Can all children learn to read?


Ann Sullivan looks at reading capabilities in children

Whenever asked a question are you, like me, secretly hoping that the answer will be a simple one making things crystal clear? If so, I think you might be pleasantly surprised at the answer to the question in the title.

Learning a skill for life

So, can all children learn to read? By ‘all children’ we are, of course, really thinking about our pupils with SEN who may struggle to acquire this vital life skill. Within the field of SEN, however, this question may mean different things to different people. A person’s perception of what SEN is varies greatly depending on their experience and their situation.

A mainstream teacher may view that a child who isn’t working at age related expectations has SEN. 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 as well as reading. For this teacher the question may read as, ‘Can we teach all our children who show delayed reading acquisition to read, including those with sensory impairment or dyslexia?’

A teacher in a special school may view things very differently.

They inhabit a world where children have complex needs that impact on access to the curriculum to such an extent that the curriculum itself requires significant adaptation and modification. For this teacher the question may read as, ‘Can we enable all our children to access reading instruction and find success?’

Finding the answer

The answer may be strikingly similar for both teachers. Let’s start by thinking about what the evidence from academic and educational research tells us about how we learn to read.

An increase in the number of studies and the depth and range of research over the last 30 years, coupled with advances in technology, such as MRI scanning, has placed us in a much better position to say, with some certainty, how we learn to read at the ‘brain level’. The neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, in his book Reading in the Brain, states, “It simply is 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.” The insights research gives us points to the best way to teach children to read, all children. Without a doubt, they all benefit from explicit instruction using a systematic, synthetic phonics approach (SSP), although some children will find it easier than others.

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

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

Additional challenges

Now, let’s think about those children who have additional needs and learning challenges. According to the DfE census data, January 2020, 3.3% of the UK pupil population have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). In addition to these pupils, a further 12.1% receive SEN Support. Not all of these pupils will have difficulties with reading, but many will. This total of 15.4% of the pupil population corresponds rather nicely to the red section on Nancy Young’s ladder. As Nancy states, these children, including those with dyslexia, require code-based (phonics) explicit, systematic, sequential, diagnostic instruction. The majority of these children are educated in mainstream schools, with only 0.02% of children placed in special schools.

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, SSP is crucial.

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

There has been much debate around the idea of ‘reading readiness’ which suggests there are prerequisites 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 supported by an adult who reads out loud for them. Learning to read, unlike learning oral language, is not a biologically primary process and needs to be taught. With the ‘learn to read by osmosis’ approach many pupils were doomed to fail and, when they did, it was easy to classify them 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 (awareness of spoken words, language patterns, syllables and speech sounds in words) are important in learning to read and in reading itself. So are good phonological and phonemic skills a prerequisite of learning to read? Actually studies show that the very act of teaching the child to read using SSP teaches the child the phonemic skills they need to become good at decoding text.

This ‘reading readiness’ debate focused on typically developing children in mainstream schools rather than those 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?

We know we can teach phonemic awareness in the context of instruction, but for reading to be possible children also need to be able to:

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

• recognise, identify, differentiate between, process, remember and recall visual information, specifically letter forms.

The Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer 2015) describes the relationship between decoding and understanding spoken language in developing reading and integrates the two.

It tells us that children 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.

Reading together

If we view these as a set of criteria, we can see that the majority of the 0.02% of children with complex needs fulfil them and with good quality structured reading instruction can develop reading and literacy skills. Pupils with autism, SLCN, physical disabilities, SLD and sensory needs can all access phonics if presented in the right way. The pace at which these pupils work through the content may be much slower than peers and a good deal of supported retrieval, practice and application (repetition and overlearning) may be required. Materials, activities and resources may need to be adapted and possibly personalised.

Some pupils may require alternative communication strategies to access the work and enable them to respond to it. If the right adaptations and modifications are made, even these complex pupils can make progress and achieve.

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

20202, 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, would not meet the criteria suggested and so may find it difficult to access the written word. Teachers, in consultation with parents/carers, need to consider whether teaching reading is a realistic goal for this very small group 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 the initial question is surprisingly simple after all. It’s ‘yes’ (with the exception of a very small number of pupils with PMLD).

The ability to read is an important part of accessing and participating in the world around us. The majority of children, including those with complex and multiple needs, can learn to read if instruction is appropriate, not just SSP but ASSP – accessible, systematic, synthetic phonics.

Ann Sullivan
Author: Ann Sullivan

Ann Sullivan
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Ann has been a SENCO, advisory teacher and SLE. Her seven book series: Phonics for Pupils with Special Educational Needs.

Twitter       @PhonicsforSEN
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