Thinking Aloud

South Essex College

This project focused on how we could continue to promote a culture of inclusivity by supporting practitioners in learning more about neurodiversity with a view to generating a resource that would enhance learners’ reading skills.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


The focus of our project was the collaboration between our academic and SEND teams and the exploration of techniques to support our learners with neurodiversity. We are a large college with an increasing number of learners enrolling annually with specific learning difficulties and the most common areas for support include information processing, listening skills, attention and organisational skills. Our intention was to raise awareness amongst the teaching teams of the phonological, visual and memory difficulties that many of these learners experience in the classroom, forge closer links with the academic learning support team (ALS) and provide strategies for supporting these learners.

Reciprocal reading strategies had been explored in OTLA 7 (ETF, 2021) and we wanted to expand and explore similar techniques that could be embedded into the GCSE English and maths curriculum that would also specifically benefit our ESOL learners. We wanted to use some of the findings and evidence from our previous project to explore further structured approaches to teaching strategies to improve reading comprehension skills.

Other Contextual Information

The action research undertaken was part of Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. South Essex College of Further and Higher Education is a large general further education college with approximately 16,000 full time equivalent learners. It consists of five campuses spaced across the South Essex Region. There are currently approximately 1400 learners enrolled on to both GCSE English and GCSE maths. Learners generally take GCSE rather than Functional Skills and grades on entry range between a U and a 3. The team focuses on supporting learners to make progress between the grades and encouraging learners to develop their skills and attainment. We have annually increased numbers of learners with high needs and with wider SEND.

The team involved in the project consisted of 4 GCSE teachers, an ESOL tutor and an Academic Learning Mentor who worked and shared practice with her team as the project evolved. Each tutor involved in the project identified at least two learners who they wanted to work with. And above everything else, the project was designed to be inclusive. The academic tutors wanted to create a resource that could be used with all learners and therefore they each focused on a learner with SEND and also a learner without any learning support needs.


To fulfil the project criteria and achieve an outcome, the team needed to develop a stronger understanding of the types of barriers to learning experienced by learners diagnosed with a neurodiverse learning difficulty and explore strategies and different ways that they could be supported. The project built on insights from the action research undertaken the previous year on reciprocal reading, developing a broader understanding from the academic learning support team with a strong focus on joint working.

Stage 1

The project began with a series of meetings involving the Academic Learning Mentor and the GCSE and ESOL tutors. The team reflected on the type of issues that they regularly saw learners encountering in the classroom when reading information and having to write responses and problem solve.

Stage 2

Two members of the team that had been involved in the action research the previous year discussed the work they had undertaken around reciprocal reading and shared their findings. You can read more about our previous work here: OTLA 7, Project 15, Curriculum approaches to improve engagement in GCSE maths.

Stage 3

The Academic Learning Mentor undertook research with the teams in place at the college supporting learners. The objective was to look at what could be done to improve reading comprehension from a SEN perspective. The ALS mentor identified potential problems surrounding ALS learners regarding reading comprehension in both GCSE maths and English lessons and exams. Meetings and discussions took place with a variety of student learner coaches who support learners in class in order to obtain their views and feedback. Although neurodiversity encompasses an expansive range of diagnosed learning and medical conditions, for the purpose of the project, three commonly supported neurodiverse conditions were explored: ADHD, dyslexia and Autism/Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Picture showing the team map out different aspects of neurodiversity

The team map out different aspects of neurodiversity

Stage 4

The ALS team explored the different types of learning disabilities under the umbrella of neurodiversity and created a mind map highlighting the most common difficulties that these three conditions cause. The chart rapidly illuminated that there were several difficulties and potential solutions that were common to all three of the conditions. (Appendix 3.1).

Stage 5

The academic team then worked with the ALS mentor involved in the project to develop a broader understanding of learners with SEND and to consider the information that the ALS team were encountering, and the type of support learners needed. From this discussion the most common challenges with reading comprehension were identified as:

  • identifying, decoding, and understanding language features (e.g. metaphors, similes, idioms, hyperbole, colloquial language, figurative speech, irony, oxymorons, symbolism, homographs)
  • ‘reading between the lines’ – recognising implied meaning by interpreting figurative, emotive or non-literal language
  • keeping learners engaged in an activity and confident in tackling tasks that contain copious amounts of text and information (Appendix 3.6 and Appendix 3.7).

Stage 6

The academic team were asked to take the information detailed above and consider how or if any of these common themes were encountered by learners who did not have an SEN requirement but may have been at a lower level with literacy on entry to the classroom as many of our learners join us with levels 1-3 on entry. This inevitably means that the variation in abilities within the classroom is large. Time constraints also mean that insufficient focus is placed on unpicking the level of each learner’s reading level. We felt that these issues, coupled with low confidence levels meant that the focus should be on making tasks as accessible as possible which is why we came up with the idea of using images rather than words as it was felt that the difficulty of predicting answers was common among many learners.

Stage 7

The academic team undertook research around some key educational theorists and different teaching and learning techniques that would benefit our learners. For example, they revisited Vygotsky’s theory and the use of scaffolding as a tool for growth. Research was also carried out into Piaget’s schema theory and cognitive learning which the team used to inform their practice (see references for further details).

