Nicola Hankey on making literacy fun for children with SEN.

Every SENDCo knows that literacy can be key to learning. But it can enrich the learning experience of children with special needs in a much more fundamental way too. 

Developing children’s literacy skills can boost their imagination and creativity and help build the critical vocabulary they need to read, write and communicate – as well as encouraging a life-long love of a good book. 

One effective strategy to develop the foundations for literacy in a fun way for children with special needs and disabilities is based on three Ms – Music, Movement and Measurement. I want to share some ideas for taking this approach with you.

M for music
Bringing music into the classroom is a helpful way to engage children who have additional needs such as autism or ADHD in what they are learning. It can support children with SEND to develop their written and spoken language too. 

Rhymes and songs can be used to build the vocabulary pupils need to access the curriculum and make progress and provides a wonderful opportunity to explore different cultures and traditions. 

The format of a song allows you to cut long phrases into bite-sized pieces in a way that may not be as simple to do with written text without losing the meaning. One good example is the song about going on a car journey and spotting different things along the way, such as trees and flowers, farm animals and vehicles. As the song progresses, the list of items the pupils sing about gets longer. This activity can help to build children’s memory skills in a relaxed, fun way. You could even create different settings for the song to increase children’s interest, such as the African plains or the Antarctic.  

Another approach is to choose a song for everyone to sing and write or project it onto a white board. Allocate a different note on the musical scale to each word depending on its starting letter or phonetic sound, then encourage pupils to sing the notes together. This will make it easier for them to connect the spoken and written forms of the words and join them up to eventually sing the whole song. 

Comprehension activities can be developed using a song as a core piece too. This can give reluctant readers the confidence to develop inferential as well as literal comprehension skills.

Making lesson musical can ease pressure on children, both with and without special needs, to gain and retain knowledge. The impact on self-esteem and wellbeing can be very positive and what emerges is the pure joy of the activity with the learning often happening without the children even knowing it.

M for movement
There’s nothing more satisfying than planning a lesson that pupils really enjoy. Incorporating some active learning techniques into the plan can be a great way to achieve this and get children moving. This is particularly important for children with conditions such as hyper-mobility or ADHD as it can promote engagement and give children the chance to positively channel energy whilst they learn.

Songs that include actions such as stamping and clapping often go down well with pupils who have additional needs and they can be either inside or outside of the classroom. With active and kinaesthetic learning, you can help to embed what’s being taught while creating opportunities for fun.  

You could inspire learning about Florence Nightingale through a poem or song, for example, or include rhythmic dance in a project on the Tudors. The use of rhymes and songs which include physical activity can increase a child’s familiarity and understanding of key literacy skills such as syllable structure and word stress. 

It can also be a great way to support children’s emotional literacy. You could ask them to think about how the rhythm and speed of a song makes them feel. This will help them hear how tempo and tone can reflect emotions too, adding further enjoyment to reading.

M for measurement
Whether you add more music, movement or both into the literacy curriculum, it is critical that you can get a clear picture of the impact the changes have on children with SEND, so the third M is for measurement to move forwards. 

At Ludworth, we assess reading with a piece of software from Lexplore Analytics which has been developed to track a child’s eye movements as they read. It gathers information such as how long the eyes rest on a word, and how they move through the text when a child reads out loud and silently. We’ve found this a much less stressful way to assess the reading ability of pupils with SEND than a pen and paper test. 

Using an online tool means we can benchmark a child’s reading ability in just a few minutes too, allowing teachers to identify which aspects of literacy children are struggling with and flag the early signs of conditions such as dyslexia, which can then be explored and supported.

Children are far less likely to forget a lesson they have enjoyed. Could a focus on music and movement enhance the literacy skills of children with SEND in your school?

Nicola Hankey
Author: Nicola Hankey

Nicola Hankey
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Nicola Hankey BEd Hons, NPQH, NASENCO is a teacher and SEND co-ordinator at Ludworth Primary School.
Music lead at the school is Charlotte Baines



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