• Ann Sullivan

Can ALL children learn to read? #2 Can children with special educational needs learn phonics?

Updated: Jul 23

As educators we are keenly aware of the need to ensure that all our pupils develop literacy skills that will serve them well as they move through school, on into adulthood and throughout their lives. But what is the best way to do this, particularly if our pupils have challenges and barriers to learning?

As a starting point, let’s think about what ‘the science’ (that’s academic peer-reviewed research) tells us about what happens when we learn to read and spell. Without a doubt, the vast body of international research over the past 40+ years indicates that the best way to teach a child to read is by systematic synthetic phonics or SSP (1). This is reflected in the findings of the National Reading Panel 2000 (2) and the Rose Review of 2006 (3).

Systematic refers to the fact that the alphabetic code, the concepts associated with using it and the skills that children need, should be taught in a structured and cumulative sequence that starts with the simplest elements and gradually works through to more advanced ones.

Synthetic refers to the fact that we consider reading and spelling in the context of the synthesis or creation of words from their smallest building blocks. For the spoken word the building blocks are the speech sounds called phonemes, and for the written word the building blocks are the letters (or combinations of letters) called graphemes.

Phonics is concerned with the relationship between phonemes and graphemes. Written language is often described as an ‘alphabetic code’ that has to be cracked to read and spell. Crucially, research tells us that children need to be taught this by direct instruction. They cannot simply pick the code up themselves, even by exposure to lots and lots of words, text and books, as previously thought.

But reading is not just phonics, it is much more than that. In 1986 Gough and Tunmer published their model of reading called the Simple View of Reading. They describe reading as the product of decoding and language comprehension. Decoding words involves knowledge of the alphabetic code, as mentioned above, but it also involves some key phonemic skills. Often referred to as ‘phonemic awareness’, this is awareness of the individual sounds or phonemes in words and includes being able to discriminate or hear the difference between them, being able to blend them into spoken words and to be able to segment words into their sounds. Pupils use a combination of code knowledge and phonemic skills when decoding words.

To understand spoken language, the child has to have a good and continuously expanding vocabulary and an awareness of language structure – how words are put together in a certain order to generate meaning. This is supportive of the child’s understanding of what they have read as their understanding of spoken language can be applied to that of written.

The relationship between the two mains strands of the Simple View of Reading is self-supportive. As the pupil’s ability to accurately decode increases, so does their fluency and they are able to access texts with more complex language structures and vocabulary. In turn they learn more about language, extend their vocabulary and increase their fluency. This supports the development of reading pace and prosody – the ability to read with expression, appropriate intonation, rhythm and emphasis.

However, at the point of starting to learn to read, the number of words a pupil can decode accurately is too limited to broaden their vocabulary. At this point, their understanding of language should be developed through a rich diet of listening and speaking activities, vocabulary work, listening to texts read to them and access to a rich and relevant curriculum, all whilst they are taught to decode through phonics.

Actually, there is a very small percentage of children who do seem to pick up reading easily and often before they go to school. Nancy Young trawled the research and created a famous infographic, ‘The Ladder of Reading and Writing’, that looks at the population of children in terms of learning to read and spell. (4) We can see that 95% benefit from structured literacy instruction. (You can read Nancy’s thorough explanation of the term structured literacy on her website.) The pupils we work with are most likely to be in the red section at the bottom of the ladder and is the case of students in special schools are likely to be in the red section below the writing. Our pupils with SEN most definitely need structured literacy instruction.

With many thanks to Nancy Young for permission to use her infographic

Despite this, I am frequently asked the following questions: “Is SSP the way to teach all children with SEND to read? Do children with different ‘labels’ for SEND require different approaches?”

So, let’s examine this a little more closely. Within the red section we find the pupils who have increasing difficulties learning to read and spell. These difficulties are a result of a range of challenges or barriers to learning, including some familiar labels such as dyslexia, hearing impairment, autism and Down’s syndrome. The Ladder of Reading and Writing you see here is actually a ‘hot off the press’ revision launched earlier this month (November 2021). Nancy herself took a conscious decision to not refer to labels in her infographic and suggests it isn’t helpful to think in these terms but to think of an individual pupil’s profile of instructional needs. She writes in her blog about the ladder, “...a child should not be required to have a label denoting a specific category to receive the instruction they need." (6)

So, what does this mean for us as we try to meet the challenge of teaching pupils with SEND to read and write?

There is, of course, an uncomfortable truth we need to acknowledge at this point. Written language and how it works is fixed. The alphabetic code is the same for all of us. We cannot make adjustments or adaptations to the code itself on behalf of our pupils, even though we’d like to. They have to learn about the code and how it works and they have to learn and master some key skills, if they are going to be able to read and spell effectively.

We know that the optimal way to learn this is by SSP so our pupils with SEND should be also taught by this approach.

