Big batch of books!

This week, we will be sending out more than 75 donated books to families all over the world as part of Gabriella’s Birthday Book Giveaway! Thank you to all the people who donated books and a big thank you to R. J. Julia Booksellers for all your help (and the discount!). Most of all, thank you Gabriella for choosing to celebrate your birthday by sharing your love of reading with so many children and families.

Gabriella_RJs

Gabriella and her father, Mark, at R.J. Julia’s with our big batch of beautiful books!

As fast as you can, as slow as you must

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.

Coloring

And the survey says…..

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:where

howold

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:

informedhowwell

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:

howmuch

Consistent with recommended practices, many families indicated that they are providing a literacy-rich home environment for their child:

homereading

I will be posting additional results as they are analyzed so stay tuned!

Thanks again to all of you who so generously shared your experiences!

I’ve got reading on the brain

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.  brainWhile 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:

Memory, information processing and motivation:

  • Weak auditory working memory, i.e. difficulty holding information in short-term memory while performing other cognitive processes. For example, recalling the sound-symbol associations for letters while blending the sounds together to make a word or sounding out words while simultaneously thinking about their meaning.
  • Relative strength in tasks requiring “implicit” memory (things you do every day without really thinking about them, such as singing a song or signing your name).
  • More difficulty with “explicit” memory (remembering facts, such as the names of letters, telephone numbers or computer passwords).
  • Strong visual learners (excel at memorizing sight words).
  • Difficulty processing and remembering information presented orally (struggle with phonological awareness).
  • Often motivated by social interaction.
  • May use social interactions to avoid tasks they find challenging.
Child with Down syndrome assessment

Child skillfully distracts evaluator with series of knock-knock jokes

How does this translate into recommendations for instruction?

  • Incorporate training in phonological awareness skills from a very early age
  • Use a multi-sensory approach to teaching, including a strong visual component and manipulatives
  • Provide lots of opportunity for repetition
  • Model skills, strategies and expected behaviors
  • Allow wait time for responses
  • If needed, build in outside motivators (such as having a child track her own progress on an iPad graphing application) to compensate for low motivation or task persistence
  • Be sure that when the child is practicing a new skill, you are there to provide  feedback (so the skill is practiced correctly until it is automatic)

To learn more, check out this research:

Improving Memory in Children with Down Syndromea 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.

Celebrate World Down Syndrome Day!

In celebration of World Down Syndrome Day, I’d like to share a link to the National Down Syndrome Society “My Great Story” campaign.

My Great Story

While you’re there, check out Elmo Care

Love this article by Beverly Beckham

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.

Disney

Is my child reading on grade level?

readingWe 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:

  1. Find out what curriculum standards your school district uses to guide reading instruction. Information on standards is usually available on the website of your State Department of Education.  For example, here are the grade level standards from the Connecticut State Department of Education website. Connecticut is one of the states adopting the Common Core Standards. You can find out if your state has adopted the Common Core Standards by clicking here. Many states have developed “crosswalk” documents that show how the Common Core Standards intersect with existing state standards.  Here is a link to Connecticut’s “crosswalk” document for kindergarten English Language Arts (ELA).
  2. Check your school or district website for information on the reading curriculum used. If your child’s teacher has a web page, there may be information on the scope and sequence of reading instruction (for example, “this week, we will learn about magic-e”). Many district websites also include links to standards as well as information about resources for parents to reinforce literacy skills at home.
  3. If you are unsure of what reading skills your child has mastered, you may want to request a literacy assessment.  Here is a great article on early reading assessment from the Reading Rockets website.
  4. Review your child’s IEP. Are the reading goals consistent with the district’s literacy standards? Do you understand the goals and objectives? The language of literacy is full of jargon that is not in most parents’ everyday vocabulary. Don’t be hesitant to ask for clarification to be sure you have a full understanding of your child’s reading instruction and development.

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.

READING STANDARD                 CHILD’S SKILL LEVEL      INSTRUCTIONAL NEED
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

Pre-schoolers with iPads

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:

More FREE Literacy stuff!

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!

Learning the Aleph-bet

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

Long shots

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.

Great story from The Boston Globe

Nine years after her granddaughter Lucy was born, Globe columnist Beverly Beckham reflects on what was the best of times and the worst of times.         

Would you mind going over that phonemic awareness thing again?

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 adChild with Down syndrome thinkingvantage 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:

  • recognizing when words have the same beginning sound; for example, boy, box, bike all start with /b/. (By the way, when you see a letter between two slashes, it represents the sound, not the letter name. So, /p/ refers to the sound that the letter p makes.)
  • the ability to isolate the middle sound in a word; for example, /a/ is the middle sound in the word sack.
  • the ability to blend separate phonemes (or sounds) together to make a word. For example, if I say the following individual sounds very slowly  /t/………/a/………../p/, the child can hear that this makes the word tap.
  • the ability to break up, or segment, spoken words into their individual phonemes; i.e. the word shop has 3 phonemes: /sh/, /o/ and /p/. Notice that the first phoneme has two letters? That is because /sh/ makes only one sound and phonemic awareness is about sound, not letters.
  • the ability to isolate and manipulate sounds in words; e.g. “what is hat without the /h/?” or “what will I have if I change the /r/ in rug to /m/?”

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.

Myths and realities

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.”

What about sight words?

Child with Down syndrome readingI am often asked about sight word instruction for children with Down syndrome. This can be a touchy topic in the field because, years ago, most children with Down syndrome who were taught to read at all were taught using functional sight word programs. The thinking was that children with Down syndrome were not intellectually capable of learning the rules of the English language necessary to decode unknown words. “Besides,” people would often say, “kids with Down syndrome are whole-word readers.” I used to bristle at this comment; first, because I hate when people make sweeping generalizations about children (“kids with Down syndrome are happy,” “kids with Down syndrome are affectionate,” etc.) but also because I suspected that it was just another way of saying, “kids with Down syndrome can’t decode.” I spent a lot of time discouraging people from sight word instruction because I was so busy trying to spread the word that children with Down syndrome can learn the rules of language and decode unknown words.

