Long shots

Last weekend, I was tutoring a 21-year-old young woman with Down syndrome (I’ll call her Hannah) who had gone through her entire public school career without learning to read. Hannah is an engaging, bright and social person who is living a full life. She likes to dance (Hip Hop), she’s active in sports, and she definitely knows how to rock a party dress. How, I wondered, is it possible that this capable young woman received 18 years of “special education and related services” and never learned to read? When I met Hannah about a month ago, she did not know a single letter name or sound. She knew a few sight words, but because of lack of use, even that was not consistent. In just three weeks of tutoring, Hannah has started to blend sounds to read short CVC words (cat, hat, etc.). It’s always exciting to see this—when reading “clicks” for someone. I have no doubt that Hannah will, in fact, learn to read and that this skill will greatly enhance her life and for that, I am happy. But I couldn’t help but feel a momentary sadness when her mother wondered aloud what life would have been like for Hannah if she had acquired this skill when she was younger.

I had been pondering all of this when the next morning, I tuned in to “This American Life” on National Public Radio. The theme of the show was “long shots” and below is a snippet from the show’s transcript:

Ira Glass: Remember last year’s Kentucky Derby? The horse that won was such a long shot that the Sports Illustrated writer assigned to the race never even bothered to find out about him before the race. He’d lost 31 of his previous 32 races. At 50 to 1 odds, he was the longest long shot ever to win the Derby in over a century. Newsday published a preview of the race where it told this horse to just stay in the barn.

Announcer: As the field turns for home, top of the stretch, it’s still Join In The Dance with a tenuous lead–

Ira Glass: If you watch this race on YouTube — and you should, it’s incredible– the horse that’s going to win is called Mine That Bird. And he is so far behind that halfway through the race, you see all the other horses– they’re in a pack– and then this huge empty space, and then way behind that space is Mine That Bird. Then he picks up speed, he catches up to the pack, and it’s not until the final stretch that he passes every other horse and gets out in front. It all happens so fast that the announcer doesn’t even have time to say his name until it’s nearly over.”

Announcer: Mine That Bird now comes out to take the lead as they come down to the finish. And it’s spectacular! Spectacular upset! MineThat Bird has won the Kentucky Derby, that impossible result here!

Ira Glass: That’s how he did it. The jockey, Calvin Borel, said, “I road him like a good horse.”

Here we are again, I thought—back at expectations. That jockey believed in Mine That Bird, and Mine That Bird knew it. Hannah’ mother knew her daughter could read, and she refused to give up on that dream. Now, at 21 years old, Hannah is picking up speed and I can just see her crossing that finish line.

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.

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).

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?