This study will concentrate on Cognition and Learning, with a focus on SpLD-Dyslexia. Cognition and Learning is the most common type of primary need nationally, representing 50% of secondary school students recorded as SEN support (DfE, 2017). Children identified as having SpLD are those with the poorest academic attainment. Figures for 2016 GCSE outcomes demonstrate this: 32% of pupils designated as having a SpLD achieved GCSEs in English and Mathematics compared to the national average of 63% of all pupils achieving this benchmark (DfE, 2017).
Defining Dyslexia has been an area of significant controversy. The Code of Practice, 6.31 (DfE, 2015) defines SpLD as “affecting one or more aspects of learning” but shies away from any further clarification of the conditions it lists as SpLDs, nevertheless, does include dyslexia as one of the recognised conditions .
It has, been argued that the term dyslexia is not useful or scientifically sound (Reason, Stothard, 2013). Over forty years ago Yule stated, “The era of applying the label ‘dyslexic’ is rapidly drawing to a close. The label has served its function in drawing attention to children who have …difficulty in … reading writing and spelling…..its continued use invokes emotions which….prevent rational discussion and scientific investigation.” (Yule, 1976, p.166). However, by 2009, Rose stated dyslexia did exist and defined it as a “learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling.” (Rose, 2009). Even this report provoked debate with one MP describing dyslexia as “a cruel fiction”, (Stringer, 2009).
There is no internationally agreed definition for dyslexia or its cause and no single test to identify it, despite this, the use of the term persists. A wide variety of definitions remain, at their core is a recognition of it involving complex reading problems and most agree this is linked to phonological deficits. However, there is disagreement over its cause, with some stating its basis is linguistic, whereas others see its origin as visual (Collins, Levy, 2008). Historically dyslexia was defined as poor reading skills in people who had high IQ levels and some argue this is the reason for its continued use (Elliott, Grigson, 2014), with parents, in particular, seen as finding this a more palatable way of describing their child’s learning difficulties. This discrepancy model for defining dyslexia has been discredited (Vellutino et al, 2004) and it is now agreed dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities (Rose, 2009).
Recent research has suggested dyslexia is best seen as a continuum (Rose, 2009). The argument that dyslexia is unidentifiable in a scientifically acceptable way is supported by the current lack of genetic or brain based markers for the condition (Elliott, Grigorenko, 2014). The idea that a clinical diagnosis will lead to effective and particular targeted interventions is a myth, despite the commercially produced interventions that claim to be able to remediate its ‘symptoms’. This is evidenced by the approach adopted in a recent research paper where, assessing research on the validity of interventions for the four areas of SEND need, researchers chose to adopt a general approach when evaluating the types of support for addressing literacy difficulties, as they judged these interventions to be similar “regardless of the child having a SpLD or general learning difficulties.” (Carroll et al, 2017).
I have adopted an approach with students labelled as dyslexic based on recent research which advocates, in the absence of a clear definition for dyslexia, that instead of assessing for dyslexia we should be using testing to obtain a learning profile for the child (Reid, Guise, 2018). I believe we should perceive the assessment process as one of discovering the individual’s barriers to learning to inform effective intervention. Dyslexia as a label can be an obstacle to successful provision and I subscribe to the view that, as teachers, we should focus on identifying and tackling each child’s individual difficulties (Elliott, Grigorenko, 2014).
The implications for teaching and learning for students designated as dyslexic or with general literacy difficulties in a mainstream secondary school is to highlight the importance of using assessment to provide a framework for intervention (Reid, Guise, 2018). With emphasis over the last twenty years on meeting the needs of students with SEND in mainstream settings, the first consideration should be on how high quality teaching and reasonable adjustments in the general classroom can enable students with literacy difficulties to make expected levels of progress. This has been the key priority in my first year as SENCO, with CPD for all staff aimed at developing their expertise.
