How to teach nonverbal children to read and spell using
Speech Sound Pics and Speech Sound Pictographs
- ICRWY Reading and Spelling Program from UK teacher 'Miss Emma'.

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Teaching Non-Verbal or Minimally Verbal 4 - 6-Year-Old Students to Read and Spell
(ie at the same time as their peers are learning to read and spell)

People often conflate non-verbal or minimally verbal children with autism and, in turn, intellectual disability. It is important to view each child as an individual and to understand that even if the child is non-verbal and autistic, this does not also mean they have an intellectual disability. And if they do? Understand what learning challenges that individual may face, and address that for each child. Although labels may be useful for funding, they are not overly helpful for individuals. 

There are a range of reasons why young children are non-verbal, or minimally verbal. I was non verbal in school (termed 'selective mutism these days) for a year in Jamaica when I was around 5; I chose not to speak in that physical space. Perhaps this is one reason why I have developed a system for teaching non verbal children to read and spell, and am working with techies to further develop the Speech Sound Monsters as an alternative tool by which young children can communicate. (watch this space!)
I chose not to speak; the reasons why children are non non verbal are varied and complex.

Not only this, I have always felt different. Now in my early fifties, battling the dreaded 'change' (less estrogen = lower dopamine and serotonin levels) I realise I am most likely on the spectrum, and have ADHD. Since the current DSM-5 diagnostic criteria are based on studies of mostly boys and men, it is common for women with the same neurological variations to slip through the cracks. ADHD and autism are separate neurological differences that can both exist in the same person; having both can mean a life of contradictions and internal struggles.     
As a baby, my mother recalls I wouldn't react as adults often wanted me to ' eg smiling at them. I do remember feeling very much like an observer, separate from the social interactions. My mother also recalled sending me to nursery and being told that I would sit and do puzzles - she was told by one teacher that she had never seen someone complete jigsaw puzzles so quickly. It seemed that being 'bright' meant that me being so quiet wasn't an issue. During early childhood I preferred imaginative play on my own - taking a bucket to the river and fishing for tadpoles, turning the spare room into a library, shop, post office, classroom, rocket ship... I would spend days organising the space. I was content to be alone, and still am. My dream is often to go and live in (escape to?) a remote area, surrounded by nature and animals! Understanding solitude may be why, when I see a child playing alone, I'll go and play alongside them, content to share their space, without feeling the need to immediately use spoken language. I have always felt much more of a connection to children than I have to adults. 

Throughout my life, I have felt different but had never considered that my brain might be wired differently, or that I may be on the spectrum. My misguided idea of ASD aligned with the character in Rain Man, and ADHD with a young boy with masses of energy, who bounces of his seat, interrupts the teachers, and distracts classmates. No-one really wanted to understand why I struggled with various things as I grew up; why did I seem unable to focus and complete tasks? Because of this I began to feel shame and confusion, and questioned my ability at times to handle seemingly simple aspects of life. This becomes even harder when there are real, practical difficulties to navigate.  

 As someone who was intellectually capable (but 'must try harder') appeared independent, confident, and able to adapt to move social situations how could I possibly be autistic? I have experienced bouts of anxiety and depression (and also incredibly highs - so often wondering if bi-polar) for as long as I can remember, but I put this down to external factors or hormones ('must be that time of the month'). I've struggled to work for people, finding the constant interactions with others (and constant chatter) exhausting. I have masked so much, thinking I was just not interested in those conversations, in that group of people- questioning whether I was simply antisocial? Or introverted? However, it was more than that - I constantly wanted to just get away and be alone. I couldn't work out where I 'fit'; always feeling as if on the 'outside', and yet also not actually wanting to be on the 'inside' - if that makes sense. I can become overwhelmed with the demands of relationships and have fewer meaningful relationships than most as a result. Isolation protects me from discomfort, confusion, and exhaustion. 

