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).

There’s an app for that

Today I was researching iPad apps when I came across an article entitled Confession App ‘No Substitute for the Sacrament.’ Apparently, there is an app for everything (in this case, Confession: A Roman Catholic App). In the article, a church official stresses that the app cannot substitute for a personal encounter, although it may be useful for people who wish to practice or prepare for confession. This pretty much sums up my feeling about apps for literacy. There are some wonderful apps out there for everything from phonics to comprehension and they can be useful for reinforcing and practicing essential literacy skills, but they are not a substitute for direct instruction by a trained teacher.

Used correctly, iPad apps can be motivating and reinforcing. One cautionary note in choosing apps is to be sure that the app you select will reinforce the skill you want to reinforce. In one phonics app I reviewed, “giraffe” and “gem” were given as examples of words that start with “g.” This is problematic if a child has not yet learned that the letter “g” has two sounds. Typically, the hard sound for “g” (as in ‘goat’ or ‘gum’) is taught first and mixing hard and soft sounds early on may hinder a child’s learning.

When evaluating apps for children, you also want to consider ease of use. Here is a great blog post on this topic: A Dad’s Plea To Developers Of iPad Apps For Children.

Having said all that, I did find many wonderful early literacy apps. The sheer number of available apps is dizzying, which is why I appreciate when other people thoughtfully research and test them and then share what they’ve found. Reading Rockets has published a great list , which they have separated according to area of literacy: Top 13 Best Vocabulary Apps, Top 12 Comprehension Apps, Top 10 Spelling Apps and Top 9 Writing Apps. This list from the University of Michigan Center for Development of Language and Literacy includes apps for children of all ages.

Here are a few of my favorite apps:

Electric Company Wordball. This phonics app reinforces reading and spelling. The child chooses from a series of videos focusing on a letter sound or letter combinations. Videos feature characters from PBS KIDS GO! Children explore “magic e,” hard and soft “c” (as in cat and city) and digraphs (/sh/, /th/, /ch/). Designed for K-4, this app requires a level of fine motor dexterity that may be difficult for younger children. Free.

 

Montessori Crossroads. Sound/symbol association and word building. A grid appears on the screen with a picture and empty boxes for letters. The word is read aloud (by a human voice that forms phonemes correctly). The child drags the letters into the boxes as each letter sound is made aloud. If you tap the finished word, the definition appears, making this a good app for building vocabulary at the higher levels. Pre-K through Grade 5. $2.99.

 

Aesop’s Quest.  I love this app, which builds listening comprehension.  While a pleasant human voice reads story segments based on Aesop’s Fables, the child listens closely for clues in order to answer questions at the end of each segment. Each correct answer earns a puzzle piece and when the puzzle is complete, so is the story. Five levels for grades 2-6. Free.

Opposite Ocean.This comprehension app was developed in partnership with the Virginia Dept. of Education. Each sentence, displayed on a whale, contains a keyword.The child chooses the opposite of the keyword from a list. The word is dragged into the magic clamshell. A correct answer earns a pearl in the treasure chest. Levels range from “easy” (grade 2) to “hard” (grade 6). Free.

Chicktionary. I almost didn’t include this app because the loud squawking sound effects and busy screen set my teeth on edge. But my 9-year-old “co-reviewer” thought it was a blast so it made the cut. Seven letters appear on bobbing chickens and you unscramble the letters to form as many words as you can. You can tap completed words to view their definition. Grades 2-4. $1.99.

 

Educreations.  Although this app was designed for teachers, I include it here because it is a versatile, creative tool for creating interactive lessons with students. It includes the ability to upload images, draw (with your finger on the screen), narrate, save and share your creations. Great for creating short, personalized stories with children and can also be used for drawing graphemes and words during phonics lessons. Free!

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?