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SEN: Working with Students with Special Educational Needs
by Ellen Hoffenberg-Serfaty, J.D.


Introducing a column on SEN; in this issue

Introduction: Let Me Hear from You
Well, here I am again! As one of my illustrious students says: "I'm like a bugger…I just don't go away!" (No offense intended, but if you work with as many SEN students as I have, especially with the recalcitrant institutions that "house" them, you have to be a tad naughty and have a sense of humor :)   )

This is a column about working with students with special educational needs, or SEN, as I call them, as do most countries. Some call them learning disabled, some dyslexic, some "difficult" or "slow" or "weak", but I prefer to be straightforward, and focus on the educational issues.

They can be any of the students that you don't seem quite prepared to succeed with, or even understand or communicate with;
or the ones that the chosen textbook just doesn't "speak" to,
or the ones that never talk,
or the ones that never quiet down,
the ones that seem so bright, but produce so little,
the ones that seem angry,
or the ones that seem to go along with everything you say, but give you that small glimmer of doubt. . .

So in this column, I hope to do a lot of different things, and I will give you a small sampling this time. Ordinarily, I am such a know-it-all that I would just keep writing columns about what I want to say, and ignore what you, the readers, want to hear. In keeping with my advancing age, and events in my life, I have decided to ask you: What do you want to hear about? What are your problems? Let me know, and I will try to address these in future issues.

What to Do After You Say Hello-Beginning the School Year
I'm often asked by fellow teachers, and teachers and students in teacher training: how do you start off the year "right"? I am "known" for instituting some very clear disciplinary/management systems in my classroom, so how do I get there?

Many teachers start out the year with telling students what their "rules" are, what their expectations are, how they will run their class. I find that the easiest way to get students' attention is to reverse roles-I ask them what they are doing in my class, and what they hope to accomplish! Well, not in the first few minutes, I do warm them up, of course. But basically, that is what I do.

I usually start off handing out a quote present a philosophy of learning:
To succeed in school, you must take control of your education.
  • Become an active learner. Stop thinking of school as something that happens, something that is done to you.
  • Start thinking of each of your classes as something you do that improves your skills and enhances your learning.
  • Remember, every assignment provides you with the opportunity to prove to yourself and to others that you are learning.
Your teachers don't give you grades, you earn them. The Learning Skills Handbook, by Jay Amberg
This usually generates some healthy discussion, and is always a good opportunity to introduce some "active-student" vocabulary. Then I hand out index cards to my students (or Braille sheets, or give them a computer and open a Word document, depending on their special needs) and ask them to reflect and write down the answers to the following four questions that I keep until the end of the semester. Assure the students that you will not be sharing what they write with anyone:
  1. How would you like to improve your English this semester?
  2. What grade do you want in English?
  3. How much time are you willing to study to achieve that grade?
  4. How can I help you achieve your goal?
There are lots of variations on these questions-be creative! You can ask them "flat-out", "Why are you here?" "How can you make this year in English different from past years?"

So what do you do with this information? DON'T let the kids see you reading the cards in class, and don't have an "overall" discussion about what the kids write, at least not yet. DO read them at home and think about them. Have some Kleenex ready-if your students are taking this opportunity to really communicate how they feel, you may be in for some surprises, especially in the area of what the teacher can do to help them: I have had many kids tell me "be patient; don't yell; don't throw me out of class; don't call my parents every time I flunk a test; help me read!"

I usually read the cards, think about them, and during the first couple of weeks, set up an opportunity to have quiet chats with students-be prepared for some of them not to even want to talk to you if other students are "present" in class, even if you give them work to do-you may have to use some of your break-time, but it will be worth it. When you speak to the students, you don't even have to go into more depth about what they have written: I usually just let them know how much I appreciate them sharing what they did with me, and that I would love to hear more of their ideas about how to help them. If none are forthcoming, I drop it, and just wait. But always let students know that you are thinking about them.