And as an older adult, I have generally chosen to be self-employed as I can control social situations more easily, and withdraw from the world when I need to. However, this has meant that I have left myself wide open to being taken advantage of, and also of not having people around me to give good advice and guide me when I needed to make better choices. I have made some terrible choices and missed out on opportunities to meet people who would perhaps understand and accept me as I am. Regardless, I have also met some amazing educators and parents, and despite mistrusting the world somewhat, I have something deep inside that refuses to give up on my passion for a better, and more inclusive education system. Many reading this, who have attended my training, would on the one hand wonder how someone could be questioning if she is on the spectrum, while also probably agreeing to the ADHD self-diagnosis as I am someone who is known to speak far too quickly, and obsessed with my work. But I think it is important to start to be more transparent about who I am. Because I think much of why I am able to 'reach' children who have learning challenges maybe because of my own differences; because of how my own brain is wired. Being more honest about my own challenges is also increasingly liberating; I am learning to be kinder to myself, and have accepted that I may never 'fit' within a conventional educational system.     
The field of education, and especially as it relates to teaching reading, is highly politicized, and anyone who challenges the status quo can easily become a target - especially if a lone voice speaking out about something that may be considered 'alternative'. As someone who didn't align with a particular 'camp' (eg phonics or whole language) or providing one-size-fits-all handbooks for my approach ('how will the relief teacher know what to do? asked several school leaders) I found myself becoming even more isolated. I would be threatened (legally) by those promoting 'benchmarking' and 'reading levels' and also attacked by those when I challenged 'synthetic phonics' - all because of my postings on social media. Perhaps my neurodiversity meant I wasn't able to articulate my questions and thoughts with the sensitivity needed to introduce new ideas - maybe I should have stuck to teaching children, rather than trying to share what I was able to do with regards to teaching anyone to read and spell, in a way that 'just makes sense' to them. I had a long history of 'reaching' children and teenagers most had previously either given up on or underestimated; I understand children; I understood why the children I work with were struggling (or how to prevent those struggles) However, as someone who struggles with 'social' issues, perhaps trying to share my techniques on social media wasn't the best idea:-)
I become somewhat obsessed with helping every child I meet, and feel angry when children are failed. I do not mean to be rude, insensitive...I am unsure of why I get so emotionally 'triggered' by so many things relating to the current education system, and struggle to refrain from venting. In spite of my demons I love unlocking a child's brain, so that they can learn more easily. It is what truly gives me pleasure, and that will never change. I need to work out how to share that as widely as possible, and realise that I will need to step outside of my comfort zone to do this.

This is, in part, why I am undertaking doctoral work. I completed my Masters Degree in Special Educational Needs and became especially interested in dyslexia, but my work over the past few years has come about because of the students I work with who are non-verbal or minimally verbal. I also work with very young children, who are often reading before they can read aloud. What is happening in the brain can often be underestimated because we tend to focus on what we can see children doing, or what we hear them saying. I think teaching very young children (for about 30 years now!) has had a positive impact on everything I do, because I teach as if everything I say will be taken literally, and be easy to misunderstand - and everything I create is to therefore also to enable children to learn with as little help from adults as possible. I have never met a child who couldn't learn to decode and encode, but I have met thousands who had to first navigate some really confusing and complicated instruction - and be sensitively guided to 'unlearn' an awful lot in order to independently read and spell. Learning to read isn't something most can do without instruction - it's a fairly new invention and not something that 'naturally' happens, in the same way that children (usually) acquire language, however I have found that brains are pretty amazing, when presented with information in certain ways. I am often challenged for teaching very young children, as if their brains are not 'ready to read', or as if they will not LOVE the experience. I wish those people would come and talk to the children, and remain open minded. The way I teach children to read and spell is something, to them, that is playful, fun, challenging (but achievable) and not dissimilar to figuring out puzzles. And they don't even need to be able to speak, to learn to read and spell in this way.  


Teaching non-verbal or minimally verbal students to read and spell using phonemic awareness and systematically taught phonics; developing decoding fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary knowledge. Children ideally start the ICRWY program before their 4th birthday.