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Girls and Autism: Tips and Activities to Support Your Learners

group of girls and boys at school

What is autism? You may or may not have taught individuals in your English language teaching classrooms with autism. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is linked to brain development and can affect the way learners socialise, communicate, and behave.

Did you know? Many girls go undiagnosed with autism or are diagnosed later in life because they present differently to boys. By this, I mean they behave in a different way that may cover up the signs. For boys, their autism is often externally expressed, whereas girls tend to conceal or internalise what is worrying them.

 

Masking or camouflaging: what do they mean?

When a girl ‘masks’ or ‘camouflages’ she essentially modifies her behaviour. This might be in an attempt to fit in with her peers, for example copying the behaviour or voice of a classmate, in order to be similar to the group. It may also be her way of hiding her autism or the anxiety she is feeling in order to appear calm on the surface. This means girls can spend a lot of time covering up their emotions, which must be extremely exhausting (and as teachers we certainly know how this feels!)

In fact, girls with autism are often very good at making eye contact and holding conversations, which you don’t typically expect with autism. And unlike boys, their special interest subjects tend to be similar to their ‘neurotypical’ peers, for example horses or boy bands, making it difficult at times to spot autistic traits.

 

A few tips for including learners with autism: 

1) Listen

Every girl (and boy) with autism is different. They often say their brains are wired differently so they may learn in unconventional ways. It is important to remember that what works for one learner might not necessarily work for another.

2) Support

Statistically, learners with special educational needs are more likely to develop mental health issues. As we know, there are a multitude of pressures on young girls, so openly discussing mental health and managing anxiety is essential.

3) Strengthen

Girls with autism tend to struggle with self-worth and self-belief. Helping girls become aware of their sensory issues and emotions and how to regulate these helps them understand themselves and others.

4) Talk, talk, talk…

As teachers, we’re pretty good at this one! In order to overcome the lack of knowledge in this area, we need to discuss autism. We need to speak to colleagues and parents/carers, search for and share information, but most importantly we need to talk to our students and learn from them.

 

Practical activities (expanded from Into the Classroom: Special Educational Needs)

REMEMBER: Not every activity works for every student, it’s important to get to know your learners and understand what works best for them.

1) You’re the expert

Ask students to prepare a presentation on their special interest subject. Ask the rest of the class to ask questions. If learners don’t feel comfortable presenting to the class, why not get them to video and edit a short clip? Or run a Facebook Live, you could direct the conversation, but this may be less daunting for those who are anxious as they can join from elsewhere.

2) Name the feeling

Make pairs of cards with 1) photos of people expressing different feelings (according to students’ age and ability and 2) cards with the words that best describe the feelings.

Older students can play this game as ‘pelmanism’.

3) Pelmanism: Create pairs of cards where one card has a picture of a vocabulary item, and the other has the written word. Students place the cards face down on the table and take it in turns trying to find a matching pair by turning over two cards at a time. If players find a match, they keep it and have another go. If they don’t, they turn the cards face down again. Older students can practise homophones or homonyms, or match verbs with their tense forms.

 

Bonus activity: Tell me a story

Social stories and/or comic strips are a great way to engage learners. They can help children with autism in a number of ways, from teaching them how to behave in certain situations to developing their social skills. Why not get your students to draw or design stories of their own?

 

Want to find out more about autism and special educational needs? Get your hands on our Inclusive Practices position paper:

Download the position paper

 


References

  • Autism.org.uk.(2020) Autism Support – Leading UK Charity – National Autistic Society [online]. Available at: https://www.autism.org.uk
  • Carpenter, B, Happé, F, and Egerton, J. (2019) Girls and Autism: Educational, Family and Personal Perspectives. New York: Routledge
  • Delaney, M. (2016) Into the Classroom: Special Educational Needs. 1st ed: Oxford University Press
  • Sutherland, R, Hodge, A, Bruck, S, Costley, D, Klieve, H (2017) Parent-reported differences between school-aged girls and boys on the autism spectrum. Volume: 21 issue 6: 785-794.

 

Leanne Atherton is a further education lecturer with experience of teaching both in the UK and internationally. She qualified in post 16 education at City of Bath College and has ELT experience teaching young learners in Thailand and aboriginal students in Australia. She holds a TEFL qualification, a PCGE PCET and is currently studying for her Masters of Education (Special Educational Needs) in Oxford.