I believe in one very important rule, when working with SEN kids: they may not know exactly what their problem is (they usually say they want to improve their grammar and vocabulary…DUH!!!) but they do know how they have been treated, how they have felt, and how they would prefer to be treated. So I listen!

In the long run, you save the cards, and during one of the last classes of the year, you give them back to students. You ask them to reflect on what they wrote, and to write down how they think they have progressed, whether they did what they said, whether I did what they recommended, and anything else they like. If there are definitive times of the year where they might want to change their goals, you can bring out the cards then, as well.

For more ideas on how to use these cards, and introducing behavior management in class, see my article on ETNI:
How to Get their Attention

Why Yossi REALLY can't read…the problem with labels

As the inaugural article for the ETNI Rag, I've chosen to go back to basics: examining what we say about students with special educational needs-in the literature, in our teacher colleges, at in-service teaching training (hishtalmut) , and what is really the truth in the classroom.

What's the problem, you say? Well, IMHO (in-my-humble-opinion) the worlds of academia and teacher-training seem to go more for labeling kids, and throwing "method" solutions at students, rather than educating teachers on the wide range of problems that can exist, what causes them, and how to deal with them in a practical manner.

Over the last few years, if you look at teacher conferences, teacher college course offerings, educational ads in newspapers, we seem to be confining our problem resolution for SEN kids to those who have hyperactivity disorders and dyslexia. And does this accurately reflect what we kinds of SEN problems we have in our classrooms? I don't think so…

True, having information on how to work with kids whose predominant problem is focusing attention-well that is helpful. But to the exclusion of other problems?

And dyslexia. We have a tendency to label every child who has problems reading English with the label "dyslexic". My dialogue with these students:
"So what kinds of problems do you have reading?"
"I don't read. I'm dyslexic."
"And writing? Do you like to write?"
"I don't write. I'm dyslexic."

My usual response is: 'I didn't ask you that. I asked what your problems are.' This often takes quite awhile-to explain to students that despite their "diagnosis" (which I don't always agree with) and what they have been told about their ability, students can learn to read, or at least, to help themselves understand reading texts, independently, in 99 out of 100 of even the hardest cases. My experience, of course.

I'd love to have those who do assessments and evaluations, or teachers or parents who label their kids "dyslexic" to read some of the most recent literature, and point to the neuro-biological evidence of dyslexia. For, we now know that a diagnosis of dyslexia has to be based on evidence in the brain of differences that result in learning acquisitions problems. And even if kids have evidence of dyslexia, that is only the beginning of the process of identifying how to teach them "differently" to match their learning needs.

I've been tracking this problem for years, because I find it so annoying that we throw around these labels, as a way to avoid learning and teaching. (Sorry to be harsh, but I am guilty of this as well!)

Check it out for yourselves.
Basics about the brain and learning, based on research (Fall 2003)
Understanding brain function in dyslexia
What Brain Imaging Can and Can't Tell Us About Reading Difficulties
Scientist tie two additional genes to dyslexia (October 2005)
Spelling out the truth about dyslexia (March 2005)
Dyslexia gene discovered (March 2005)
Why Stevie Can't Spell (February 2005)

Let's demand more of ourselves and those that "label" our students, as well as our students; and especially teacher training programs!

Let's remove the labels, and begin to find the problem. That's the beginning of the learning process…and everyone has one!

What is the real problem, and how to focus in on it?

If you are reading this column from the beginning, you already know that I'm not much for "evaluations" and "assessments" and diagnoses-I want to know what is happening with my students in the classroom, how they manage in English, how they "input" info, and how they produce, what are their work habits, etc.

And I don't rely on what they say, but what they do, and what I observe.

So obviously, my advice to new and old teachers alike: Observe! Give them lots and lots of opportunities during the first month or so to see how they manage, what they can do, how they behave, checking their levels. THEN decide what your curriculum will be, and what kind of variations you will need to reach most or all of your students. Besides, the first month of school, with all the holidays, and getting settled in isn't really the "learning curve" time…after the holidays is, so I usually declare a "New Year" after we return from Succoth vacation, armed with my decisions based upon what I have observed.

