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How do we teach literacy to children with multiple moderate or complex access needs?

Anyone who works in education knows that literacy underpins learning in other areas of the curriculum. Strong reading and writing skills allow pupils to access subject specific language and explain their ideas and knowledge clearly.

We also know that synthetic phonics is accepted as the most successful way to teach early reading and writing, but what if your pupil’s access needs mean that synthetic phonics is not going to work for them? How do we meet the needs of pupils with visual/hearing impairments, severe dyslexia, or those who have suffered with glue ear and as a result, have intermittent and inconsistent receptive language input? It is worth considering how individual schools or local authorities train teachers on how to support pupils who can’t access phonics in the traditional way.

There are obvious strategies that come to mind and whose roots lay firmly in good early years practice. These include:

- A multi-sensory approach to phonics (using touch, sound and sight to build a rich understanding of the sound/grapheme)

- Play based approach- building games and fun tasks into lessons is motivating for young children and helps them to explore fear around performance.

- Repetition of songs, rhymes and stories that help children to learn through familiarity and exposure.

These would certainly be very helpful for some pupils with mild to moderate difficulties or those who have developmentally immature literacy skills. But sometimes these may not be enough to support children with very complex or multiple access restrictions. It isn’t fair for us to assume as teachers that these pupils may never read and de-prioritise literacy but nor is it purposeful for the pupil to be exposed to synthetic phonics if that method is not going to work for them.

Flexibility around teaching phonics is key-of course it helps to have a whole-school approach that works for the majority of pupils’ but you also need some other options in your arsenal to allow you to offer access for more complicated pupils.

What can you consider instead:

- Whole word reading schemes such as See and Learn help children to work on whole word learning through symbols and writing.

- Specific programmes that are targeted at certain groups of learners such as those with dyslexia or Braille for the visually impaired.

- Ann Sullivan’s Phonics for Pupils with Special Educational Needs

- Reading and Writing the Four Blocks Way by Erickson and Koppenhaver

Among your search for the right literacy system, it is important to consider the language development pyramid. Now, while we know language development is not linear and most typically developing children will be exposed to synthetic phonics before they reach fluency in their verbal speech, it’s still important to consider where your pupils are on this pyramid, and whether targeted literacy programmes are even appropriate at this stage. Don’t feel pressured into pursuing this route for a pupil just because their peers are doing it.

Before you undertake any of these, remember that pupils need opportunities to continue their linguistic development alongside the introduction of phonics/literacy programmes.

Consider this; if a pupil is developmentally presenting as having the communication and literacy skills of a three-year-old, at the age of seven, then you need to go back to basics and cover all those EYFS statements before you tackle literacy specific teaching. Always be guided by the child, “meet them where they are”, and try to focus on developing a life-long love of reading rather than meeting milestones.


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