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Layered learning

The recipe for success at Elsen Academy

By Philippa Fabbri

Elsen Academy in Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape, is a registered ISASA school.

After much preparation, planning and praying, Elsen opened its doors in January 2006 to 13 pupils. We have since moved into the vibrant cultural hub of Port Elizabeth’s historic Central district, and now occupy the old Holy Rosary Convent school building. We cater for the needs of children with learning barriers, such as a struggle to read or write, weak number conceptualisation or poor spelling ability.

Understanding learning our core business

Our main objective at Elsen Academy is to accommodate unique learning styles through differentiated instruction and the use of learner support programmes (LSPs) to encourage our learners to function independently and become productive citizens. We aim to ‘bridge’ learners back into mainstream schools as soon as they are academically and emotionally ready to cope with the demands. We follow the national curriculum and make use of a variety of remedial strategies and programmes to support and assist the learners in the classroom.

In meetings with parents – whether it’s an interview before admission, a case conference or a progress meeting – we are often asked: “How do we know that the content being taught at Elsen is on par with the content being taught in mainstream schools? Is the academic level the same?”

Our answer is that understanding learning, and how different children learn, is the core business of our school. Learning is not just taking content out of a book and filing it away somewhere inside your memory bank. It is about understanding the content, analysing it, interpreting it and using it to make it relevant to your life.

A challenge we had to overcome was gaining access to the latest Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS)1 Numeracy and Literacy workbooks for our grades R–6 learners, which we had to download off the internet. What Oxford University Press and Heinemann textbooks we can afford, we continuously evaluate in staff discussions on how to improve our teaching resources.

Paced learning, teacher aids, learner support programmes and layered teaching

Learning various skills, such as reading and writing, is a developmental process that some children grasp quicker than others. A child in Grade 2 may race through the Literacy learning area, even progressing on to some Grade 3- level work, but might move slower through the Numeracy learning area, and therefore may need to attend supplementary remedial therapy classes and/or occupational therapy.

We also make use of facilitators and teacher aids to support our students holistically, and to build their confidence by identifying and utilising their strengths while also improving weaknesses.

Layered teaching, where children are encouraged to achieve on a certain level, is used specifically in our Foundation phase. Learners are given assignments and projects on their level so that they aren’t expected to do things that they are not really able to do. It is a form of differentiated, student-centred instruction. For example, during a vocabulary lesson, children are either matching new words to pictures, matching new words to their definitions or writing sentences using the new words, depending on their ability – but the whole class is learning the same vocabulary.

Our teachers compile LSPs that incorporate specific goals which they will work on during the year with specific children, with the aid of therapists. These goals are structured around literacy, numeracy and emotional/behavioural skills. For example, a literacy goal for John would be to be able to read given texts on an independent level and answer 80% of the comprehension questions correctly. A numeracy goal for Sam, on the other hand, could be to be able to identify correctly place values in four- and five-digit numbers. Case conferences with all the parents are held twice a year with our academic and therapy team, to discuss each child’s progress. Adaptations to the LSP goals can be made with the parents’ input. These meetings prove to be extremely valuable, both to the parents and the educational team.

Three factors contribute to success

We believe that our recipe for success depends on three things. First, we are lucky to have excellent teachers from different and diverse training backgrounds; some local and others from as far away as the USA. They are all equipped to cater for children with severe learning challenges on a day-to-day basis. Sitting in a class of 14 (our maximum number of pupils) you might find two or three on the autism spectrum, three with severe language delay and reading barriers, four who struggle with attention problems, three with motor coordination difficulties and two or three who have a combination of all of these challenges.

Second, supportive and cooperative parents are part of our community. Those who attend school functions, read to their children every night, encourage family puzzle-building time and discussions on relevant topics around the dinner table or on the way to and from school, play important roles.

Third, our students feel accepted, and realise that a perfect end result is not important, but that effort earns the reward. Children who are stressed and anxious will not be open to learning. Our parents give us valuable feedback via comments like: “My child hated going to school, now he wants to leave for school at 06:00 in the morning.”

Schools must accommodate full range of learning needs

At least one in every three learners will struggle with learning in the classroom. The Education White Paper 62 makes it imperative that the South African education and training system must change to accommodate the full range of learning needs. Barriers to learning can arise from different aspects of the curriculum such as the content, the language, classroom organisation, teaching methodologies, pace of teaching and time available to complete the curriculum. Therefore, it is vitally important that part of a student teacher’s training should include at least a year’s course in barriers to learning. Teachers are often not equipped to deal with the learning challenges that they face, once they are fortunate enough to get a teaching post. Often learning problems go unnoticed, undiagnosed and untreated, leading to many larger and more serious problems further down the road.

We believe that every child can learn, and that there is no limit to their potential.

Category: Winter 2012

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