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SEN Policy Research Forum Exeter

Why are the arguments that every student should be taught how to read are utopian and totally unhelpful? The case of learners with severe and profound learning disabilities.

by Dr. Lila Kossyvaki, University of Birmingham,


In January 2022, DfE published The reading framework: Teaching the foundations of literacy in which it was stated that Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) (p. 56):

‘provide children with moderate to severe and complex needs the best opportunity to gain functional literacy’.

The document also argues that (p. 57):

‘children with PMLD […] might access alternative activities [to be taught] how letters correspond to sounds within the context of a pre-formal sensory curriculum’.

Finally, and most worryingly, it mentions that (p. 55):

‘consensus is growing among academics and teachers that the best reading instruction for children with SEND is SSP’.


A few initial questions deriving from these quotes are: i. what does functional literacy mean, ii. how possible is it that a reading approach can work for all learners with SEND and iii. how consensus is defined and measured?

Let’s unpack now some of the main characteristics of individuals with severe learning disabilities (SLD) and profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) who are the focus population here.

Individuals with SLD have significant intellectual impairments, often difficulties in mobility, coordination, communication and self-help skills and need support in all areas of the curriculum. Meaningful learning goals for them should  include: problem solving, using money and public transport, valuing self-determination and achieving sexual independence.

Individuals with PMLD, on the other hand, have complex learning needs and  additional significant difficulties such as physical disabilities, sensory impairment or a severe medical condition. They require a high level of adult support, both for their learning needs and also for their personal care. For these pupils, meaningful learning targets are likely to entail fostering communication, engaging meaningfully with others and creating relationships, as well as making choices.

I believe you can already see that teaching most of these pupils how to read can be problematic for practical and also ethical reasons.

The main problems with the evidence the DfE document claims it relies on can be summarised in the  following points (for a more detailed analysis see Imray et al., 2023):

  1. the findings of studies with participants having certain types of SEND cannot apply to all students with SEND,
  2. students having the same diagnosis should not be taught the same things and in the same way ignoring potential existence and severity of learning disabilities,
  3. academic progress should not by definition be superior to any other progress.

It goes without saying, for people who have been engaged in research, that it is bad use, if not abuse, of research to generalise findings to populations which haven’t been included in the study’s sample. For example, findings from studies with participants with dyslexia and ADHD cannot of course apply to all students with SEND. Apparently, the needs of these students and as a result the teaching strategies which should be put in place to support their learning are very different to the needs of students with SLD/PMLD and it is very wrong to treat them all as an homogeneous group.

Additionally, it has been argued (Imray and Colley, 2017) that it is a student’s severity of learning disabilities and not their diagnosis (e.g., ASD, Down Syndrome) which has to define firstly what these students should be taught (curriculum) and secondly how (teaching strategies). It is true, for example, that two people with autism are likely to share some common characteristics such as sensory processing difficulties or a preference for established routines, but how well each one of them will do at school – or more accurately what they have to be taught at school – should not be defined by their diagnosis, rather the severity of their learning disabilities (if any). Therefore, some people with autism will do extremely well academically and they will pursue PhDs and have careers in academia while for others who have additional severe to profound learning disabilities, a different educational pathway should be chosen in order for them to reach their full potential and live lives worth living for.

Last but not least, there are a lot of arguments, mostly in academia which are then passed on in policy documents, that academic attainment should take priority over other skills at school. This can be true for the majority of students but definitely not all. The supporters of these arguments are also often very aphoristic for people who challenge the applicability of their ideas to all students. A typical example is that ‘All children can learn to read’. Yes, this is true especially if some loose definitions of what reading means (i.e., looking at the images of a book) are adopted. However, what is the point in doing this? And more importantly, the teaching of what other skills are we asking teaching staff to leave aside in order to prioritise ‘reading’ and at what cost? Would, for example, recognising the letter ‘m’ or being able to repeat its sound after a teaching staff is likely to make a student with SLD/PMLD a better communicator, more independent or happier?

Closing this piece, I would like to share my serious concerns resulting from observations in special schools in England. The need to follow governmental documents like the one above and the threat of a bad Ofsted inspection outcome in case they don’t, leave no other option to many of these schools but to either focus on meaningful activities for these leaners and call them something else (e.g. English, emergent literacy) or, even worse, engage in reading activities instead of focusing on other learning goals which would improve the quality of their life. Therefore,  although I am a fond supporter of consulting research evidence to shape educational policy, the right type of research should be consulted. It is fully inaccurate to over-generalise findings from participants with one type of SEND to pupils with other types of SEND or even worse to pupils with all types of SEND.  Additionally, we cannot teach all pupils with the same diagnosis the same things as the diagnostic label is only likely to give a few guidelines on how to teach a specific pupil group and not much more. Finally, academic attainment such as reading is not and should not treated as the ultimate goal in any educational system, let alone for pupils with SLD/PMLD for whom learning targets should prioritise even more everyday living skills, communication, relationships and safety.



Imray, P. and Colley, A. (2017) Inclusion is dead: Long live inclusion. London: Taylor & Francis.


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Dr Lila Kossyvaki - looking to the left and smiling

Dr Lila Kossyvaki

Dr Lila Kossyvaki is an Associate Professor in Severe Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities in the Department of Disability, Inclusion and Special Needs (DISN) at the School of Education, University of Birmingham. She has published several peer-reviewed research papers, reports, book chapters and a research monograph. Currently, together with Peter Imray and Mike Sissons are preparing the co-edited book “A Different View of Curriculum and Assessment: for those with profound, complex and severe learning disabilities”, available soon from Routledge. Her research interests include autism, severe and profound learning/intellectual disabilities, school and home-based educational interventions, teacher and parent training and coaching.


















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