During this period I also give students assessment tasks: perhaps a group assessment on some basic functions, depending on their level, perhaps some group oral/aural exercises, some reading, writing, dictionary work tasks. But more important than the results of the tasks is how they went about their work, how they organize themselves, how they approach each task, how they ask for help, whether they plan their work, or answer impulsively…

To capture some of this information, here's a very simple checklist (for those of you who want something more comprehensive, contact me.

You will notice that behavior and skills take precedence over "tests" or quizzes to "fix" student abilities. Sometimes, this takes several weeks, especially in a class that has a greater number of SEN students. But the effort is worth it!

Assistive Technology and Why present test and Bagrut Accommodations are so "off target" to learning

At the beginning of this column, I talked a bit about who are SEN students.

The most important issue is not the disability or label or problem-but can you "level the learning field" through accommodations. In other words, despite the fact that Yossi has problems reading, if we offer him certain technology, for example, and he learns to read on his own, he is "accommodated". Our job is to find out what can help him, and teach him how to work more and more independently. And assure that he has what he needs in class, during tests and for the bagrut.

And there's the problem: the bagrut! But we are getting ahead of our story…

I started working with assistive technology within a year of starting to teach here in Israel, over ten years ago.

What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is "any item, piece of equipment or system that helps bypass, work around, or compensate for learning difficulties."
  • It can be hi-tech or lo-tech.
  • It "works around" learning problems, instead of trying to solve them.
  • It can be hardware or software or a piece of equipment.
  • It shouldn't be confused with educational or instructive hardware.

And I was so impressed with the amazing progress students made using AT, even in the "olden" days, that I started writing about it in ETNI posts and eventually in the ETNI News, and on site, and integrating it with my training on SEN techniques. And since then, I've made a major part of practice the use of AT with all kinds of SEN students, with a myriad of disabilities, and have shared many articles and training dialogues. Fortunately, I am presently teaching at a center that makes extensive use of technology, unlike many schools in the country: I do recognize that what I say about tech is not easy to implement!

Unfortunately, over a decade later-not too much has happened in Israel with the use of AT in education!

I keep hearing rumours that the Ministry "is starting to explore the use of AT…" I've been hearing them for several years!

Until the Ministry of Education recognizes the legitimate use of AT in testing procedures in bagrut and other official exams, provides training for teachers on how to use it, procedures on how to implement it, and funding (what???? You mean a budget? As in $$$$??? Get real!) to aid teachers and schools to implement it, nothing significant will happen here in Israel. And that's such a shame!

Maybe you don't agree with me. Despite the peskiness of tapes, you say, 'my students do OK with them, they get good grades on the bagrut.'

So let's think about this from a few angles:

I don't know how many LD students we have in Israel that get tapes. But what we are doing is not "accommodating" LD students. We are not giving them reading comprehension when we give them a tape. We are giving them listening comprehension with a script of sorts. That's OK, in my opinion. We should just call "a spade, a spade!"

And we don't really know whether the tape with text is a fair equivalent for LD students-is this the best way to test their knowledge of English? I am not sure ...

Furthermore, why make tapes? If we taught kids to use AT, they could download some programs for absolutely free that would read the reading texts to them, at the rate that they prefer, as many times as they want, whichever sections that they want. No more messy and time-consuming taping sessions! And more importantly, students would be learning to work independently, and could apply use these text-reading programs for all of their work in English, as long as the text appears on some kind of readable computer document, or the internet.

Writing. Give up on it? Let students "dictate" their essays to an examiner? Or on a tape? Not a chance. With Word prediction programs, students can learn to select correct spellings of words based upon the program's prediction of words that "fit" the context of the sentence or paragraph that you are typing.

Why is this better? Well, it would be nice if students learned to write on their own. A person is not always available to write for them. And every time they want to write, they don't want to set up their tape machine; and the person who has to listen to the tape needs to find a tape machine….etc. And I have found that once students start writing on their own, "negotiating" the correct spelling with word prediction programs, their spelling improves…sometimes to the point that they don't need to program to write.