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Does technology work? | Nicky Hockly

Teaching with technology

In todays’ wired world, technology is an integral part of our work and personal lives. As teachers, we are often expected to use a range of digital technologies in our English language classes.

These expectations come from a range of quarters: from educational technology vendors, Ministries of Education, school directors, students, parents, and often from teachers themselves who feel they ‘should’ use technologies, especially with younger students/teenagers.

But in our rush to use technology in the English language classroom, the question of whether a chosen technology ‘works’ or not is frequently ignored.

What does research say?

Let’s start with a short quiz. Are the three following statements true or false?

  • Younger students (e.g. teenagers) are naturally better users of digital technologies than older students.
  • Contributing to blogs can help language learners improve their writing.
  • Digital technologies can help students with special educational needs.

Do you feel confident about your answers? Let’s see what the research says about each of these statements.

  1. Younger students are naturally better users of digital technologies than older students.
    Many people believe this to be true, but the myth of the ‘digital native’ (Prensky, 2001) has been thoroughly debunked by research. Young people are not automatically effective users of new technologies, although they may be confident with these technologies and use them for a range of (primarily friendship-driven) purposes. Young people may appear to live on Instagram, but they are often not good at evaluating the source and veracity of information they find online. They often don’t know how to write an email with the appropriate structure and tone. In short, younger students tend to be confident but uncritical users of technology. A large-scale research study (Fraillon et al.) carried out with 60,000 13 to 14 year olds across 3,300 schools in 21 educations systems/countries found that the ICT skills of young learners and adolescents were fairly low, and depended on a wide range of factors. These factors included: the impact of students’ home and school contexts, students’ individual characteristics, parents’ educational level and profession, the number of books and access to ICT resources in the home. Whether students received ICT instruction in school was another factor that affected their digital literacy. The bottom line is that younger people are automatically digital literate.
  • Contributing to blogs can help language learners improve their writing.
    Blogs have long been considered good for helping students develop their writing skills. When writing blog entries, students write for a real audience and with a communicative purpose; students can also interact with blog readers in a blog’s comment section. These are all good things for writing. Research shows that blogs can increase students’ motivation to write in English, although the research is less clear on whether the quality of their writing improves through writing blog entries. For example, it has been found that students with a lower level of language proficiency may benefit less from writing blogs than stronger students do (Secru, 2013). Nevertheless, the research into using blogs to develop EFL and ESL students’ writing is positive overall.
  • Digital technologies can help students with special educational needs.
    So-called ‘assistive technologies’ are used in inclusive learning in different disciplines, not only in English language learning, so much of the research has taken place in a range of subject areas. Overall, the research is promising. Tablets, for example, have been enthusiastically taken up by teachers working with special educational needs (SEN) learners because of their multimodal and tactile assistive qualities, as well as the ever-growing range of educational apps available for SEN students. In the field of English language teaching, research suggests that, depending on the learning materials or apps used and task design, learners’ engagement with language learning materials can increase (e.g. Cumming & Draper Rodriguez, 2013). The research also suggests that language teachers usually have a positive attitude to the use of assistive technologies with their SEN language learners.

Whatever the technology and whoever the learners, one thing is clear: it is important to review the available research in order to take an evidence-based approach to using technology with English language learners.

To what extent do technologies support language learning, and lead to improved outcomes for students? Watch my webinar where we’ll take a critical look at digital technologies research and ask: Does technology actually help English language students learn better?

Watch the recording

Nicky Hockly is the Director of Pedagogy of The Consultants-E, an award-winning online training and development organisation. She has worked in the field of English Language Teaching since 1987, is an international plenary speaker, and gives workshops and training courses for teachers all over the world. Nicky writes regular columns on technology for teachers in ETP (English Teaching Professional) magazine, and in the ELTJ (English Language Teaching Journal).


References

  • Cumming, T. M., & Draper Rodriguez, C. (2013). Integrating the iPad into language arts instruction for students with disabilities: Engagement and perspectives. Journal of Special Education Technology, 28, 4, 43-52.
  • Fraillon, J., Ainley, J., Schulz, W., Friedman, T., & Gebhardt, E. (2013). Preparing for life in a digital age. The IEA International Computer and Information Literacy Study International Report. Springer Open: Springer International Publishing AG Switzerland.
  • Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon 9, 5. MCB University Press.
  • Sercu, L. (2013). Weblogs in foreign language education: Real and promised benefits. Proceedings of INTED2013, 7th International Technology, Education and Development Conference, Valencia, Spain, pp. 4355-66.


