Balanced Literacy at Adelaide West – a short summary.

I recently received an email asking about our balanced literacy program at Adelaide West. This is the text of my reply which gives a pretty good summary:

For me, as a school principal and educator, communication is an essential human right and we have a moral imperative to teach this to all of our students. It is therefore at the heart of much of what we teach here at Adelaide West Special Education Centre. Our student cohort are mainly living with severe and multiple disabilities; 3/4 of them use wheelchairs for transport, 1/4 receive their nutrition via gastrostomy and approx 1/3 have epilepsy.  All of our students have complex communication needs, only about 10% of them have any verbal skills at all and the others use either Pragmatic Organised Dynamic Display communication books or iPads with Proloquo2go as their communication systems. Communication, is of course, a fundamental part of literacy and is taught across the entire school curriculum. For us, literacy skills are the most important functional skills we can teach our students and having basic literacy is the most important factor in them having positive post school options.

Introducing balanced literacy based on Erickson & Koppenhaver’s (2007) Four Blocks to Literacy has been based on the idea that ‘No-one is too anything to learn’ Using Carol Dweck’s (2008) growth mindset and Donnellan’s (1984) least dangerous assumption means that we offer all our students learning experiences from the Australian Curriculum. We do not expect age appropriate outcomes but do give age appropriate experiences, including literacy texts and expect them to respond.
The main benefits to the school community of using the four blocks to literacy model as a whole school  initiative have been two-fold:
– For the students it has made it clear to  them that there are reasons to communicate at school that are not simply related to bodily functions such as eating or personal hygiene.
– for the staff it has provided an explicit structure for teaching specific literacy skills to students. This structure has helped to make the teaching programs in all classes predictable and consistent, resulting in great outcomes for the students.
Prior to introducing the four blocks across the school, literacy teaching was unstructured and mainly based around reading to the students, rather than being interactive and requiring their involvement. There were people who felt that our students would not benefit from specific literacy teaching at the beginning, but with the support of Jane Farrall, who acted as mentor, coach and critical friend, everyone found a way to use the four blocks in a way that supported all of our students. Using Caroline Musselwhite’s videos helped to make it clear that even if students did not become highly literate, providing good literacy education would make their future life more enjoyable. This was a good tool for those who were operating in the ‘care’ frame of mind rather than the ‘education’ frame of mind.
The four blocks model has also provided a great way of ensuring accountability. Assessments have always been hard to find for our students and much previous assessment relied solely on teacher judgement, which could not be objectively moderated. The assessments that we have used as part of the four blocks have enabled us to present real data to demonstrate that over 80% of our students made improvements in their literacy learning last year.
We are still on the journey of improving our literacy teaching so I would love to hear from anyone else who is using a great balanced literacy program and how they have implemented for their students.
Donnellan, A, M (1984) The Criterion of the Least Dangerous Assumption. Behavioral Disorders, v9 n2 p141-50 Feb 1984
Dweck, C (2008) Mindset. Random House USA: New York
Erickson, K & Koppenhaver, D. (2007) Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing  the Four-Blocks Way. Carson-Dellosa. North Carolina
Musselwhite, C Literacy for All: engaging in conversation with Dr Caroline Musselwhite Accessed 10th May 2016

Data and our students

Had a great day today learning from Dr Lyn Sharratt about ‘Putting Faces on the data.’ This morning I was worried that the session might focus on sources of data that are not appropriate to us at Adelaide West. However, the whole day focussed on strategies that have been proven to improve literacy in Canadian schools that would work for us. At the core of her thinking is the reiteration that

Each student can achieve high standards, given the right time and the right support” and ‘Each teacher can teach to high standards given the right asistance.”

So good to be in a room full of people who were able to discuss this at face value even when I described our students and their challenges. But this is a challenge faced by other schools considering students with other challenges – home backgrounds, language issues etc. I was reminded of Kevin Honeycutt and  the two Jason’s presentationss at te ILT conference 2014 trying to re-engage ‘lost’ learners.

The research that Lyn presented talked about 14 parameters for schools to use to help them improve students’ outcomes. One of these was  the importance of literacy coaches – thanks to Jane Farrall students and teachers at Adelaide West have had quality literacy coaching for a couple of years and we are starting to collect data showing how this is benefiting our students.  Enjoyed discussion  with a few people about why DECD literacy coaches  have not  made it into special schools yet – remembering that all students can learn makes it crucial that those who find traditional academic learning challenging should make our system policy makers think about supporting the work in special schools in the same way as schools for typically developing students – or am I wrong here? Surely some of the resources around literacy and numeracy learning should be directed to the most needy of our system’s students.

Lyn talked about the value of student work as data which I really appreciated as that’s a great way for class staff to reflect on learning and look at the way forward for individual students. We can make data walls around this work in a way that reflects our studetns powerful learning without feeling that the data set excludes them – as NAPLAN and other standard data tools seem to do.

The other thing that really resonated for me was how leaders need to become lead-learners, engaging with professional development and learning alongside the teachers and students as part of the learning journey. a great quote from one of Lyn’s students – ‘ You can’t lead where you won’t go!’ Must always remember this – everyone should be collaborative learners or the students lose out.   I would love to try to have a showcase day for our school to show the community what  literacy learning looks like for our students – any thoughts on whether this would have appeal?

Why I teach and how do I improve? A think piece following the Inclusive Learning Technologies conference 2014

Having just spent three days on the Gold Coast at the Inclusive Learning Technologies conference 2014 I woke up this morning with a few reflections.

Kevin Honeycutt, who was the opening keynote speaker for the conference was, for me an inspiring reminder of what I think is the foundation of good teachers belief systems – that teachers can change the lives of their students. This core belief is something that is fundamental to great teaching but soemtimes, in the ‘busyness’ of classroom and school life we lose track of it. Kevin also talked about how many teachers are ‘secret geniuses’ – doing great work in their own classrooms but not sharing that with others. He asked that we do this for the sake of students everywehre. My question here is really about how we persuade teachers to talk about their practice as widely as possible?

One of the reasons I was at the conference was to present on our school’s journey with the Australian Curriculum and I was proud to do so, Adelaide West Special Educaiton Centre has great educators doing great work with our students.But I didn’t present it as a finished piece of work – more as a snapshot of what we are doing.  Presenting at conferences is a great way to reflect on your own practice and to ‘moderate’ it against that of other people. Thank you to participants from other schools who approached me afterwards to share examples of their practice and to suggest collaboration in one form or another – Bring it on!

 Another great aspect of conferences is to discuss things like the Australian Curriculum, that aim to offer students and their families some assurance that the program in their child’s school offers learning experiences similar to that of students in another school. I was saddened to hear from a parent who said that her child is not offered opportunities to develop literacy skills in the way that we do at Adelaide West and doesn’t get the variety of learning experience that students at school need across a broad and balanced curriculum. How can we talk about effective inclusion if special school effectively exclude themselves by not taking part in a curriculum that aims to be for everyone? I know the Australian Curriculum is not perfect and it could have been done better but it’s what we’ve got for now. Our students face enormous challenges to their learning – surely its not fair to them to refuse to address the challenge of a curriculum document? We can’t wait until we feel they are ready for a particular experience  or can cope with more complex learning experiences – I am reminded of the story of a young man who had lost the use of his legs and had very limited use of his arms following an accident. His rehabilitation team had devised a plan, that would take several weeks to teach him how to tie his shoelaces. His response was that this was a waste of his time as,

“I dont have the time to learn to tie my shoelaces badly. If you teach me the skills I need to become a business leader I can pay someone to tie my shoelaces well. “

Our students don’t have time for us to wait until we think they’re ready to learn – they need to experience things about life and the world in as rich a way as we educators can make it for them – and that is where technology opens up endless opportunities.

Maybe one of the reasons that teachers don’t like sharing  their practice is because education is an imperfect science – we feel that there is always more we can be doing. Kevin Honeycutt talked about how ‘perfect is the enemy of done’ and another keynote speaker, Carole Zangari, considered that we do more harm by what we don’t do than by what we do. We can’t wait for the perfect communication system, the perfect startegy for teaching literacy – our students pay too high a price for our delay. We can’t wait unitl we consider we are doing ‘best practice’ – as Greg O’Connor said, call it ‘good practice’ as best practice implies nothing can get better.

 One of the themes that ran through many presentations was that of needing to have high expectations of our students. To me, this implies the need to have high expectations of ourselves. In order to improve our teaching, surely we need to expose ourselves by showing other educators what we do and inviting their input into our practice. Then we can begin to be sure that we are doing all we can to give our students the best lives they can have.

I would love to hear what other people have to say about the best ways to help all our teachers stop being ‘secret geniuses’ and get them sharing. Please comment

Reflect Shift Transform

the ACEL ASEPA Congress on creating Inclusive Schools today I’ve heard input around inclusion from people based in the UK, in China and New Zealand as well as Australia. There were, as ever, some very quotable moments; notably Prof. Philip Garner from the Univeristy of Northamption in the UK who asked the delegates at the conference to reflect on why they are in education and why they want to create inlclusive schools. His statement was that most teachers want:

‘Children to coexist in mutual respect so that their learning is enhanced and they thrive socially and emotionally’

I don’t think there can be any  arguments with that statement from any educators but most of the day involved discussion about different ways of achieving this. I was struck by the resonance between Prof Garners key note at the beginning of the day and that of Leith Comer, who spoke about the way that maori are now included within New Zealand  culture in a way that benefits everyone. Prof Garner spoke about the need for cooperation not competition in the development of inclusive schooling whereas Leith Comer talked of how the project he is currently involved in; Excel Rotorua is based around collaboration and not competition across the city of rotorua. Comparing such models of collaboration, cooperation and inclusion with the more competitive models of academic achievement and comparisons of how countries perform in the OECD PISA  survey discussed by governments around the world the tensions in this area are obvious and a number of speakers touched on this.

It was good to see practitioners from a number of sites presenting their stories. I gave a presentation on the ever deepening relationship between Adelaide West Special Education Centre and Ocean View College. The best part of this was the video of students from the two sites interacting and taking about their experiences. I do not have parent consent to share thse videos online but have attached the presentation without pictures. ACELASEPA L Fenech I only had a fifteen minute time slot and therefore had to rush through many of the slides I had prepared from surveys of staff, parents and students. You may like to read this in more detail at your leisure. It ws good to have ongoing discussions with some people who came to my session about how social interaction between students from mainstream schools and those for whom their learning needs requires a curriculum adjusted significantly to meet theirindividual needs. Students from Adelaide West have high needs in a range of areas that mean that our special setting is the best educational placement for them. However, interaction and the chance to develop friendships with their peers from Ocean View offers unique and unreplaceable play and language opportunities. The whole community benefits from these interactions and I am honoured to have played a part in this relationship.

A session that I really enjoyed was that presented by Carolyn Blunden, principal of Warakirri College Her description of the way that students at Warakirri, who had been ‘rejected’ by many other educational establishments, are given a sense of success and independence was fascinating and inspirational. Warakirri provide opportunities for personalised learning and a more adult learning focus for teenagers who may otherwise be at risk of never receiving any recognised educational qualifications.

This Congress is the first on inclusive schools presented by ACEL and ASEPA  and attendance was less than one would hope for given the importance  of inclusion for so many students; be it because of their race, ability, culture, sexual orientaiton etc. I hope that this does not mean this is a one-off event as there were so much valuable information presented today. I hope tomorrow is as good!


Special Education Expo July 2013

Yesterday I presented at the  Special Education Expo, which was organised by
SERU. As usual there were some great workshops at the Expo. My session was called ‘Bringing the Australian Curriculum to Life in my Classroom.’ Some people who attended the session requested copies of my  and the planning proformas that I talked about. I have attached them here ( Room 8 AC planning proforma term 2 completed draft,  AC planning proformaa[2] draft,  AC planning proforma A4 horizontal)but making the powerpoint (Bringing the AC to life July 10 final for blog )into a ‘Show’ so no one can fiddle with it means that you can’t see my notes. So, trying to condense 90 minutes into a quick blog post:

My class at Adelaide West Special Education Centre  has 7 students in it – these are not their real names! Of the seven:

  • All have complex communication needs. Only one is to any extent verbal and her vocabulary is roughly equivalent to an 18m-2y old
  • 3 have a diagnosis of autism and additional disabilities
  • 2 have learned to walk in the last two years but need ongoing input around their physical development. 1 is unable to weight bear independently and is supported in sitting and walking using equipment
  • All students have Negotiated Education Plans (NEPs)  which include at least one communication goal. Additional goals around developing physical skills and academic skills are individualised. All NEPs are discussed with parents who know that their children are not working to the age level achievement standards of the Australian curriculum

Because all the students at Adelaide West  are not working to age appropriate achievement standards within the Learning areas of the Australian Curriculum, we use the General Capabilities as a significant part of our planning. The students NEP goals sit within four General Capabilities – Literacy, Numeracy, Personal and Social and ICT. As illustrated in the slide called The Students, all of them have literacy skills on the Australian curriculum literacy continuum between 1a and 1d and are working towards 1a in Numeracy. As the extended Personal and Social Capability has not yet been published, our learners are working towards the Foundation level skills in this area – which is extremely important to all students but particularly so for students with disabilities.

The session was designed to illustrate the planning process that I used for a term 2 unit of work on ‘Houses and Homes.’All classes at Adelaide West are implementing the ‘Four Blocks to Literacy’ as I discussed in a previous post so texts for Guided reading were chosen to reflect the topic and lead into Learning Area lessons. The ten texts for the term are listed with Science and History activities are listed on slides 18 and 19.

I began with the Learning Design Model as developed by Teaching and Learning Services at DECD.  This comprises 6 questions intended to lead to in-depth thinking about curriculum planning. The questions do not necessarily have to be considered in a linear fashion so I thought about them in this order: ‘What do they bring?’ ‘What might the intended learning look like?’ ‘How might I assess their learning?’ and ‘How do I engage, challenge and support the learners?’ Then I looked at the Australian Curriculum Scope and Sequences for History and Science. This answered the first question: ‘What is the intended learning?’ and I moved on to designing the learning plan.

Because all of the students’ learning goals are based in the General Capabilities, I devised a planning proforma which incorporates each learning area under the umbrella headings of the four Capabilities. A completed proforma for the Houses and Homes unit is attached as is a blank proforma that you are welcome to use if you find it useful.

Because Reconciliation week and the lead up to NAIDOC week all fell in this term, there was a big focus from week 5 on around the importance of place for people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin. We are fortunate to have a relationship with students from Ocean View College who prepared a Reconciliation week activity to carry out with our students as part of this.

The section of the presentation that talks about what happened in the classroom has lost a lot of its impact without pictures of the students. Generally I had planned rather too much for the available time! (But I find I always do that!)  I found that much of the work around using photographs needs further development for this group of students. However, work around the books, You and Me: Our Place by Leonie Norrington and   led to some good learning. We took lots of pictures of ‘Our Place: Adelaide West’ and related this to the place in the book. After moving on to Bronwyn Bancroft’s book ‘Why I love Australia we went to the beach (which is very close to the school) and this too led to some good opportunities for writing for our students.

This is a very short version of my session – if you have any comments or need any more information from me please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

The hardest thing we have to do

The news that one of the students at school has died is always a gut-wrenching moment in the life of the school community. Memories are all we have left to celebrate for one of our students today but we will remember him with love and laughter. Our thoughts and prayer are with his family tonight. I have no more words to write myself so I have borrowed some from a poet:

I Do Not Think My Song Will End – Johnny Hathcock

I do not think my song will end
While flowers, grass and trees
Abound with birds and butterflies
For I am one with these.

And I believe my voice will sound
Upon the whispering wind
So long as even one remains
Among those I call “friend.”

I shall remain in hearts and minds
Of loved ones that I knew,
And in the rocks and hills and streams
Because I love those, too.

So long as love and hope and dreams
Abide in earth and sky,
Weep not for me, though I be gone.
I shall not really die.


Literacy and the Australian Curriculum for students with additional needs

I spent four days  last week with the inspiring Jane Farrall. Jane is working with all the staff at Adelaide West Special Education Centre to support the implementation of Four Blocks to Literacy. I am always impressed with the preparedness of the school staff to take on and try new ideas and it has been a pleasure to see evidence this week of the work that is happening in our classrooms to improve the students’ literacy skills.

For me, the best part of Jane’s visits are the professional conversations that her input stimulates. I love hearing from my colleagues about the achievements of students in literacy and communication – whether it is watching video of a girl who has a very limited range of communication waiting to indicate the letter  ‘s’ with her head switch or reading the expanding spelling abilities of some of our more conventionally literate students.

It is always hard finding time for in depth discussion of student achievements and the teachers’ planning that led to those fantastic  ‘learning moments’ but I always come away wishing I could do more of them. I am hoping that this blog can help with this by developing discussions about my teaching practice through other peoples’ comments. This way, people can give their input at a time which suits them and we can indulge in quality reflective dialogue (I hope!)

I am currently working on the challenge of using the Australian Curriculum to deliver teaching and learning programs that meet  the needs of our students, who have complex communication needs and need significant curriculum adjustments. As the specific literacy work that Jane is facilitating for our students shows, many students who don’t necessarily have clear modes of communication have knowledge and understandings that we don’t  always give them credit for. So I believe that the Australian Curriculum offers us the chance to ensure that we extend their knowledge in areas that other students of their age experience at school. But we have to keep their unique and individual needs in mind while we do it. So, this being National  Reconciliation Week, my class will be working on the importance of Place to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by considering the importance of our place (the school site) to them first and reading the beautiful book ‘You Me Our Place’ by Leonie Norrington and illustrated by Dee Huxley. We’ll also take part in an activity led by students from Ocean View College – as they use the space right next door to us they can help the students in my class to see that others can join us in our learning space to have fun and learn together. I am looking forward to seeing the learning that students develop through the week. If anyone else has used this book with students with additional needs and have any activities to share or, alternatively, have nay other Reconciliation week activities to share, I would love to hear from you.

Welcome to my professional portfolio!

Attended a CEGSA  professional learning day with George Couros about using blogs to create a personal portfolio around the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. I created a page for each of the seven standards.

  1. Know student and how they learn
  2. Know the content and how to teach it
  3. Plan and implement effective teaching and learning
  4. Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments
  5. Assess, provide feedback and report on student learning
  6. Engage in professional learning
  7. Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community

Information about this is on the following Tweet:


We watched the following video