Indeed, the Reading Framework produced by the DfE in July 2021 supports this view, “Schools are expected to enable access to appropriate phonics instruction for children with complex needs. Under the Equality Act 2010, they are required to make reasonable adjustments to enable pupils with disabilities to have full access to the curriculum and to be able to participate in it.“ (6)

Pupils with SEND as learners

Before we go any further, I need to address a few elephants in the room – commonly held myths about learners with SEND that I hear all the time.

Elephant No. 1: “Phonics doesn’t work for children with x”.

For x substitute - autism, Down’s Syndrome, dyslexia and other labels. Historically, assumptions have been made that phonics is too complex for SEND pupils to navigate, learn and use but actually it can be made accessible to pupils and where it is, they can find success.

In a recent study van Rijthoven reported that “the present findings show that phonics through spelling interventions help children with dyslexia to improve their pseudoword reading, word reading, and spelling levels. On average, the intervention is effective, notwithstanding children’s individual cognitive profiles.” (7)

In children with a hearing impairment, Trezek and Wang found that “students with various degrees of hearing loss benefited equally well from [a] phonics-based reading curriculum” and that “the findings obtained on the Word Reading subtest were considered statistically significant and the effect size was large.” (8)

Research reports success for pupils with a range of SEND in accessing reading through phonics instruction.

Elephant No. 2: “Children with x cannot hear and work with phonemes”.

If some pupils are genuinely unable to access phonemes then the implication is that they have to learn to read visually. There have been numerous published studies, on children with a range of needs that show that this is simply not the case.

Goetz et al looked at this in children with Down’s Syndrome. They report that, “The intervention programme taught children phoneme segmentation and blending skills in the context of learning letter-sounds and working with words in books. … Compared to a waiting group, a group of eight children with DS improved significantly on measures of early literacy skills (letter-sound knowledge, Early Word Recognition) following eight weeks of intervention. The waiting group started to make progress once they received the intervention. Both groups maintained progress on the literacy measures five months after the intervention had finished. The results suggest that children with DS can benefit from structured, phonics-based reading intervention.” (9)

Bailey and Arcuili looked at pupils with and without autism and concluded, “These findings provide evidence that phonological awareness and other subskills support spelling in children with autism spectrum disorders as they do in typically developing children”.

They described the implications for instruction. “The similar spelling profiles exhibited by children with autism spectrum disorders and their typically developing peers suggest that these populations may benefit from literacy instruction that targets the same underpinning subskills”. (10

My experience as a practitioner is that many pupils with SEND do need to be explicitly taught to ‘work with phonemes’. I’m not saying they will find it easy, they may need some teaching strategies that are new to some teachers, and it may take some time, but they can be taught to access phonemes.

Elephant No. 3: “Children with x need something different because they learn differently.”

The idea that there are lots of different ways to learn has been around for a while and was popularised in the 1980s. However, research indicates that people don’t actually learn in different ways. Willingham et al. state that, “scientific support for these theories is lacking”. (11) What we do experience are personal preferences for information to be presented to us in certain ways. But this does not go on to translate into different pathways of learning within the brain. Willingham goes on to state that, “educators' time and energy are better spent on other theories that might aid instruction.”

For children with significant barriers to learning phonics is sufficient to enable them to learn to read. In analysis of multiple research studies on phonics with children with MLD and SLD, Sermier Dessemontet et al. indicate “the overall effect of phonics instruction on the decoding skills of persons with intellectual disability was large.” (12)

Elephant No. 4: “For some children phonics is not enough. To be able to decode words they need something else.”

This is an interesting one, for sure. If there are any additional things that help pupils to learn to decode then, surely, we should be using this with all children. For typically developing pupils we would simply be speeding up the process of learning to read. So, let’s examine what that plus part is. Often this refers to teaching onset - rime. If onset-rime is so crucial to the development of reading and spelling, we would expect difficulties in this area to be a predictor of future reading difficulties. Nation and Hulme found that, “phonemic segmentation was an excellent predictor of reading and spelling ability, onset-rime segmentation was not.” (13)

Guedens and Sandra found that “children did not treat onsets and rimes as cohesive units of the syllable in tasks tapping explicit awareness.” In their studyFour experiments failed to support the relevance of the onset–rime distinction in this domain [phonemic awareness].” (14)

Elephant No. 5: “Children with x are visual learners so learning ‘whole words’ is best for them”.

“It is simply not true that there are hundreds of ways to learn to read… when it comes to reading we all have roughly the same brain that imposes the same constraints and the same learning sequence.” Dr. Stanislas Dehaene (15)

Let’s do a thought experiment. Read this word out loud…


Beguiling, isn’t it. You just looked at it, knew it and apparently instantaneously read it out loud. Competent adult readers read like this and this is what we want for our pupils. Intuitively we feel that we ‘look’ and ‘say’.

