Timothy Shanahan and Christopher Lonigan explore the connection between early oral language development and later reading comprehension success Supporting young children’s language and literacy development has long been considered a practice that yields strong readers and writers later in life. The results of the National Early Literacy Panel’s (NELP) six years of scientific research synthesis …
This is a great blog post by Tim Shanahan on the role of a research-based Scope and Sequence in teaching phonics. We know from research that children with Down syndrome benefit from structured, systematic approaches to teaching in general. I have found this to be particularly true when it comes to reading instruction.
Learning to read is hard work and for many kids, slow going. Knowing this, I always ask new students, “Why do you want to learn to read?” The answers are often poignant (“I want to read the birthday cards from my grandma”), sometimes practical (“I want to be able to tell the difference between the shampoo bottle and the conditioner”) or surprising (“I want to read the subtitles of a foreign movie”). For teens, the answers almost always do NOT match their parents’ ideas of why reading is important. Some of my favorites: “I want to write a love letter,” “I want to tweet,” or “I want to Goggle (something not entirely appropriate).” I always write these wishes down, so when the time comes to finally begin blending phonemes into words, we can apply that skill to something meaningful and motivating for the student. This week, I received the following email from a parent, which nicely illustrates this concept:
James just sounded out “girls twerking booty” as he typed it into YouTube. YouTube auto-corrected it to “girls talking booty.” This required Tom to explain to James that he had spelled everything correctly, but since the computer was misinterpreting what he entered, he should try something else. We are now all sitting around the living room thinking of alternative search terms for “Girls twerking booty.” This is not what I pictured literacy would be like.
James’ mother sent the email to me and James’ teacher. His teacher’s response?
Initial blend! r-controlled vowel! -ing ending! Yay!
My thoughts exactly.
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:
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.
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 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.
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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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|
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.
Two years ago, Penelope came to our first assessment clinic for a Pre-K literacy screening. Here she is today, enjoying that popular activity: Reading Yourself to Sleep. One of the many little joys in a reader’s life.
Photo: Dr. Leora Mogilner, a pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital, gave a book to Kaylee Smith, 9 months, and guidance to her mother, Tameka Griffiths, 33. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
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.
Recently, we received an email from Gabriella, whose 16th birthday is coming up in May. In celebration of this happy occasion, Gabriella wanted to share something with others that brought her joy. Since reading is an important part of Gabriella’s life (and coincidentally, her birthday falls during Get Caught Reading Month), she chose to promote early literacy by donating read-aloud books to families of young children. We are beyond excited that Gabriella selected Open Books Open Doors to distribute these books. Below, Gabriella shares a bit about her love of reading:
One of my earliest childhood memories is me sitting on my mom’s lap listening to her read ‘Guess How Much I Love You’ by Sam McBratney. I wanted her to read this to me every night. When I was a little older, I remember going to “Story Time” at the library with my Nana. I wish everyone could have the experience of a parent, grandparent or other adult reading to them, especially when they are younger. Not only is it a good way to spend time with family, but reading with my parents and Nana helped to make me more creative and imaginative, and I think that is the reason I love to read today. Reading is such a big and important part of my life. It helped to distract me at times when I was sick and in the hospital over the last several years. I hope to share my love of reading with others!
Happy birthday, Gabriella! Thank you for your generous gift and for sharing your love of reading with others.
To learn more about the benefits of reading aloud to children, see:
- Read Aloud: Every Parent, Every Child, Every Day
- National Reading Foundation: Have you read with a child today?
- Reading is Fundamental: Reading aloud with children of all ages.
- Reach Out and Read: The importance of reading aloud.
“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” ~Emilie Buchwald
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.
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!
Thanks again to all of you who so generously shared your experiences!
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.
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!