Research shows most students with SEND are disadvantaged by being taught in groups arranged by ability (Sutton Trust, 2013), however, regardless of the evidence the leaders of the core subjects in my school are unwilling to consider any model of mixed ability grouping. This organisational issue is a particular barrier to students with literacy difficulties and high IQs, as they are often placed in groups which reflect their difficulties with reading and writing, rather than their high thinking levels, thus leading to their disengagement or disruptive behaviour.
Another factor in meeting the needs of students with literacy difficulties is finding the best model for delivering individualised interventions. Removing students from lessons is clearly disadvantaging them as it interrupts the continuity and reinforcement that is vital for their progress (Education Endowment Foundation, 2016), but finding time in the school day to deliver effective 1:1 and small group interventions needs creative timetabling.
To ensure students with significant reading and writing difficulties are able to demonstrate their academic achievements in examinations, it is important they are exposed from Year 7 to the various access arrangements they could be entitled to. This enables students to be the leaders in the decision making around which arrangements will support them effectively. There is a plethora of electronic support permissible for use in external examinations, for these to be effective tools to support learning, students need to have regular access to the technology and be trained in their use (Evmenova et al, 2016),
It is relatively easy for teachers to recognise a child’s difficulties with reading and writing, however, it is also important to provide interventions that address the less obvious difficulties of processing and tiredness experienced by pupils with dyslexic traits. Children with learning difficulties will, for example, be more significantly impacted by working in a noisy classroom and teachers who recognise this will take steps like intermittently stopping noisy tasks to allow children to refocus (Dockrell, Shiel, 2006). Often students with SpLDs will have executive functioning issues and will need support with maintaining attention on tasks (Dawson, 2013). Simple interventions like visual lesson plans showing the learning sequence can assist pupils with this organisational skill that is essential to academic success. Self-monitoring aids like ‘I-connect APP’ can also encourage secondary students to develop independence by reminding them to regularly check they are focused on their learning, (Romans, 2017).
The key for meeting the needs of learners diagnosed as dyslexic is to drill down until their specific needs are met; a typical student with dyslexia does not exist, hence the continuum model (Rose, 2009). All staff need to be using the graduated approach advocated in the Code of Practice (DfE, 2015, 6.45-6.56) to ensure provision is effective and continually being reviewed to allow students to make optimum progress. Learners designated as dyslexic are vulnerable when classroom assessment and learning are focused on reading and spelling accuracy as the product of learning to the detriment of information processing and organising ideas in writing. For students with dyslexic traits it is imperative that this approach is not used (Mackay, 2004).
The child, hereafter referred to as X, is currently a Year 9 student and is in the first year of her GCSE courses, following the same curriculum route as all students in this cohort. X joined the school in September, 2015, following the usual Year 6-7 transition from primary to secondary school. She received some SEN support at primary school (attended since Reception) from Year 5 after seeing a teacher from the Pupil Support Service (PSS); during Year 6 she was withdrawn for 3 sessions per week to work on ‘Toe by Toe’ for spelling and reading. In the Spring Term of 2015, concerned about X’s lack of progress, the distress this was causing X and the impending transfer to secondary school, parents paid for a private dyslexia assessment and X was diagnosed with dyslexia in February, 2015.
Parents had shared concerns with school about X’s difficulties with literacy and numeracy whilst she was in Reception. Early development showed appropriate progress physically, with X walking at 11 months, and hearing and eyesight within normal limits. However, X did not begin to talk until three years, which fits with the view of dyslexia as a neurodevelopmental disorder, evident from early childhood (Thapar et al, 2017). It also corresponds with the view of dyslexia as a language learning impairment and the research which shows children at familial risk of dyslexia, who resolve their spoken language difficulties by the time they start school, often do not develop reading problems (Snowling, 2013). Parents report that even after starting to talk X would sometimes refuse to speak. If we accept reading requires establishing maps between the sounds of spoken language (phonemes) and the letters of written language (graphemes), we can trace the root of X’s literacy difficulties to this early developmental delay in speech acquisition (Vellutino et al, 2004).
