Parents of children who seem to be having problems in school are always anxious to find resources to help identify and solve the issues that are causing those problems. If the problem is due to a learning disability that affects a student’s ability to read and write, it’s even more important to get help and support so that a child doesn’t continue to fall further behind because of their lack of these important skills. Amanda Davis has created an innovative approach to answering this need, and we talked to her recently about the program she developed.
UV: Can you tell us a little bit about Words First, and the approach you take to helping students with special educational needs?
AD: Firstly, thank you for this opportunity. Words First is an independent speech and language therapy practice based in London that offers innovative services to mainstream primary and secondary schools.
At Words First, we do not see how the disciplines of speech, language and literacy can be separated. When you’re reading, you’re reading language. When you read, you don’t just need to decode words, you also need to decode language! The rationale for addressing both spoken and written language in our approach is based on the reading circuit of Maryanne Wolf, which I’ve described very briefly below.
Our brains are not prewired for literacy – there are no reading centres in the brain as there are speech or language centres. As stated by Stephen Pinker ‘children are wired for sound but print is an optional accessory that has to be painstakingly bolted on’. When learning to speak, babies use a pre-existing network that connects the auditory cortex with the speech / language areas of the brain. However, when learning to read, speech enters the brain through the visual cortex but there are no pre-existing connections between the visual cortex and speech / language. The brain must develop a new circuit in which the features of a visual symbol (letters) are connected to the speech / language centres – ample reason, in my opinion, for literacy and language to be part of the same discipline!
We have designed an assessment battery that aims to identify the specific area of weakness in the reading circuit in any pupil who is experiencing problems at school. These may be academic, social or behavioural manifestations of a deficit in any of the areas described above. Our assessment battery is based on the Double Deficit Hypothesis (Wolf and Bowers, 1999). We employ speech and language therapists (SaLTs) to administer assessments and provide intervention because of their expertise in the areas of language/communication and their disorders (our SaLTs have additional training in literacy). The entire Words First approach was designed around mainstream curriculum demands and is therefore easily implemented in schools. The assessment identifies the underlying area of need and intervention is targeted at that deficit. Pupil progress is measured after 12 weeks and parents / schools are presented with impact reports.
As far as possible we like to work with parents / teaching assistants and teachers to transfer skills and share knowledge. Our whole school approach aims to embed principles of differentiation and strategies for children with language and literacy difficulties in the planning and delivery of lessons. For more information about the Words First approach please visit our website.
UV: How do you distinguish between children who have a challenging learning disability, and those students that simply have some problems with reading and writing?
AD: Pupils who receive our assessment / intervention cycle usually make good progress over the course of 12 weeks due to the fact that we target the exact area of underlying weakness. In many cases, we see pupils who have impoverished language / vocabulary due to under stimulation rather than a core learning difficulty. These pupils require a targeted assessment and intervention approach, such as the one offered by Words First, to determine their exact area of weakness and provide stimulation in that specific area. These pupils make great progress because they seem to have ‘ah ha!’ moments – we teach them strategies that they have not developed naturally but are more than capable of learning and using. We are seeing more and more pupils in primary and secondary schools who have not had enough exposure to rich and varied language and of course, vocabulary is an on-going concern in our schools.
At Words First our focus, especially in secondary school is on teaching pupils strategies that can be generalized across the curriculum. We aim to teach our pupils a life long understanding of how language works, in a relatively short (realistic) time frame. Therefore, we use a carefully selected group of core words to demonstrate morphological, phonological, orthographics aspects, semantic neighbourhoods, multiple meanings and syntactic structures and then provide opportunities to practice these in social contexts. Again, because some pupils have had little exposure to explicit teaching in these areas, or have not developed these strategies naturally, they make excellent progress.
However, there are some pupils who do not make adequate progress with our assessment and intervention approach. We analyse these pupils in depth and aim to identify the reasons for their lack of progress. In most cases, these pupils present with a significant learning difficulty that affects their performance in all areas of the curriculum. We discuss their unique needs with the special educational needs co-ordinator at the school and create a care plan for them. This may include attending a further block of intervention, one-to-one work with a trained teaching assistant or in some cases discussions around suitability of the school to meet the pupil’s needs. In addition, some pupils who do not make progress may have attendance issues or significant attention and listening difficulties. Of course there are some pupils who present with visual processing difficulties who require referral to a behavioural optometrist. Therefore, each pupil is seen as unique with their own set of challenges – we make time to think about each pupil and whether our approach is the right one.
UV: With so many demands on a teacher’s time, it’s often difficult for them to help every student in the classroom who may have a problem with an aspect of English language learning. Are there things that teachers can do to provide support to these students?
AD: Absolutely! I am always conscious of adding to a teachers load when I begin to talk about differentiation. However, the feedback we have got from our teachers is that the strategies and tips we advise using in the classroom actually reduce the workload. Our ideal situation is to work with the teacher at the lesson planning stage and then co-deliver lessons. However, we understand this is not always possible. Therefore, Words First has developed a ‘toolkit’ for mainstream teachers to use when planning and delivering lessons. These consist of a set of points to remember when a) planning a lesson – including a number of different games to recap vocabulary b) adjustments to use when delivering the lesson.
We have worked with classes where behavior has been turned around by simple strategies that have improved access to the curriculum for many of the pupils. If teachers understand how to differentiate for language, they will be supporting pupils who have a range of needs including those with specific language impairment, autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, behavioural difficulties (which often stems from a language / literacy difficulty) and attention deficit disorders.
UV: What can parents do to help children succeed in vocabulary development and English language skills?
AD: I don’t need to tell your readers about the direct correlation between vocabulary and academic achievement, this will be well known to you all. My belief, after years of research and practice in the area of literacy and language is that one of the greatest gifts you can give your children is an interest in and love of words and language. An inquisitive mind will wonder about words, sounds and letters and will make connections on its own – parents can encourage this inquisitiveness in their children by having fun with words, playing with words, exploring all aspects of words and overall enjoying their time investigating words together. My daughter, who is three and a half, is constantly bombarded with multiple meanings – when we walk in the forest and we hear a dog bark, I just cannot resist the opportunity of connecting the two meanings of the word ‘bark’ as we walk past the trees and listen to the sound of the dog barking.
However, I also believe that it is never too late to ignite this interest in language. Many of our secondary aged pupils become engrossed in our vocabulary strategies as we explore and learn about words – we often use these opportunities for teenagers to teach us about words, there is so much as adults we just don’t ‘get’! My favourite ‘vocab’ moment was with a group of 15 year olds – one boy whose surname was ‘Ball’ was sitting on a gym ball, as I blurted out ‘Wow, John you’re on the ball today’, the entire class erupted with laughter! These were pupils who had significant difficulties with flexibility of language and for them to understand the multiple meanings in that sentence was one of the best moments of my career so far.
So, parents cannot teach their child every word they will need to know by the time they get to school or secondary school. What they can do, however, is encourage an enquiring mind.
UV: You work with schools and individuals in the UK, but literacy issues are a worldwide problem. Do you provide resources for schools or organizations in other countries as well?
AD: We offer schools an approach to literacy and language assessment and intervention with resources to support this procedure. We have started working in South Africa where we are supporting an organization called Girls and Boys Town. Words First would be delighted to provide access to our approach to many more schools / pupils and therefore, we are able to offer our services on a consultative basis anywhere in the world. I would be absolutely delighted to hear from anyone outside the UK to discuss our approach and whether it may be suitable for your school and your pupils. Please email me (Amanda) at firstname.lastname@example.org