Talking with Varinder Unlu about the importance of being more inclusive

inclusive classrooms

Serving the needs of students with autism, ADHD, dyslexia and other learning differences can be a huge challenge for teachers. This is exacerbated when there is no support available and a general lack of knowledge and training on being inclusive in the industry.

Unfortunately, in ELT, teachers and their students are often left to struggle. Classes can be hard to manage and students with learning differences fall behind, get bullied, or even become disruptive because their needs are not being met.

Until recently, there were hardly any resources for schools, publishers, or teachers that would enable them to be more inclusive of students with these differences. There was also a lack of awareness that this problem even existed outside of a mainstream school setting.

Varinder Unlu, however, did recognize how important the issue was. It led her to set up IATEFL’s Inclusive Practices and Special Educational Needs Special Interest Group (IPSEN SIG) alongside Anne Margaret Smith and Annette Igel in 2016.  

While it’s a relatively new initiative, the SIG comes at a time when the ELT industry is starting to talk more about inclusion. People are increasingly interested in making educational resources and classes more accessible to learners of all abilities and needs.

As a result, IPSEN SIG very quickly became influential – with members and leaders of other more established SIGs consulting with the group to find out how they too can be more inclusive.

We spoke to Varinder about what her journey with IPSEN SIG has been like, what it really means to be more inclusive, and why being inclusive is important for publishers, teachers and learners alike.

The beginning of a movement

At the IATEFL conference in 2014, Varinder Unlu and Anne Margaret Smith got chatting about the need to help teachers support learners who were learning differently. They found there was a lot of interest at the conference, and the following year collected signatures to support their application to IATEFL – and it soon became a reality.

“Our vision was to raise awareness of a lack of support addressing special educational needs (SEN) in ELT,” Varinder says.

“In the beginning, our challenge was to make sure we got the proposal right and we had the support and signatures. We needed to demonstrate that we could get a membership of passionate people,” she says.

Once the trio overcame the initial hurdle, they found that inclusion was a much broader topic than they had anticipated. Since starting the SIG, Varinder has been surprised to see how inclusion can encompass nearly every area of the industry, from teaching to product development, to administration and even building design.

“I felt there was nothing in the ELT industry that supported teachers in this area. CELTA and DELTA courses don’t include SEN as standard – and teachers who have students who are finding it difficult to learn, find it almost impossible to manage.”

Her background in further and higher education in the UK showed her that provision for inclusion and SEN can be better. The SIG’s aim was therefore not only to raise awareness of a need for support, but it was also to provide real resources and training to teachers, publishers and others working in the ELT industry.

Today it runs events, offers consultation, offers a regular newsletter and provides a growing number of online resources.

There is no single solution to inclusion in ELT

Varinder explains that people often have the misconception that being inclusive means to try to involve everyone at the same time.

“People write up policies and are not really following through. It ticks the box, but it’s not really happening in reality,” she says. “People need to design inclusion policies that are representative of the needs of their students – and can be understood and followed by everyone.”

So where do we go from here? Number one on Varinder’s list is training.

“Teachers need training on SEN, full stop. It needs to be in the training courses from CELTA level. At the very least, there needs to be a session to raise awareness that some students need a different form of teaching.”

She also recommends that every ELT workplace needs at least one expert in SEN. “I would say every school needs somebody who can mentor – someone who understands SEN and who can provide support to everyone in the building wherever and whenever they need it.”

And she really means that. Varinder makes it clear that inclusion is more than just about teaching.

“It’s school-wide. It’s about the admin department, the cleaners, the managers, the parents and their students. Really, everyone needs to be involved and know what it is: inclusion is not limited to the four walls of the classroom.”

As for helping SEN students, it always depends on their individual needs – and so generic, one-size fits all resources are not always helpful.

“Dyslexia, for example, doesn’t affect everyone in the same way, autism can be hard on the whole class – as can ADHD. Teachers need to be aware of this and they should be able to ask for support and get the right advice from trained mentors.”

Finally, when it comes to publishers, Varinder suggests a little extra effort would go a long way.

“I understand that publishers cannot change what they do completely,” she says. “But there’s little stopping them from providing extra resources alongside their regular product lines. If you have a dyslexic learner or someone with another learning difference – an online platform with additional support for their needs could really make all the difference to them.”

Find out more about IPSEN and how you can get involved on its website: IPSEN IATEFL.

At Pearson English, we work with our local offices to support teachers with SEN, often creating bespoke versions of our content.

You can also read more about teaching students with dyslexia in our practical guide to supporting dyslexic students in the foreign language classroom.

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Do you have any questions or doubts about teaching students with special educational needs? What support is available at your school? Let us know in the comments.

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