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.

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

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

Summertime reading

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.

Penny2

 

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!

Celebrate reading!

GabriellaRecently, 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:

 “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.”                                                ~Emilie Buchwald

Picture of the week

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!”

surprise

Techno Bytes!

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.

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!

Shanahan on Literacy: Too Fluent by Half

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.

 

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:

and even MORE free literacy stuff!

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!

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!

Big benefits from shared reading

Child with Down syndrome reading with teacherOne 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. 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!

Free literacy stuff!

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:

  • PBS Kids–Free activities, coloring sheets, advice for building literacy skills.
  • Helping your Child Become a Reader–literacy activities from birth to age 6.
  • Reading Planet–animated stories read aloud. Includes an annotated list of 1,000 children’s books that can be browsed by age group, author or category.
  • Reading Rockets–parent tip sheets in 11 languages, hands-on activities, a library of web widgets and other resources for parents and teachers.
  • Starfall–downloadable “make and take” books, puzzle activities and materials for teaching phonics skills.
  • Intervention Central –chock full of resources to help struggling learners.Teaching strategies, downloadable resource manuals and online assessment tools, including a Maze reading passage generator, reading fluency chart makers and a behavior tracker and graph maker.

Do you have a favorite source for free materials? Send it in and I’ll add it to the list!

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).

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!

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.