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Students with Special Needs-Helping Them & Ourselves
by Terry Benor


Abstract:

The writer treats us to a common-sense approach of accommodating students with special needs, including tips on how to apply recommendations from assessments, including:

Our growing awareness and sensitivity to the needs of students with special needs has had two results, one positive and the other, while not necessarily negative, almost always causes blood pressure to rise and adrenalin to flow in the bodies of Israeli English teachers.

On the one hand, students with problems are provided with the means to perform according to their capabilities. However, teachers are overwhelmed with arranging these special means, i.e. making tapes, finding special rooms, etc.

The subject of students with special needs and accommodations, not to mention the constant query "What am I supposed to do with my students?", has been a popular theme and source of controversy at English conferences and lectures placing only second behind Bagrut exams (especially when there are changes). I will share with you some ideas and thoughts about this subject which might help you cope.

I, however, will not address the problem of the profusion and exponentially exploding number of students who are deemed belonging to the special needs category: This obvious problem is not to be scoffed at, but I honestly do not know how it can be solved! I remember a teacher approaching me one year, after the Bagrut exams, "What are we supposed to do? Out of 120 students sitting for the exams, 60 (!!!) had the accommodation of full oral exam?" Can you imagine the logistics this school had to cope with while conducting a Bagrut exam? I had no clear answer, but perhaps some of the following ideas will help you, your students and your schools manage better.

Assessment findings are "Recommendations" not obligatory
(Note: The term accommodations is used throughout this piece. When students are evaluated for learning disabilities and other learning problems, the evaluator not only reports specific problems that arise during the testing, but accommodations for students so that they can cope. Sometimes (but unfortunately, not often), the accommodations refer to how to adapt teaching methods and learning material, but almost always provide information about how testing situations need to be changed to accommodate the learning problem, i.e. accommodations.)

First and foremost, on the written didactic assessment and usually the psychological assessment, the list of accomodations, for Hebrew, Arabic and English are called "Recommendations", meaning they are not obligatory. This cannot be overemphasized. Schools receive bulletins and letters from the Ministry every year explaining that specific requests for recommendations for students should be made by the school counselors after consulting with the teacher who knows the student, so that the appropriate request is made.
See http://www.anglit.net/main/docs/october06/ldhatamot06-7.doc
For this year's LD guidelines. And the Ministry of Ed. English website for more information about LD testing:
http://www.anglit.net/main/index.html

Tips for implementing recommendations and setting accommodations:

The following are tips which might help:

  • English staff member assigned as contact person:
    One person on the staff should mediate between the English teachers and the school counselor. There should be a "public domain" file for the English staff which lists the students according to class and the accommodations that have been recommended for English. This designated teacher should be in contact with the counselor for updates and recommendations by English teachers for students who seem to be in need of an assessment.

    During the course of the first two months of school (especially if the school is doing winter Bagrut), the teacher-contact should first finalize with the English teachers the accommodations needed by the student and then discuss these (yes, it takes time) with the counselor to make sure that the appropriate accommodation is being requested for each student.

  • Accommodations:

    1. Added time: Most students don't need extra time for tests, but many have it as a calming effect. We often see students manage perfectly well in the alloted time given for a test, others we see actually do need the time. The problem with "extra time" is that it often requires providing an additional room. If a teacher feels that ALL the material on the exam should be completed by the student, then a separate room and supervision have to be provided; but it is often possible to reduce the number of required tasks the student has to complete for the exam, and thus alleviate the need for providing extra time (and a room, etc.) If it is not a mock bagrut exam or matconnet, it certainly would be possible to reduce some of the material and still get an accurate assessment of the student's knowledge instead of having to find a separate room and making people feel uncomfortable.

    2. Spelling mistakes-No points taken off: Students of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) are likely to make some spelling mistakes. The problem is the number and type. If a student consistently spells words incorrectly, and each time in a different way, this is a serious problem. However, as an accommodation, this is given frequently for Hebrew which can then be adopted for English but doesn't lead to problems in our teaching.

      Now for an interesting aside: I have asked, over the years, Bagrut markers of Hebrew subjects (and I am almost positive it is the same for Arabic subjects) how many points are taken off for spelling mistakes. Guess what? None! Imagine my astonishment, since this accommodation is given on so many assessments but isn't relevant for most subjects.

