From Mallury Pollard’s blog, where he writes: ” I promise she did not pose like that for the camera. ‘Horton Hatches the Egg’ really is that surprising!”
From Mallury Pollard’s blog, where he writes: ” I promise she did not pose like that for the camera. ‘Horton Hatches the Egg’ really is that surprising!”
One of the things I love to do is travel around the U.S. and see what other teachers are up to. I love to share ideas, grapple with challenges, and stretch my thinking. Sometimes, I am lucky enough to land in a place that so buzzes with positive energy, I leave inspired and rejuvenated. This was the case recently, when I visited RSU 21 in Maine. I was invited to do a workshop on literacy for students with significant disabilities, and one of the first things I noticed was that my audience was a microcosm of the school community. There were teachers, parents, administrators, related service personnel, and paraprofessionals–all working together to ensure that literacy is accessible to ALL students in RSU 21. They were such a creative, collaborative bunch that after a few hours there, I was only partly joking when I asked if they had any job openings.
One of the people I met at RSU 21 was Hillary Brumer and I want to share her blog, Techno Bytes, which is chock-full of great assistive technology ideas and resources. Check out Five Fabulous Free Apps Every Teacher Should Have and (attention parents!) Do it Yourself Directions for Fixing a Cracked iPad Screen. And while you’re there, check out Hillary’s most recent post on Early Literacy Apps.
Parents often ask me, “How long will it take my child to learn to read?” I wish I had a nice, neat answer to that question, but the truth is, I don’t know. Children learn at different rates, and my experience in teaching reading to children with Down syndrome is that concepts are often acquired at an uneven pace. You may work on blending a consonant and short vowel sound together for months (until even the most optimistic person begins to wonder, “Is this ever going to happen?”) and then one day, the child is blending two syllable words with digraphs and vowel teams. It is not a process that can be rushed. As Anna Gillingham once said, “Go as fast as you can, but as slow as you must.”
There are, however, ways to set the stage for optimal learning. For a child who is reading significantly below grade level, individual instruction is more efficient than group instruction. Small group instruction can be effective IF all the children in the group are working at the same skill level. The training and expertise of the teacher is highly correlated to literacy outcomes for at-risk readers. Systematic, direct, intensive instruction following a proven scope and sequence is another important ingredient. So, if a child is getting 15 minutes of reading instruction in a large group twice a week, delivered by a teacher who has not received adequate training, the answer to the question, “How long will it take my child to learn to read?” would be, “longer than it should.”
Even though research supports all of these instructional strategies, I often get pushback when I recommend them. “Does it have to be every day?” (Well, yes, it does). “How about if we put him in the Bluebird group—he’ll pick it up from the other children.” (No, actually, he won’t). “I have a teacher who took the 2-day introductory training for the Abracadabra Reading Program. How about if she implements the program?” (That would be a bad idea). In lobbying for effective literacy programs, I have found that eyes glaze over when I begin my sentences with, “The research shows…..” I was mulling this over last week when I realized that all of us have had experiences when systematic, direct instruction provided by a trained teacher made all the difference in the world. I had such an experience last month, and I am sharing it because perhaps you will be in the position to recommend a reading program for a child with Down syndrome and you can dredge up your own story as an alternative to, “The research shows….”
One of my passions in life is ballet. I have taken ballet classes off and on since childhood, which surprises some people because it is not something I am particularly good at. In fact, when I was 11 and all the other girls in my class were getting ready for that oh-so-important milestone—going en pointe—my dance teacher pulled my mother aside and told her that perhaps her money might be better spent elsewhere because it was unlikely that my “bad feet” would ever end up in pointe shoes. I did stop dancing for a time, but took it back up again in high school. Quite simply, I love ballet, even if I will never dance Swan Lake. I take “Open Division” classes, which are for adult dancers of varying levels who are not on a professional dance track.
