Castle Wood School is a Primary School in Coventry, with 138 children on roll, all of whom have an Education, Health and Care Plan. Castle Wood is a broad spectrum school and over 70 per cent of the children have a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Condition. Many children are non-verbal and communicate through gestures, behaviour, signing and exchanging photographs therefore conventional literacy isn’t appropriate for all.

Suzanne Kavanagh from Castle Wood School talks us through what they do to engage their children in literacy.

“Take a walk around Castle Wood Special School and you will see children engaged in many different learning opportunities designed to enhance their reading.

Our curriculum has to be bespoke and we have to modify typical approaches used in mainstream settings. One approach we use is by the late Dr Penny Lacey from Birmingham University (2007), called Inclusive Literacy, often not using text but using objects as text such as personal books or life stories.

Our children in The Lacey’s department, who have profound and multiple learning difficulties and complex medical conditions, may be reading objects of reference. These are personal objects designed to cue the child in to transition to another activity, so for instance they “decode” their swimming bag and learn to understand that this item means that swimming will take place imminently. They need to understand what the bag is i.e. a swimming bag and not a lunch box, and then that it has meaning i.e. that swimming activity will take place.

Another approach identified in our bridging curriculum, is used by children who have complex autism and many sensory needs. By reading photographs they learn to understand routines which lowers their anxiety levels. Photographs of different sizes are used, depending on the child’s ability, and show motivating items. The child learns to decode the photograph, interpreting what it is, and then exchange it for the item, so understanding the meaning of the photograph.

How the photographs are taken is of great importance. Look at many brightly coloured picture books and identify one item. We have learnt to interpret masses of information and can determine the precise object. Our children, however, have not learnt to visually discriminate to such an extent. Photographs are taken of the item on a plain background, to aid visual discrimination and help the child determine the meaning of the item.

As with many mainstream schools, we do use phonics. There are some children for whom phonics is a key approach, but the pace of delivery is adapted to suit our children. There are others who learn to read whole words without appearing to have acquired any phonic knowledge. We need to ensure that they understand what they have read and use real objects and experiences to support this.

Children in another part of the school may be reading their favourite books with an adult, answering “who”, “what” and “where” questions, and then moving onto simple predictions. We look at reading behaviours such as holding the book the correct way and turning the pages correctly.

It is the role of our practitioners to determine the strengths and needs of our children and to put provision into place. Dr Cockroft and Dr Atkinson (2017) discuss engagement and motivation in reading and state that an engaged reader is “motivated to read strategic in their approaches to comprehending what they read, knowledgeable in their construction of meaning from text and socially interactive while reading.”

Motivation directs the behaviour and is driven by the reader’s goals and values. Guthrie (2013) believes that motivation needs to be intrinsic before success is achieved. At Castle Wood School we adopt Early Years Practice, Principles and Pedagogy. Our classrooms are a hive of activity, with practitioners learning more about the child, building a nurturing relationship, whilst enhancing the environment with either resources or with their questioning and commentary, to move a child on with their learning. Practitioners identify resources and activities that motivate the children and use these to engage them with their learning.

Together, the role of the adult, the environment and the right provision ensures all our children achieve.”


If you would like to find out more about Castle Wood School, contact Suzanne at


Cockroft, C and Atkinson, C (2017) Literacy Interventions Promoting Adolescent Reading Engagement and Motivation: A Systematic Literature Review. Educational psychology research and practice. 3 (1) pp. 29–49.

Guthrie, J. T. (2013). Best Practices for Motivating Students to Read. In: L. Morrow and L. Gambrell, ed., Best Practices in Literacy Instruction, 5th ed. New York: Guildford Press.

Lacey, P., Miller, C., Layton, L. and Lawson, H. (2007) What is Literacy for Students with Severe Learning Difficulties? Exploring Conventional and Inclusive Literacy. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs 7 (3) pp. 149 – 160.