• Ann Sullivan

Can all children learn to read?

Updated: Apr 16

Can all children learn to read?

People’s understanding and perception of SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disability – UK term) varies greater depending on their experience and situation.

A mainstream teacher may view that a child who isn’t working at age related expectations has SEN or SEND. This child may struggle with basic skills such as reading, writing or numeracy or have sensory, communication or concentration challenges, all of which may impact on their access to the curriculum.

A special school teacher may view things differently. They inhabit a world where children have complex and multiple needs that impact on access to the general curriculum to such an extent that the curriculum itself requires significant adaptation and modification.

So, how do teachers working with children with complex needs teach reading? Can they teach them all to read? Let’s start by thinking about what research evidence tells us about how we learn to read.

An increase in the number of studies and depth of research over the last 30 years coupled with advances in technology, for example MRI scanning, has placed us in a much better position to say, with some certainty, what is the best way to go about teaching reading. Without a doubt, all children benefit from explicit instruction using a systematic, synthetic phonics approach, although some will find it easier than others.

Nancy Young’s excellent infographic, ‘The Ladder of Reading’ (1) demonstrates this beautifully.

The Ladder of Reading Infographic is reproduced with the permission of Nancy Young

We can see that for 50-65% of children a structured approach is not just advantageous but crucial and, even for those that find learning to read easy, this approach is beneficial.

Now let’s think about those children who have additional needs and learning challenges.

According to the DfE census data, January 2020 (2), 3.3% of the UK pupil population have an ‘Education, Health and Care Plan’ (EHCP). These pupils have barriers to learning that are so significant that they are supported by a legal document that defines their special educational needs and the provision that is put in place to meet them. In addition to these pupils, a further 12.1% receive ‘SEN Support’, that is additional support and intervention in school. Not all of these pupils will have difficulties with reading, but most will.

This total of 15.4% of the pupil population corresponds nicely to the red section on Nancy Young’s ladder.

The majority of these children are educated in mainstream schools and resourced provision, with only 0.02% of children placed in special schools (2). This 0.02% of children have complex (and often multiple) needs and require specialist support and access to an adapted or alternative curriculum.

In terms of learning to read, there is increasing research evidence that for this group of children, like all others, systematic, synthetic phonics is crucial. (3)

So, can we teach all of this 0.02% of children to read?

There has been much debate around the idea of ‘reading readiness’ which suggests there are pre-requisites to becoming a successful reader. For the vast majority of children, it is now generally agreed that the concept of ‘reading readiness’ has no merit. It originated from the (now discredited) idea that learning to read is natural and the brain just needs lots of exposure to the printed word with someone reading it out loud for them. With this whole language approach many pupils were doomed to fail and, when they did, it was easy to classify these children as ‘not ready’ rather than investigate the validity of the strategy.

Now we know better, we understand that reading needs to be taught by explicit instruction and within the brain the processes are largely phonological. Phonological awareness and phonemic skills are important in learning to read and in reading itself. So are good phonological and phonemic skills a pre-requisite of learning to read? Actually studies show that the very act of teaching reading using systematic synthetic phonics teaches the child the phonemic skills they need to read (4).

This ‘reading readiness’ debate focused on children in mainstream schools rather than the ones with complex needs in specialist settings. Could the concept of ‘reading readiness’ (with a completely different perspective) be one to consider for this group of children?

Assuming we can teach children phonemic awareness in the context of instruction, for reading to be possible they need to be able to:

· hear, recognize, identify, differentiate between, process, remember (in a ‘thinking voice’ in their head) and recall auditory information, specifically speech sounds or phonemes,

· understand that visual figures or symbols can ‘stand for’ or represent something,

· see, recognize, identify, differentiate between, process, remember and recall visual information, specifically letter forms.

The Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer 2015) (5), that integrates decoding text and understanding spoken language into reading instruction, also tells us that they need to:

· understand that spoken words convey meaning,

· have a lexicon of words that they have heard and understand what they mean,

· understand that a sequence of words conveys a greater meaning.

The majority of the 0.02% of children with complex needs will be able to meet this set of criteria and with good quality reading instruction, including adaptations and personalisation to enable access, can develop reading and literacy skills.

A comparatively small number of children have profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), sensory and multisensory impairments (MSI). According to the DfE census data, January 2020 (2), 0.001% can be described in this way.

Some, but not all, of this group of children may be working at a very early developmental level and may find it difficult to access reading.

Teachers, in consultation with parents/carers need to consider whether teaching reading is a realistic goal for this very small group (<0.001%) of children or whether time is better spent working on other areas of the child’s development.

That said, we need to be careful that we do not close any doors to reading for these children. Children grow, develop and change and any decisions should be reviewed regularly so that all children are given the opportunity to learn to read if appropriate.

So the answer to my original question is, 'yes' (nearly).


Many thanks to Nancy Young for allowing me to use her Ladder of Reading infographic and for generously giving her time to me for email correspondence and discussion.


1. Nancy Young’s ‘The Ladder of Reading’ – more information available from her website: https://www.nancyyoung.ca/research-and-links

2. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/special-educational-needs-in-england-january-2020

3. A meta-analysis on the effectiveness of phonics instruction for teaching decoding skills to students with intellectual disability. R Sermier Dessemontet, C Martinet, AF de Chambrier, BM Martini-Willemin, C Audin, Educational Research Review Volume 26, Feb 2019, Pg 52-70

4. Should we teach phonemic awareness? Jenny Chew 2016 https://www.ruthmiskin.com/en/about-us/blog-news/article/guest-blog-should-we-teach-phonemic-awareness/?fbclid=IwAR0ZO0g6CJsySH7IwPASioP4H4kXMEn4XlRzRDjsqsP16AukdLfHbZki0dU

5. Decoding, Reading and Reading Disability. P Gough & W Tunmer, Remedial and Special Education, Jan 1986

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