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.

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.

 

Guest post: Back to school tips from Sheryl Knapp!

child with Down syndrome reading with motherMany parents have written in to ask how they can support their child’s literacy development at home, particularly in the area of reading comprehension and vocabulary development. I turned to Connecticut reading expert, Sheryl Knapp, who graciously agreed to write a guest post on this topic. To read more about Sheryl’s work, check out her website at Literacy Best Practices.

5 Ways to Support Your Child’s Literacy Development at Home

by Sheryl Knapp, M.Ed., A/AOGPE 

It’s the end of summer recess and with the new school year comes new teachers, a new curriculum – and, for parents of students with significant disabilities, a new educational environment to navigate.  Here are ways you can support your child’s literacy development this year, regardless of your child’s age or reading level:

1.  Shake it up!  When reading with your child, utilize a variety of text. Nonfiction can be an excellent vehicle for teaching content area vocabulary. Since nonfiction tends to be more content-dense, you will need to approach it more slowly and deliberately; teach your child to re-read confusing or complex sections to facilitate understanding.  “Authentic” text—such as magazines, guidebooks, newspapers, journals and websites—can be particularly motivating for children, and exposes them to a variety of writing styles and formats.

Making it work:  

  • Read a reference guide on a topic of interest to your child – for instance, a guide to dog breeds – and practice using section headings and/or indexes to locate specific topics.
  • Discuss the use of various fonts (e.g., italics), callout boxes, and other print tools that highlight and/or summarize critical text.

2.  Maximize engagement.  Reading comprehension is an active process, requiring constant interaction with the text. Proficient readers maintain an ongoing internal dialogue as they read, continually checking that text makes sense and thinking about questions that arise as they read. For some children, this process must be taught directly and explicitly.

Making it work:

  • While reading, model self-questioning strategies, posing appropriate questions (“Why did he….?”) and statements (“I am surprised that he ….”), and making predictions (“I think he is going to…”).
  • Encourage your child to “make a movie in your head” while reading by helping him form visual images and referencing these images wherever possible.
  • Always watch for overt signs that your child has “tuned out” – in particular, if she looks away from the text – and immediately work to re-engage her.

3.  Focus on the “big picture.”  Many children with intellectual disabilities have difficulty sifting through details to derive the central interpretation of text.  When a reader focuses primarily on individual sentences or facts – particularly less relevant or more peripheral elements – she may miss the “big picture.”

Making it work:

  • A scaffolding approach is often helpful in shifting focus to more central ideas and themes within text.  Help your child to organize and categorize ideas presented in the text through ongoing discussion.
  • Use targeted follow-up questions to encourage your child to delve more deeply into the main ideas within the text.  If your child supplies a single-word answer to a question, try to get her to provide more details or otherwise elaborate on her response. Help her to draw conclusions or establish a broader understanding of the text based on these details.

4.  Model appropriate uses of prior knowledge.  Proficient readers make personal connections with text, drawing on prior knowledge and experiences while reading to make sense of text and to determine if this knowledge can help them better understand the content.  For many students with Down syndrome, this prior knowledge at times impedes (or overwhelms) the content contained within the text rather than enhancing it.

Making it work:

  • Ask leading questions pertaining to relevant experiences – for instance “Doesn’t this look like the fin we saw on the shark at the aquarium last week?” or “Do you remember how you felt when you…?”
  • Balance prior knowledge with text content.  Help your child to use his prior knowledge or experiences to enhance his understanding of text – without overwhelming it.  For instance, if reading a book about sharks, make references to observations from a previous trip to the aquarium while also emphasizing elements of the text that differ from what was observed.

5.  Don’t forget prosody and phrasing!  Proficient readers “group words in ways that help them gain meaning from what they read… read[ing] effortlessly and with expression.  Their reading sounds natural, as if they are speaking” (Put Reading First, 2006).  Proper phrasing and inflection are critical to maximizing text comprehension, yet struggling readers frequently sound laborious or “flat” when reading.

Making it work:

  • Choose text that your child can read comfortably.  Otherwise, so much of her attention will be required for the word identification process that little or no capacity will be available to devote to determining the meaning of the text she is reading – which is critical to applying appropriate inflection.
  • Model appropriate intonation, inflection and pacing, as demonstrated by the teacher in this video.
  • Employ both choral (simultaneous) and echo (alternating) reading, enabling your child to practice the inflection and pacing modeled.
  • Try a theatrical approach to the dialogue within text, perhaps serving as the “narrator” and having your child read each character’s dialogue – with varying (and exaggerated) inflection employed, based on the character type (e.g., a gruff voice for an annoyed neighbor).  Text dialogue often provides an ideal vehicle for teaching and practicing natural inflection.

The support that parents provide at home helps students with Down syndrome to generalize concepts outside of the academic environment – and utilize all those great literacy strategies they are learning at school to the text they encounter in the “real world.”

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).

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: