it. They can take it home and if they do not return it then fine. If others want to donate books to the corner, and they do, then even better. The hope is that they will start talking about the books they have read and sharing their interests. One book that the girls do talk about, and yes they have seen the film but more importantly they have read the book too, is The Fault in Our Stars. The key is, they are talking about it and it is so exciting to hear them sound incredulous when one of their friends say she did not read books. They put her straight rather swiftly on the joy of reading. That has become one of my favourite moments in education so far!

Providing them with books, having the pupils talk about books, sharing stories and experiences is how to you keep them reading. Showing them and letting them realise that, alongside soap operas, films and music, books and reading can be social experience that binds them together encourages them to read.

Most interestingly, in my survey, the pupils who said they did not read, that tiny percentage, were evenly split between those with and those without SEN. The pupil that could recall the most books that they had read? One of our pupils with ASD.

We’ve recently invested in a few Kindles that we loan out, pre-loaded with books, to the pupils. There now appears to be a waiting list.

What do they read and when do they begin?

So, is there a difference between pupils with and without SEN? Well, my survey of around 8% of the school population between Year 7 and 10 (57% non-SEN, 43% SEN) suggests the following:

  • Pupils with SEN finish their first book, unaided and not a picture book, on average at 10 years 4 months. Those without at 8 years 9 months. A difference of almost one and half years which is quite substantial at such a young age.
  • The lowest age given was SEN 7 years, Non-SEN 6 years.
  • The highest age given was SEN 14 years, Non-SEN 12 years.
  • Gender does show a difference too. Boys finish their first book unaided, on average, 6 months later than girls.
  • If you take SEN and Gender into account then boys with SEN are over 3 years behind girls with SEN.

I also asked them to name the first book they read and their current favourite book. That data is so diverse that trying to put it in percentages is impossible. However, there are some commonalities and some unsurprising choices.

For example, Harry Potter and Hunger Games were mentioned by many pupils. Interestingly, some of those that said Harry Potter was their first book put Hunger Games as their current favourite. In fact, Hunger Games made the most appearances on the list and was evenly spread between boys and girls though none of the pupils with SEN said it was their favourite.

Books by Roald Dahl, David Walliams and the Michael Morpuggio made quite a few appearances in the list of firsts and favourites.

Interestingly, only boys mentioned Horrible Histories and only girls spoke about The Fault in Our Stars and Boy In The Stripped Pyjamas.

So, what conclusions can we draw from this? Firstly, many more teenagers read books, whole books, than perhaps we first suppose. There is still, in that younger generation, an appreciation of good stories and good writing.

Secondly, as we would expect, there is a difference between what children with SEN learn to read, the support they receive, and the length of time it takes them to learn to read. However, there is a limited difference (in my sample at least) in the books that they choose to read.

Thirdly, the mechanics of reading do not necessarily mean understanding what is read. Some pupils read mechanically and miss the emotion and nuance but the story can act as a stimulus to explore and lead to understanding.

Lastly, reading (that most precious of gifts) is alive and well amongst the young people. They still love good stories and discuss the books they have read. Reading books for pleasure is the norm amongst them and that is surely the best news that we ever heard.

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