Developing Dialogic Talk in the classroom with students with Autism/Complex needs

By Judith Stephenson, Thinking School Lead, Barbara Priestman Academy

As an academy for students with Autism/ Complex needs, the development of oracy skills is a fundamental part of our students’ learning and impacts positively on their reading and writing levels as well as increasing their confidence, enjoyment and their ability to engage in learning with increasing confidence.

Many of our students find the process of reading and writing extremely difficult but if you read to them and explore the language and concepts with them, they can access quite complex texts. They find writing laborious, but ask them to share their thoughts whilst you scribe for them and the results can be phenomenal and far more creative.

In school we have used Philosophy for Children (P4C) and Dramatic Enquiry for over ten years. These practices allow students to enquire together into questions that matter to them. When we began, we were really interested to see whether this approach could help students with ASD overcome particular difficulties relating to the Triad of Impairment and in particular around Theory of Mind. We have also focussed on questioning.

Students from Barbara Priestman engaged in Dramatic Enquiry

A fundamental skill in a teacher’s toolbox is the ability to ask powerful questions. Powerful questions evoke clarity, introspection, lead to enhanced creativity and help provide solutions. Questions are powerful when they have an impact on students and causes them to question and reflect; this is something we see students doing independently now.

Philosophy for Children improves critical, creative and rigorous thinking. Students develop higher order thinking skills and the attitudes and dispositions essential for good thinking. It helps improve their communication skills and their abilities to work with others. P4C, Image of the Week sessions and Dramatic Enquiry have all had an impact on students’ cognitive skills. Students together have created a framework for the types of behaviour and skills they expect to see when they are taking part in these sessions and are able to identify things they are good at and things they need to work on.

We took the framework provided by the ‘4Cs’ in Philosophy for Children (P4C) to support analysing the dialogue that takes place in classrooms.

Philosophy for Children – 4 Cs

We discussed the framework with different groups of students and worked with them to develop a series of statements to identify the behaviours they need to focus on to move the quality of their dialogue forward. The statements became tangible, attainable goals and students can articulate what they mean in a more precise way and begin to focus on what they do well and areas they need to develop.

Because students have ownership, they are more likely to identify when the talk is not purposeful and want to do something about it. Giving them a voice is a powerful thing.

Dramatic Enquiry is a fusion of P4C and drama where staff and students enquire together in role. This way of working has really engaged our students and helped them with their flexibility of thought. They are more easily able to put themselves in other people’s shoes and emotionally engage with a situation which is pertinent to their everyday lives but because they are in role we have found they are less reticent in sharing their thoughts and ideas. Some children may never have the opportunity in other contexts to explore issues that concern them and this can be especially true of students with special needs and learning difficulties where, because of their vulnerabilities; parents, understandably so, want to shield their children from issues that they see as challenging and/ or dangerous.

Using Dramatic Enquiry helps prevent students looking to the teacher for answers. As we are also in role and enquiring together on a level playing field rather than as a facilitator, the students begin to think harder and encourage them to question things themselves.

These enquiries emotionally engage the children and help them connect with real life. The sessions we run are all either linked to something in the news that has caught the students’ attention or are aimed to address areas of the curriculum where we know the students would find the content challenging e.g. the prevent strategy or aspects of well-being. The more we do this the more we find students respond to these projects with reason, challenge and reflection. Removing emotion from situations is not helpful especially for students with ASD who often find things very black and white to begin with. They need to discuss situations where emotion is involved and be explicitly taught that not everyone reacts and responds in the same way to certain situations.

Exploring complex issues with our students and encouraging them to think about their place in the world and enabling them to explore and calculate the impact and consequences their decisions may have; help to equip them with the skills needed when confronting ethical problems as they grow older.

Explicitly teaching dialogic skills and reflecting on sessions with our students has enabled them to employ these skills independently in a variety of situations and this has been commented on from a range of visitors to our school.

Judith Stephenson
Thinking School Lead
Barbara Priestman Academy

Find out more about Barbara Priestman Academy and their work as an Advanced Thinking School by visiting their website.

Take a look at the Thinking Matters Big Picture, identifying key research on what affects learning in cognitive education and what works as a metacognitive approach.

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