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Selecting, Adapting and Designing Materials for Learners with Dyslexia | Jon Hird

ELT publishers are more and more producing material appropriate for learners with dyslexia. This mainly consists of ‘dyslexic-friendly’ reading texts and tests, which are available from teachers’ resource sites. However, to gain maximum benefit from such material, it is important for us as teachers to have an awareness of what dyslexia actually is, how it can impact on learning, and the implications of this for material design.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is primarily a result of issues with working memory, which put simply is the ability to hold and recall information long enough to perform an operation using this information. There may also be issues with other related functions such as focus (avoiding attention displacement and distraction) and effort (remembering to remember). As a result, the fundamental issue for most learners with dyslexia is difficulty processing and remembering information. Other typical characteristics include difficulties with maintaining concentration and remaining on task. As well as affecting many everyday activities, dyslexia affects general learning and in particular the acquisition of literacy skills.

Issues with literacy

Literacy issues tend to manifest initially mainly at word level in terms of word recognition and spelling. However, in most cases, a typical learner with dyslexia will over time ‘catch up’ with his or her non-dyslexic peers in terms of word recognition and spelling. However literacy issues may remain, but are more likely to be with sentence and then paragraph and essay level processing, planning, and organisation. Reading can also be hindered in a number of other ways. A dyslexic learner may find his or her eye drawn to other letters or words, or other distracting elements on the page, and he or she may easily lose their place in a text. Long multi-clause sentences may be problematic in terms of maintaining focus and remembering and processing the content. And the actual design, layout and font may be distracting and make the text difficult to follow and process.

Material selection, design, and adaptation

Modifying and adapting page design and the layout and format of texts and other language exercises can be a real help for a learner with dyslexia. However, while the majority of dyslexic learners are likely to have broadly similar issues, an adaptation to material that may work for one learner may not work for another and indeed may even have a negative effect. For example, for every dyslexic learner who finds images or other graphics on the page helpful in providing context, there may be another for whom they are a distraction. But however we adapt the material, one key principle that will benefit almost all dyslexic learners is to reduce the processing load. This can be done in a number of ways such as providing the learner with shorter and simplified reading texts and reducing the word count for their written work. For language activities and exercises, we can reduce the number of items in an exercise and/or the number of exercises or activities the student needs to do. We can also simplify the items by removing any extraneous content and focusing more just on key language or by modifying the item in other ways. Changing the exercise or activity type or its format can also help.

In my ELTOC webinar, we considered in more detail approaches to the design of materials such as texts, exercises and tests suitable for dyslexic learners of English. We looked at examples of available dyslexic-friendly ELT materials (such as those below) and also considered how we as teachers can identify potential difficulties with material and if necessary adapt existing materials and produce our own.

Click here to watch a recording of my webinar!

High Spirits, Oxford University Press.
High Spirits, Oxford University Press.
Grammar and Vocabulary for the Real World, Oxford University Press.
English Grammar for Italian Students with Dyslexia, Oxford University Press.

Jon Hird teaches English at the University of Oxford and is a teacher-trainer and ELT materials writer, with a particular interest in grammar, EAP and dyslexia, and learning English. As well as adapting material for learners with dyslexia, his recent books include Oxford Learner’s Pocket Verbs and Tenses, Oxford EAP, Grammar and Vocabulary for the Real World and English Grammar for Italian Students with Dyslexia. Jon has a dyslexic son.


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How to work with learners with SEBD (social, emotional, and behavioural difficulties) in the classroom | Annette Igel

Where’s the turn off button?

Over the past couple of years, I have been working intensively with learners with SEBD, and it is not always the child with the most boisterous and loud behaviour that causes problems in the classroom.

Three cases

Take Katrin*, for example, who is a very quiet girl and she does not cause any problems in class. That is if she attends class at all or takes part while she is in the classroom. Over the last year her behaviour has changed dramatically. From being able to attend lessons without any major issues towards missing whole weeks of school. Due to severe anxiety she does not participate or come to school without her mother and stays in the classroom (or at least in the spare room attached to the classroom). She rarely sits at her place but might choose to sit at an extra table with her mother.  Towards her mother, she often uses quite an aggressive tone, as soon as her mother is out of sight, she descends into a meltdown.

