Nobody is ‘too anything’ at Carlson

Issue: Volume 93, Number 13

Posted: 28 July 2014
Reference #: 1H9csy

Carlson school for students with cerebral palsy caters to nearly 60 students with complex physical and intellectual learning needs. Students range in age from 3–21 years.

It’s here! We’ve got it! The answer to teaching literacy to our most complex students! Students are making progress never seen before; and it’s changing their lives and ours.

The latest research around the teaching of literacy to students with learning difficulties, including those with complex needs, is ground-breaking. Authorities such as David Yoder, David Koppenhaver, Karen Erickson, Jane Farrall and our very own Sally Clendon uphold the premise that all students can learn to read and write. Nobody is ‘too anything’ to benefit from meaningful opportunities to communicate, play, read and write.

Recognising this, the programme we have embarked upon is not short-term; but we know that with commitment and consistency, we can emulate results produced elsewhere, and move more students from emergent to conventional readers. We believe that we can finally provide equitable education opportunities.

Many experts who work with complex needs students have advocated for the principle of effective literacy instruction being fundamentally the same for everyone. However we have not had the knowledge to be able to put effective teaching into practice. The rhetoric has been stronger than the practice. Effective literacy instruction for emergent readers with learning disabilities and users of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) must focus on “time, teaching and technology.”

This involves attributing meaning to student attempts, repetition with variety, and moving away from a mastery approach. Students require at least 1000 hours of input (if we are making comparisons with ‘neuro-typical’ students). We need to be mindful of our four learning systems, in particular the power and efficiency of learning through our senses and the inefficiency of learning by rote.

Carlson school is committed to providing evidence-based teaching approaches to ensure student learning outcomes are maximised. Our students face multiple challenges in their daily lives; more than 76 per cent of students are emergent readers. We have acquired the support of Dr Sally Clendon to develop staff skills (both teachers and therapists) to enable them to deliver a balanced literacy approach across the school.

We are committed to the efficacy of the approach, but we realise that this will involve ‘whole school’ change. It is necessary to put in place a staged plan, and leadership is crucial to the success of our project.

As Michael Fullan puts it, “the role of the school leader is to help lead and facilitate the revolution in pedagogy so necessary for sustainable learning in individuals and organisations.”

As a school team we started with the ‘why’; we asked ourselves what it is that we believe. Instead of asking ‘WHAT should we do to improve literacy learning outcomes for our students?’ We asked ‘WHY are we doing WHAT we are doing and WHAT can we do to bring our dreams to fruition?’ We discovered that we all had more to learn and as a team we are open to exploring new knowledge for the benefit of students.

In his book Start with why, Simon Sinek says “[an open mind is] important because our behaviour is affected by our assumptions or our perceived truths. We make decisions based on what we think we know.

“There are only two ways to influence human behaviour: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” We have chosen the path of inspiration.

We recognise that literacy and communication are inextricably linked, and that in order to build our students’ literacy skills, we must ensure they have access to rich communication systems. These communication systems must be used and modelled extensively across the school day.

Carlson has been extremely fortunate to acquire the expertise and inspiration of Jane Farrall for two days. Jane and Sally worked across the school to develop the basis of a communication plan and plot our way forward. Our first action was to give all staff in school (plus spares for visitors) ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ symbols to wear. This has immediately resulted in an increase in purposeful interactions with students. The consistency of use across the school has been a significant step forward.

Our next step will be to provide all staff members with General Interactive Displays so that they get used to modeling communication using a simple one-page display, before moving on to Pragmatic-Organisation-Dynamic-Displays ( PODD). The PODD system was developed by Gayle Porter in Australia and it is a means of selecting and organising symbols so that people with complex communication needs and their communication partners can communicate more easily. PODD is an example of an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) system. We have decided that we need to focus on implementing a consistent, schoolwide low-tech system.

We believe that it is vital that all staff have the knowledge and skills to work effectively with one AAC system (one that will benefit all students). It is common for AAC systems to be abandoned due to lack of training, time constraints, technical problems and lack of support. We want to eliminate these issues and provide the optimum environment for AAC success. We understand the importance of getting the environment right.

We will be assessing our progress using the Qualitative Reading Assessment. Cost and time are currently our biggest hurdles. Each PODD costs approximately $300 - $500. All staff need a PODD to ensure communication is successful.

At Carlson we are all buzzing with the excitement of new learning and student success, and with hard work, we see a bright future for our whole school community, and we continue our effort to apply rhetoric to the real world.

Four blocks: multi-method literacy for all

The Four Blocks model was developed by literacy experts Dr Patricia Cunningham and Dr Dorothy Hall, and is a graphic demonstration of the premise that ‘nobody is too anything’ to read and write. The system was originally developed for young ‘neuro-typical’ learners and was adapted successfully for learners with complex communication needs by staff at the Centre for Literacy and Disability Studies at the University of North Carolina.

Four Blocks is based on the premise that there is not just one way that educators can teach all children to read, which make up each of the blocks:

  • Guided reading
  • Self-selected reading
  • Writing
  • Working with words

Four Blocks provides a framework that allows teachers the opportunity to expose all kids to all four approaches every day. This approach ensures that kids won’t fall through the cracks because their particular area of strength may not be included. This premise is what Four Blocks teachers refer to as ‘multi-method’.

Four Blocks is based on the theory that children can learn to read and write without being labelled and ability grouped. Even though one of the four blocks is guided reading – which is often associated with ability grouping – the Four Blocks approach to guided reading does not place children in small ability groups. Four Blocks teachers learn a different way to support students and to match them with text to aid their success.

For more information, a good place to start is Jane Farrall’s website(external link). Jane has a great PDF resource explaining the fundamentals.

BY Cathy Herries
Carlson Special School,

Posted: 6:47 pm, 28 July 2014

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