Now try reading this word…


Not quite the same experience. You were able to read it relatively quickly but more consciously thought about graphemes, syllables, phonemes and phoneme strings. (It's a fruit bat by the way.)

What’s going on?

The pathway involved within the brain is increasingly well known thanks to research. It is one that enables us, as competent adult readers, to read the 20-30,000 words that we know, apparently instantaneously. It also allows us to read words we have never seen before, also relatively quickly.

Although initially visual, the pathway is primarily a sound or phoneme based one with storage in phonological long-term memory. Making connections between phonemes and graphemes through phonics teaching supports learning to read via this pathway. It is also possible to learn to recognize words visually as whole words or shapes. So, let’s compare the two possible routes.

If we learn words via the visual route they are stored as images in long term visual memory. Storage capacity is limited so the number of words a child can recognize is limited and may be severely limited for children with SEND.

Words learnt via phonics are stored in long term phonological memory. Storage capacity for words via this phonological route is, as far as we know, huge so there is potentially no limit to the number of words that can be learnt.

In addition to this, the visual pathway does not provide the child with the flexibility of using what they already know about words to read new, unknown words when they meet them. The phonological route includes a process called orthographic mapping that overlays graphemes on the phonemes (16) and enables the child to access phoneme strings which can be used to work out unknown words (17).

If we look some studies relating to specific types of learners, Trembath (18) found ‘no evidence of a prominent visual learning style in children with ASD,’ while Cologon (19) found that “for children with Down’s syndrome: Sight-word learning on its own is insufficient for reading development and teaching with this approach alone is contrary to current evidence-based practices in literacy instruction.”

So, phonics is the best way to be taught to read and spell. Indeed, the DfE Reading Framework states that “SSP, rather than a whole-word approach, provides children with moderate to severe and complex needs the best opportunity to gain functional literacy.” (6)

The question we need to focus on then is not ‘what do we teach our pupils with SEND?’ but ‘how to we make it accessible to pupils with a range of SEND and instructional needs?

The DfE Reading Framework outlines the requirements for instruction via SSP in general terms but also looks at the specifics for pupils with moderate to severe or complex needs. For our learners with SEND to access phonics instruction many conventional materials may require some adaptation and modification.

Characteristics of Phonics Instruction for Pupils with SEND

All phonics programmes should have a good scope, covering all the concepts, skills and knowledge that children need to become good readers and spellers.

Instruction should follow a logical sequence that takes the pupil from simple aspects of the code (called basic or initial code) through to advanced aspects of the code (called, not unsurprisingly, advanced code).

Progression through the programme should be incremental and cumulative so nothing taught is ever left behind and there is no redundancy.

At the time of writing, I can find no research that specifically looks at the impact of spaced practice and interleaved learning on pupils with SEND but this is an interesting avenue to explore.

Children with SEND should be able to work through the programme at a pace that is appropriate to their individual needs. In mainstream schools, during initial instruction the expectation is that children will complete phonics within 2-3 years. This will not be the case for children with SEND and it may take considerably longer. We need to be prepared for the long haul.

Children should have access to daily teaching sessions that focus on both reading and spelling. Reading and spelling have been described as two sides of the same coin. Reading is decoding and spelling is encoding, and programmes should teach reading and spelling in tandem.

The phonic approach should be embedded across the curriculum and across the school. It is beneficial for all staff to be trained in at least basic phonics and be confident to use this approach to support pupils with reading and spelling in any and all subjects.

The length of lessons may vary, according to the pupils’ needs. For some of our more complex children with SEND we may be looking at very short window of engagement, but for others we may be able to work with them for longer. For most SEND pupils we will need to start with shortish sessions and gradually build up to longer ones until we are delivering the most literacy instruction that we can.

Children need access to lessons that are impactful and pacey. In this sense pacey does not mean a quick delivery with expectation of a speedy response. It relates to presenting a good range of time-limited activities matched to their capacity to attend, maintain focus and engagement. The reality is that pupils do lots of very short activities. Each activity may only contain a few task items before they move on to the next. Within these activities, pupils should not be rushed and should be given plenty of time to process information and respond to the task.

Pupils with SEND benefit from the inclusion of instructional routines that become quickly established and familiar, with a recognizable routine to lessons. A consistent approach to the way specific tasks are carried out and the way materials are presented is also beneficial. In a similar way, teacher dialogue or the patter associated with a task should be consistent and use language that is simple and easy to understand.

Teaching Resources and Materials

The design of the teaching resources we use with children with SEND needs some consideration.

As teachers, we are conditioned to choose teaching materials that are as attractive and appealing as possible with pictures for illustration, jaunty formats and wacky fonts. In reality, many pupils with SEND can be overwhelmed by this, benefiting from materials that are simply designed, are linear in format and easy to follow, without unnecessary and distracting pictures or illustrations.

