I am an English teacher at a High School in Rome specialising in scientific subjects and social sciences. I have been teaching English since 1999 in State Schools and I have always had an interest in inclusion and in students with special needs because my second-born son is a borderline autistic child.
One of the main aspects to be considered in today’s teaching is inclusion. Although this can depend on several factors, we have to bear in mind that our classes today show a great socio-cultural complexity if compared to the past.
In addition, each class has a great variety of students including those with special needs whose disadvantages, disorders or moderate to severe disabilities can be financial, social, emotional, psychological, cognitive, physical, permanent or temporary. Therefore, given today’s greater emphasis on equality, diversity and inclusion in education (EDI), as language and subject teachers we are supposed to revisit and redefine our teaching strategies in order to “engage with the learning needs of all students by adopting inclusive pedagogies” (Guide to inclusive teaching ). These allow students with special needs to learn in safe, highly motivating and inclusive classrooms; to understand that they too are capable of learning just like their classmates; to socialise with their peers and to feel that they are being offered equal educational opportunities which let them maximise their own potential.
With this in mind, let’s have a look at some inclusive projects and activities in English for mixed ability classes including students with special needs, which aim to improve each student’s self-esteem, integration and well-being, and so contribute to their personal growth and satisfaction.
Let me begin by mentioning Extensive Reading (ER) in English based on graded readers. Created for a range of different age groups and students, these books are adaptations of literary classics, films and biographies or fact-files and original works written in simplified English, while maintaining narrative force and tackling serious and complex themes. ER is a powerful tool for inclusion given its flexibility and adaptability. It responds well to mixed ability classes needs and students different learning styles; each student chooses what to read, when to read it, how to read it. Graded readers are especially good for students with dyslexia since they come with a CD which allows students to combine reading and listening, making reading less complicated. Teachers can organise a variety of highly motivating activities in classrooms where ER is applied as an ongoing teaching approach.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Judge the book by its cover: Students are encouraged to reflect upon the pictures on the cover, especially on whether they match the title or not; they are encouraged to make hypotheses on the plot, the characters’ personality, the setting and so on, creating short debates.
- Book cover versus book cover: Students with difficulties speaking in public can work in small groups to describe the pictures on the book cover or make comparisons between two book covers.
- From bookworm to book reviewer: Students can be urged to write short book reviews; the weakest ones could use a multiple choice book review sample form to fill out with the help of their classmates or of their teacher.
- Let’s go to the Book Fair: A role-play activity based on improvisation in which two or three students pretend to be book-sellers trying to persuade their classmates to read a particular book. They give their classmates some information on the book genre, plot, themes, characters in a convincing and compelling way. This activity can be accompanied by dramatic readings of the book back cover blurb and miming the graded readers’ opening lines which can be assigned to students with special needs. These students love doing this because they can show their teachers and classmates that they too can understand when other people speak English in class, without necessarily having to interact with them in English to show it. The book fair creates a relaxing atmosphere in the classroom and is a very inclusive activity.
Creative writing in English is as important as Extensive Reading. Apart from encouraging students’ participation in local and national creative writing contests and competitions on specific topics as teachers of English we can provide a basis for our students’ creative writing by having them use posters, catalogues, brochures, flyers, etc. Students can work in pairs, small groups or even alone, to create examples of short-fiction of any kind or other types of text ranging from prose to poetry, drawing inspiration from the abundant visual material at hand. This way students with special needs can have their say, giving advice and personal opinions as well as providing assistance and support to their classmates and teams by jotting down lists of keywords to be used at a later stage while composing the texts. They can also help by looking up words in paper and online dictionaries or websites. I generally work with posters, flashcards and flyers with biennio students and catalogues such as IKEA with triennio classes to stimulate them to reflect on how to write slogans, ads and promotional materials, as well as to think in English by comparing the professional translations of the catalogues. From a language perspective students are trained to think and write in English through useful vocabulary-building type exercises; the Italian version of the catalogue can provide support for the weakest students as well as for students with special needs. From a psychological viewpoint these activities foster students’ sense of belonging to a class-group, something which is particularly meaningful for those students with special needs.
The same thing also happens with video-making, another favourite with most students. This can range from writing scripts for short videoclips about personal experiences, famous films or adaptations of literary works to recordings of group work on task-based assignments, which can also include CLIL. These creative activities are highly motivating for students; those who feel too shy to perform in front of a camera or cannot memorise lines easily can work behind the scenes or be in charge of editing, the soundtrack or the overall recording. Over the years, I have seen several of my students with dyslexia or even a stammer being wonderful film-makers, thereby feeling just like any other student taking part in the project.
The above mentioned activities are only a few examples of what a language teacher can do in the classroom both for students with special needs and students in general. Let me just mention other motivating and funny activities which contribute to students’ well-being. One of the most popular in my classes is Grammar and translation Olympic games: an indoor team-based activity generally held in the lab which can be done with the aid of a bell and envelopes containing pieces of paper on which grammar rules, exercises or sentences to be translated are written; song contests in teams which are highly inclusive and help students improve pronunciation, intonation and fluency but also their sense of togetherness; team-based board games such as Taboo, Pictionary, Cluedo etc. that teach students to understand and, by imitation, to write instructions, rules and regulations as well as making them reason and cooperate with each other. We cannot neglect the importance of story-telling and process drama or drama activities in general in terms of inclusion.
This is certainly an incomplete list of the huge variety of motivating language activities that can be organized to include students with special needs and make them feel comfortable and at ease during lessons. However, what language and subject teachers should never overlook is the importance of choosing projects or activities which contribute, first and foremost, to the students’ self-esteem and self-confidence, perhaps one of the most important goals to be achieved in the classroom.