Helping pupils with special needs access phonics

pupil special needs, education special needs
© Jennifer Russell

A flexible approach is key to ensure the teaching of phonics can be personalised for children with special educational needs, says Katrina Cochrane, at Lexplore Analytics

According to the British Dyslexia Association, a quarter of children are unable to successfully learn to read when phonics is the only method taught.

It is particularly difficult for children with special educational needs (SEN) to gain literacy skills through phonics-based programmes alone.

The government’s recently published list of validated systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programmes is designed to help teachers find effective schemes to support their pupils’ reading progress. But alternatives must be considered to help pupils with SEN benefit fully from phonics-based teaching.

There are additional strategies that schools can introduce alongside phonics which will help children with dyslexia and other special needs develop literacy skills.

Engage all the senses

Knowledge of the alphabet is vital for helping children understand letter names, sequencing and the distinction between the sounds of vowels and consonants. But auditory or processing difficulties can make it hard for some children to differentiate between letters such as K and Q or X and S, for example.

Making phonetic teaching multi-sensory can help.

The ‘see it, say it, touch it’ approach involves a child identifying a letter by sight, saying it out loud and then tracing it with their finger. This helps them understand the physical representation of a letter, how it sounds and how it should be written as they learn.

Wooden or plastic letters can be used to increase the multi-sensory experience for children with special needs and short bursts of practice every day will help to reinforce new knowledge and reading skills.

Demonstrate good reading behaviour

Another effective strategy is to model reading behaviour. Simply demonstrating and encouraging a child to move a finger from left to right on a page can help them keep track of text, particularly if they have visual or processing difficulties.

When reading to a pupil, modelling expression with your voice will start to build their understanding of the principles of punctuation too, important grounding for moving on to reading larger texts.

Use rhymes and phrases

Building vocabulary with non-phonetic words can be a challenge, particularly for pupils with dyslexia, but there are effective ways to address this.

Take the word ‘said’, which is not phonic. You can help a child remember how to read it by reciting a rhyme or introducing a mnemonic phrase to represent the individual letters – Sally Anne is Dizzy, for example. Encouraging them to say it and trace over it with their finger will embed the learning further and asking them to write it from memory with their eyes shut is a fun way to build motor memory.

Uncover specific reading difficulties

Accurate assessment is crucial for shaping a successful reading intervention and technology can help schools to pinpoint the exact issues holding children back.

One tool, Lexplore Analytics, tracks a child’s eye movements whilst they read a piece of text out loud and then silently from a screen, followed by a set of verbal comprehension questions.

Digital assessments such as this can make the testing process enjoyable for children with additional needs and teachers gain insight that helps them pinpoint the specific areas of reading that are causing issues. Knowing what letters a child gets stuck on, words they find complicated, or whole sentences they struggle to decode makes it easier to put the right support in place to improve literacy skills.

Foundations for literacy

A successful whole-school literacy strategy needs to include activities that support children with SEN in developing:

  • Speech sound awareness – the ability to split spoken words into their individual sounds ie splitting the word leg into its individual letter sounds l-e-g
  • Knowledge of the letters in the alphabet
  • The ability to map the sound of a letter or letters to their written form

Research has shown that knowledge of orthography (how words are written) and morphemes (the smallest grammatical unit of speech) should be taught alongside phonics from an early age too. This helps children learn to simultaneously process phonemic, morphemic and orthographic units in words.

Used with a group of dyslexic 10 and 11 year-olds in one study, this approach resulted in an increase of 2 standard deviation score points in just 20 lessons.

Phonics are not the only pathway to helping children with special educational needs develop literacy skills.

Taking a flexible, whole-school approach can be an effective way to build children’s confidence and lay the firm foundations for a life-long love of reading.


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