What is literacy for children who do not learn to read and write? Drawing on a recent study, Dr Lyn Layton calls for a radical reinterpretation of what is meant by literacy, arguing that we should prepare all teachers to recognise a broad interpretation of literacy that is in line with the diverse needs and activities of learners

The Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) is calling for fresh opportunities for teaching professionals to access training so that they can personalise their teaching approaches in order to improve progression for every learner. Furthermore, the TDA specifically identifies a need for professional development for those working with children and young people who have special educational needs (SENCO Update, April and May, 2007). The thrust of the commitment to SEN seems to be towards developing the capacity of mainstream classrooms to provide appropriately for learners with diverse, sometimes significant, needs, particularly so that parents and carers can be confident in whatever educational placements they select for their children. Thus, the professional development of SENCOs in all settings will be crucial to ensure their competence to support, and advise on, decisions concerning learners with the full range of difficulties and disabilities. All teaching professionals, including SENCOs, are concerned about the development of literacy skills of children and young people whose progress in these domains is compromised, recognising that involvement in mainstream society may be restricted by limited facilities for reading and writing, as these skills are conventionally understood. It is therefore appropriate to consider how the focus of literacy teaching could change in order to promote the meaningful participation in a literate society, of all people. Reporting on the outcomes of a study conducted about three years ago, I will be proposing a broader interpretation for the focus of literacy teaching and learning, which inevitably has implications for the training of teaching professionals.

Developing an inclusive literacy curriculum

Between October 2004 and December 2005 a team of researchers from the universities of Birmingham and Plymouth and Manchester Metropolitan University investigated literacy learning and teaching in relation to pupils and students with severe learning difficulties (SLD). The aims of the study centred on questioning concepts of literacy that preclude people who do not acquire the skills to engage independently with print (‘reading and writing’), looking instead for activities and approaches that recognise literacy in alternative forms. Research activity included desk-based research to discover what was currently available to support alternatives to print-based literacy, and fieldwork involving observations of literacy teaching and learning as well as interviews with teaching professionals. Additionally, discussion activities with the teachers and their colleagues probed the sorts of conceptual frameworks that these professionals use to make the judgements that inform their teaching approaches.

Collecting data on teaching literacy to pupils and students with SLD

Thirty-five special schools in the Midlands, Greater Manchester and the south-west of England were involved in the fieldwork, where 61 teachers were interviewed about the meaning of literacy for their learners as well as their own training or preparation to teach literacy to children and young people with severe learning difficulties. They were also encouraged to elaborate on the literacy sessions that had been observed by the researchers, explaining the purpose of different activities and to comment on learners’ responses. In focus groups, teaching professionals debated what literacy encompasses and whether literacy is distinct from communication, especially in relation to their pupils and students; they also were asked to focus on how far phonics teaching, for example, is relevant to their learners. In some schools documents – teaching plans and individual education plans for example – relating to teaching literacy were made available to researchers to provide further insights.


The detailed findings are reported elsewhere (Lacey, Layton, Miller, Goldbart and Lawson, in press) but some are particularly relevant to recent proposals and initiatives and are therefore worth presenting and discussing here. For example, the teaching of phonics has assumed renewed importance following the Rose Review (Rose, 2006), with its recommendations to use a synthetic phonics approach. Being able to make phonic connections, that is, to link written-down letters and letter-patterns with individual elements of continuous speech (phonemes), to synthesise them into spoken words and to link those words with concepts, is the key to independent reading. This process clearly draws on a host of psycholinguistic skills, for example, explicit phonological awareness whereby a speaker-hearer can focus on, and make judgements about, the sounds of spoken language. Furthermore, it calls for a fully functioning working memory, to store sounds while phonic connections are being made. Importantly, it is also premised on the expectation that the apprentice reader has a store or lexicon of words that label concepts so that, once the phonic connections have been made, the resulting spoken word has meaning for him or her. We might reasonably expect that some or all of the skills and knowledge involved in using phonics to extract meaning from printed or written symbols could be compromised in learners with SLD. Observations of lessons in our study (usually, but not always, literacy hour sessions) showed that many teachers had a firm commitment to teaching phonics in some form although the emphasis given to this and other activities associated with traditional orthography (the conventional way of representing meaning in print) varied from one setting to another. Most lessons would feature one-letter-one-sound, as would be experienced by typically-developing Foundation and Reception learners. Occasionally children in the classes we observed appeared to be responding well to these activities. For example, one Key Stage 3 child with autistic spectrum difficulties entered into the spirit of the ‘o’ session when, afterwards, during the drinks break he told his friend, ‘Look! I’ve got an orange, ‘o’’! However, many more children, especially those with very limited language or communication skills, did not appear to be gaining any benefits from the phonic activities. We asked teachers to elaborate on the teaching of phonics, following these observations, in order to explain how they thought letter-sound activities might contribute to children’s learning when it was conceded that the vast majority of children in these settings would not progress to conventional reading. Many spoke of the advantage that exposure to alphabetic letters gave when teaching a social sight vocabulary. For these teachers, the functional aspect of literacy assumed significance. They observed that being able to go to a supermarket and, unaided, select tins and packets by ‘reading’ the initial letter on the package, afforded a degree of the sort of independence which literacy offers. Other teachers noted that focusing on the sounds of letters reinforced therapy objectives for promoting speech. However, when challenged, these professionals acknowledged that phonics teaching and learning did not enable the majority of children to decode written-down words independently. We therefore asked them to consider how far through children’s school careers they would persist with teaching children to read, with the implication that this must include letter-sound correspondences. Having to consider the question generated a great deal of ambiguity and some concern: alongside the recognition that long-term teaching of phonics was unlikely to produce readers in the conventional sense, there was an overwhelming commitment to ‘doing one’s best’ for every child; a reluctance to abandon these activities while there was any chance that a child could develop phonics skills and put them to the intended use. One respondent captured the essence of a number of arguments when she said:

