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.

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!