Make reading a habit for children with SEN


Hannah Rix provides valuable advice and guidance.

SEN is an emotive subject for teachers and parents. The ways in which children with SEN learn and engage cannot be compared.

Teaching children with a range of complex needs has demonstrated that one there’s no continuity or consistency with how children learn. Each day can be a whole new teaching and learning experience. Individualised curriculums and differentiation have to be taken to a whole new level and rightly so as each child’s learning style is wonderfully unique.

How do children with SEND learn?

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) conducted a study that shows access to support for these pupils is a ‘postcode lottery’. The level of support they receive is entirely down to the school the child attends.

With over a million children registered as having special educational needs in England, this is not good enough. But empowering teachers and parents with tools and skills to enable better support in the classroom and at home is a step in the right direction.

There’s no simple answer to this question but in my experience children with an SEN often will let you know very quickly what’s working and what isn’t. I’ve found it helpful to have a ‘bag of tricks’ approach when introducing a new book or task with a student. When one activity is sinking, swap it out for another.

Inspire a love of reading.

A multi-sensory approach to learning can be effective for all students but especially those with SEN. These students process information in a different way cognitively as well as physically in some cases.

Start by asking yourself (or the student if it’s appropriate):

  • What type of learner is your child (visual, auditory, verbal, kinaesthetic)?
  • Do they enjoy responsibility and independence with work?
  • What are their hobbies or interests?
  • What are they sensitive to (e.g. loud noises, stuffed animals)?
  • Do they learn best with ‘hands-on’ activities?
  • Who do they work well with?
  • What type of environment are they most comfortable with (e.g. desk, beanbag, outside)?

How can you inspire a love of reading and make it a habit?
Reading is a passion of mine and has been for as long as I can remember. Personally and professionally, I feel it’s one of the most undervalued skills and hobbies to have. For all children it’s a chance to escape from difficulties in their life, engage with the story, empathise with the characters and (most importantly) reflect on their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Unfortunately, some children with SEN can find reading very challenging and almost scary. This is especially prevalent when it comes to phonics (blending and segmenting words) as well as being able to decode the text and comprehend the story. As a teacher, I take these skills very much for granted. For some children reading and understanding the story is a tricky skill to master.

Methods I’ve found helpful with my students:

Enjoying a book together.
  1. Children with SEN, including those with autism, ADHD and dyslexia are often visual learners. During the early stages of reading, I would start with large picture books and discuss the images to support their understanding. Forget about the words on the page and explain to them you’re going to tell the story with the pictures. What’s happening on this page? Who do you think this character is? Where is this set? How are they feeling? How do you know?
  2. If your child is ready to read, scan through the text and see which digraphs (2 letter sounds ‘ea’ and ‘oo’) or trigraphs (3 letter sounds ‘igh’, ‘air’) and sound these out together before reading. Also, underline any complex words that are repeated so you can introduce them but will help the child to remember how to pronounce them later in the text.
  3. Highlight punctuation throughout the story. Some students get very focussed on the words and forget about the full stops and commas. Discussing and modelling the role of these punctuation marks is helpful. When the student comes across the highlighted punctuation mark, it will remind them of what to do.
  4. Treat books like treasure. This is helpful for all children but especially those with SEN. Demonstrating a love for all books and sharing your excitement and respect towards them will influence your student’s opinions of them too.
  5. Model the reading. The best way for students to enjoy the reading experience overall is for you to model how to read in an engaging way so they can practise and also learn from you.
  6. Praise, praise, and praise some more. Celebrating every milestone (no matter how small) with your students is integral to their desire to read more. You can never celebrate your student’s achievements enough.
  7. Offer a variety of books. Some children with SEN have favourite books or stories that they will go to time and time again. To widen their reading circle, introduce a new story and use their ‘favourite’ as a reward for after. Equally, if you feel a book isn’t working, change it. Life’s too short to read books we don’t enjoy!
  8. Talk with parents. Parents are such a great resource when it comes to getting to know what students like or dislike. Ask them what or if they’re reading at home and offer to loan books for holidays and weekends. Books are expensive and libraries are less and less available. To keep that reading habit up, continue and encourage it home.
  9. Build reading into an established routine. James Clear discusses ‘habit stacking’ in his book ‘Atomic Habits’. Essentially, to build a new habit, you slot it into an already established one. I feel this can be applied to every facet of life. My students have a well-established routine. You could share a class story in the afternoon before home time or have ‘time with books’ in the morning before lessons.
  10. Pages don’t mean progress. Forgetting about how far the child has got through the book or how many books they’ve read will not only take the pressure off the student, but it will enable you to focus on their skills in greater detail.
  11. Bring stories to life. Story sacks are great for students who are more kinaesthetic or visual but also very engaging overall. If you’re reading a story about food, bring some sensory items in or even cook meals from the story. Bringing words or actions from the story to life will not only help students understand what’s happening but will also support future references when they come across those words in the future.

To ensure your students have a natural desire to read, we must ensure they’re at the centre of every decision. Tapping into what makes your students feel excited, happy, and enthusiastic as well as understanding their learning style, you’ve got the key to unlocking their reading potential.

Hannah Rix
Author: Hannah Rix

Hannah Rix
+ posts

Hannah Rix is a SEND English teacher and has been teaching in both secondary and SEND schools for over 8 years. This experience led to co-founding Readingmate Ltd. The Readingmate app is an always free resource to help parents develop the love of reading in their children. More information about the Readingmate Ltd


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here