‘There comes a point when I believe they are not going to read and write in the traditional sense. Then we need to be prepared to depart from the traditional way of doing things.’

While this professional indicated her willingness to broaden her interpretation of what literacy, and the skills that serve it, might involve, we had evidence, gathered at an earlier stage of the project that teachers might not be equipped to plan, teach and evaluate approaches relating to non-traditional models of literacy. We had asked participating teachers about their training for teaching literacy to pupils and students with SLD. Many had gained ideas for activities from courses aimed at training in PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) and TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related handicapped CHildren). Other ideas had been picked up from literacy-focused courses about adaptations of the literacy hour or from literacy coordinators. Teachers indicated a piecemeal approach to the various interpretations of literacy, as when one teacher said she would ‘pluck elements from national curriculum areas and IEP areas’ and another that she got her ideas from ‘working with the children – what turns them on.’ Several practitioners said that they looked at published resources to inform their teaching, but without a firm understanding of the direction in which their pupils might be progressing. In sum, it appeared that there was no overarching set of principles to guide teaching and learning, beyond that which is available for typically-developing learners and, as we have seen, for these –  the majority of pupils – the ultimate aim is the acquisition of decoding skills for accessing the meaning of print literacy.

What are the implications of these findings for teaching literacy?

As we analysed the findings of our study and examined related evidence from other research and practice we became convinced of the need for a framework against which teachers might plan, provide and evaluate literacy teaching in relation to individual learners’ profiles of strengths and needs. The framework should make provision for acquiring non-conventional forms of literacy, that is, forms that do not rely on processing printed or written text or, indeed, that do not make use of language. We recognised that for the framework to be developed we would have to identify what counts as literacy; in other words, we would have to distil and describe the defining elements of literacy in terms of its functions in order to recognise it in other forms. In conjunction with the teaching professionals in our study we struggled to isolate its essential features. We could not reach a consensus, and nor did many of us – practitioners or researchers – feel confident to offer a satisfactory definition of literacy. However, we did reach a measure of agreement around the idea that literacy involves communication but that literacy and communication are not synonymous. Further, it was widely held that literacy must involve an artefact to give some permanence to the communication. The elaboration of our ideas, informed by data from the study and by other research findings, is available elsewhere (Lacey, Layton, Miller, Goldbart and Lawson, in press). The resulting framework is as yet, untested and therefore, unrefined but it is largely based on an existing model that has been subjected to rigorous testing (Kadaverak and Rabidoux, 2004). Both models stress that development is marked by the steadily increasing ability to interact with a partner in a literacy event – and it is argued that ‘literacy events’ are not restricted to exchanges involving books and other conventional print-based materials. Balance and turn-taking in relation to such events are key and accumulating understanding of the function of symbols will indicate further progression. At the most advanced stage teaching focuses on introducing opportunities for the reader to use conventional or non-conventional literacy, independently. Some readers will recognise, in the foregoing brief description, a broad similarity to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) of the Primary Strategy. By monitoring the Areas of Learning and Development of young children, in line with the EYFS, carers and teachers can promote spontaneously emerging skills to ensure progression towards the knowledge, skills and competences that are crucial for acquiring the basics of reading, writing and numeracy. In this, the traditional model of learning, the early skills are seen as the building-blocks of future achievements, for example, fluent, independent reading and writing. Central to the model or framework that emerged in draft form from the study described above are two fundamental propositions which require us to adopt a different perspective on the acquisition of literacy. Firstly, while we concede that print literacy remains the dominant form, it is only one form of literacy. Applying the criteria that emerged in focus groups and other discussions during the study, specifically, that a literacy must involve communication together with a tangible artefact, we were able to identify literacy use through sensory books and talking books and symbolic materials such as objects of reference, life quilts (sample pieces of textile that have associations with different phases of one’s life) and personal history boxes (where objects have similar associations). Information and communication technology (ICT) offers countless opportunities for communication, whereby the literacy-user can access the same sort of information traditionally available from printed texts, through videos, for example. At the same time, we observed young people making their own videos to communicate their understanding of important issues. More simply, photographs and other graphic materials can serve similar purposes. The important aspect of these alternative literacy media