Communication and Reading
Our school motto states that we “Listen carefully to what others have to say – Everyone has a voice, we listen, accept difference, enable expression and respond” aspiring for our pupils to “have a voice, make meaningful choices, express opinions, direct and drive their own learning and aspirations, to be seen as and learn to be part of our community and live an enriched and purposeful life”.
As with all our learning opportunities we always consider our curricular ‘end points’ for our pupils. This is of particular relevance when considering communication and reading as this is key to unlocking these opportunities. This also ensures that we consider what is meaningful, relevant and useful for each individual.
Communication for all – where the journey begins
Communication is vital for our pupils to be the best that they can for now and for life after Ash Lea; to make choices, share opinions, consent and to exert autonomy. As a consequence, communication is a cornerstone of all our pupils’ learning throughout the school day. We constantly strive to find a way of giving our pupils a voice.
In order to do this, we have a clear understanding of how best to communicate with pupils and how we can support them to become more effective communicators. All pupils have a working with me profile, giving others information on their methods of communication and how best to support them. These are updated at least annually, with the support of families and other professionals, where needed.
We value pupil opinions and work hard to ensure all pupils are ‘heard’. Understanding, recognising and responding appropriately to pupils’ communication no matter how subtle this may be. Understanding that an action taken, or a sound made can elicit a response from another is the start of the communication journey for many.
Most pupils following our pre-formal curriculum pathway communicate via gesture, body language, facial expressions and vocalisations. We ensure that acknowledge and respond to this communication promptly, so that pupils develop an understanding that they can control and affect. We use ‘Intensive Interaction’; pauses and silence carefully to allow pupils the time they need to communicate and respond and to support them to notice, interact and connect with those around them.
We ensure pupils have a voice to express their preferences, opinions, hopes and aspirations contributing to individual education plan reviews, Educational Health and Care Plans and school council meetings in a way that is meaningful. This involves us using the best approaches to support pupils and in some cases being an advocate for them.
All pupils need means, reasons and opportunities to communicate. We use interests and motivators to promote communication, whilst identifying barriers to effective communication. Using a motivating activity, person, place or object alongside appropriate strategies and resources promotes communication and is often key to unlocking a pupils communication potential; their reason to communicate. Specific means of communicating will be unique to individual pupils, be that body language or movements, gestures and signs, symbols exchange or pointing, vocalisations and speech or eye gaze. Speech and Language Therapists (SaLT) can support in identifying what this may be for individuals. We plan carefully in order to maximise communication opportunities throughout all aspects of a pupil’s school day. We create environments which are communication rich, whilst ensuring they are appropriate for the pupils within their class and therefore relevant and meaningful. If used, symbols and words are clear and accessible.
Challenging outcomes are set to develop pupils’ communication skills and know what effective strategies to use. Across school a total approach to communication is used, that is, exposing pupils to words, signs and symbols, before their own route to effective communication can be established. Pupils are taught core vocabulary of words, signs, symbols and concepts through modelling. Core vocabulary, a term used to describe a relatively small set of words that are used most frequently in oral and written language are taught alongside fringe vocabulary, which are linked to activities, foods, places, topics etc of interest to that individual.
We direct our communication towards pupils and include them in conversations, whether they are able to respond themselves or not. We assume that pupils understand everything and nothing; that is that conversations are respectful when we talk to and about pupils, offering rich vocabulary and aspirational texts to learn from, but also that understanding the world, what will happen and what something is, is presented in a way that offers accessible means of understanding when working at the earliest developmental stages.
The journey continues – early reading
For those that are starting their reading journey via photos and symbols, ‘modelling’ is a recognised strategy to help pupils understand and learn what an object, symbol, sign and word represents and to help them understand how they can use the language (object, symbol, sign, word) themselves. Modelling involves a communication partner e.g. member of staff or parent, using the word, sign, symbol or object in context themselves. For example, if a pupil enjoys the drum and they reach out for this, the communication partner may say “MORE” or “DRUM” whilst showing the pupil the sign and the symbol. Modelling is vital to support communication development. Language needs to be modelled many times before it can effectively be used by a pupil. For some pupils it may be appropriate to model a single symbol or sign, whilst others it may be appropriate to model longer sentences, containing the key words.
We use colour Widget symbols for all school resources, to ensure consistency around pupils’ communication. Key core and fringe words have agreed symbols that are used. There are a few exceptions to this rule and staff will use their professional judgement when creating personalised resources as well as seeking the guidance of SaLTs.
Ash Lea School uses Makaton signs. Signs and symbols can be accessed using the schools ‘Communicate In Print’ software. Support can also be sought via our Ash Lea School Makaton champions. There is implicit support by good quality signing within the class, but also through discrete teaching of core signs and symbol use through the school’s ‘sing and sign’ assemblies.
Single symbols, aided Language boards and personal communication books are provided as a low-tech method of communication. Single switch and battery-operated speech devices are other forms on low tech communication aids that are used within school and can allow pupils to control a voice.
Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices are high-tech devices that can help pupils communicate by generating digital speech. Tablets, laptops and eye gazes are examples of such devices used within Ash Lea School and allow software packages such as Grid 3, Snap Core, PODD, Proloquo-2-Go and Touch Chat to be used and customised to individual pupils needs.
Key training available for staff include:
- Key Communication Strategies
- Communication partner training
- Signs and symbols
- Intensive Interaction
- Specific communication methods or programmes
Reading and Phonics
Reading is vital for pupils to participate, understand, access and contribute to and within society. Reading can take pupils to places they may never get to visit and experience things they may never get to experience in the real world. Whether our pupils become readers or not, we ensure that they experience a rich literary world, whether this is through immersive ‘sensory’ storytelling, where great literature becomes meaningful learning or by hearing stories. Some classes will access sensory story sessions, which convey narratives using a mixture of text and complimentary sensory experiences. This provision also extends and expands understanding of text and narrative from a sensory response through to understanding and conveying character and feelings within stories.
All pupils are given lots of opportunities to enjoy stories and books and classes also have a reading area which reflects the needs and interest of the class. Adults will read to pupils at different points in the day; 1:1, whole class reading or directed by the pupil during individual activities or break times. Pupils can also use AAC devices to access stories. Story boxes and tactile story books are also used to engage different senses.
The ways in which pupils learn to read will vary greatly depending on a pupil’s need and stage of development. We use a range of approaches to support the development of reading.
At Ash Lea we use the Little Wandle phonics scheme which is a DfE validated Systematic Synthetic phonics programme. Every session has the same structure, so pupils are given the chance to review previous learning and are then taught new content. The predictability of the sessions reduces cognitive load, and the repetition and structure help pupils embed knowledge and move it into their long-term memory.
Within this scheme there are different pathways that pupils may follow. There may be some pupils that follow the main Little Wandle programme with only a few minor adaptations. Some pupils follow the SEND programme which has similar content, however the strategies and pace can be adapted. Some pupils will be at the ‘Foundations of phonics stage’; developing auditory discrimination skills, learning to discriminate between everyday sounds and relate them to their source. They may also explore words with the same beginning phonemes and explore alliteration and rhyme through games and songs. All teachers have had training on the Little Wandle scheme and can use their knowledge of their class and individual pupils to select and adapt to individual needs.
Phonics is not appropriate for all pupils at Ash Lea and those following a pre-formal and, in some cases, informal curriculum pathway, may need to develop their early communication and interaction skills. These areas need to be well developed before early reading or phonics is introduced.
We recognise that as pupils join school at different stages, they may have already learnt to read in different ways. For those pupils who are fluent readers and have learned to read using a different strategy, (possibly whole word) we will assess them to ascertain whether teaching further reading through phonics would be beneficial or not. Some pupils often come to school with ‘whole word reading’ as a suggested provision on their EHCPs, often suggested by Speech and Language Therapists. The evidence to show this strategy’s efficacy is scant, however there is anecdotal evidence that this is a strategy that works for some pupils. We are beginning the process of understanding whether this is the case, and if so, how this should be done best.
For those learning to read, we follow the ‘Big Cat Phonics’ reading scheme, which aligns to our phonics scheme, making it easier to ensure that reading books are well matched to pupils’ phonic knowledge. When pupils are no longer at the phonics stage with their reading, we will use a fluency assessment to check pupils are ready for the next stage. Pupils are encouraged to take reading books home with them every day and practise at home. Pupils will also read with an adult in school through 1:1 or guided reading sessions. All of the Big Cat Phonic reading books are available electronically through the RNIB Library share scheme. This enables the text to be adapted or the book read aloud through a tablet or phone. Pupils who are not reading themselves are encouraged to take a book home so that that an adult can share it with them.
We have half-termly visits from the mobile library service for pupils to access books to read or share onsite, and some pupils have library cards to use at the local community libraries to get books of personal interest or around the topics of learning.
Functional English and Life After Ash Lea
As our pupils move towards their final years in our school, there is sharper focus on ‘life after Ash Lea’. We will make a considered judgement when phonics interventions cease to be relevant, in particular when this no longer supports pupils’ aspirations or is a priority for their learning.
Throughout their time at Ash Lea, we develop pupils’ understanding of signs, symbols and words that support their independence when using public transport, in shops and using community resources.
Functional Skills English is offered to pupils who would benefit from an alternative to GCSE English. This covers essential English skills including reading, writing and speaking. However, the learning style in ‘Functional Skills English’ is more focused on practical, real-life examples and will help pupils develop English skills needed for work and day-to-day life. Functional Skills English helps pupils improve their English skills in practical ways and questions within examinations use real-life examples and situations.
For those pupils for whom this qualification is meaningful and supports them to meet their aspirations we will start these accredited courses from year 10.