I had been taking the same Monday, Wednesday, Friday classes for months. In Open Division terminology, I am at the “Advanced Beginner” level. The classes are small, the instructors are trained in teaching ballet to adults, and each new movement is taught directly and systematically. Classical ballet is very precise, and learning a new movement is much like following a task analysis. You cannot skip around—each step builds on the one before it and when all the steps are mastered, you can then do the movement independently. I love this class because the pace and approach are exactly what I need. Unfortunately, this semester my university schedule clashed with my ballet schedule. The Advanced Beginner classes were all on nights that I teach. I was bemoaning this fact to my dance instructor when she said, “Oh, you can just take the Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday class!” Ummm….no, I don’t think so, I thought. That class is at least two levels beyond me. “You’ll be fine!” she said, chirpily. “It’s all the same steps, just faster!” Well, she’s the expert, I thought, so the next Tuesday, I showed up for class. When I entered the studio and saw the dancers warming up, my first thought was, “Did I get the night wrong? Is this the company class??” I was clearly out of my element. I started to slowly back toward the door but it was too late. “Welcome!” the teacher said and before I knew it, class had started. My heart sank when the teacher announced that she was “filling in for the regular instructor” and didn’t usually teach the adult classes.
It may be true that, as my regular instructor had assured me, the steps were the same but I wouldn’t have known it because everything went at warp speed. The teacher called out the combinations (rapidly, in French) and while I was still executing step one, the rest of the class had already pirouetted, leaped and glided across the floor and was ready to begin the next 6-step combination. Apparently, at this level, there IS no direct instruction. The movements have been mastered and the dancers are perfecting their technique. Not so for me. I was in desperate need of supplementary aides and services. I needed graduated guidance, a prompt hierarchy, accommodations, peer mentoring. About 20 minutes into class, the teacher noticed I was rooted to the same spot on the floor. “Come up closer to the front” she said, gesturing impatiently, “and follow along as best as you can.”
At this point, the accompanist had stopped playing. All the other dancers looked on, leaning impatiently on the barre, clearly not pleased that the remedial student (wearing a green leotard, no less) was holding up the works. It was the longest hour and a half of my life. This, I thought, was the equivalent of being in a second grade guided reading group before you have mastered phoneme-grapheme relationships.
Some things cannot be learned by osmosis. You wouldn’t think of giving a 16 year old keys to a car and saying, “Hey, you’ve been watching me drive for years! It’s the same—except now you are in the driver’s seat instead of the passenger seat!”
Systematic, individualized, direct instruction. A trained, experienced instructor. Ample opportunity for supervised practice. As fast as you can, as slow as you must. It works for ballet instruction, driving instruction, and by the way, it also works for early literacy instruction.
Thanks to all of you who wrote in to ask about the results of the survey I recently conducted on the literacy experiences of children with Down syndrome. I am still combing through the volumes of data but want to share some of the preliminary results. The response to the survey was phenomenal–we heard from more than 700 families from all over the world. Hundreds of you took the time to write in detail about your child’s experiences and I spent many summer afternoons reading your stories and feeling that the world is a very small place. It doesn’t matter if you are from Peru or Italy or Saudi Arabia or Ireland…the message was loud and clear–literacy is a priority for ALL children. I look forward to sharing what I have learned from your stories in the coming months. I will begin with a snapshot of the data from U.S. families. Because translation of Spanish language surveys is not complete, these charts do not yet include all responses:
Although a number of families reported homeschooling their children, the majority of families reported that their children attend public school. We asked about families’ level of knowledge of their child’s literacy instruction and how well they felt the school was meeting their child’s literacy needs:
Research has demonstrated a correlation between the amount of minutes of reading instruction per day and literacy outcomes. Many studies recommend at least one hour per day of systematic, direct instruction for children reading below grade level. Yet, many families reported that their child received significantly less than one hour per day of reading instruction at school:
Consistent with recommended practices, many families indicated that they are providing a literacy-rich home environment for their child:
I will be posting additional results as they are analyzed so stay tuned!
If you would like to view the original survey click here. Please note that this link is for review only–responses will not be included in survey results.
Thanks again to all of you who so generously shared your experiences!
