How to Teach a Child who is Non-Verbal and Cognitively Delayed to Read

How to teach a child who is non-verbal and cognitively delayed to readWhat I love most about education is that there is no right formula to teach or learn anything. There is no perfect curriculum, no perfect tool, no perfect teacher.

You should be encouraged by this knowledge as a parent of a child with special needs because this means that you can be as creative as you want in order to meet your child’s needs. Due to this child-specific type of teaching, you can expect true results.

When it comes to reading, you might think it may never be possible for your child to one day pick up a novel and read leisurely for hours. For some children, this may indeed be true. However, this does not mean that literacy is to be completely scratched off your lesson plans. Instead, you have an obligation to expose your child to the experiences that are necessary for his life-long success. It’s through this exposure that doors open, the mind expands, and brain connections are made.

Once new brain connections are made (known as “synaptic pruning”), there is no knowing the limit of your child’s learning abilities (see more on neuroplasticity in the resources below). He may indeed one day pick up that novel and read.

You cannot fully know the extent to which your child will be able to read; therefore, you cannot limit him – even if today you think it’s impossible.

This isn’t about being hopeful and unrealistic. It’s about being a teacher.


  • How do you teach a child who is non-verbal to read?
  • How do you teach a child who is cognitively delayed to understand words and texts?

The answer, as with everything else, is that you begin right where he is. Then, through intensive instruction that meets his learning style, you can get him to the next stage.

Questions to begin the journey to teaching reading (or any concept):

  • What is my child able to do? What does he enjoy doing?
  • Are there characters/ brands that he loves? (ex: Disney characters? Dolls? Cars? Other?)
  • What are his challenges?
  • What is his learning style/ dominant intelligence?

As an example, we’ll look at the concept of reading with regards to my son, who is both non-verbal and cognitively delayed. Since he cannot tell me what he’s thinking, I keenly observe his pre-reading behaviors.

What is he able to do reading-wise? What does he enjoy doing reading-wise?
  • sits to “read” with an adult and enjoys familiar stories
  • enjoys perusing books on his own (esp. board books)
  • holds/ turns book right-side up
  • looks at pictures in books (books with real photos hold his attention)
  • anticipates parts in a story he has heard several times (ex: repetitive phrases)
  • enjoys finger-plays, chants/ rhymes, repetitive books, audio stories, storytelling, ASL signs
  • selects books to read when we ask, “Which one?”
  • uses pictures as clues to which book he wants (ex: knows that Jack and the Beanstalk is the book with the green plants and the man on the front cover)
  • understands a story is coming from the use of the words “One day” or “Once upon a time” when storytelling (without a book) – he stops what he’s doing, smiles and comes closer
Which characters/brands does he respond to most?
  • Signing Time™ characters are his favorite
  • characters from Kids CBC
What are his challenges reading-wise?
  • staying with a book for an extended amount of time (can sit for 3-4 minutes, but then looks for a new book or another activity)
  • turning the pages on his own (best with board books)
  • holding the book with both hands
  • not sure that he understands that the black marks on a page are words that tell the story or hold meaning
  • does not yet know letter names or symbols
What is his learning style? Dominant Intelligence?
  • Tactile/ kinesthetic learning style
  • Musical + interpersonal intelligence

Where to go next?

First, I acknowledge all that he is already able to do. (That’s quite an extensive list!) These are all prerequisites to reading, even if it doesn’t seem like true reading just yet. These behaviors demonstrate critically important skills that are required to get him to the next stage.

Planning for Reading Instruction

FREE printables to help you plan (found in the resources below).

Then, I take the challenges and adapt the teaching strategies:

Skills to acquire Strategies for getting there
  • staying with book for an extended amount of time when “reading” with adult
  • begin with the maximum amount of time he is able to sit to listen to a story (average in a week), slowly increase the time by a minute each week (until average time it takes to complete the reading of a book)
  • allow him to listen for part of the story, then go off and play for the rest while adult continues telling/reading the story
  • use books that maintain his attention for longer (ie: Signing Time™ board books)
  • holding book with both hands + turning pages
  • practice holding toys, scarves/ fabric and other tools with both hands throughout the day
  • using board book, show hand-over-hand how to hold the book with one hand and flip with the other
  • understand that text on page are words
  • point to words when adult reads aloud (demonstrating L to R direction)
  • use big books so that letters are large enough to notice
  • get him involved in reading
  • maximize on the fact that he anticipates familiar texts (stories, songs, chants/rhymes) by using rebus text (enlarged on chart paper or sentence strips) and have him point along from word to word to image (with support)
  • connect the above with ASL signs
  • understand that words relate to pictures in books
  • link to ASL signs
  • talk about images as we read
  • learn to recognize functional words (i.e. name)
  • in order to build functional reading, rather than focusing on individual letters, the focus will be on whole word recognition beginning with his name
  • use ASL signs/ cards provided by Signing Time TreeSchoolers™
  • write name on whiteboard (hand-over-hand) while sounding out letters (not calling out letter names)
  • trace name with finger (hand-over-hand) on large laminated board or sandpaper while sounding out letters (not calling out letter names)
  • singing songs with name in the song and flashing card with name each time it is uttered

The aim is to incorporate as much of the characters/ brands/ toys he is drawn to with his learning style and dominant intelligence in order to teach a new concept such as reading.

Just because your child cannot speak or read aloud, does not mean that he cannot learn to read. The same is true for a child with cognitive delays. Meet your child where he’s at, plan the activities accordingly and you before you know it, you will find yourself checking-off the acquired skills on the list!

Resources for you:

Planning for Reading Instruction – FREE printable worksheets to do what I did above
Neuroplasticity: You and Your Adaptive Brain – article explaining how brain connections are made when learning, and its implications on the “disabled brain”
Signing Time TreeSchoolers – FREE printable ASL cards in their activity guides when you subscribe to their newsletter

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How to Teach a Child who is Non-Verbal and Cognitively Delayed to Read

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for the useful tips and links! Thank you for giving us a concrete example of how to fill it out.
    As a regular reader, I remember you mentioning that your son taps on the frame with “Parent manifesto” while he is being cared for in proximity of this frame. I believe your son may already be conscious words are written there and that these words have meaning.
    Keep up your good work!

    Chantal June 4, 2014 at 12:28 pm #
    • Oh, that’s true, Chantal! How could I have forgotten that? I have done many of those types of activities over time, where he selects a text card, but I usually have an image on there, so I was probably assuming he was relating to the image. But, how true that he chose between two text-only print-ups by his change table! I will have to tap into that more because you drew my attention to it. Thank you!

      Gabriella Volpe June 4, 2014 at 4:03 pm #