A new idea (well, it really is old, already) is to convert to CDs since it's hard to get a tape machine. Same problem. Not worth too much of the effort-someone still has to record the CD texts.

At the Learning Center of the Blind, where I have worked for 6 years now, we used to use tapes all the time, and lots and lots of human readers. I haven't used a tape in 5 years! We've reduced the number of readers by more and more every year, and students are learning how to use computers, operate text-reading and screen reading programs, write with word prediction programs. And more importantly, by learning how to manipulate or "adapt" texts, sometimes they don't even NEED AT software or programs. A few changes in colors of background and text, size, etc. and voila! They are reading.

And not to brag about my students…well, yes, why not?! Some are blind, very visually impaired, some with hearing impairments, almost all with medium to severe learning disabilities, and much more….

Interested? Next time we'll start learning more about these wonderful programs…

In the Mood: Doing a Grand Tour with your SEN students

Most of us already know that when working with SEN students, in addition to multi-sensory learning less stress equals more learning; calmer equals better concentration (in most cases, that is).

I have a "trick" that I use with students and teachers alike: to get everyone's attention after an exciting activity, to raise energy levels during a long day or in a hot airless classroom, to get everyone to class and started on time (because if they think I am going to do the Grand Tour, they don't want to miss it!)

I got this from the Learning to Learn site.

The Grand Tour is not only a great relaxation activity, but also a great way to increase vocabulary and listening skills! There will be words and phrases that students might not know, but I wouldn't do a vocabulary building activity before you introduce the activity the first time-just tell students that you are going to do a relaxation activity, that noone should speak or ask questions until you tell them it is OK, just to enjoy the mood and the music. And you will talk about the activity and words later.

Just bring along some really calming music if you want, something without voice-- even whales singing is good--and keep it at a really, really low volume. Sit in front of the class with your eyes closed, listening to the music, and things will quiet down very quickly and begin:

Close your eyes, settle into a comfortable posture,
and spend a few minutes relaxing your body.
Begin by letting your body become loose and limp.
Allow your weight to sink
and your muscles to relax.

Spend a while just paying attention to how your body feels

Focus on your physical sensations,
in your arms, shoulders, back, head, stomach, and legs,
as well as inside your chest, abdomen, and hips.

Then slowly shift your attention to your breath.
Focus on the sensation of air
passing through your nostrils.

As you inhale and exhale, allow your breathing
to become calmer and more even.
Don't try to force your breath.
Just allow it to be natural and fluid.

Each time a distracting thought passes through your mind,
use it as a reminder
to return your attention to your body.
Gently lead the focus of your mind back to your sensations.
Allow yourself to let go completely
and to sink deeply into the warm feeling of relaxation.
Recirculate your sensations back into your sensations.

Become so quiet inside
that you can feel
your heart beat
throughout your body.

As your attention becomes clearer with each breath,
turn it to relax specific parts of your body.

Begin by mentally picturing your face.
Visualize your eyes, mouth, cheeks, and jaw.
Form a vivid metal image of each part
becoming more relaxed as you gaze on it.

As you turn your attention to these parts of your face,
you many discover the presence of subtle tensions.
Simply allow the tensions to dissipate
through the visualization.

When your face is thoroughly relaxed,
move on to your ears, neck,
shoulders, arms, and fingers.
Visualize each part becoming looser
and more relaxed.
The clearer your picture, the more deeply you relax.

Continue visualizing the rest of your body:
your chest, back, stomach, legs, knees, and toes.
Remember, there is no need to rush,
just let yourself enjoy
the experience of touring your body.

Once you finish picturing your toes,
visualize your entire body
as a relaxed, sentient statue.
Immerse yourself in the sensations
of full relaxation.

Just let go.

