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

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4 thoughts on “Let’s raise the bar

  1. This is so important for educators to understand – kids with Down syndrome CAN learn well and districts need to afford them all possible opportunities, as early as possible, in order for them to be able to do so!

  2. Seventeen years ago, when my daughter Ieva was turning 5, we had the choice of two possible classrooms. One was for kids labeled MR-T, which stood for Mentally Retarded Trainable, and the other was for kids labeled MR-E, which was Mentally Retarded Educable. If she ended up in the Mentally Retarded Trainable class, she would be trained to perform “functional” skills. If she went into the Mentally Retarded Educable class, she would learn basic academic skills. Throughout preschool, I prayed to God and bargained with him. I swore I would be a selfless perfect mother in exchange for the district finding my daughter “educable” instead of “trainable.” As it turned out, by the time Ieva, who has Down syndrome, was going to enroll in kindergarten, we moved abroad where she was educated with all typical kids in a Montessori school. When we returned to the United States, Ieva was fully and successfully included in typical classes at the neighborhood schools. Thanks to good instruction, she is a proficient reader.

    Although much has changed since then–especially the language we use to refer to people with intellectual disabilities–low expectations still have the power to limit a child’s educational opportunities.

  3. Thank you for that great post, Anne! It is so true that low expectations are still a problem. I’m hoping this blog will spread the word so that all children with have the opportunities (and outcomes) that Ieva had.

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