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Teachers can identify dyslexia in Reception and raise achievement in disadvantaged learners, writes Diane Montgomery

Reception teachers hear children read and help them write their news each day. But it is writing news that can be the key to identifying very early literacy difficulties more than reading. Ways of using writing to do this are simple and take no extra time and effort in the busy classroom.

For example, in October after the children have settled to the classroom routines all the teacher has to do is ask them to write their news or a story but without giving them any help at all. Surprisingly, in most schools about ten per cent of the children will be able to write a sentence that is already decipherable. For example, Sahana wrote: “I do my homwuk aft scool.” She obviously has had support at home and probably some pre-school help. Faye from a disadvantaged background however, had no such support but at age five years and one month wrote, “My littl sid is in bed bkos se is hafi hi tosls aot” (My little sister is in bed because she is having her tonsils out).

At the other end of the spectrum, some of the children can only make scribbles and marks, sometimes correctly from left to right but frequently they will write from right to left and a few will do both. These are all cues to what they have learnt so far about the English language and what they can be taught next. Some of them may be the summer born children who have not developed sufficiently to guide a pencil and maintain attention and need more time practicing sub-skills.

These October “stories” should be kept and then the exercise should be repeated in February after half term. By comparing each child’s two scripts it is possible to find out exactly what each of them has learnt about the language since entering school. If they can write some words using a pre-phonetic skeletal sound system like Faye, they will be able to read most of those words in their books.

Making progress

Children beginning to write in this type of sound system will begin to include correctly spelled words from visual memory, especially words they commonly read or copy in their writing of news, such as “I”, “the” and “and”. Using current early years teaching methods, by the summer term two-thirds of most classes will be on the road to writing and reading having learnt to make words from some of their sounds and constructing others from visual memory. This leaves one-third of the group, or many more in disadvantaged areas, who will need some more focused attention if they are to leave the Reception/Foundation Year with the necessary skills to cope with work in Year 1.

Even though the disadvantaged learners cannot yet use the sound system to make their own words it is very straightforward to help them “crack the alphabetic code” and move on. If they are not helped to do this in Reception, research shows they will enter Year One 11 months behind their peers in reading and further behind in writing and they will never catch up. This puts them at a disadvantage throughout the rest of schooling and can cause them to underachieve in life. Teachers however can make a difference by finding those who are “stuck” in this pre-communicative stage and with a little focused help move them on to the next stage, an essential basis for further literacy development.

This focus is to teach the letters using the typical multi-sensory VAKs technique, linking visual, auditory and kinaesthetic forms, that is using letter shapes, sounds and motor formation as usual but adding to this the articulatory “feel” of the letter in the mouth, especially consonants. For example, when they make the sound of “L” ask, “Where is the tip of your tongue touching?” “Are your lips open or closed?” “Are your teeth touching?” Children should be encouraged to feel the sound in their mouth as they make it. The teaching of “phonemes” in this way and encouraging children to use them in freeform writing helps them master the writing system. A “phone” is the name given to the near equivalents of phonemes and words that children use as they begin to learn the writing system; for example, “w” for “went”, then “wt”, then “wet” and finally “went”; or as Faye wrote, “sid” for “sister”. Playing the “I spy something beginning with…” game is useful; just add the feel of the letter practice.

Utilising staff

A SENCO reading this in February could ask the Reception teacher(s) to collect the sample of freeform writing and find out those children who are not using “phones”. The teaching assistant can then be trained to work with small groups to teach them for how to “feel” as well as sound and write the initial letters of words and play the I-Spy game.

It will help even more if they also teach simple word building. The most effective strategy is to use the first five letters of the specialist dyslexia remedial programmes: “i-t-p-n-s”. This is because they have a high frequency in children’s writing and are not so confusable as some other letters. They need to start with “i” and “t” and blending to make “it” and non-word “ti”,then “tit” (adding in some blue-tit pictures here). Add one more letter at a time and show the children how to blend and feel the words, then write them: “pit”, “tip”, “pip”, “tit” and so on. They should also practice reading them and writing them to dictation. Children get enormous pleasure when they write their first sentence unaided and can read it to you.

During the summer term, most of the children should by these means have cracked the alphabetic code and have begun their literacy journey. Even so, at least one child in this group is likely to be dyslexic and up to three children on average may have milder dyslexic difficulties. A few will also have lack of finger strength and may need fatter pencils or moulds to improve grasp. The good point is that they will already have been detected in the writing strategy. If the focused teaching strategy does not work for them, they can immediately be referred for more individual specific help. This has proved to be the use of a specialist dyslexia programme, but used in Reception rather than later in Year 3 or even as late as Year 7.

Significant gains

Project schools in disadvantaged areas using the basic “phone” strategy discussed above gained a 30 per cent uplift in SATs at Key Stage 1 and in a school in an advantaged area the SATs scores increased by ten per cent. This indicated that the underachievement normally found in these classrooms was being addressed.

Although it may not be custom and practice to target “phones” in this way in much of early years education, it has been shown to work. In some schools they also give children lines to write on and teach joining from the outset. Lines show children where to place the letters and joining helps with legibility and motor coordination. Maybe it’s time for schools and pupils to experiment?

Further information

Professor Diane Montgomery is Emeritus Professor in Education at Middlesex University and Director of the Learning Difficulties Research Project:
www.ldrp.org.uk

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