Reading Comprehension

Improving reading comprehension for students with special educational needs

By Joanne Starkie

12 Aug 2022

A teacher working with a student on a laptop

What additional support can SEN students receive to help them overcome their barriers and make progress with their reading comprehension?

While many children can, at times, struggle with their reading comprehension, learners with special educational needs face a series of additional challenges in developing their literacy skills and they can find it difficult to understand, process and retain new words and information.

This blog will outline some of the obstacles which prevent SEN students from making significant progress with their reading comprehension. We will discuss the importance of providing effective literacy instruction for SEN students, and explore a range of methods that are proven to be successful in supporting students with special educational needs to improve their reading skills.

What are special educational needs?

A learner is classed as having special educational needs (SEN) if they have a learning difficulty or a disability which makes it more challenging for them to learn in the same way and at the same pace as their peers of the same age. This includes, but is not limited to, conditions such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorders, autism, visual processing disorders and physical disabilities.

The SEND Code of Practice 2014 stipulates all learners have the right to an education that is appropriate for their needs, helps them to fulfil their potential and prepares them for adult life. Schools have an obligation to provide effective measures to support SEN students, but parents can also make a positive contribution to helping children establish healthy reading habits at home.

Although reading comprehension can be a struggle for learners who have certain conditions, teachers, parents and peers can all play a role in supporting SEN students to improve their confidence and develop their reading skills.

Identifying the causes of reading difficulties

Whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, conditions that result in a learner having special education needs can inhibit their ability to read in several ways. This could be due to an issue which directly affects their reading and writing ability, a condition which impacts an SEN student’s ability to concentrate, focus or absorb new information; a behavioural issue which affects their ability to socialise and communicate, a visual processing problem or a physical disability.

While every child is different, there are certain signs which can indicate that a learner may have special educational needs, including not enjoying school, struggling to make progress, and becoming frustrated when they are trying to read and write. Identifying an SEN student’s difficulties as early as possible and implementing effective strategies for teaching reading can significantly increase their level of engagement, support them in overcoming their reading comprehension barriers, improve their confidence when reading, and ultimately help them to progress towards their academic and personal goals.

Why is reading comprehension instruction important for learners with special educational needs?

An SEN student may be dealing with a complex range of emotional and cognitive barriers which are preventing them from progressing both academically and socially. Reading comprehension is a crucial foundation for all learners, and it is undoubtedly a fundamental building block for SEN students in all aspects of their academic progress, as well as the key to developing their confidence, communication skills and relationships with their peers and teachers.

Supporting SEN students to improve their reading comprehension skills also increases the likelihood that they will start reading for pleasure. According to a report by the National Literacy Trust, reading for pleasure can play an instrumental role in improving mental well-being in children in addition to increasing their attainment.

Providing a tailored support programme for SEN students to help them to improve their reading comprehension skills is essential for their overall development both at school and at home.

Effective research-based strategies for helping SEN learners to improve their reading

The Reading Framework Report published by the Department of Education in January 2022 emphasises the value of reading comprehension in preparing SEN students for adult life. The report stipulates how important it is to apply researched-based strategies for learning which consider each SEN student’s individual strengths, weaknesses and reading challenges.

Research broadly indicates that a varied approach is the most effective strategy in helping SEN students not only improve their reading but to also enjoy the process of it and fuel their desire to read for pleasure. Progress should also be measured by quality instead of quantity, based on how well the learner understands the text, rather than how many pages they have read, with regular praise being given to maintain motivation and encourage further progress when reading goals are reached.

It is important to be creative and experiment with different methods to keep reading fresh, interesting and inclusive both at home and in the classroom. This includes ensuring enough time is dedicated to reading for pleasure at home, connecting effectively with SEN students in class, facilitating peer group reading, utilising audio and visual aids, trying out a multisensory approach, and incorporating technology and interactive digital literacy tools into teaching reading to SEN students.

The importance of making time for reading at home

Transforming an SEN student’s perception of reading from being a daunting challenge to an enjoyable pastime can begin at home. Putting time aside on a regular basis to read with a child indicates to them that it is a relaxing and enjoyable activity that is worth dedicating time to outside of school, as well as being a rewarding bonding experience for parents and children.

Find a quiet and comfortable space and take it in turns to read aloud so the student can hear how to pronounce new words and practise intonation. If it is a book with pictures, take time to chat about the images to stimulate their curiosity and encourage them to expand their vocabulary as they describe what they see.

As this blog has already touched upon, reading for pleasure is one of the most effective ways of improving any learner’s literacy skills and embedding a positive and healthy relationship with reading into their daily lives, which, with the right encouragement and support, can last a lifetime. Ultimately, the more time spent reading with them at home in tandem with a robust reading strategy at school, the more a learner with special educational needs will benefit on an emotional and academic level.

Establishing effective communication in the classroom

Establishing meaningful methods to connect with SEN students, building rapports and communicating information in ways that channel inclusively and acceptance in the classroom are all essential steps for creating an environment where learning can be fun and reading becomes a pleasurable experience, rather than an overwhelming chore.

Using vocabulary and terminology that learners can already understand, maintaining positive body language, introducing interactive activities that promote communication, encouraging students to express themselves, and utilising a variety of resources which accommodate different learning styles, all contribute to putting SEN students at ease and making them more receptive to guided literacy instruction if it is delivered on a level that they are comfortable with.

Reading with peers to enhance comprehension

Paired or group reading is an effective method of helping SEN students to improve their fluency and increase their confidence in reading aloud. Learners can be teamed up with peers who either have a higher level of reading fluency or the same level as them. Obviously, teachers must be mindful when teaming up learners regarding any specific emotional or behavioural issues to ensure the comfort of every student.

Teachers should select texts of an appropriate theme and format, establish the guidelines before reading commences such as the length of the section each participant is going to read aloud and how errors will be discussed and corrected, as well as encourage learners to offer praise and support to each other whilst the teacher is monitoring the activity.

In addition to developing reading fluency in SEN students, reading with peers also promotes teamwork, communication skills and empathy.

Read along tracks for learners with attention deficit disorders

Learners with attention deficit disorders, such as ADHD, may find it challenging to concentrate, focus on tasks, follow instructions or sit still, as well as having difficulty in understanding and retaining vocabulary, and processing information when they are reading. Without the right support, this can lead to a low level of reading comprehension, poor attainment at school, and problems with social interactions.

If learners with attention deficit disorders are struggling to concentrate and cannot remember what they have just read, audio tracks can be an effective tool to help. Using an audio track can be particularly successful if it has been created especially for the reading activity and it does not contain any distractions such as sound effects or background music. Reading the text whilst simultaneously listening to a pre-recorded audio track that is being read by a fluent reader can help to increase concentration and retention, and through practice and repetition, the students should then eventually be able to read the text without the aid of the audio track.

Over time, if it is carried out successfully this activity can increase focus and improve understanding for SEN students with attention deficit disorders.

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Visual tools to enhance reading

Using resources that accommodate a range of different learning styles is essential when helping SEN students to improve their reading. Visual aids are found to be particularly beneficial when teaching reading to SEN students who are on the autism spectrum.

There are many different types of visual aids that can be used both at home and in the classroom to support SEN students to improve their reading, including pictures from a storybook, photographs, comic strips, storyboards, and graphic organisers such as flow charts and diagrams. SEN students can also be asked to draw their own pictures and design their own visual aids to make the reading activity even more interactive.

Visual tools can help SEN students break down complex information and restructure blocks of texts into more appealing and accessible formats. Pictures and images can also encourage communication, spark curiosity, and give learners the opportunity to practise their vocabulary by describing what they see.

