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.

Coloring

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!

There’s an app for that

Today I was researching iPad apps when I came across an article entitled Confession App ‘No Substitute for the Sacrament.’ Apparently, there is an app for everything (in this case, Confession: A Roman Catholic App). In the article, a church official stresses that the app cannot substitute for a personal encounter, although it may be useful for people who wish to practice or prepare for confession. This pretty much sums up my feeling about apps for literacy. There are some wonderful apps out there for everything from phonics to comprehension and they can be useful for reinforcing and practicing essential literacy skills, but they are not a substitute for direct instruction by a trained teacher.

Used correctly, iPad apps can be motivating and reinforcing. One cautionary note in choosing apps is to be sure that the app you select will reinforce the skill you want to reinforce. In one phonics app I reviewed, “giraffe” and “gem” were given as examples of words that start with “g.” This is problematic if a child has not yet learned that the letter “g” has two sounds. Typically, the hard sound for “g” (as in ‘goat’ or ‘gum’) is taught first and mixing hard and soft sounds early on may hinder a child’s learning.

When evaluating apps for children, you also want to consider ease of use. Here is a great blog post on this topic: A Dad’s Plea To Developers Of iPad Apps For Children.

Having said all that, I did find many wonderful early literacy apps. The sheer number of available apps is dizzying, which is why I appreciate when other people thoughtfully research and test them and then share what they’ve found. Reading Rockets has published a great list , which they have separated according to area of literacy: Top 13 Best Vocabulary Apps, Top 12 Comprehension Apps, Top 10 Spelling Apps and Top 9 Writing Apps. This list from the University of Michigan Center for Development of Language and Literacy includes apps for children of all ages.

Here are a few of my favorite apps:

Electric Company Wordball. This phonics app reinforces reading and spelling. The child chooses from a series of videos focusing on a letter sound or letter combinations. Videos feature characters from PBS KIDS GO! Children explore “magic e,” hard and soft “c” (as in cat and city) and digraphs (/sh/, /th/, /ch/). Designed for K-4, this app requires a level of fine motor dexterity that may be difficult for younger children. Free.

 

Montessori Crossroads. Sound/symbol association and word building. A grid appears on the screen with a picture and empty boxes for letters. The word is read aloud (by a human voice that forms phonemes correctly). The child drags the letters into the boxes as each letter sound is made aloud. If you tap the finished word, the definition appears, making this a good app for building vocabulary at the higher levels. Pre-K through Grade 5. $2.99.

 

Aesop’s Quest.  I love this app, which builds listening comprehension.  While a pleasant human voice reads story segments based on Aesop’s Fables, the child listens closely for clues in order to answer questions at the end of each segment. Each correct answer earns a puzzle piece and when the puzzle is complete, so is the story. Five levels for grades 2-6. Free.

Opposite Ocean.This comprehension app was developed in partnership with the Virginia Dept. of Education. Each sentence, displayed on a whale, contains a keyword.The child chooses the opposite of the keyword from a list. The word is dragged into the magic clamshell. A correct answer earns a pearl in the treasure chest. Levels range from “easy” (grade 2) to “hard” (grade 6). Free.

Chicktionary. I almost didn’t include this app because the loud squawking sound effects and busy screen set my teeth on edge. But my 9-year-old “co-reviewer” thought it was a blast so it made the cut. Seven letters appear on bobbing chickens and you unscramble the letters to form as many words as you can. You can tap completed words to view their definition. Grades 2-4. $1.99.

 

Educreations.  Although this app was designed for teachers, I include it here because it is a versatile, creative tool for creating interactive lessons with students. It includes the ability to upload images, draw (with your finger on the screen), narrate, save and share your creations. Great for creating short, personalized stories with children and can also be used for drawing graphemes and words during phonics lessons. Free!

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.”

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: