This section of the blog has been written in response to questions about how we taught Jonathan.  It is not intended to be prescriptive as a way to teach children like Jonathan, just as an account of what worked for him and how we unlocked him.  Although this is not a suggested path for others to follow, some of the techniques may be useful to others.

Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties

Jonathan went to school at the age of four and a half; labelled as having ‘Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties’, despite no-one having found a way for him to access the curriculum, taught him or done any cognitive assessments.  I believe that many children with severe physical disabilities, like Jonathan, are served an injustice in this label; which would be better re-phrased as ‘Profound and Multiple Access to Learning Disabled’.  Here are some photos taken around the time he started school. They show a child who is engaged with the world around him and keen to learn:


Starting out

In September 2013, as a result of both Jonathan’s desire to learn, and the fact that we found the special needs curriculum very restrictive when it came to literacy and numeracy, we took the decision to educate Jonathan at home for a few hours in the morning before he went to special school.  We were supported in this by Marion Stanton, advisory teacher of literacy for children with AAC, and a private Speech and Language Therapist.  Jonathan’s education history looks like this:

September 2008 age 2½  – July 2010 Jonathan attended our local pre-school and spent time with his peers whom he had known since birth.
September 2009 – July 2010 Concurrently with the local pre-school, Jonathan started attending a special needs school in their pre-reception class.
October 2010 – Reception We had relocated and Jonathan started in full time education at our local special school.
January 2011 – Reception Jonathan started to attend our local primary school one afternoon a week, with the aim of socialising with his peers.
September 2013 – age 7½  Year 3 We began home schooling Jonathan: 5 mornings a week from 9am – 10.15am.
April 2014 – Year 3 We extended home school to one whole morning a week on the day he attended our local mainstream primary school in the afternoon.
September 2014 – Year 4 5 full mornings of home school, 4 afternoons at special school & 1 afternoon at primary school
September 2015 – Year 5 On the roll at primary school. 5 full mornings of home school, 4 afternoons at primary school & 1 afternoon at special school

Jonathan had done some work on an eye gaze computer programme during the summer of 2013, linking a letter with other sounds to make words.  When the computer could work out where he was looking (see communication section of the blog) it demonstrated both Jonathan’s ability to recognise letters when taught them, and his motivation to learn.

Alongside teaching Jonathan to read and write, we also used Numicon (a maths scheme of work) to teach Jonathan numeracy. For the purposes of this blog, I won’t go in to the detail of how we did this, as we followed the Numicon programme and adapted the exercises as necessary using the clear etran frame we used for literacy.  The difference with literacy is that there wasn’t one particular ‘off the shelf’, ‘how to’ programme aimed at special needs – we had to carve our own way – working out what motivated Jonathan and how best to adapt things for his access method.

Early phonics

Every week we looked at two letters or sounds – following the order prescribed in the ‘Letters and Sounds’ programme.  For the first few days, we would take photos of objects that we had hidden around the room (I would help Jonathan walk to them; he would photograph them on the ipad).  For the next few days, we would stick the photos into the book and I would ‘hand over hand’ help him to write a big letter and the words underneath.  These were stored in a large scrapbook.

                        earlyphonics1                    earlyphonics2

As we introduced new words for reading, they were stuck in the book at the relevant page.

We also printed large words for a word wall, both words that he had been reading, and words beginning with certain letters that he had either taken photos of, or come across on his eye gaze programme. earlyphonics3

During phonics sessions Jonathan would find (by choosing between a few words held up to him) different words beginning with the letter we were focusing on for the week.

This developed into an early writing exercise. Initially I would take the words that he had chosen and write a sentence for him, which I would make into a silly rhyme.

As time progressed, he would have to write the sentence, ensuring that it made sense (including articles and verbs etc).

Here is an example of the type of sentence he would write:


No prizes for working out which letter we were doing that week! Here is the rest of the rhyme I made up to go with it:


She’d rather her face was hid,
‘Cause now she is old,
She’s rather less bold,
And all her wrinkles have slid.

Early reading

Concurrently with phonics, we used a reading scheme called ‘Language through Reading’.  This uses a whole word reading approach, with the different parts of speech on different background colours, and at its early stage matches the picture with the words underneath.  We would read Jonathan the different sentence options (in this case the girl is walking / the girl is standing / the baby is walking / the baby is standing), and then he would make the relevant sentence for the picture shown:

earlyreading1  earlyreading2  earlyreading3

We adapted this scheme, with photos of different people doing things from the internet, and used different colours for the different parts of speech, but ensured that we introduced the words and phrases in the order used by Language through Reading.

The colour scheme we used was:


During only the third week of educating Jonathan at home it looked like he:

a) had not learned much and,
b) was switching off from the activities and becoming disnengaged

At the time I thought it was probably too difficult for him, and was thinking about making things easier, but the advice I got surprised me.  Make it harder!  Make it fun!