I took a seminar once called “The Reading Brain.” It was a required part of my Orton Gillingham training. I remember being a bit concerned when the instructor handed out a two-page “Brain Word Bank” and I didn’t recognize 90% of the terms, but I was reassured when the first activity was coloring in different areas of the brain with florescent markers. While initially intimidating, neuroscience soon captivated me. I was fascinated to discover the individual “jobs” of various brain parts, and how the parts work together to accomplish the complex task of reading. I was intrigued by MRI scans of the brains of children with and without dyslexia, taken while they were reading. The scans showed that the part of the brain that was supposed to “light up” during the reading process did not seem to fire for kids with dyslexia. Yet, in spite of this, children with dyslexia do learn to read. With the right intervention, other parts of the brain can be trained to perform the function of the part that is not performing efficiently.
This made me think of my college students when I assign cooperative group projects. I sometimes overhear them “collaborating.” Student 1: “Um, I am pretty sure that was YOUR job. Now, because you didn’t do what you were assigned to do, we’ve wasted valuable time and might even miss the deadline.” Student 2: “Was that my job? I thought you were in charge of that. I was kind of busy doing this other thing.” Student 2: “Well, its too late to make up for it now. And just so you know, Student 3 has had to work twice as hard to do her stuff AND yours in order to get this project finished.”
That is how I imagine the dyslexic brain; struggling with the collaborative process of deciphering text and finding that a member of the group is slacking off, causing the others to have to work twice as hard to make up for it. But in the end, the task is accomplished. Not as quickly, not as easily and not in the hoped-for way, but it is accomplished.
I have always found this knowledge of the brain reassuring, because it provides us with valuable information about how to teach reading to children with dyslexia. So I was excited to learn that, like children with dyslexia, children with Down syndrome share a set of learning characteristics that are rooted in the neuroscience of their brain development. These characteristics affect language and literacy growth in ways that will be very familiar to any parent or teacher who has ever taught a child with Ds to read. Here is my non-scientific look at a some of these characteristics and how they may come into play when children with Ds set about to conquer the written word:
Improving Memory in Children with Down Syndrome—a research update from Down Syndrome Education International. Somewhat technical but includes helpful explanations of complex processes as well as a wealth of references.
Enhancing Reading Instruction for Children with Down Syndrome –a three-year study by Dr. Christopher Lemons and colleagues, University of Pittsburgh.
To kick off a series of posts on building reading comprehension, here is a link to Timonthy Shanahan’s blog where he describes a great strategy called “intensive questioning”: Shanahan on Literacy: Too Fluent by Half.
Although it doesn’t pertain to reading, I can’t resist sharing this story from Beverly Beckham about her grand-daughter, Lucy: Pictures can’t capture what love sees – South – The Boston Globe.
We often discuss reading achievement in terms of grade level, but we rarely acknowledge how imprecise the term “grade level” is. What exactly does it mean? How are “grade level” skills determined? In fact, there are no universally accepted criteria for establishing grade level reading skills and there are at least two good reasons to avoid using grade level to measure reading achievement.
First, schools differ in their approach to reading instruction as well as the timetable by which children are expected to master certain skills. A kindergarten-level skill in one state might be considered a first grade skill in another state. The adoption of the national Common Core Standards will provide some uniformity in grade level expectations, but I don’t think it will ever be possible to provide a definitive answer to the question, “what grade level is my child’s reading?”
Second, there are many facets of literacy and these skills often develop unevenly for students with disabilities. For example, a child may have mastered the expected phonics skills for his grade level, but be far behind in fluency. To complicate matters further, reading assessments and curricula are not uniform in determining reading grade level, which is evident when you see how many Reading Correlational Charts are out there.
Instead of focusing on grade level, it may be more helpful to look at the specific skills a child has mastered and compare that information to the curriculum expectations or standards in the child’s district. Then, the team can design interventions that meet the child’s individual literacy needs. Here are some tips to start this process:
After you collect this information, it may be helpful to create a chart like the one below to see where your child’s skills are in relation to grade level standards. This will help to pinpoint areas in need of intervention or support.
|Follow words from left to right, top to bottom, and page by page.||mastered||N/A|
|Recognize and name all upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet.||mastered||N/A|
|Isolate and pronounce the initial, medial vowel, and final sounds in consonant-vowel-consonant (C-V-C) words||Can match words with the same initial consonant||Isolating middle vowel and final consonant in C-V-C words|
|Demonstrate basic knowledge of letter-sound correspondences by producing the primary or most frequent sound for each consonant.||Knows the sounds for most consonants except g, s, v, w, and z. Often confuses /b/ and /d/||Letter sound correspondence for sounds not mastered. Reinforce /b/ and /d/|
|Associate the long and short sounds with letters for the five major vowels.||Knows short vowels only||Long vowel sounds|
|Read common high-frequency words by sight||Knows 8/10 words on list||Mastering all words on list|
I want to share a link to a great post about a pre-schooler learning letter identification from iPad apps. His mother writes that he has not been taught letter names or sounds at home or pre-school so it looks as if he may have learned them from “playing” with the iPad. Check it out:Techno Kid | Life As I Know It. Below is a video from the post:
A reader just wrote in to remind me of the extensive selection of high quality FREE resources for teachers, parents and administrators available from the Florida Center for Reading Research. Teachers can check out the Student Center Activities for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. In addition to free, printable materials there is also a search tool that allows you to match instructional routines to activities by grade level. For parents, there is a grade-by-grade guide for supporting your child’s literacy development at home. The section for administrators includes an excellent Principal Walkthrough Checklist to make the most of classroom visits to evaluate reading practices from kindergarten through high school.
Thank you, Marie, for reminding me about this wonderful resource!
The Get Ready to Read! website is a treasure trove of free literacy resources. Designed to support both educators and parents, the site provides online games, activities, webinars, tool-kits, checklists, and more to support literacy development for preschool and kindergarten children. I especially love the Activity Cards , which are divided into levels so you can match activities to the needs of individual children. There are also Group Activity Cards for educators to use in the classroom. A drop down menu on the side of each page provides access to information in Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. The easy-to-navigate, well-designed site is updated on a regular basis. And did I mention that everything’s FREE? Have a look!
This past Saturday, I attended my first B’nai Mitzvah ceremony. I was not very knowledgeable about this Jewish tradition, so I checked with a friend beforehand for advice to be sure I wouldn’t commit a terrible faux pas at this important event. She kindly sent me a task analysis on How to Behave at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ceremony, and I was very grateful for that because there was a lot to know. I learned that when a boy reaches the age of thirteen, he becomes a Bar Mitzvah—and accepts responsibility for himself, before friends, family and his congregation, as a member of the Jewish community. For girls, the term for this transition to adulthood is Bat Mitzvah. The ceremony I attended on Saturday posed a unique challenge as far as terminology goes because it was for triplets—two boys and a girl. Apparently, there is no term to describe that.
The service itself was beautiful—rich with tradition, serious but celebratory, shared with friends, family and community. It takes months—even years—for a child to prepare for this day. In order to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, a child must demonstrate sufficient competency to participate in the ceremony. This means that, among other things, the child must learn to read Hebrew. Since this blog is about reading, I must point out several things about Hebrew. First, the Hebrew alphabet (called Aleph-bet) looks nothing like the English alphabet. Second, the text reads from right to left. Third, the books open from the “bottom” or right-most page, and flip to the “top” or left-most page, bringing “Concepts of Print” to a new level for those of us who only read English.
During the ceremony, each child was called upon, one by one, to read from the Torah. From my second row seat (with my reading teacher hat on) I watched in awe as each child scanned from right to left (not left to right!) and carefully pronounced the Hebrew words. I saw, from the corner of my eye, the children’s grandparents leaning slightly forward, flush with pride. Each child gave a short speech—called D’var Torah—about the personal meaning of the occasion and the parents, too, spoke to each child about the individual gifts he or she brings to their family and congregation. I was glad I followed my friend’s advice to “bring tissues, in case you cry at this very happy occasion” because I did, in fact, cry. It was joyful and moving and—I hesitate to use this word, but it fits—it was special. Because one of the triplets—Louisa—has Down syndrome. Her preparation, as you might imagine, was more complex than her brothers’. For her passage, the Hebrew characters were enlarged. The passage was not as long as her brothers’ passages. A few times in the ceremony, when the Cantor sang (and I am pretty sure that the Cantor was intended to sing alone) Louisa burst into song, notably accurate in her pronunciation. When, toward the end of the ceremony, the children were to stand to the far left and Louisa stayed firmly planted to the far right, the Rabbi and Cantor and her brothers gracefully sidestepped to the right and the ceremony continued. It was not what was planned but it was perfect. It was beautiful.
I have known Louisa since she was in kindergarten. She is a proficient reader, thanks to her parents’ unrelenting advocacy. I can only imagine the effort and persistence it took for Louisa to learn to read that Hebrew passage. But she did learn it, as well as the words to all the songs and prayers in the ceremony. There, among her family and her community, she participated fully in what I now know is one of the most important moments in a Jewish child’s life. She participated because her parents never considered that she would not become a Bat Mitzvah. She participated because the Rabbi and the Cantor and her tutor and the entire congregation provided her with the support she needed to be successful. That, to me, is the definition of community. Mazel tov, Louisa, on this important milestone in your life. And thank you for inviting me to share in your journey.
Photos courtesy John Videler Photography
Many parents have written in to ask how they can support their child’s literacy development at home, particularly in the area of reading comprehension and vocabulary development. I turned to Connecticut reading expert, Sheryl Knapp, who graciously agreed to write a guest post on this topic. To read more about Sheryl’s work, check out her website at Literacy Best Practices.
by Sheryl Knapp, M.Ed., A/AOGPE
It’s the end of summer recess and with the new school year comes new teachers, a new curriculum – and, for parents of students with significant disabilities, a new educational environment to navigate. Here are ways you can support your child’s literacy development this year, regardless of your child’s age or reading level:
1. Shake it up! When reading with your child, utilize a variety of text. Nonfiction can be an excellent vehicle for teaching content area vocabulary. Since nonfiction tends to be more content-dense, you will need to approach it more slowly and deliberately; teach your child to re-read confusing or complex sections to facilitate understanding. “Authentic” text—such as magazines, guidebooks, newspapers, journals and websites—can be particularly motivating for children, and exposes them to a variety of writing styles and formats.
Making it work:
2. Maximize engagement. Reading comprehension is an active process, requiring constant interaction with the text. Proficient readers maintain an ongoing internal dialogue as they read, continually checking that text makes sense and thinking about questions that arise as they read. For some children, this process must be taught directly and explicitly.
Making it work:
3. Focus on the “big picture.” Many children with intellectual disabilities have difficulty sifting through details to derive the central interpretation of text. When a reader focuses primarily on individual sentences or facts – particularly less relevant or more peripheral elements – she may miss the “big picture.”
Making it work:
4. Model appropriate uses of prior knowledge. Proficient readers make personal connections with text, drawing on prior knowledge and experiences while reading to make sense of text and to determine if this knowledge can help them better understand the content. For many students with Down syndrome, this prior knowledge at times impedes (or overwhelms) the content contained within the text rather than enhancing it.
Making it work:
5. Don’t forget prosody and phrasing! Proficient readers “group words in ways that help them gain meaning from what they read… read[ing] effortlessly and with expression. Their reading sounds natural, as if they are speaking” (Put Reading First, 2006). Proper phrasing and inflection are critical to maximizing text comprehension, yet struggling readers frequently sound laborious or “flat” when reading.
Making it work:
The support that parents provide at home helps students with Down syndrome to generalize concepts outside of the academic environment – and utilize all those great literacy strategies they are learning at school to the text they encounter in the “real world.”
One of the most effective ways to jump-start early literacy development is to read to children early (beginning by about 9 months) and often (at least 3 times a week). For toddlers and older children, interactive or shared reading is more effective at building language and literacy skills than simply reading aloud. There are many ways to make reading more interactive but one method in particular–Dialogic Reading—has been shown to have significant positive effects on oral language development. Pioneered by Dr. Grover Whitehurst and based on extensive research, Dialogic Reading involves repeated readings of a story while engaging the child in dialogue. The adult prompts the child with questions about the story and reinforces and expands on the child’s responses until, over time, the child becomes the storyteller and the adult, the listener.