    3. Listening to a recorded tape: We are now entering "murky" water. If a student has the general accommodation (for all subjects) of being read the exam, this can be applied to English so and the student will can receive a tape of the test. HOWEVER, on numerous occasions, it is automatically applied, and often isn't necessary. Teachers are often surprised that this accommodation has been given since the student can read English perfectly well and at a reasonable pace. In addition, a student may have and even need this accommodation, but just doesn't want to be bothered or "forgets" to bring a walkman to school. In this latter case, in my school, we send letters to the parents and students where they signify that they have this privilege but are waiving it, in order not to encounter problems the day of an exam or at a later date (if the student chooses to contest the grade).

      This is where the role of the classroom teacher becomes pivotal in deciding which reccommendation is the best for the student. The designated teacher must find out if this is what the student really needs from the class teacher, or if it is relevant in other subjects, but not in English. This accommodation in English should not be given as often as it is. School counselors themselves are not always aware of the difference in English and other subjects. The contact person must explain, as I do many times, that the recommendations are just that; and furthermore, that many students cope with reading in English in spite of having had a didactic test. The accommodations are not automatic.

      Making tapes is time-consuming to say the least and yes, it's part of our job. We know this, but at the same time, we should feel empowered to say to counselors and teachers (and students) that this is not an accommodation applicable to a particular student and to explain why.

      And if students DO need tapes, here are some ideas for saving staff time and energy: Tapes of exams (and even books!) can be made by English-speaking pensioners in the area,; volunteer native-speaker students in the school or excellent students in the higher grades can also make tapes; exchanges of tape libraries with other schools, (hold on to your old-fashioned fast-speed dubbing tape, until the technology of computers and the ministry catch up with one another.

    4. Reading answers onto a tape
      An additional accommodation which is for students whose whose handwriting problems and creative spelling mistakes make understanding their writing difficult. Students read their answers onto a tape and it is not an easy process. It is not an easy task to teach them to tape, but it is possible. As for what to do under normal classroom (not Bagrut or tests) situations, most of us can persuade students to use a computer or we can find a few minutes to sit with the student so that they can go over what they wrote and help us decipher their thoughts. I am certain that both teachers and Bagrut markers want students to succeed and will do their best to figure out what a certain word was meant to be.

    5. Use of electronic dictionary: Replacing the traditional huge Oxford "book" dictionary, is the electronic dictionary or milonit.
      Unfortunately, the milonit does not have all the features of regular dictionaries, that EFL learners find useful, e.g. examples of word use. Make sure that the student has been allotted accommodation. Sometimes it is just assumed.

    6. Full oral exam
      Giving the entire exam orally-teacher sitting with the student, reading the entire exam, and recording student verbal answers--is for students who can neither read nor write because of their learning problems or disabilities but whose understanding, production and ability in English are not diminished. Theoretically, there should not be many students who need this accommodation.

      Teachers must now submit an original written essay by the students in as part of the request for the oral exam. ---(all the red and black here not necessary)that students write for students who might fall into this category. This is a welcomed requirement and has probably helped reduced the number of such requests. In my own school, a student, who for years had been doing exams orally, was required to write a composition, and we found that his handwriting was perfectly lovely. He didn't need an oral exam--just a tape--and he did extremely well.

In Conclusion
Last, but not least, teacher awareness and sensitivity has increased. The benefits reaped by students given accommodations, who might otherwise not have been able to achieve their best in English, must be appreciated. This is solely due to the dedication and caring of English teachers all over the country who for years, along with the Ministry, have tried to find a way to enable all students success in learning and testing.

To sum up:

  1. Accommodations should be applied according to the student's needs.
  2. Teachers must use THEIR judgment and acquaintance with a student in deciding what would be best.
  3. A designated teacher should be the mediator for the English teachers.
  4. Students and their parents must be notified of what accommodations are suitable for English.
  5. Students must practice according to the way they are to be officially tested.
  6. And just in case you don't remember:the accommodations on didactic tests are recommendations. We must use logic and common sense in applying them.

The subject of students with special needs is a controversial one, indeed. My only hope is that some of these guidelines make it easier for the school English staff to cope without harming those students who really need accommodations in order to succeed.

For more information on LD Testing, see the Ministry of Education English website:
http://www.anglit.net/main/index.html

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