X’s behaviour over Year 7 became a concern and she was gaining a large number of negative behaviour points for low level disruption. This was due mainly to X’s impulsivity resulting in her reacting to distractions in the classroom in a way that disrupted the learning of herself and others, and led to her responding in an inappropriate way to her teachers and other students. X’s parents were also experiencing difficulties with her behaviour at home. They reported she was destructive and had to be carefully supervised as she had set fire to things in the family home. Additionally parents shared with school that X had erratic sleeping patterns.
School advised parents request a medical assessment and X was diagnosed with ADHD in May, 2016; this is a common co-occurrence with dyslexia. She is currently being monitored by her consultant, as she is being medicated to control the symptoms of the ADHD. Parents were proactive in forging collaboration between school and the consultant so that monitoring of X’s response to medication was holistic (Barnes, 2008; DfE, 2015, 6.47). SENCO and consultant set up an agreed line of communication via email. The medication led to some improvement in X’s concentration and helped to control the impulsivity but was observed by teachers to wear off by the end of the school day. Parents also reported X was presenting with difficult behaviours at home and the erratic sleep patterns have continued. This culminated in X being excluded for her aggressive behaviour towards another student. School and parents informed the consultant and the medical response to this was swift; the dosage of medication was increased which has resulted in improvements in the way X manages her impulsivity and attention in afternoon lessons. In turn, teachers have shared their positive observations with X and her parents; X reports feeling more positive and confident in lessons.
Since joining secondary school X had become increasingly disengaged with learning, adopting a negative attitude to disguise her low self-esteem, and despite school putting a variety of interventions in place X was resistant to support. An example of which was her refusal to use coloured transparencies and exercise books even though primary school had provided these. X was unwilling to access TA in-class support and refused to co-operate in withdrawal support sessions and eventually refused to attend these. There was a clear need to address this and also to re-assess X’s learning needs so effective, personalised interventions could be offered (DuPaul, Stoner, 2013).
From the start of Year 9, as well as close collaboration with X and her parents through the medical processes required to address her needs related to ADHD, parents have been fully involved in the development, implementation and review of interventions designed to strengthen X’s intrinsic motivation towards school and address her learning barriers, to increase her access to classroom activities and homework (Deci et al,1999). To achieve this involving the student and parents in all stages of the process was essential as set out in the Code of Practice (DfE, 2015,6.45, 6.51, 6.55) and the four part cycle was followed as the framework for this process. School, parents and X agreed to a 4 weekly programme of review meetings and that email contact between home and school would be regular (at least once every week), to share achievements and concerns. Meetings are concentrated on helping to move X towards the life goals she has set, rather than on what is not working, and this, together with parents reinforcing the work of school is allowing X to make academic and emotional progress (Fowler, 2018).
As part of the review of provision for X to minimise the barriers dyslexia presents for academic attainment, teachers have been encouraged to adopt an approach which starts with a recognition of X’s strengths. The need to ensure literacy does not impede X’s progress in learning and thinking has also driven our reasoning when developing class-based interventions (Johnson, Peer, 2003). Training for teachers has made evident the importance of differentiation for X needing to concentrate on making language, sentence structure and page design accessible, whilst ensuring the cognitive demands, underlying concepts and learning outcomes are the same for X as for all learners (Reid, 2013). The complexity of X’s additional needs resulting from the co-occurrence of dyslexia and ADHD, has been shared with teachers and TAs to ensure support addresses X’s multifaceted difficulties.
Staff training on developing an understanding of the issues these learning needs present for X has been delivered in different formats. Whole staff CPD has consisted of sessions on awareness raising of the implications of dyslexic traits for learners. X delivered part of this training; describing how classroom learning made her feel and what classroom adaptations effectively supported her. Whole staff training has been a forum for promoting the consistent application in all classrooms of a small number of strategies that research has proven to support the literacy development of all students: metacognition (Sutton Trust, 2013), keyword mats to support pupils with working memory difficulties (Gathercole, Alloway, 2007), thinking time during questioning sessions, and visual lesson plans to help pupils follow the lesson sequence (Rose, 2009 p.182). SENCO and Senior Leaders are monitoring the implementation of these strategies through learning walks and a more individualised support is planned for staff experiencing difficulties in incorporating these strategies into their classroom practice.
