What impact do individualized teaching sessions have on learners with special needs?

By Joanne Whiting

    What impact do individualized teaching sessions have on learners with special needs?

    About the Author

    Joanne Whiting
    Wellingborough, ENG, GB
    1 Article Published
    Joanne Whiting

    As a conscientious primary school teacher, my main aim has always been to further children’s education and to make a difference to their learning. I have a Psychology degree from the University of Leicester and completed my PGCE at Northampton University; however, after working in mainstream education for 8 years, I decided a change was required and I moved into special educational teaching. Facilitating the progress of children with moderate learning difficulties can be a real challenge; it is, however, also one of the most important aspects of being a teacher and one which I take very seriously. This is the driving factor behind becoming a practitioner research and the inspiration behind choosing to complete my MA in Education at Bishop Grosseteste University. As I continue my journey, I hope to extend my knowledge and understanding in order to enhance the learners of the future.

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    Project Summary
    Facilitating the progress of children with moderate learning difficulties can be a challenge due to the poorer retention and memory that many of the children categorized in this group have (Mitchell, 2008). The aim of this study was to determine effects of an intervention which would not only enhance the children’s maths and reading abilities, but also positively impact on the children’s views of their self-efficacy. Based on the principles of Direct Instruction (Hattie, 2009) and rehearsal (Tilstone & Layton, 2004), individual programmes of study were created for each child containing maths and reading activities tailored to their own ability, which they completed four times a week. Using a case study design, the children were tested and interviewed to examine the impact of the intervention. With 10 children participating in this practitioner research, the results revealed that children made significant progress in both reading and maths over the course of 3.5 months. The interviews indicated that the children also felt they had made good progress; however, their responses varied as to why. Due to the limitations of the case study design, the individual programmes of study cannot be solely attributed for the progress made. However, the intervention appeared to have a positive impact on both the children’s abilities and their confidence.

    Project Context
    This study took place in the school that I currently work in, a primary school in East Northamptonshire, specifically for children with special educational needs. The school caters for children who have a range of disabilities, from those with profound and multiple needs to those with moderate learning difficulties. The class in which the study was based consisted of 10 key Stage 2 pupils, all of whom have moderate learning difficulties including children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Global Learning Delay and general learning difficulties. When the children in my class were not making sufficient progress due to their poor retention skills, I felt a burning desire to establish how I could effectively teach and enable the pupils to build on skills they learnt rather than them simply being forgotten and lost. This resulted in a new programme of study being developed and utilised each morning to rehearse and consolidate on reading and maths skills; the current research was conducted to examine the new programme’s impact on the children’s learning.

    Research Goal, Method, and Outcome

    Background and Research Purposes

    When I first began working in a special needs school, one of the aspects I noticed when teaching the children was that often if there was a period of time between when something was taught and using and applying these skills, the children would often have forgotten what they had learnt (Mitchell, 2008). This was also the case when revisiting units of work. If the children had learnt a skill, but it was then not rehearsed for a while, they again appeared to have forgotten the skill. As a teacher, this was particularly frustrating as education is about enhancing children’s ability to learn, use and apply. If they are unable to retain what they have learnt, then they will not develop the skills they need to grow as individuals (Swanson, Kehler, & Jerman, 2010). Based on my observations, I needed to review my own teaching practice to ensure that the education of the pupils within my class would be the best that it could be.

    The first step in this process was to look at the manner and the style of my day-to-day classroom teaching. When reflecting on lessons that I teach on a daily basis, as well as lesson observation notes and discussions with teaching assistants in the classroom, I concluded that my aim has always been to engage children visually, as many of the children with Autism Spectrum Disorders learn this way (Siegel, 2003). I do, however, also try to involve practical activities wherever possible for the kinaesthetic learners. I ensure the language I use is at a level that the children will understand, and any explanations are clear, concise and are not prolonged to cater for the children’s poorer concentration skills (Steer, Edwards, & Horstmann, 2009). The children in the lessons I teach often appear to make progress during that time, suggesting that the content and manner in which it is taught seem suitable. However, the retention over a period of time was still the main issue. This therefore led to considerations of how to reinforce key learning over a period of time ensuring that the children were able to remember and retain what they had learnt. Further reading of the research literature was needed to gain further understanding of learning theories underpinning differing approaches. From the additional literature search and reading, conclusions were drawn that due to the memory issues often faced by children with moderate learning difficulties, completing daily intensive sessions in a direct instruction style (Mitchell, 2008) could facilitate the children’s ability to retain key skills learnt in mathematics and enhance reading progress. Additional consideration was also given regarding what impact this would have on the children’s own self efficacy views.

    The purposes of this practitioner research were to determine (a) the effects of additional instructions aimed at increasing children’s retention rate as manifested in children’s enhanced math and reading abilities and (b) the impact of additional instructions on children’s self-efficacy in relation to reading and mathematics.


    Participating Children

    The research was based within my own classroom which had 11 children and 4 adults working within it. However, due to the specific needs of one pupil, it was decided that he would not take part in the study as the time available to complete the intervention did not fit in with his individual timetable, resulting in placing extra demands on him. Great lengths instead went into ensuring that the pupil’s education and learning was prioritised at other times to ensure he was not disadvantaged (Wood & Smith, 2016). The 10 participating pupils’ needs and abilities varied greatly, and children’s academic ability spanned from a 3-4 year old’s ability, up to a 7-8 year old. All children who took part in the study were classified as having a moderate learning disability and were able to talk and communicate their needs, although two of the children found expressing their feelings very challenging. At the beginning of the study, one child was aged 8, one child was aged 9, four children were aged 10 and the final four children were aged 11.

    Intervention Design

    In addition to the regular curriculum, each child had a programme of study created by me, the teacher-researcher. Children worked through the program 4 mornings a week for approximately 50 minutes per day. Three adults (the teacher, one Level 3 teaching assistant and a Level 2 teaching assistant) delivered and supervised the children as they followed their individualised programmes of learning. Due to the needs of one child, the Level 2 teaching assistant worked with him on a one-to-one basis, whilst the remaining nine children were directed and managed by the teacher and the Level 3 teaching assistant. To ensure that the children were treated fairly, the Level 3 teaching assistant and I worked with the children on a rotating basis, and the child who worked individually with the Level 2 teaching assistant was monitored closely to ensure his individual programme of study met his needs and his progress was not compromised by receiving less time with the teacher.

    Programme Details

    Each programme of study consisted of two reading exercises and a maths task completed independently.

    Reading Exercises

    The first reading activity was to read their own reading book to an adult with questions asked during and after to ensure the child had a good understanding of what they had read. The second reading task either focused on keyword recognition using the precision teaching probe or a reading comprehension. The precision teaching probes for these students were created based on the concept and practice of precision teaching probe (e.g., SNIP News Letter, n.d.). The level that the child was working at dictated whether they focused on key/high frequency word recognition or comprehension activities.  For the children completing the keyword recognition task, this was completed on a one-to-one basis with an adult using the precision teaching probe format. A new set of words were given each week dependent on the previous week’s results.

    Maths Exercises

    The final task of the individual programme was a maths activity based on number. The children had had systematic teaching, taught in manageable chunks in the maths lessons in the build up to the next intervention, such that the children were prepared and ready to continue to rehearse, practice and apply aspects of number that they had already been taught (Mitchell, 2008). Eight out of the ten children completed a maths task, which consisted of addition and subtraction questions initially, moving onto additional multiplication and division questions later on in the term after those areas had been taught in the lessons. Two of the ten children worked on basic number skills such as one to one correspondence, counting and simple addition and subtraction questions, which were the level they were working at. Although the children worked on tasks which were similar in nature, their work was tailored to their needs accordingly.

    Overall, the more able children within the group were reading more complex reading books, were given more challenging comprehension activities, and had additional and more challenging maths questions focusing on the four operations as well as other areas of maths. The less able children were following a different format in which they focused on keyword recognition rather than comprehension and basic number skills. Additionally, the child working on a one-to-one basis also completed social skill activities as this was another area his learning needed to focus on in order for him to make progress socially as well as academically. All of the work the children completed involved a prescriptive and focused format particular in the mathematics area, but utilised tailored instructions and key verbal feedback in order to maximise progress.

    Data Collection and Analysis


    All tests were issued in larger font size to ensure that the children were not hindered if they had any visibility difficulties and the same testing situations were adhered to in every test to ensure consistency and reliability (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2011). This form of quantitative data collection allowed for progress to be measured regarding the impact the intervention (Cohen et al., 2007).

         Reading tests. In order to determine whether any progress occurred over the course of the intervention, the children completed a range of reading and mathematics tests. Three of the children completed the Precision Teaching Probe: A test used to establish the number of high frequency words that the children were able to read. Secondly, all children completed the Salford Reading Test (Bookbinder, Vincent, & Crumpler, 2000) to establish their decoding and reading ability. Seven of the children then completed the 2009 Key Stage 1 Statutory Assessment Tests (SATs) reading comprehension test to assess comprehension and understanding.

         Maths tests. Six of the children completed a teacher-developed mathematics test based on number, two of the children carried out a Level 3 SATs style maths test and the two lower ability children completed a practical maths test involving counting. These tests were implemented before the intervention began and when it was completed. In order to assess the impact that the maths activities in the individualised programmes of study had, I created my own assessment for the children based on the four operations that they completed both before and after the intervention, in the same way as the reading tests were completed.

    Self-efficacy Interviews

    Using a semi-structured format, the interview focused on eliciting the children’s self-efficacy views in relation to reading and mathematics. This type of data collection needed particular consideration as the research involved a vulnerable group. Firstly, they were children and secondly, they had special education needs (Silverman, 2011). It was also important to consider the language and discussion abilities of the children. Interviewing students with special educational needs presents challenges because of the capabilities or communication needs of the respondents (Mertens & McLaughlin, 2004).

    Due to these challenges, I felt an interesting but useful way of eliciting the children’s thoughts would be to use a visual stimulus accompanied by a few simple questions (Banks, 2007). I trialed this form of interviewing before the intervention started to gather the children’s self-efficacy views and used a visual stimulus which consisted of a range of clip art style characters displaying different emotions. However, this approach did not help to elicit their viewpoint or feelings about themselves as a learner. When the children were asked to choose a picture which represented their feelings, they were able to do this, but could not explain why and therefore the data generated consisted on the whole of emotions and feelings selected, but lacked rich and in depth description to accompany.

    As a result, when conducting the interviews for a second time after the intervention had been conducted, I used two activities to generate discussion. The first of the activities used was to draw a picture of what the children thought made a good reader. Questions were then asked about the picture they had drawn, moving onto their views of themselves as a reader and finally their views on the individual programmes of study and the activities they completed. In the second activity the children were asked to select a piece of maths work that they were proud of and to give their reasons why. Again questions were asked on how the children felt about maths including their own abilities.


    Reading Intervention Results

    The Salford Reading Test (Bookbinder et al., 2000) issues a reading age in years and months and establishes the children’s ability to decode and read aloud a set of sentences. The time period between the two tests was 4 months and as can be seen in the results table (see slide 5), the children’s progress ranged from 6-20 months, with a mean average of 13.6 months. Additionally, the children in this study were all classified as having moderate learning difficulties, therefore every child made progress greater than the amount of time that surpassed between the two tests. It is also worth noting that pupil J was the child who worked on a one-to-one basis with the Level 2 teaching assistant on a daily basis.

    In order to establish the children’s ability to not only decode and read aloud, but also comprehend what they have read, the second test that the children completed was the Key Stage 1 2009 reading test (see slide 6). The results from the Key Stage 1 2009 Reading Comprehension paper reveal that all of the children made progress in the number of marks they achieved, with only one child remaining on the same level after the second test, despite still improving in the second test by 5 points. The range of progress scores between test 1 and test 2 was 5-16 points with a mean average of 10.3 points improvement overall, which is over 30%. Additionally, six out of the seven children all improved by at least one fine grade on the old National Curriculum (Department for Education, 2013) level system in the time period of 3.5 months.

    In addition to the aforementioned reading test, the three less able children, who were unable to carry out the comprehension, completed the Precision Teaching Probe assessment. The test consisted of reading through the top 200 National Literacy Strategy high frequency words randomly generated and repeated on a sheet of either 10 or 20 words at a time, with a score given on each section as the words became harder. These children again were tested before and after the intervention to see how many words they were able to recognise and consistently read on sight and the results revealed that all scores increased by at least 50% (see slide 7).

    In summary, the results from the quantitative research indicates that the children made significant progress in reading during the course of the intervention, as on average 13.6 months progress was made on the Salford reading test (Bookbinder et al., 2000) in the space of 3.5 months compared to the previous 4 months when only 3 months progress was made on average. All seven of the children who took the Key Stage 1 2009 reading SATs paper showed improvement in their reading comprehension skills, although the extent of this progress varied amongst the pupils. Finally, the remaining three pupils, who completed the Precision Teaching Probe assessment, all made significant progress on the number of sight words they were able to read as each child more than doubled their score compared to the previous test.

    Maths Intervention Results

    The results of the four operations’ maths assessments that the teacher-researcher developed are shown in the table and graphs (see slide 8 and 9). There were 20 questions for each operation apart from subtraction in which there were 14 questions. The scores for each area are indicated under the appropriate sign.

    All the children made progress on every test when completing the second time after the intervention. However, the degree of the improvement varied considerably for each child. One aspect that is particularly apparent from the data, nonetheless, is that the pupils seemed to have made the greatest progress in the multiplication and division tests. In the first assessment, a majority of the children scored 1 or 0 points in both areas, whereas in the second test the scores were considerably higher.

    The results of the two higher ability children who completed Level 3 maths SATs questions showed an improvement in their scores after the intervention; Child H by 11 points and Child I by 9 points (see table in slide 10). The two children who did not complete a formal assessment, but instead took part in an activity on counting and on one to one correspondence, showed an improvement when completing the activity after the intervention had taken place. Child J, in the initial assessment, could add and subtract below 5, could count to 15 and give cubes to 10. After the intervention, he was able to add and subtract below 15 using his fingers to count on and support, could count to 30 and give cubes up to 20. Child C, in the initial assessment, could only give up to 3 cubes when a request for a certain number was made, had one to one correspondence to 5 and could count up to 10 independently. After the intervention in the second assessment, she was able to give up to 9 cubes when a request for a certain number was specified, had one to one correspondence to 12 and could count independently up to 20. Although this progress appears small, the child had not been able to count above 10 during the whole time at primary school, therefore significant progress was made during the intervention period.

    In summary, similar to the quantitative reading data, the maths tests conducted also revealed that the children made good progress when comparing the initial tests completed before and after the intervention, as every child’s score improved on the assessments taken, most likely more progress with intervention than without intervention, though this varied for each child. Due to researcher produced tests being used to assess the children’s maths progress, it was not possible to establish general progress improvement. This is a weakness of not using commercially produced tests, which often have higher reliability estimates.

    Children’s Self-Efficacy

    The 8 themes on children’s self-efficacy beliefs that emerged from the interviews were: Accuracy, Challenge, Improving, Practice, Learning, Concentration, Achievements, and Independence.


    Some of the children felt that being right or wrong was crucial to their progress.


    There was a general consensus that finding something easy was positive. If a task was found to be ‘hard’ then children did not enjoy completing it and felt that the task had not facilitated their learning. One child found communicating with the teacher challenging and often repeated the last point made to him by the teacher; therefore it was a challenge to grasp the child’s true viewpoints on the matters.


    Nine out of the 10 children felt they had improved in reading over the year and one child was unsure. When children were asked why they thought that had improved, four sub-themes surfaced: practising reading (3 children), the individual programmes of study (2 children), moving up to the next level on their individual reading book (3 children), and unsure why, including the child who was unsure if they had improved or not (2 children). In maths, all of the children felt that they had improved or ‘got better’ over the course of the year. Interestingly, half of the children attributed this to the individual programmes of study.


    Half of the children felt that practicing reading had contributed to their progress and half of the children attributed their maths progress to the individualized programmes of study.


    All of the children in the study showed an understanding that learning meant improving and making progress.


    Three out of 10 children felt that concentration on a task led to improvement in their learning.


    Three out of 10 children felt that moving up a reading level had assisted with their progress or ‘made them better’ and 4 out of 10 children stated that getting ‘all their work right’ led them to believe they had improved.


    Four out of 10 children stated that when they could complete a piece of work independently, then this was a sign that they had improved.

    Overall, the interview data indicated that all of the children in maths and nine out of ten children in reading felt they had made progress over the course of the year. This is in line with the quantitative testing data that established that the children did make significant progress. A child who believes that she/he has made progress also suggests a growth in the view of the child’s own self-efficacy, although the children in this study attributed growth in self-efficacy beliefs to differing reasons.


    Whether the individualised programmes of study had an impact on children with special educational needs in the areas of reading, maths and their views of their own abilities was examined based on  quantitative and qualitative data. Results suggest that the individualised programmes contributed to the amount of progress they made in both content areas and facilitated positive growth in the perception of their own abilities. All children felt that they had made progress in maths and nine out of ten children believed they made progress in reading over the year. Using the Salford Reading test (Bookbinder et al., 2000) conducted in September as an addition to the other assessment periods before and after the intervention, the test results, used as a benchmark, highlighted the progress that was made over the course of the individual programmes of study being implemented compared to the time before when they were not employed.

    When conducting research in any naturalistic environment, it is a challenge to isolate variables and therefore establishing their impacts is not clear (Kamil et al., 2011), although the data produced in this study are more ecologically sound than those produced in laboratory settings. In this study, the impact the intervention had on the children’s reading progress is more apparent due to the fact that nearly all of the reading took place during the times of the intervention and rarely during other lessons. Similarly, the maths tests conducted also revealed that the children made good progress when comparing the initial tests completed before and after the intervention. However, trying to establish impact is significantly more challenging when analysing the test scores, as the maths lessons that were taught throughout the year involved many aspects of number and therefore the intervention alone is unlikely to be solely responsible for the improvement that children made. To conclude, although the individual programmes of study cannot be solely attributed to the children’s progress as a result of the naturalistic environment the study took place in, they are is likely to have contributed to the progress the children made and their improved self-perception.


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    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Whiting, J. (2018, September 11). What impact do individualized teaching sessions have on learners with special needs? Social Publishers Foundation.  https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/what-impact-do-individualized-teaching-sessions-have-on-learners-with-special-needs/

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