Visual tools in a range of forms can be very useful for improving literacy engagement, increasing understanding, developing listening and speaking skills, and consolidating learning for SEN students.

Multisensory approaches to learning

Ideally, a range of stimuli that appeal to different learning styles should be provided for SEN students in order to deliver effective support in helping them to improve their reading. Typically, preferred learning styles can be categorised as auditory, visual, kinaesthetic or tactile, and olfactory. Students can learn most effectively via one particular sense or through a combination of different senses, including sound, sight, touch and movement, taste and smell.

Differentiation is key to maintaining engagement and making progress with reading. Stimulating different senses can help SEN students to make connections between language and meaning in ways that more traditional teaching methods cannot.

Providing a combination of resources that stimulate several senses and cater for different learning styles is instrumental to the success of multisensory learning for SEN students in enhancing their reading ability.

Support for students with visual processing difficulties

A multisensory approach is also essential for supporting SEN students who suffer from visual processing disorders, which occur when the brain cannot properly process the visual information it receives. This is not the same as having a visual impairment which affects the sight, but rather a disorder that prevents the learner from accurately processing what they see. This can have a major impact on a learner’s ability to recognise words, follow written sequences, distinguish words that look similar or read every word in a sentence, which can inhibit their reading comprehension skills.

Providing a variety of resources that don’t rely on visual processing, but which instead focus on learning through speaking, listening or touch, for example, will help SEN learners with visual processing issues to develop their literacy skills in a more accessible way, as well as making them feel more confident when participating in class activities.

Using technology for reading comprehension and literacy instruction

Technology can be a massive asset both at home and at school when it comes to developing an SEN learner’s reading skills. Students can start learning immediately as soon as they have access to the programme, go at their own pace and complete activities from the comfort of their own home or to complement learning in the classroom.

Whether technology is used to create multisensory resources, communicate information effectively, consolidate learning, celebrate progress, or increase the enjoyment of and engagement with reading, incorporating digital tools into literacy instruction has many advantages for SEN students, teachers and parents.

Bedrock Learning’s research-based digital literacy curriculum with immersive content and a diverse selection of resources provide the optimum foundation to support SEN students at home and complement the work they are doing at school. Our platform can assist SEN students of all levels of ability by providing engaging and interactive reading activities designed to accommodate different learning styles.

Our education technology platform contains an abundance of rich and varied material presented in an accessible and enjoyable format which is stimulating for SEN students and encourages them to actively engage in learning. This includes original fiction texts featuring fun and immersive human-narrated stories using accessible language in combination with a variety of visual aids and images. Using human narration with stories that are read at an appropriate and manageable pace helps SEN students to absorb new vocabulary and improve their own pronunciation and intonation as they read along.

This approach is an extremely effective way of helping students to improve their reading comprehension by employing a range of learning devices including listening, speaking and visual stimuli to engage and motivate SEN students. Additionally, the accessibility of Bedrock’s digital platform means that sessions can be completed conveniently at home at any time, where the student’s progress can be further enhanced by parental involvement.


There is a range of learning difficulties and disabilities affecting SEN students which can make reading, understanding, and retaining information a huge challenge. However, there are many strategies that teachers, parents and even peers can adopt to help SEN students who are struggling. With the appropriate support and by introducing a range of resources, research-based strategies and engaging activities which appeal to different learning styles, teachers can help SEN students to overcome their reading comprehension issues, unlock their potential and increase their confidence in their abilities. A multisensory approach combining visual, audio and tactile techniques is also known to be very effective in advancing an SEN student’s reading comprehension skills.

Outside of the classroom, developing regular reading habits at home can make reading a fun and enjoyable experience, bringing with it the range of emotional and academic benefits associated with reading for pleasure.

The progress made through effective literacy instruction in the classroom and reading for pleasure at home can be further enhanced through an innovative digital literacy platform offering SEN students an immersive and interactive learning experience and a clear pathway towards becoming fluent and confident readers.

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