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  • Writer's pictureAnn Sullivan

Can ALL children learn to read? Thinking about learners with special educational needs.

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

First things first.

Q: What do we mean by SEND?

A: It depends who we are.

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

A mainstream teacher may consider that a child who isn’t working at or just below age related expectations may have special educational needs and further investigation may follow. This child may struggle with basic skills such as reading, writing or numeracy or have sensory, language or concentration challenges, all of which may impact on their access to the curriculum. Generally speaking, pupils with SEND in mainstream schools could be described as having ‘mild to moderate’ needs (although in the UK the number of pupils in mainstream who have severe or complex needs is growing due to a number of factors, including a lack of places in special schools and parental choice).

A special school teacher, however, may view things differently. They inhabit a world where all the children have special educational needs and disabilities that have been or are being investigated and described. These needs impact on access to the general curriculum to such an extent that the curriculum itself requires significant adaptation and modification. Generally speaking, pupils with SEND in special schools could be described as having ‘moderate to severe or complex’ needs.

So, how do teachers working with children with moderate to severe or complex needs teach reading? Can they teach them all to read?

Let’s do belt and braces first.

Q: What do we know about how we learn to read?

A: Let's follow the science.

Let’s start by thinking about what research evidence tells us about how we learn to read and how best to teach it.

An increase in the number of studies and depth of research over the last 30 years coupled with advances in technology 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, 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.

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.

Q: Who are the children in the red section?

A: Children with additional needs and learning challenges.

Those needs span a very, very wide range and vary in ‘severity’ (a somewhat crude but helpful term that helps us to understand the level of challenge pupils experience).

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 SEND 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 many 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, with only 0.02% of children placed in special schools and resourced provisions. (2)

Q: So, how do these children with SEND learn to read?

A: Let's follow the science, again.

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)

Q: SSP for all of them, including the 0.02% of children in special schools?

A: Yes, well nearly all of them.

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 occurs by natural or primary learning and the brain just needs lots of exposure to the printed word with someone reading it out loud for them. In fact, learning to read occurs by secondary learning and requires explicit teaching. The whole language approach doomed many pupils to failure 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 learning to read via systematic synthetic phonics teaches the child the phonemic skills they need for reading. Possession of a certain set of phonemic or phonological skills should not then be required before instruction begins.

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 phonemic awareness in the context of instruction, for reading to be possible children need to be able to:

  • hear, recognize, identify, differentiate between, process, remember and recall (in a ‘thinking voice’ in their head) 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 in special schools will be able to meet this set of criteria. With good quality reading instruction, including adaptations and personalisation to enable access and delivered within a semi-formal or formal curriculum, most can develop reading and literacy skills. Accessible SSP is the way to go.

Q: But 'the majority' isn’t all. What about the rest?

A: It’s not straightforward.

A comparatively small number of children have profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), sensory (hearing and visual) 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 the equivalent of a very early developmental stage and would find it difficult to access formal reading instruction. But that's still not the end of the story. There seems to be two schools of thought emerging around these pupils.

Some professionals consider that for these pupils, time is best spent working on communication and interaction and some key areas of development. With the agreement of parents, literacy does not form part of their curriculum. 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.

However, some professionals consider that we need to think beyond the 'now' for these pupils and be aspirational. We should consider the potential future benefits of pre-formal phonemic awareness and basic phonics work so that the children are ‘primed’ for when (and if) they are able to access a semi-formal approach to reading instruction further down the line. This could involve activities that highlight the sounds in key words and show their matching letters or modelling blending and decoding key words. This approach is alike to incidental phonics and would be delivered within the backdrop of a sensory or pre-formal curriculum focusing on words that hold great meaning for the child e.g. their own name, their favourite toy or a piece of equipment they like to use.

Q: How long does it take to teach children with SEND to read?

A: As long as it takes.

What does need to be acknowledged is that the timescale for acquiring literacy skills for all pupils with SEND is inevitably much longer than for their typically developing peers.

Generally speaking, pupils are taught phonics in mainstream schools from R to Y2.

That’s 3 years.

Pupils with SEND require work to be presented in much smaller steps, need scaffolded activities, need different teaching strategies and require much ‘overlearning (learning, practice and application) at the code, word, phrase, sentence and text level. Progression through any programme will be inevitably slower, ideally at the pupil’s own pace of learning.

So, for our pupils with special educational needs in both mainstream and special we need to be prepared for the fact that it will take pupils longer to work on all aspects of the alphabetic code and gain all the skills and knowledge they need to be good readers.

For those with mild to moderate needs (and I will include those with dyslexia here) we are looking at 3-4+ years and possibly much, much longer for those with severe or complex needs.

This means that schools need to have a well implemented whole school approach to teaching reading that takes this into account, whilst monitoring and tracking pupil progress.

Schools should also avoid the temptation to declare that ‘phonics isn’t working’ because pupils, especially those with mild to moderate needs, have not achieved literacy in the same timescale as their mainstream typically developing peers. If they are making progress then they need to carry on with a programme through to completion and be given additional support across the curriculum in the meantime.

So, we cannot truly say all children with SEND will learn to read but the majority can, using SSP.

We can also say that for those that can, we are in it for the long haul.

It is most certainly a marathon not a sprint.


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:

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

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

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