is that teachers must recognise that they are forms which can be exploited to achieve the same ends as print literacy if pupils and students are taught appropriately. Secondly, whereas mainstream teaching of typically developing pupils and students is towards the clearly defined goal of independent reading and writing of conventional text, this model proposes that the ultimate level of literacy attainment – in whatever form this takes – may differ from one individual to another. According to this view, achievements, even at the pre-independent level, may be recognised as the literacy itself and not regarded only for their developmental significance. Such a perspective would allow teachers to broaden the application of individuals’ engagement with non-conventional literacy: eg, where learners indicate competence at using photographs to communicate understanding, the focus of teaching might be on creating opportunities for working with on-screen digitalised photographs. Current recommendations for modifying national policies on reading give teaching professionals licence to broaden their interpretation of literacy. For example, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA, 2001, p7) has stated: ‘For pupils with learning difficulties, reading may be interpreted as any activity that leads to the derivation of meanings from visual or tactile representations…’ Published materials, for example, B Squared (2007) have responded to the challenge that alternative interpretations of literacy create. However, the evidence from our study suggested that, if teachers are going to embrace the notion of non-conventional literacy and exploit the materials that can make forms of literacy available to individual learners through personalised learning, their training will need to address rigorously, the principles underlying the acquisition of literacy. Further this should receive attention at both initial teacher training and post-experience professional development levels. Materials and courses for enhancing teachers’ approach to teaching synthetic phonics have been enthusiastically received (for example, the Primary Strategy’s Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics). In the approach which is envisaged in the recommendations emerging from our study, phonics teaching would be embedded only as one strand of literacy teaching, albeit a major strand for most typically-developing learners. With appropriate training teachers would be in the position to assess how phonics teaching would be applied and for what purpose, for individual learners. Further, they would be equipped to decide when phonics teaching is no longer appropriate or how to balance phonics teaching, for example, with approaches for fostering the skills which support the use of other literacy media. In this model the training of SENCOs who may be required to bridge any gaps between a pupil’s or student’s special provision and mainstream teaching, will be a priority. Preparing teachers to make principled pedagogic decisions about literacy is going to require a radical reappraisal of what is meant by literacy; what skills are involved in producing and accessing literacy within and beyond print-based reading and writing, in order to provide guidelines about the content of their knowledge and understanding. During our study we observed and learned about widespread, excellent practice where teachers were developing innovative approaches in order to establish a meaningful literacy for learners with SLD. However, as described above, we also became aware of their uncertainties about how to ensure progression without a clear understanding of what this might mean for individual learners. For that reason we proposed the framework for teaching and learning, referred to earlier, for further analysis and testing. Finally, there is one aspect of the argument which was not highlighted in the research study conducted by my colleagues and myself but which, in my view, should be given fundamental consideration in any attempt to establish a framework for teaching and learning literacy. Whereas we hope and expect that the majority of children will acquire fluent and effective print literacy skills based on being able to encode and decode an alphabetic script we should not ignore the fact that they too can become efficient users of the literacies that have been proposed for their peers with learning difficulties. Therefore it is recommended that preparing all teachers to recognise and teach a broad interpretation of literacy, in line with the diverse abilities and needs of individual learners, should be at the heart of new training and professional development initiatives. It is only when literacy in all its forms is taught in schools and used in wider society that we can claim to be promoting an inclusive literacy.


  • B Squared (2007) B-Squared Assessment (www.bsquaredsen.co.uk) accessed 21.07.07.
  • Kadaverak, J and Rabidoux, P (2004) ‘Interactive to Independent Literacy: A Model for Designing Literacy Goals for Children with Atypical Communication’, Reading and Writing Quarterly, 20, 237- 260.
  • Lacey, P, Layton, L, Miller, C, Goldbart, J, and Lawson, H (in press) ‘What is Literacy for Students Who Do not Learn to Read and Write? Exploring Conventional and Inclusive Literacy’, Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs.
  • QCA (2001) Planning, Teaching and Assessing the Curriculum for Pupils with Learning Difficulties: English. London: Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
  • Rose, J (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading. London: DfES.

Acknowledgements The research described in this article was funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

The research was conducted by Juliet Goldbart (Manchester Metropolitan University); Hazel Lawson (The University of Plymouth), Penny Lacey, Lyn Layton and Carol Miller (The University of Birmingham).