Then there is Tom* who is at least two years behind his classmates in his social and behavioural development. His behaviour often resembles that of a pre-school learner though he is in 4th grade. If he puts his mind to a task, he can focus and work quite well, and his knowledge of vocabulary is at the upper end of the class. Unfortunately, he cannot work well in pairs and groups over a period of time and often pulls himself out of activities and disturbs others, often together with Jim*.

Jim has been officially diagnosed with SEBD and needs to spend several weeks a year in the children’s psychiatric ward. He is a learner with a very short concentration span who only works one-on-one with a teacher as he needs strong emotional support. Then he shows the ability to at least work on tasks even if slower than most other learners. In situations where the learners role play, mingle activities, and other free tasks, he withdraws himself and starts playing around, disturbing others, often together with Tylor*. The other learners are very reluctant to have him in their groups.

These are just three children I have in my English classes at a primary school in Hamburg, Germany.  

They are all in the same class and of course there are other learners with similar issues in the other classes, as all schools in Hamburg are supposed to follow an inclusive approach.

But how can you as a teacher juggle all this, especially when you do not have an assistant teacher?

What is SEBD?

It is not easy to find an umbrella to cover the immense variation that occurs in SEBD as is obvious from the three cases described. Marie Delaney (2016) gives the following characteristics of problematic behaviour to differentiate it from misbehaviour.

‘We use SEBD to describe problematic behaviour which

  • is severe
  • isn’t age appropriate
  • happens frequently
  • occurs in different situations.’

Typical behaviour includes learners being disruptive, challenging (not only towards the teacher), hyperactive and restless, but also as the case of Katrin shows, withdrawn. This does not mean, however, that they are not able to cope in the classroom, as they have to learn strategies to cope with situations that might trigger their negative behaviour.

Recommended strategies

Strategies which can be used with all learners but are very useful when working with learners with SEBD:

  • Be positive, and do not take the child’s behaviour personally.
  • Praise positive behaviour to encourage them.
  • Have clear reminders you can use in class for each learner, such as a little note stuck on their desk.
  • Give them the opportunity to have some time out when it is getting too much.
  • Show a real interest in the learners.
  • Get all stakeholders on board, including other teachers, parents, classmates, the child of course, and an assistant or special education teacher if you have one.
  • Decide together with the child what strategies can be followed when they feel stressed, anxious and when something triggers their slip into their negative behaviour.
  • Be supportive but also show them when they cross the borders.

How to cope with all of this when you are alone in the classroom

First of all, you are not the only teacher facing learners with SEBD. Talk to colleagues, support each other and think of strategies that you could use, when certain situations arise, and not only the ones that affect you. This also helps the individual learner as they can sense the system and will feel more supported and safer in the classroom.  There may come the moment when one of your learners actually comes up to you and says: ‘With you, I feel much safer.’ as happened at the end of a school year during which I had been working intensively with one boy with SEBD who had slowly learned to better control his anger and aggression.

That is when you know you have reached at least one of your struggling learners and that your efforts are rewarded.

*All names have been changed.


Anette Igel

Now based in Hamburg, Anette previously worked as a DoS, Teacher-Trainer, and a teacher specialising in English and German at International House Brno, in the Czech Republic between 2003 and 2016.  She is currently an English and Inclusion teacher at a Hamburg Primary school, and is also a tutor for IHC in the local area.


Bibliography:

Delaney, M. (2016) Special Educational Needs – into the classroom, Oxford: OUP


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Learning difficulties in the ELT classroom: How to identify them and what to do

As an English Language teacher you may have students with unidentified additional learning needs in your classroom. Often these learning difficulties are ‘invisible’, not easy to recognise in class, or hidden behind other issues such as poor behaviour, and an apparent lack of motivation.

Identifying ‘invisible’ learning difficulties

Difficulties which have not been identified by any formal assessment can surface in a variety of ways. They may first appear in an English Language class because the focus is on activities that require students to communicate and interact with other students, using all four skills of listening, reading, writing and speaking.

Although it is not the teacher’s job to diagnose learning difficulties, it’s important to know how to recognise when a student might be struggling because of a learning difficulty.

General indicators

Indicators that students might be experiencing difficulties greater than expected for their age and level include:

  • having problems understanding and following instructions
  • finding it difficult to concentrate and being easily distracted
  • having difficulty with tasks which require fine or gross motor skills
  • being able to speak much more fluently than they can write
  • finding it difficult to start tasks or never managing to finish them
  • avoiding doing tasks
  • having problems participating in whole-class or group activities
  • appearing not to listen, or not responding to questions or instructions
  • having problems making friends and maintaining relationships.

These indicators reflect three main issues : Behavioural, Communication, Social Skills

Behavioural   

Learning difficulties often first present themselves in classes through poor behaviour and non-compliance or non-completion of tasks. Many of these issues relate to impaired working memory. Working memory is the part of your brain which holds information long enough to act on it. When working memory is impaired, students find it difficult to remember and act upon instructions, to copy things down correctly from the board, to remember what they have just read in a reading text. This shows up in class as

  • Not writing things down properly or avoiding writing down from the board
  • Not following instructions or continually asking what they should do
  • Appearing to switch off when reading longer texts and losing focus very quickly
  • Appearing disorganised and forgetful

Communication issues

Learning difficulties can also show up as communication issues. They can occur in receptive language (understanding) and/or expressive language (producing). Students find it difficult to understand what they have to do or to show what they know. It can lead to students having difficulties in communicating with the teacher and their peers. They may not want to work in groups, appearing withdrawn and isolated, sometimes not understanding humour or everyday conversation.

Social skills issues

Social skills issue can relate to language issues or social and emotional difficulties. Students may have problems taking turns, showing empathy, and understanding other students’ perspectives. As the language classroom operates on social interactions, lessons can present a real challenge to these students.

These indicators do not necessarily mean a student does not care about learning. They can be indicators of students with additional needs such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit, speech, and language difficulties or ASC (autistic spectrum condition).

However, most students experience some of these difficulties from time to time. If you’re concerned about a student in your class, gather objective information about how often the problems occur and how serious they are. Consider:

  • Is the problem across all classes and at all times of day?
  • Is the problem in certain class groupings?
  • Where is the child sitting? Can they hear and see properly?
  • Who is the child sitting with? Does this make a difference?
  • What kinds of tasks can the child do?
  • When the child is engaged, what engages them?
  • Is the work too easy or too difficult? How do you know?
  • Does the work involve a lot of writing? Sitting still? Copying from the board?
  • Is the child only noticed for negative things? What are their strengths?
  • Does the child have trouble following instructions?
  • Does the child have trouble remembering visual and/or auditory information?

Teaching principles

The important thing to remember is that all students need to feel safe and valued in their class. Good teachers provide this for all their students by maintaining positive relationships, clear structure, routines, consistency and clarity.

Use a multi-sensory approach for teaching and checking understanding. For example,  give instructions with visuals, gestures and words, use different ways to check understanding such as mini whiteboards and traffic lights signals. Use visual icons on your board to show the order of teaching in your lesson.

Focus on developing positive relationships with your students. Notice if you are only interacting negatively with some students, those for example, who are always causing disruptions or are slow to respond. Get to know them as people, beyond any labels. Every student is unique and different and brings something important to the class. Avoid jumping to assumptions that they are ‘lazy’ or ‘don’t care’.

Use an assessment for learning approach, such as 2 stars and a wish, where you encourage students to focus on their own progress against specific criteria rather than on overall attainment levels.

Celebrate their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses. These can be academic or personal strengths, such as kindness, perseverance, and good humour.

Create an inclusive ethos in class. To do this, try using class contracts which are value driven rather than rules driven. ‘In this class we give people extra time if they need it’. ’In this class we help each other.’

Use the English class to develop social skills in all students. Try activities like ‘find 5 things in common with your partner, or ‘5 things which are different’, this creates a sense of belonging and allows students to celebrate difference.

Remember that it is not your job to diagnose. If you are concerned about a student, gather as much information as you can. Discuss with other teachers to determine whether the difficulties are only in English, or are also in other lessons. Find out whom in your school is responsible for additional learning needs, typically a school psychologist, special educational needs co-ordinator or manager responsible for learning should be there to talk through your concerns.


Marie Delaney is a teacher trainer, educational psychotherapist, and director of The Learning Harbour, educational consultancy, in Cork, Ireland. She worked for many years with students of all ages who have SEN, in particular in the area of behavioural difficulties. She has worked with Ministries of Education and trained teachers in several countries on inclusion policy, curriculum, and inclusive pedagogy. Her main interests are bringing therapeutic approaches into teaching and learning, supporting teachers in their dealings with challenging pupils and promoting inclusive education principles for all. Marie is the author of Special Educational Needs (Oxford University Press, 2016).