A more bespoke staff training has been delivered to X’s subject teachers which has included interrogation of the one-page profile and her attainment data; staff sharing what works for X and common areas of difficulties across subjects. During these sessions staff have opportunity to gain advice from our dyslexia-specialist TA, who also explains the work she does in 1:1sessions with X. Staff are also aware they can access support from the SEND team at any time. One intervention successfully applied as a direct result of these meetings has been X carrying a card listing the strategies from the one-page profile. Staff requested this as they shared they did not always remember to take account of the profile when planning lessons; X shows this to staff if she is struggling in class to remind them what will help her to make progress.
Another area of intervention that needs to be explored for X to assess its impact on attainment is assistive technology with a view to how this might support her performance in GCSE examinations. X has access to a laptop in every classroom and staff use this to email copies of lesson materials to minimise the copying of information required. X also uses an e-reader pen for GCSE-type assessments and staff have a deadline to feedback on the impact on her attainment of using this device.
Currently X is piloting the use of an i-pad to assess if it has a positive impact on her attainment. The trial is focused on using Office Lens which allows her to make images from classroom displays, information recorded on the whiteboard or during group activities etcetera, which X can then change into a power point or word document. These can be transformed to create revision tools, for example, flow charts, mind maps or flash cards and to support X in homework production and making accurate class notes without the additional cognitive stress of having to rewrite information, and also mitigating the excess time such tasks take due to X’s slow writing and processing speeds. A bonus of this intervention is that it also assists X with the executive function deficits linked to ADHD, like poor organisation and attention deficit (Jacobsen et al, 2011).
The out-of-class provision for X is also under review; she has three hours of 1:1 support weekly with a dyslexia trained TA. This is used to deliver a variety of phonological based interventions: precision teaching (Hayes, 2013); spelling strategies and the IDL programme. Data has demonstrated that the impact of this work has been variable and needs a sharper focus (NASEN, 2015, p.4).
This module has been invaluable in expanding my knowledge and understanding of SEND particularly the four areas of need; the expert presentations imparted information in a way that has already influenced my practice. It has consolidated my belief in the need to prioritise improving quality first teaching in every classroom as the most effective way to meet the needs of the majority of pupils with identified with SEND and also improve the learning experience of all pupils. The learning from this module has allowed me to crystallise my own views of how effective SEND provision should be delivered, whilst ensuring school is meeting the statutory requirements of the CoP (DfE, 2015).
The reading required in completing this module has enhanced my comprehension of the impact learning difficulties have on children negotiating the increasingly sophisticated literacy-based demands presented by the format of the new GCSEs. In turn this has given me the confidence to ask more of teachers and members of the Senior Leadership to ensure the needs of the SEND cohort are appropriately met. The aspirations for quality first teaching to meet pupils’ additional needs and the training planned to improve staff expertise has been outlined in the previous section. Suffice to say it will focus on developing a workforce of well-trained staff equipped to design and deliver effective interventions for all children (Rose, 2009, CoP, DfE. 2015).
Another priority that has developed from studying this module is to implement a whole school strategy to improve the reading skills of all students, including those recognised as having SEND (Ofsted,2011,2012). Standardised reading tests and attainment data indicate weak reading skills are a barrier to progress for the majority of pupils across Years 7-10. Currently the reading test data has been shared with staff and the SEND team are working with subject leaders to develop appropriate reading strategies to be delivered in every subject area. The plan is to launch these in July 2018. A key component is to increase the use of pupils’ oral skills, by verbally exploring ideas so they are understood before asking pupils to read information, (Snowling, 2013; EEF, 2017).
The final priority for improving SEND provision that has been inspired by this module is to ensure students with learning difficulties have their work marked in a way that promotes their confidence in expressing themselves in writing. We currently have an assessment and marking working group and it is my mission as SENCO to ensure any proposed marking policy allows for adaptations to prevent the work of students with literacy difficulties being covered in red pen (Mackay, 2004).
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