After this advice, we added in more writing activities (as detailed above under the phonics section), and started making up games to play with the Language Through Reading sentences.  This included – making up a story about people catching a bus to the zoo (introduction of the verbs walking, sitting, standing), and humpty dumpty (running, sitting, falling).  Below is an example of a basic answer board that we created for Jonathan – using whole words stuck on the etran frame with blue tac:


As we progressed, and introduced adjectives, we made up 2 characters – Mr Big and his friend Mr Little, who went on a number of adventures together.  At this point, reading and writing became more integrated. Jonathan was now reading sentences and matching them with pictures/actions, and given an element of choice in what happened next, either by filling in a blank word (for example choosing the colour something was going to be), or writing a complete sentence by building the words together.  We put some of their adventures into a book, with the sentences Jonathan had created on Velcro at the bottom of each page so that he could re-do them at another time.

                    earlyreading5          earlyreading6


Later phonics

Once we had covered the initial letters and sounds we progressed on to more spelling based activities using the etran frame with letters stuck to it.  To make it easier to use, vowels were outlined in red, and always sat in the middle of the board:


Using this method, I would do a mixture of asking Jonathan to spell a word, and describing a word which he had to then spell; to ensure that his understanding of vocabulary was improving alongside his spelling.  By November 2014 Jonathan had started to use the spelling board in its current form, shown below.  This is the board he now uses for all communication, spelling and writing.



Once we had done the first sets of Language Through Reading we moved on to the next set of short stories, which came with pre-written answers on the back.

reading1           reading2

We followed this series for a number of weeks, putting options for answers on an e-tran frame so that Jonathan had to select the correct sentence.  For example, for Question 1 above (Where is Mummy?) the answer board might look like this:

  reading3   reading4

Answers at this stage were laid out in order, from the top of the board to the bottom, and the words were picked off the frame and put together on a black board so that Jonathan could see the sentence forming.

However, we soon found that the Language Through Reading stories were becoming too repetitive and quite boring for Jonathan, and he was beginning to lose motivation to read. At this point we moved on to the commonly used Oxford Reading Tree scheme of books.  I held the book for Jonathan to see and used a small sheet of paper to underscore each line of the text.  I moved this slowly down as he read, ensuring he was able to focus on one line of the text at a time. We then constructed questions based on the text for Jonathan to answer.  Etran frames were made up with a variety of word options (including those he needed to correctly answer the question) from which Jonathan would construct his answer.  Here is a typical answer board:


In order to help Jonathan navigate around these boards, we always put the same type of word in the same place.  As he was writing we pulled the word off and stuck it to a blackboard on an easel next to him so that he could see his answer clearly taking shape.  This is a very long example!


For each book he read we wrote in excess of 20 questions, each with their own answer sheet. For ease and speed, we began constructing the answers to each question on acetate overlays for the etran frame. These could be quickly removed once a question was answered and replaced, ready for the next question.

We continued to use this system to read, and answer questions about the text until Jonathan was ready to use the spelling board for all his writing in February 2015.  Now, Jonathan reads books on the ipad (still with a piece of card slowly drawn down each line), and is verbally asked a comprehension question about the text which he then uses his spelling board to answer.


Being able to produce writing was always a goal from the start, so with early phonics Jonathan wrote short silly sentences, and with the reading scheme we mixed in some early writing. But, being able to write more independently was going to be a challenge.  However, based on the groupings of words that Jonathan was already using for his reading comprehension work, I concocted a rather complex way for Jonathan to write using whole words as he did in reading.



Separate ‘verb’ board: Options of different verbs at the top and tense choices at the bottom

Using these boards Jonathan would first choose the type of word he wanted (for example colour) and we would then put on a different board a variety of colours so that he could choose the one he wanted. It was slow and laborious, with lots of sticking words on and peeling them off boards, but it meant that Jonathan had the greatest freedom we could give him in both the sentence structure and the word used (given at this time he was not spelling everything he wanted to write so we were restricted to whole words).

He used this system of boards to write stories for school and also prayers for people.  Here is an example of a prayer he wrote for a relative who was dying:


Here is an example of his story writing from this time:

The captain started the engine and pointed to the treasure map, he looked out to the dangerous ocean because the crew were feeling scared.

Halfway through writing this story, which was about an adventure to rescue some eggs from an island with his friend Alexander, something extra-ordinary happened.  Jonathan started to look at the ‘abc’ square more and more, indicating that rather than choosing from the whole words we gave him, he wanted to write and spell his own. Midway through the story he had given up using the bank of words and the complicated system all together, and this is what he wrote:

The enemy had been destroyed and the crew were safe to climb on to the island where the nest of eggs unguarded lay on the beach.  Jonathan went with Alexander to get the messy looking eggs. Tired from slaying the ships enemies they towed myriads of sick enemy eggs miles with every step.

At the same time that he wrote this story, he started to spell everything he wanted to say.  He was off!


From September 2015 Jonathan went on the roll at our local primary school.  Despite not having been taught in literacy and numeracy in a mainstream setting before, he has no problem keeping up academically, although his output (particularly writing) is much slower than that of his peers.