Here is a video series by Dr. Whitehurst explaining Dialogic Reading. For examples of how to implement this strategy, see Dialogic Reading Techniques. This easy-to-follow training video demonstrates how to use Dialogic Questioning with Video Stories. To learn more about the research supporting Dialogic Reading, see What Works Clearinghouse: Dialogic Reading.
Have you used this technique with your child or students? We’d love to hear from you!
Last weekend, I was tutoring a 21-year-old young woman with Down syndrome (I’ll call her Hannah) who had gone through her entire public school career without learning to read. Hannah is an engaging, bright and social person who is living a full life. She likes to dance (Hip Hop), she’s active in sports, and she definitely knows how to rock a party dress. How, I wondered, is it possible that this capable young woman received 18 years of “special education and related services” and never learned to read? When I met Hannah about a month ago, she did not know a single letter name or sound. She knew a few sight words, but because of lack of use, even that was not consistent. In just three weeks of tutoring, Hannah has started to blend sounds to read short CVC words (cat, hat, etc.). It’s always exciting to see this—when reading “clicks” for someone. I have no doubt that Hannah will, in fact, learn to read and that this skill will greatly enhance her life and for that, I am happy. But I couldn’t help but feel a momentary sadness when her mother wondered aloud what life would have been like for Hannah if she had acquired this skill when she was younger.
I had been pondering all of this when the next morning, I tuned in to “This American Life” on National Public Radio. The theme of the show was “long shots” and below is a snippet from the show’s transcript:
Ira Glass: Remember last year’s Kentucky Derby? The horse that won was such a long shot that the Sports Illustrated writer assigned to the race never even bothered to find out about him before the race. He’d lost 31 of his previous 32 races. At 50 to 1 odds, he was the longest long shot ever to win the Derby in over a century. Newsday published a preview of the race where it told this horse to just stay in the barn.
Announcer: As the field turns for home, top of the stretch, it’s still Join In The Dance with a tenuous lead–
Ira Glass: If you watch this race on YouTube – and you should, it’s incredible– the horse that’s going to win is called Mine That Bird. And he is so far behind that halfway through the race, you see all the other horses– they’re in a pack– and then this huge empty space, and then way behind that space is Mine That Bird. Then he picks up speed, he catches up to the pack, and it’s not until the final stretch that he passes every other horse and gets out in front. It all happens so fast that the announcer doesn’t even have time to say his name until it’s nearly over.”
Announcer: Mine That Bird now comes out to take the lead as they come down to the finish. And it’s spectacular! Spectacular upset! MineThat Bird has won the Kentucky Derby, that impossible result here!
Ira Glass: That’s how he did it. The jockey, Calvin Borel, said, “I road him like a good horse.”
Here we are again, I thought—back at expectations. That jockey believed in Mine That Bird, and Mine That Bird knew it. Hannah’ mother knew her daughter could read, and she refused to give up on that dream. Now, at 21 years old, Hannah is picking up speed and I can just see her crossing that finish line.
One of my favorite sites for free literacy resources is Ed Pubs, the U.S. Department of Education online catalog of FREE publications. They have everything from research briefs to toolkits to DVDs–even bookmarks! Topics include literacy, technology, academic achievement, assessment and behavior, to name just a few. The searchable database is easy to navigate. And, did I say everything is free? Delivered right to your door. Check out their postcards–colorful, durable cards with synopses of research on reading comprehension, response to intervention and preventing problem behavior.
Here are a few other sites that offer free stuff:
Do you have a favorite source for free materials? Send it in and I’ll add it to the list!
For the past few days, I have been trying to write a short, simple post on phonemic awareness. I start out fine, but by the third paragraph I am mired in the tongue-twisting vocabulary needed to describe this important area of literacy development, and I give up. Today, I had the great idea to find someone else’s blog explaining phonemic awareness so I could finally take advantage of that nifty “Press This” button on my blog (probably created for just this sort of situation). But that didn’t work out, so here is my not-quite-short-nor-simple explanation of phonemic awareness.
Phonemic awareness is one of the five “building blocks” of early literacy instruction cited by the National Reading Panel. In fact, it is building block #1 because it is a skill that develops before all the other skills needed to learn to read. It is also an area where many children with Down syndrome struggle tremendously. The good news is, phonemic awareness skills can be taught and mastering these skills can pave the way for children to become successful readers.
Phonemic awareness is “the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds” (Yopp, 1992). An important point to remember about phonemic awareness is that it refers to the sounds (or phonemes) of spoken language, not to the letters (or graphemes) of written language. Once you start to associate sounds with written letters, it’s called phonics, but that’s another post. Here are some examples of phonemic awareness skills:
A common misunderstanding about phonemic awareness is that it means the same as phonological awareness and some people mistakenly use the terms interchangeably. Phonological awareness is a broader term that refers to a continuum of skills on the road to developing phonemic awareness. A beginning phonological awareness skill is the ability to hear and produce rhyme. Next, children may learn that sentences are made up of separate units (words) and that those units have meaning when they are put together. Then, the child moves to blending and segmenting syllables, then on to blending and segmenting parts of syllables (/b/ and /at/), and finally, to blending and segmenting individual phonemes (phonemic awareness). Here is a concise explanation of the difference between phonological awareness and phonemic awareness. Here is a great article on the importance of phonological awareness, which highlights a critical point: phonological and phonemic awareness are not related to intelligence.
Since phonemic awareness is needed to acquire reading skills, and it has been shown to be an area of difficulty for children with Down syndrome, it is important to begin to address these skills early. Here are some resources to get started:
One final note about phonological awareness and children with Down syndrome. For some reason, many children with Down syndrome never learn to rhyme. Because rhyming is a beginning step on the ladder of phonological awareness skills, a child may be stalled in his reading instruction because of the belief that you can’t move on until the child masters rhyming. Not true. Just move on. It is possible to learn to read without mastering rhyming.
People are very open-minded about new things — as long as they’re exactly like the old ones.~ Charles F. Kettering
I often find myself spending more time than I want to persuading people to teach a child with Down syndrome to read. There are a lot of myths out there about reading instruction for this population of children and many of these beliefs can delay or even prevent a child from getting effective literacy instruction. Just when I think a myth is finally dead and buried, someone resurrects it. Here is my attempt to put three of these myths to rest:
Myth #1: You can’t teach a child to read until she can talk. There are variations on this theme, including “if she can’t make the sound for the letter, how will we know if she’s learned it?” This common belief can significantly delay early literacy instruction for a population of children strongly in need of early intervention. Research has shown that it is, in fact, possible for children who are completely non-verbal to learn to read (Browder et al, 2008) and not only that, learning to read has been shown to actually enhance communication skills in children with Down syndrome (Buckley & Bird, 2001). The bottom line is, children with Down syndrome should be on the same timetable of early literacy instruction as typically developing children.
Myth #2: Literacy instruction must be “developmentally appropriate.” This statement means different things to different people, but it often translates to the contention that a child is “not ready” to learn something. While this belief can extend to any area of literacy, it seems to come up most often in the area of vocabulary. “Why teach a child to read words she doesn’t understand?” or “why read books that are above his comprehension level?” What results is the tendency to choose text that only contains words the child “knows.” This can be tricky since the listening comprehension skills of many children with Down syndrome significantly outpace their expressive communication skills. To complicate matters, research shows that many children do not learn new vocabulary through incidental exposure. They need explicit instruction in the meaning and use of new words. The National Reading Panel recommends taking every opportunity to expose children to new words and to dialogue about their meaning. This not only builds vocabulary, but also enhances comprehension. For more on this topic, see Teaching Vocabulary by Diamond & Gutlohn (2006).
Myth #3: Children with Down syndrome need specialized reading programs developed just for them. Children with Down syndrome can learn to read proficiently using the same evidence-based practices that are effective for children without disabilities. Besides, programs don’t teach reading, teachers do. Numerous studies have confirmed that one of the most important factors in a child’s success in learning to read is teacher knowledge and expertise (Lyon & Weiser, 2009). Rather than focusing on programs, we should invest in training teachers who are diagnostic and knowledgeable in their approach to reading instruction. As Sebastian Wren wrote, “if you want somebody to become a chef, you can’t just hand that person a cookbook and tell him or her to follow a recipe.”