As with many things in life, I have learned that there is a middle ground.  Research has shown that beginning readers need to learn sight words and phonics skills. And as it turns out, children with Down syndrome are often more skilled at learning sight words than typically developing children are. Many appear to have an affinity for sight word reading–even a love of it–from a very early age. This is a good thing, since approximately 50 percent of the text used in schools is made up of only 100 “high frequency” words. Some of these are words that cannot be sounded out–often called “permanently irregular” words, such as the, would, said, and of. The rest are words that can be decoded, but may contain rules that a young child has not yet learned, so they are “temporarily irregular” (such as eat, you, good and saw).

There is no universal sight word list (although  Dolch and Fry are common) so parents may want to check with their district to find out what list they use and/or what reading program they implement. Many commercial early reading programs introduce sight words systematically as part of the scope and sequence of the program. Knowing this information can help parents work together with their child’s teacher to avoid confusion.

And if you are wondering how many sight words a kindergartener needs to know,  Dr. Timothy Shanahan recently addressed that frequently asked question on his blog, Shanahan on Literacy (which is packed with information on every aspect of literacy and well worth a visit).

Great resource for podcasts on reading!

Voice of Literacy hosts bi-weekly podcasts of interviews with literacy specialists creating a conversation between researchers, teachers, parents, administrators, and policymakers. There is a searchable database of past shows, where I found Reading, Down Syndrome, and predictors of differential growth with Dr. Christopher Lemons. In this 12-minute podcast, Dr. Christopher Lemons talks about how parent and teacher expectations can affect what type of reading instruction children with Down syndrome receive and also the factors that predict how individual children will respond to instruction. Geared toward both parents and professionals, it is straightforward and relatively jargon-free. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Voice of Literacy is produced In collaboration with the editors of Reading Research Quarterly and the Journal of Literacy Research. It is hosted by Dr. Betsy Baker, Associate Professor of Literacy studies at the University of Missouri.

Early, intensive literacy intervention

Teacher and student with Down syndrome- reading lessonFor those of you who don’t know her, Sue Buckley has been studying the development of language and literacy in children with Down syndrome since 1980. She and her co-authors just published a study evaluating the effects of an early literacy intervention for children with Down syndrome. (You can find the full text of the paper here: Reading Study). The children who participated in the study received 40 minutes per day of reading instruction focusing on phonemic awareness, letter/sound relationships, sight words and vocabulary.Children who received the intervention showed significantly greater gains in literacy skills than children who did not receive the intervention. The gains were limited to skills that were taught directly (blending sounds, word reading, and vocabularly) and did not generalize to other areas (grammar, non-word reading, spelling). This study adds to the existing research base that highlights the need for direct instruction of literacy skills for children with Down syndrome. The study also underscores the need for early intervention and sufficient frequency and intensity of instruction. As the authors note: “Children who were younger, attended more intervention sessions, and had better initial receptive language skills made greater progress during the course of the intervention.”

Why we need universal literacy screening

Child with Down syndrome readingOver the past month, the Open Books Open Doors project has provided free literacy screenings to more than 25 young children with Down syndrome through a grant from the Connecticut Down Syndrome Congress. According to the  U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse, early literacy screening for elementary-aged children is critical so we can identify students at risk for reading failure and intervene early. Children with Down syndrome fall into the “at risk” category and should be screened at least twice per year from kindergarten through third grade. Data from the screenings, along with progress-monitoring data, can be used to develop interventions that target weak areas. For more information about literacy screening, check out Best Practice for Response to Intervention: Universal Screening.

Let’s raise the bar

Child with Down syndrome readingThere has been a long-standing and often contentious debate in education about the “best” way to teach reading: phonics or Whole Language. Simply put, phonics instruction emphasizes the relationship between speech sounds and letters, letter groups, and syllables. Whole language emphasizes the meaning of text and strategies for understanding language as a system of parts that work together to create meaning.

For children with Down syndrome, there has been a similar debate, but the reasons have nothing to do with philosophy and everything to do with expectations. For decades, if children with Down syndrome were taught to read at all, it was with a “whole word” approach. This was because most people believed that children with Down syndrome weren’t capable of learning to sound out words. Unfortunately, if we only teach children with Down syndrome to read whole words, they are limited to the words we teach them. The consequences of this are far-reaching.

The good news is that children with Down syndrome can learn to sound out words. Numerous studies have shown that when highly trained teachers implement effective methods of instruction, the overwhelming majority of children with Down syndrome can become competent readers. Research also tells us that the same methods that work for other at-risk readers work for children with Down syndrome, including:

  • literacy rich environments
  • training in phonological awareness (understanding the ways that spoken language can be divided into smaller components and manipulated.)
  • systematic, intensive, direct instruction in phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension
  • multisensory, structured language approaches that combine reading, spelling and writing

Want to learn more? Check out these links:

The power of literacy

Child with Down syndrome readingEven though children with Down syndrome can learn to read using the same evidence-based strategies as other readers, they are routinely excluded from effective reading instruction.That means that many children are growing up without the ability to keep a diary, write a poem, text their friends, read a recipe, tweet, read street signs, pass notes in class, write down a phone number, read the label on a jar, write a thank you note, jot down a friend’s address, write a love letter, read subtitles in a foreign movie, read a map, fill out a job application, read directions on a prescription bottle, spend a summer afternoon with a good book….Imagine your world if you couldn’t read?