Next issue, I'll bring you another idea from the world of "alternative" health in the classroom

Tried and True Links

We English teachers are an interesting breed: I remember the days when many of us fought and squirmed when asked to integrate technology, especially the internet, into our classrooms. Nowadays, it is becoming commonplace, "in", "EC" (educationally correct). And as one who is totally addicted to the internet, I love it! Love finding new sites, love using new material, hate using textbooks unless I can adapt them, love "turning students on" to new technologies, new vistas, new knowledge and learning via the internet-because when class is over, they can go back home and continue the learning process.

But as I learned when I was a girl scout, new sites are like new friends; but old sites should be "kept" and used, because they are "gold".

So here is one of my "old faithful" sites that I have consistently recommended to teachers and tutors that I train, and to my students for daily use.

Randall's ESL Cyberlistening Lab
  • Promotes multi-sensory learning
Most teachers of SEN students have already figured out that providing EFL materials in a multi-sensory fashion is more likely to yield success. And, if you just happen to be a new teacher, or someone who hasn't come across this term yet, don't despair:

This book about multi-sensory learning is fairly interesting, and talks about:

"Learning that involves the processing of stimuli through two or more senses (e.g., through hearing as well as seeing)."

We talk about multi-sensory learning as relying no strategies "…which include techniques for linking eye, ear, voice, and hand in symbolic learning."

Unfortunately, most teachers interpret this as throwing materials at students in a variety of vehicles: use of the board, copy of material, playing a recording or reading material to students, letting kids color in words, etc. or do puzzles ...

Randall's has the right idea! First of all, by providing students with listening comprehension practice via the internet, we are guaranteed-if we use the site correctly-to allow students a menu of multi-sensory input, but promote individualized exploration and eventual choice…and that is where the "rubber meets the road".
  • All levels and needs
I am not acquainted with "Randall" but I really should drop him a note of thanks (and probably will after I finish this article…then start the new school year…then get the chagim until control ....)

I have watched Randall's become more and more sophisticated, add more and more activities, expand each activity along lines that I will describe below, and advance with technology developments (one of the most important attributes for educational technology sites in our age).

From Easy to Difficult, short or long; special listening activities for Academic Purposes; vocabulary building; Language Learning and Life Skills. Most exercises include: pre-listening, quizzes and post listening exercise; transcripts of the listening comprehension; and some used to have video, as well.

Take a look at an Easy exercise: Answering Machine

At the very top, you can click on Quiz Script and have links to the audio script, as well as written script, that students can read along with. A cool addition in recent years: Randall has glossed certain items-you have to be a high level EFL learner or native speaker (which is often the case with SEN students) to understand the English-English definitions. Randall also sets up his pages in a pretty simple manner-want to enlarge the script text? No need to copy it to a Word document: just go to the Top Menu of your browser; View; Text Size and select the size.

The "title" rectangle tells you what kind of exercises are available for "Answering Machine" and the length of the script.
  • Pre-listening exercises help students to predict what they will hear, and some tips for listening.
  • Listening exercises will usually be a multiple choice quiz
  • An addition in the last few years is "post-listening" or Text Completion, which allows students to fill in missing words from the quiz script. (Also linked at the top of the page)
  • Idioms-on the right side of the main page
This site if chockfull of helpful tips! Look at the left-hand menu "Using EFL Lab"
  • First-time users can get advice on which audio software you need on your computer, and how to work on the site, and how to select and download media players. Don't miss Tips for Teachers, a very organized intro on how to use listening activities and the site in your teaching.
  • Be sure to check the FAQ if you have problems on the site.
  • Handouts is an excellent place for coordinators or teacher trainers to find material for teachers on how to use the site, and for teachers to get information to prepare for their students, if they intend to make extended use of the site.
  • While preparing this article, I discovered Self Study Guide. I think I am going to try using this with my students, since we always have a discussion in the beginning of the year on how to improve our English-this allows them to make some choices, and gives them the material to make a difference.
Check out Randall's other sites (linked from the top of the main page)-I am intrigued by "Train your accent" and may give it a try this year.

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