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.

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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

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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:

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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:

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Consistent with recommended practices, many families indicated that they are providing a literacy-rich home environment for their child:

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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!

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!

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.”

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!

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).

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: