04 SES 09 B, Developing Children’s Literacy in an Inclusive Environment
Our education system in the Republic of Ireland, and across Europe, strives to enable each child to reach his/her potential and to be a fully functional individual within society. It focuses on being ‘able to’ and therefore ingrains an attitude and perception towards ability and ‘disability’. Society expects that on leaving childhood and entering adulthood that the person should be able to support themselves and function independently. These attitudes and perceptions present the biggest barriers to all society and especially learners with autism and other ailments. College students are assigned supervisors, newly qualified teachers are assigned mentors, everyone in their workplace has a line manager that they report to and seek guidance from. On one hand society provides, and on the other it takes away. So why does society expect complete and total independence in transitions across personal and professional life? The overall theoretical framework underpinning this thesis is that ‘disability’ is a socially constructed phenomenon. Society through its perceived notions of ability applies a condition to the function of the person, placing emphasis on limitations, which in turn impacts on quality of life and living. Haegele and Hodge (2016) contend that the terms ‘disability’ and ‘impairment’ are disconnected and divorced from each other in a social model of disability. This is an important stance as it positions disability away from the bodily functions of the person onto the restrictions to the individual constructed by society. Society interacts with power and politics and imparts both negative and positive categories to ability and disability. Positively it recognises the need to provide supports via additional education resources and financial structures. However, it also attaches to this positive a negative in applying a ‘dependency’ label. This ‘dependency’ label enables our education system to separate out and position children with ‘disabilities’ into unique classroom structures in ‘inclusive’ environments. This is a social issue and a public concern.
The term ‘inclusion’ itself continues to emerge and evolve from international expositions on the development and progression of an egalitarian society. In Ireland, the Education Act (1998), the Education Welfare Act (2000), the Equality Act (2004), the Disability Act (2004), and the Education of Persons with Special Educational Needs Act (EPSEN) (2004) safeguards the rights of the people of the nation to an appropriate education to meet the full potential of the individual alongside their peers.
A particular featured aim of this research project was to consider inclusion and its role in promoting literacy practices and skills for learners with autism within the social and cultural context of the primary school. The literature review explored Armstrong, Armstrong, and Spandagou (2011) four roots to the rhetoric of inclusion within social policy: voice of parents, teacher and advocates for students with disabilities, the role of special education as a means to inclusion, accountability in practice and embracing diversity, and lastly the developmental needs of the student. An important research question to emerge from the literature review within this project highlighted the need to question ‘how inclusion via curricula, school policy and practices supports the literacy experiences of children with autism?’
This paper will debate that the inclusion of learners with autism into special education classes in ‘inclusive’ mainstream primary settings creates an architecture of exclusion.
This research project is positioned within a sociocultural perspective (Vygotsky, 1997) and holds that the actions of society elucidate the true nature of inclusion and the literacy experiences for and by learners with autism. It seeks to explain and explore the practices, structures, processes and policies that support or prohibit inclusion and literacy development from a bio-ecological lens (Bronfenbrenner, 1994). A sociocultural perspective supports the theory that language and literacy develops through the interplay between the social and cultural relationship experienced by the pupil in context with his 'inclusive' environment of the school. This study is a small scale, qualitative study of the literacy practices and learning experiences of children with autism in mainstream primary schools (n=7) in the Republic of Ireland. The participants include parents (n=24) and teachers (n=14) of children (n=34) with autism and data was generated through naturalistic observations (n=63) and semi-structured interviews (n=35). This qualitative research proposed to provide 'connections between lived experiences, social injustices, larger social and cultural structures, and the here and now' (Denzin & Lincoln, 2013, p. 43). It sought purposefully to explore how all the elements of inclusion and being literate create a 'whole' picture of teaching and learning for children with autism. Stake (2010, p. 13) holds that qualitative research is 'situational' as 'things work differently in different situation'. He cites teacher professional knowledge as being qualitative in nature. He refers to the reflective practices of the teacher as responsive qualitative forms of examining and interpreting actions for professional standards and ethics. He further contends that the qualitative researcher seeks to advance knowledge to assisting practice and policy. The case study approach allowed for an in-depth study and interpretation of the phenomenon of inclusion and teaching within the bounded case of variables such as age and setting and supports a 'flexible, open-ended technique of data generation and analysis' (Kumar, 2014, p. 155). While the focus of attention in this study was literacy, the social semiotic theory of language as a an outcome of social processes positions inclusion to the fore of the inquiry.
The results of this research project argue that the professional role and competencies of the teacher as an eclectic practitioner emerged as a critically important element of effective literacy outcomes. However, teachers in their interpretation of 'literacy', presented an outmoded definition of the concept. In some classes, there was an over emphasis on mechanistic approaches in restricted repetitive routines of practice that did not advance the engagement of the pupil in social literacy experiences. Restrictions in the practice of inclusion presented few opportunities for pupils to engage with non-autistic peers. The findings of this study indicate that a significant focused approach to teacher education and continuing professional development is needed in inclusive practice for better literacy teaching and learning. A broader conceptualisation of inclusion is needed to ensure literacy experiences are socially and culturally nurtured, and that literacy practices need to embrace being socially and culturally numerate as a form of being literate. The use of information technology as a mode for exploring the literate behaviours of pupils with autism needs greater attention and position within the pedagogical practices of the teacher. Echoic behaviours of children with autism towards their peers may demonstrate communicative intent and need to be observed, evaluated and acknowledged. A thesis is presented to articulate that the use of autism specific programmes can create mechanistic practices, which restrict an inclusive, differentiated, informed pedagogical approach to literacy instruction. Greater inclusive opportunities are needed for children with autism to build literacy practices through play and social experiences.
Ainscow, M., Dyson, A., Goldrick, S., & West, M. (2012). Making schools effective for all: Rethinking the task. School Leadership and Management, 32(3), 197-213. Ainscow, M., & Sandhill, A. (2010). Developing Inclusive Education Systems: The role of organisational cultures and leadership. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 14(4), 401-416. Bernstein, B. (1971). Class, Codes and Control: Theoretical studies towards a sociology of language. New York: Routledge. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). Ecological Models of Human Development International Encyclopedia of Education (2 ed., Vol. 3). Oxford: Elsevier. Denzin, K. N., & Lincoln, S. Y. (1994). Introduction: Entering the field of qualitative research. In K. N. Denzin & S. Y. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 1-18). London: Sage. Denzin, K. N., & Lincoln, S. Y. (2005). The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (3 ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Denzin, K. N., & Lincoln, S. Y. (2013). Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry (4 ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Halliday, M. A. K. (1978). Language as Social Semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold
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