Stage 8

The team then used the insights gained from their research and from the practices shared by the ALS team to design and pilot a resource which reflected our view that one of the overarching challenges in developing learners’ reading and thinking skills involved helping them improve their prediction skills. Our Thinking Aloud resource (Appendix 3.2) was created bearing in mind the three conditions above and was trialled with maths learners and English learners to support with processing written information by chunking this down and adding supporting images (see learner case studies and appendices for further details). The resource featured:

  • the use of images to prompt class/small group discussion and to predict/estimate answers
  • the use of colour and different fonts/layout to stimulate interest which we hoped would enrich the task and allow neurodiverse learners to express their ideas
  • a format that enabled the resource to be used in developing both maths and English skills.
Picture showing developing the resource in a format that enabled learners to develop both maths and English skills

Developing the resource in a format that enabled learners to develop both maths and English skills.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Tutors have recognised how visualisation and reflective awareness are crucial to learners’ understanding. One practitioner commented on how the project helped him to understand how learners with SEND ‘work’ and as a direct result of this project, he has committed to:

  • discussing any work set with LSAs supporting his lessons on how best learners make progress
  • developing resources to capture learners’ imagination through pictures and illustrations
  • differentiating according to ability and SEND needs
  • actively discussing with learners how they feel about teaching/learning resources.

The project has encouraged greater reflection and evaluation within the team and it has positively encouraged tutors to build positive relationships with classroom colleagues to learn from each other and develop their practice. ESOL, English and maths tutors are now working together much more extensively with academic support teams to explore common challenges such as misconceptions and reading comprehension difficulties (please see appendices for further details).

Organisational Development

The biggest impact of the project was the increased collaboration between the academic learning mentors and the teaching teams. The intention from the start was to encourage practitioners to learn about neurodiversity from those who work closely with learners with SEND so that they could start to reflect on what small changes they could make to their practice to improve outcomes for learners. Essentially, the promotion of inclusivity was evident throughout the project and has enabled tutors to differentiate more effectively in their teaching whether they are teaching English on GCSE or ESOL programmes. The action research also afforded us the opportunity to consider the common challenges that all learners encounter with their comprehension and understanding of English language.

Learning from this project

“How adventurous can our minds be?” (EHCP Learner).The Thinking Aloud pre-reading prediction task enabled learners to think of vocabulary and information that might come in the reading text. It taught them how to study pictures before reading to enable them to understand the text more easily. If this is done regularly, then the process should become automated and form a natural part of the reading process.

The English teacher commented:

The project was rewarding as I saw a gap in my learners’ understanding improve. Learners started discussing predictions to the scenario with each other. They appeared enthusiastic and engaged with their discussions. One EHCP learner asked, ‘how adventurous can our minds be?‘

The action research project has encouraged our practitioners to be more reflective and enquiring and to constantly review their practice on supporting learners with SEND. Tutors have consistently challenged their own practice and updated their knowledge. There has been a focus on the promotion of diversity and inclusion and their importance to learners’ reading and writing ability. Our practitioners have also inspired and motivated each other The project has enabled reflective practice and greater consideration that very simple changes to resources can make significant impact to all learners.

There has been more consideration to the anxiety that all our learners can struggle with when asked to read text, and how when imagery is used in both English and maths classes alongside text, this can assist with not only retrieval of information but also build confidence. If images are used as a starting point to reading, the discussions that take place enable experiences and any existing ideas to be shared. This stronger interaction and communication can lead to a more positive engagement within the written text, partly because ideas have been considered in advance of tackling the reading.

Tutors have reflected on how their lesson plans and activities in the classroom can help support students with visualisation and recall. The skills that practitioners taking part have developed through research and collaboration will be shared across the team to continue to consider methods to remove barriers and make learning even more inclusive.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners.

    The project focused on collaboration between the academic learning mentor and the GCSE /ESOL tutors. The team reflected on support strategies for those learners with SEND who had reading comprehension difficulties in GCSE Maths and English lessons.

  • 5. Value and promote social and cultural diversity, equality of opportunity and inclusion.

    This project focused on how we could continue to promote a culture of inclusivity by supporting practitioners in learning more about neurodiversity with a view to generating a resource which would enhance learners’ reading skills.

  • 9. Apply theoretical understanding of effective practice in teaching, learning and assessment drawing on research and other evidence.

    Our project team explored the concept of neurodiversity and the practical implications for teachers of theories about cognitive development and the use of scaffolding.


This project was carried out (and report written) by Joanne Styles (Project Lead) and Susan Little (Project Deputy) alongside their project team: Shima Javadzadeh, Dave Bibbey, Dani Mortimer, James Ryan, Anne-Marie Hayter and Nathaniel Machino.

With thanks to their mentor Helen Hewlett and Research Group Lead Bob Read, for their support.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Project Resources and Reflections


Benedict, K.M., Rivera, M.C. and Antia, S.D. (2014). Instruction in Metacognitive Strategies to Increase Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Students’ Reading Comprehension. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 20(1), pp.1–15.

Education and Training Foundation (2021). Outstanding teaching, learning and assessment. Anthology of Practitioner Action Research Reports (2020-21). [online]. Available at: [accessed 25.5.22].

Dimitriadis, G. and Kamberelis, G. (2006). Theory for education. New York: Routledge.

Waytz, A., Gray, K.., Epley, N.., and Wegner, D. M., (2010). Causes and consequences of mind perception. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(8), pp.383–388.

Habana, K., Khatib, M. and Ebadi, S. (2010). Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development: Instructional implications and teachers’ professional development. English Language Teaching, [online] 3(4), pp.237–248. Available at:

Wadsworth, B.J. (1992). Piaget’s theory of cognitive and affective development. New York, Ny: Longman.