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.

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.


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).

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: