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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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Meditate your way to better teaching | Q&A with Ushapa Fortescue

Recently, I presented webinars for OUP entitled “Meditate your way to better teaching” The focus was on how teachers need to take care of themselves to avoid excess stress and burnout and how meditation and mindfulness are successful techniques for this. We explored many different techniques that teachers can use in their everyday teaching lives.

Here I respond to some of the questions I couldn’t answer during the webinar.

I’ve read lots about mindfulness but beyond ‘being more focused on the present, I’m still not sure what it is, because everyone is using the term for everything. Any definition for our purposes?

 This is an important question as we really need to understand meditation and mindfulness if we want to practice them.

The question came near the start of the webinar and I hope that I explained it later on, however there are so many misconceptions that I would like to take this opportunity to give a definition.

A definition of mindfulness from Mindful is “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”

People often think that meditation is focusing or concentrating on something, but this is not meditation. A definition of meditation is relaxed awareness.

An analogy that I was once told to help understand the difference between focused, concentration and relaxed awareness was to imagine you are on a train reading a book. The skill of reading takes concentration (and as teachers we know many sub skills) and a focus. So as the train is moving along you are focusing your attention on the words in the book.

After a while you put the book down and just look out of the window. As the countryside is passing by you’re not looking at anything in particular but you are seeing everything. You are relaxed and aware of what is passing by. This is the difference between concentration and relaxed awareness.

As mentioned in the webinar, meditation and mindfulness have enormous health benefits and this may be largely due to the relaxation that is involved. It’s really an opportunity to “turn up” for your own life, to not miss what is happening around you, because life, like most activities, works better when we turn up for it.

I’ve got a distraction problem. E.g. when I am listening to a tape or video I get distracted for some seconds and miss that part. Can meditation do something for this problem? What’s the solution for getting distracted?

Distraction is something we all have experience of. Especially in the modern world we live in, we are almost encouraged to multitask, and so many things are vying for our attention that it’s no wonder we get easily distracted.

In the “watching the natural breath” technique, we used the things that may normally be seen as distractions (feelings, sounds, thoughts) to actually help us relax. Instead of fighting them or trying to ignore them, we used all those things to bring awareness to what was happening in the present moment. So instead of taking us away from the task they actually helped us to engage with it.

The likelihood is that we will get distracted and that’s natural. When it happens, use one of the senses to bring your awareness back to the present. The sounds, bodily sensations, sights, smells that are around you. And be kind to yourself when it happens. If you feel bad when it happens you will become tense, meditation needs relaxation, so when you notice you are distracted, be thankful you have realised you are distracted, and then you can come back to the present moment.

Can you also mention how to stay focused and mindful whilst actually teaching a class?

Like any new skills, it needs a lot of practice.

One of my meditation teachers used to say “If you were going to parachute out of a plane, you wouldn’t start sewing the parachute while you are in the plane! You would make it while you’re on the ground, check it, do some more test runs, make sure it works before you jump out of plane with it.”

The same is true for meditation and mindfulness. As for many it’s a new skill, so practice where and when you are most likely to have success. Teaching in a classroom is a very focused and involved activity, so trying to meditate for the first time in the class perhaps isn’t the best idea. Practise the techniques while you are relaxed and conducting a simple activity, such as walking or clearing up the classroom. Then once you’ve found a technique that works for you, use it while doing more complex activities.

Some techniques that work perfectly and can have powerful results in the classroom are neutral gear, breathing into your centre and changing the focus techniques, as these can all be done while doing other activities.

Can we ask the students to do the relaxing technique too?

Many schools are introducing meditation to students with amazing success levels.

If you find a technique that works for you and feel it would be beneficial for your students, then you can try it out. The important step is that you first use the technique so you have an experience and understanding of it.

Jamie Bristow, Director of The Mindfulness Initiative, says “You wouldn’t ask a teacher who can’t swim to teach a swimming class from a textbook,” if we are interested in bringing meditation and mindfulness into the classroom, we have to start with ourselves.

So yes, a relaxing technique might work very well for older or adult students.

Make sure the exercise or technique you choose is age appropriate. Remember that sitting silently might be a pleasure for us, but it’s potentially not so for younger learners.

In the webinar I explained a mindful walking technique. If you would like to try something similar for young leaners, you can use the famous superhero Spiderman to engage them and help them to understand. Spiderman uses his “spidey senses” to feel when he is in danger, or when someone needs his help.

To help young leaners become aware of their surroundings, ask the students to turn on their “spidey senses” for 30 seconds to a minute and then report back what they saw, felt, heard in that time. This can be done while sitting or while quietly moving around the classroom. This way it feels like a game, helping them to become aware of the present moment.


Ushapa Fortescue has taught for over 14 years both in the UK and abroad in a variety of contexts including primary and secondary schools, post 16 adult education, private language schools, Further Education colleges and Universities. She trains teachers and presents worldwide. Chloe is a qualified meditation facilitator who has lived and worked in meditation centres around the world for the last 13 years. She loves to show teachers how to stay relaxed, engaged and light-hearted in the classroom.


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Meditate your way to better teaching

Can meditation and mindfulness really make us better teachers?

Well, the mounting evidence suggests yes!

Regular meditation can improve your immune system, energy levels, lower blood pressure, and enhance your sleep. And don’t forget its power to reduce feelings of anxiety or depression!

Over the last decade, various organisations have championed mediation and mindfulness to reduce stress, increase productivity, create calmer working environments, and improve the well-being of their employees. The educational sector is no exception. Meditation programs are now offered in schools worldwide. Many of these programmes focus on the learners, often boasting phenomenal results. A paper published by ‘Carry the Vision (2017)’ found a link between students that practiced meditation and positive emotions, self-identity, greater self-acceptance, and higher optimism. They also experienced lower stress levels, anxiety, and depression (Carry the Vision, 2017).

So the results are promising, but what do they mean practically for teachers? According to the Carry the Vision report, teachers found that meditation practice led to:

  • a more positive learning environment
  • more attentive children who were ready to learn
  • increased working memory, creativity and concentration
  • a way for students to reduce test-related stress and anxiety
  • less anger and aggression (as reported by the students themselves).

What about when the programmes are offered to teachers. According to research, teachers that practise meditation experience a myriad of benefits, including elevated levels of self-compassion, a decrease in anxiety, depression, and improved overall health (which means fewer unexpected sick days). Notably, teachers said that they were better able to concentrate and focus on their job duties.

In a study conducted with 224 teachers in high poverty schools across New York City, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, Jennings (2016) found that teachers trained in meditation reported fewer feelings of anxiety, depression, burnout, and perceived stress. Perhaps even more interestingly for teachers is what came from classroom observations. “Yelling went down,” says Jennings (2016). Classrooms were rated more emotionally positive and productive; overall students were much more engaged.

If teachers know how to reduce stress, stay relaxed and be more present in the classroom, there can be positive effects on personal well-being and the teaching environment.

So, how can we introduce mediation into our classes? Well, to quote Jamie Bristow (2017), “You wouldn’t ask a teacher who can’t swim to teach a swimming class from a textbook,” (2017). If we are interested in bringing meditation and mindfulness into the classroom, we have to start with ourselves!

Missed the webinar? Click here to hear me talking meditation and mindfulness in this webinar recording, and see for yourself the positive effects that they can have on your professional and private life.


Ushapa Fortescue has taught for over 14 years both in the UK and abroad in a variety of contexts, including primary and secondary schools, post 16 adult education, private language schools, Further Education colleges, and Universities. She trains teachers and presents worldwide. Chloe is a qualified meditation facilitator who has lived and worked in meditation centres around the world for the last 13 years. She loves to show teachers how to stay relaxed, engaged, and light-hearted in the classroom.


References

Bristow, J. (2017). How to Avoid A Poorly Designed School Mindfulness Program [online]. Mindful. Available at: www.mindful.org/4-signs-poorly-designed-school-mindfulness-programs/ . Accessed 13/4/18.

Carry the Vision. (2017). Benefits and Research of Meditation in Schools. [online] Available at: http://carrythevision.org/meditation-research-and-benefits/ Accessed 13/4/18.

Jennings, P. (2016). When Teachers Take A Breath, Students Can Bloom. [online]. nprEd. Available at: www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/08/19/488866975/when-teachers-take-a-breath-students-can-bloom. Accessed 13/4/18.


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Learning to learn in the primary classroom

I have been teaching a group of young teenagers of very mixed levels and ages for six months now. Half of the group comes from the state-school system and the other half attend “an alternative school”. The latter group is one-three years younger and was the weakest one in terms of language knowledge at the beginning of the year. These children were weak elementary while the rest strong pre-intermediate/intermediate. I was even wondering whether they would be able to cope emotionally with the fact that the rest of the class coming from a state-school background is so much stronger.

As time went by, however, the children who were seemingly behind caught up at an amazing speed. They were very good at using soft skills such as really listening to the teacher and to each other. They asked questions with confidence if they got stuck. They were able to work out answers for themselves by observing the clues carefully. I also watched them constantly use colors to highlight, to make mind-maps, and to make beautiful drawings in their notebooks to accompany their newly learnt language without having to draw their attention to these learning strategies. Their notebooks are not ordinary ones with the answers of exercises, lists of words and occasional grammar tables, but they look more like living books that you would want to open again and again to look at. And of course, I sometimes witnessed their frustration as well, but I saw their strategies of handling these emotions successfully too.

‘… the children who were seemingly behind caught up at an amazing speed.’

These children have learnt something important that we all need in this rapidly changing world, and these are skills that allow them to adapt to new situations, new contexts, new people, and new tasks easily. Possessing vast knowledge – most of which computers provide us with in fractions of seconds anyway – does not give us enough support in being able to rise up to new challenges at this speed. Instead we need the soft skills and learning skills that equip us with the necessary flexibility.

What are these skills? How can they be developed? From the example above – just as, I am sure, we can all list such examples from our lives – these questions have obvious answers. But it feels harder to teach these skills instead of a set of new words or a new language point as they are less tangible.

Essential skills for primary children

So what is it that children need to learn in the primary school? According to Emőke Bagdy, a renowned Hungarian clinical psychologist, at this age children need to learn the following things: To read, to write, to count, and to be confident. They need to develop a sense of self-belief that they can do it. If this fails, according to E. Bagdy, children will struggle with their learning, in managing new situations at school, and in their life as adults.  This is also supported by the PISA report (Programme for International Student Assessment) that has found that learners’ belief in their own efficacy is the strongest single predictor of whether they will adopt strategies that make learning effective or not (Artelt et al., 2003, pages 33–34).

One of the key things that influence children’s confidence is our own view of them as individuals and of their abilities. It is important to approach every single child believing that they can do it. A simple idea to do this is to catch them being good, something that can be easily done with the help of the Snakes poster – see below.

Snake Poster.

Draw one snake for every child in the class and label each one with a student’s name. Make sure the body of each snake is divided into lots of triangular sections. Each time a student does something praiseworthy (e.g. makes a helpful comment, shows determination, waiting patiently for their turn, etc.), tell them to come out and colour in one section of their snake with a pen of their choice.

Mixed-ability teaching, Edmund Dudley, Erika Osváth, OUP, 2016

Of course, we need to make sure that children progress with the colouring in their snakes approximately at similar speeds to avoid any feelings of shame, which would definitely be detrimental. Feeling good about oneself has an immense motivational power at any age, but it is imperative in the primary classroom.

Another important teaching moment that has a great impact on children’s self-confidence is our way of dealing with mistakes. In my view, there are no mistakes made in the primary classroom, but rather opportunities for children to notice something that is different or new in terms of use of words, language chunks, spelling, etc. For example, if children are copying words in their notebook from the board and there are some spelling errors, rather than overwriting these in red by the teacher, it’s a good idea to encourage children to look at the board again and discover the differences for themselves.

Naturally, there are many more soft-skills that need to be developed at this age so that children become efficient learners, such as resilience, curiosity and collaboration.

Have an idea of your own? We’d love to see it, so do share it below in the comments!


Erika Osvath is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and co-author of the European Language Award-winning 6-week eLearning programme for language exam preparation. She worked for International House schools in Eastern and Central Europe as a YL co-ordinator, trainer, and Director of Studies. She regularly travels to teach demonstration lessons with local children, and do workshops for teachers. Erika is co–author with Edmund Dudley of Teaching Mixed Ability.


References:

Artelt, C., Baumert, J., Julius-McElvany, N. and Peschar, J. (2003). Learners for life: student approaches to learning. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Available at: http://www.oecd.org/education/school/programmeforinternationalstudentassessmentpisa/33690476.pdf Accessed 15/2/18.

For Bagdy Emőke, see: http://bagdyemoke.hu/beszelgetesek-emokevel/

Dudley, E. and Osváth, E. (2016). Mixed-ability teaching. Oxford: OUP.


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Everyday development activities for busy teachers | Learning in the rush

Development activities

Martyn Clarke has led education development projects all over the world, and has written numerous blogs for OUP! In this article, he examines the everyday development opportunities that teachers could be missing out on. 

When I work with groups of teachers, we often build a concept map of what has influenced us in our development as teachers. What do you think are the most influential factors? Our pre-service courses? INSET? Methodology books? OUP webinars?

Well, it’s none of those. Whether in Djibouti, the Ukraine, Vietnam, or anywhere in between, the two most influential factors are consistently:

  1. Our own experience of teaching;
  2. Our colleagues.

Surprised? Probably not. In fact, given the amount of time we spend in the classroom and with our colleagues in comparison to how much time we spend on training courses and reading methodology books, it’s quite obvious that this should be the case.

If this is true, we should be learning all the time. We teach all day. We talk to colleagues in-between lessons. We have all we need to develop just by doing the job, don’t we?

I’m not sure we do. You see, experience just isn’t enough.

This is because we only tend to notice certain experiences. Simply, we don’t see things as ‘they are’; we see things as ‘we are’ (Anais Nin). We have a tendency to interpret information so that it fits into our existing frameworks of understanding. So, if I think my students are generally unmotivated, I will tend to notice behaviour which I believe proves this. I might miss things that show otherwise.

I see what I expect to see. I experience what I expect to experience. And then I get tremendous satisfaction when I can say ‘I told you so’ or ‘I knew’ that would happen’.

It’s a little like living in a box. Clearly you can’t go far if you stay in a box! But to be successful, I’m in no way suggesting that you must leave the box.

Boxes are comfortable places to be. They’re safe. You can focus on what you’re happy with; you can enjoy yourself and increase your confidence. It’s great to be able to do what you do, do it well, and then celebrate that certainty. I know I’ve had many happy ‘box periods’ in my career where I focused on the enjoyment of honing my existing skills. And when our professional lives are busy, and we teach and work in a constant rush, it’s sometimes good to have that security.

Yet we can’t escape the fact that we’re teachers. We believe in learning. And if we believe in learning, we believe in change. So, there are times when we should use development activities to open the box and look at the world around us with different eyes. Even in the rush.

Here’s one development activity you can do on your own:


Why it Worked

Reflection often starts with problems or areas of difficulty, but this activity focuses on the learning’s we can gain from our successes, and possible applications to other areas of our practice.

Suggested Activity Procedure

  1. Set aside 30 minutes.
  2. Use the Recalling Prompts to guide your exploration.
  3. Use the Reflective Questions to guide your analysis of the data and record your conclusions and future actions.

Recalling Prompts

Identify something you are involved in that was successful this week.

  • Where did this happen and who was involved?
  • How do you know you were successful?
  • Have you tried the activity before with different results?
  • What effect did the success have on the people involved?

Reflection Questions

  • How do you measure the success?
  • Does everybody involved share your evaluation? If not, why?
  • How replicable is this success – can you repeat the activity with the same results?
  • If you’ve tried this before with different results, how do you account for the change?
  • What aspects of the activity (in planning or in delivery) could you use with other activities?

Action

  • Write down one action you will take as a result of this reflection.

Here’s one development activity you can do with colleagues:


Me time

Find two other colleagues.

One of you has ‘Me Time’ on a specific afternoon for 30 minutes after school each week.

What this means is that the other two colleagues focus completely on you. You may have a problem with a student, or with a language point, or with a task you have to do, or with how you are feeling, or with ANYTHING you want to talk about – as long as it’s something to do with your job.

Because you are the focus, they have to spend at least 15 minutes just listening to you and can only ask questions.

After the first 15 minutes, they can describe possible alternative actions that you could take, but they can’t say what they think is right or wrong.

You control the conversation completely, and if you want to talk you just raise your hand and the other speaker stops.

Then – wherever you are in the conversation you ALWAYS stop at 30 minutes – and the next week it’s someone else’s turn for Me Time.


The ideas are simple, but good ideas often are!