Reading: a voice for minimally verbal children


A lack of speech is not a barrier to reading, says Dr Sharon Arnold

Reading is an such an effective form of communication, but little attention is paid to the potential reading abilities of children with autism who are minimally verbal. Not only is reading important to school life, as it provides access to all other curriculum areas, but reading ability can make all the difference to the level of independence we achieve in adult life.

It’s not so much a lack of care as a lack of capacity. Standard reading tests usually require verbalisation. There are usually words or sentences that the child reads aloud, while the practitioner tracks errors on a scoring sheet of some kind. It’s a quick and simple way of finding out what words a child can read. Of course, this isn’t so simple if a child is minimally verbal, as they will be unable to read words aloud. 

Children who are minimally verbal, when they reach school age, make up around 25-35% of the autistic population, though statistics can vary. In the UK, these children are most likely to be educated in a special school setting. With this in mind, we carried out a survey to find out what kind of reading assessments are available for these children who are unable to access a standard reading test. Seventy special schools across the UK took part by answering questions about their practices relating to reading assessments. 

What we discovered was that just less than half of the schools who participated were using any kind of reading test and the other half were using tests that required verbalisation. Out of these 70 schools, 61 had stated that they taught children with autism who were minimally verbal. This means that practitioners in 87% of these schools had no way of formally knowing if any of their minimally verbal pupils could read or not. It was hardly a surprise, then, that 84% of the practitioners surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with the reading assessments available to them. They agreed that, for children with ASD who were minimally verbal, these methods were not fit for purpose.

Although a lack of speech is an obvious barrier when accessing standard reading assessments, research has shown that it is not a barrier to reading. It will not automatically follow that a child who is unable to speak will be unable to read. To demonstrate this, we involved 103 children and young people from 11 special schools across South Wales in our research. The aim was to test the word recognition and listening comprehension skills of children with autism who are minimally verbal. Word recognition and listening comprehension skills are essential foundational components of reading. 

We took a standard reading test that would usually require verbalisation and presented the assessment in multiple choice format. To help to give us an idea of whether the children were understanding words they recognised, we also made adaptations to the comprehension section of the same test. We tested three groups of learners: children with additional learning needs (ALN) who did not have autism, children with autism and ALN, and children with autism who had ALN and were also minimally verbal.

We used the three groups because we wanted to know if converting the test to a multiple-choice format would just make the test easier. If it did, then it was likely that everyone who took the test would improve their result. We did find that when we compared a pupil’s test result from the standard version of the test to the multiple-choice version there was a tendency for a child’s score to improve. However, the change wasn’t significant for the groups until we looked at the results for the children who were minimally verbal.

From our research, we found that not only could the children who were minimally verbal recognise words, many of them could also understand the meaning of those words. These were the same children who would score a zero in any standard reading test, due to the fact that they couldn’t speak.

When a child is minimally verbal, we usually focus on alternative augmentative communication systems such as sign language or picture exchange communication. These systems have been shown to be highly effective in supporting children’s communication skills. However, as with most systems, there are limitations when we use them in isolation. For example, sign language can be difficult for a child who has poor motor skills. Picture exchange systems will always limit the child to choices between symbols that the supporting adult has selected in advance. Sometimes the symbol to match what the child actually wants, or wants to say, may not be available. We often have no way of knowing that, because the frustrated child is unable to tell us so.

In the article ‘Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover…’ published in SEN magazine, May-June 2022, we were introduced to Paul, a minimally verbal child with autism who inspired this research. Now a young man, Paul (not his real name) can use a digital device to type out whole sentences. Alterations made to Paul’s provision, in response to our discovery that he could read, has meant that Paul is no longer limited to a selection of pictures when trying to ask for things or express his thoughts and feelings. In making the effort to discover Paul’s true reading abilities, we gave him a voice.

What our research told us is that Paul is far from an isolated case. There are many children with autism, who are minimally verbal, whose reading abilities continue to go undiscovered in the classroom.

Schools make use of assessment information in many ways, but one of the most important things they do with the information is to plan future provision. When schools use assessment data to evaluate learners, they use this information to work out how resources should be allocated. If, for example, there is a downward trend in writing, a planned focus of support for the future will be on developing writing skills. It then stands to reason that if a group of children are excluded from an assessment, their needs will go unrepresented in the future. Why would we allocate resources and support to a group of learners we don’t even know exist?

Until we begin to take seriously the possibility that every child in our classroom is a potential reader, regardless of their verbal ability, we will continue to underestimate the potential of these children. When we underestimate a child’s ability to read, we limit opportunities for them to access a full and engaging curriculum in so many ways. We limit their opportunities to learn, we limit their ability to grow. What’s more, when we limit a child’s access to reading (and therefore writing) we limit possibilities for communication, and we take away their voice.

Dr Sharon Arnold

Dr. Sharon Arnold is an improvement partner working with schools that cater to the needs, abilities, and interests of children with Additional Learning Needs (ALN) in South Wales. She is author of the thesis: ‘Exploring Word Recognition and Listening Comprehension Abilities of Children with Autism who are Non-verbal’.


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