Some Ideas about Teaching
Teaching Special Needs Classes
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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’!
on: Dec 16 2003, 11:28 PM