We know that children with SEND require much overlearning. That means they need to have multiple opportunities to learn new pieces of information, skills or concepts. They need lots and lots of practise in working with them and lots and lots of opportunities to apply what they know or use a skill. In terms of phonics, this overlearning should be at the code, word, phrase, sentence and text level.

Because of this requirement for overlearning, it is important that there is a good variety of resources to work on each aspect of instruction at each stage so lessons do not become stale.

We also know that pupils with SEND will need to work on phonics for a longer period than peers and so we should make sure the resources we use are age appropriate.

The teaching strategies used should be simple and tasks offered with presentational consistency. Splitting instruction into smaller steps and scaffolding tasks benefits all children with SEND.

Whatever phonics programme you use in your school, it is important to maintain fidelity. This should include the provision of additional ‘keep up’ sessions using materials from the programme. As soon as pupils are identified as having difficulties then they can be provided with additional opportunities to learn and practice what they are working on in their main class phonics session. Pupils may dip in and out of support of this nature at different times, although many may need this on an on-going basis.

A programme may need to be further adapted to make it accessible for pupils with moderate to severe and complex needs including those with significant physical disabilities, pupils with SLCN, those with severe autism and pupils who are pre- and non-verbal. In an ideal world all phonics programmes would be accessible to pupils with this level of need, but the reality is that this is not the case. Pupils with SEND may need teaching strategies that are new to mainstream teachers e.g. use of symbols or visual place-markers and schools should seek appropriate training to support this. For this reason, pupils with severe and complex needs who are placed in mainstream schools my require parallel intensive intervention using a purpose-built programme.

Final thoughts

The important question for teachers is not whether or not we use phonics to teach our pupils with SEND to read but how we make phonics accessible for for them, regardless of any label. Rather than talking about SSP, we should perhaps be talking about ASSP - accessible systematic synthetic phonics and how we can realise the aim of teaching reading and spelling to the majority of our learners, even those with severe and complex needs.


1. Linnea C. Ehri, Simone R. Nunes, Steven A. Stahl Dale M. Willows (2001) Systematic Phonics Instruction Helps Students Learn to Read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s Meta-Analysis Review of Educational Research

2. National Reading Panel (2000) Teaching Children to Read An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction

3. Independent review of the teaching of early reading (2006) Jim Rose Dept for Education and Skills

4. The Ladder of Reading and Writing (2012/2021) Nancy Young


5. My ladder of reading and writing - a synopsis of the update! (2021) Nancy Young


6. The reading framework - teaching the foundations of literacy (2021) Dept of Education

7. van Rijthoven R, Kleemans T, Segers E and Verhoeven L (2021) Response to Phonics through Spelling Intervention in Children with Dyslexia Reading and Writing Quarterly Overcoming Learning Difficulties Volume 37

8. Trezek B J and Wang Y (2006) Implications of utilizing a phonics-based reading curriculum with children who are deaf or hard of hearing The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 11(2), 202-213

9. Goetz K, Hulme C, Brigstocke S, Carroll J M, Nasir L and Snowling M (2008) Training reading and phoneme awareness skills in children with Down syndrome Reading and Writing 21, 395–412

10 Bailey B and Arcuili J (2018) Subskills associated with spelling ability in children with and without autism spectrum disorder Autism and Developmental Language Impairments

11. Willingham D T, Hughes E M and Dobolyi D G (2015) The Scientific Status of Learning Styles Theories Teaching of Psychology 42(3):266-271

12. Sermier Dessemontet R, Martinet C, de Chambrier A-F, Martini-Willemin B-M and Audrin C (2019) A meta-analysis on the effectiveness of phonics instruction for teaching decoding skills to students with intellectual disability Educational Research Review 26(4)

13. Hulme C, Hatcher P J, Nation K and Brown A (2002) Phoneme awareness is a better predictor of early reading skill than onset-rime awareness Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 82(1), 2-28

14. Geudens A and Sandra D (2003) Beyond implicit phonological knowledge: No support for an onset-rime structure in children’s explicit phonological awareness Journal of Memory and Language, 49(2), 157-182

15. Dehaene S (2009) Reading in the Brain, Penguin Books

16. Ehri L C (2013) Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning Scientific Studies of Reading 18(1), 5-21

17 Share D L (1995) Phonological Recoding and Self-Teaching: sine qua non of sine acquisition Cognition 55(2), 151-218

18 Trembath D, Vivanti G, Iacono T and Dissanayake C (2015) Accurate or Assumed: Visual Learning in Children with ASD Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 45, 3276-3287

19 Cologon K (2013) Debunking myths: Reading development in children with Down Syndrome Australian Journal of Teacher Education 38(3)

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