Developing Reading Skills

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Children with Down syndrome are strong visual learners and poor auditory ones. The written word makes language visual and helps overcome the difficulties that many children with Down syndrome have with learning through listening. There are strong links between learning to read, improvements in working memory, and the development of language skills in children with Down syndrome. Many children with Down syndrome are able to develop their reading skills to a useful and practical level and, in so doing, can also improve and develop their verbal comprehension, and speech and language skills. Reading also improves their articulation by providing more language practice, while seeing sentences in print helps them learn about sentence structure for use in spontaneous speech. Furthermore, reading is an area of the curriculum where many children with Down syndrome can experience success. For these reasons, reading instruction for children with Down syndrome should begin early, as soon as the child has a receptive oral vocabulary of 50 – 100 words, and is able to match pictures and select pictures from a set when requested. Checklists for assessing oral vocabulary are available to purchase on the Down Syndrome Education International website (www.downsed.org)

However, it is important to be aware of how children with Down syndrome learn to read, as this differs in some ways from phonic-based strategies used in many primary schools.

    • When teaching a child with Down’s syndrome to read, a key method is the use of whole-word sight recognition (the ‘Look-Say’ approach)
    • Using phonics to decode words can be more difficult for young children with Down syndrome because it involves accurate hearing and good auditory discrimination of sounds as well as problem-solving skills – all common areas of difficulty in children with Down syndrome.
    • However, many children with Down’s syndrome can gain a basic knowledge of phonics and can apply this to aid their reading. Phonics should be gradually introduced, therefore, once the child has a sight (reading) vocabulary of approximately 50 words. They may take longer to grasp phonics concepts than their typical peers, but it should be continued, even if progress is slow.
    • A phonics scheme with a strong visual element (such as Jolly Phonics or Phono-Graphix) suits the visual learning style of children with Down syndrome better than purely auditory methods.

(Adapted from Down’s Syndrome Association UK)

Ten key steps to literacy teaching for pupils with Down syndrome:

    • First, teach the child a small sight vocabulary
    • Teach them to use these words in simple sentences
    • Ensure they can read and understand these sentences
    • Teach comprehension skills and strategies
    • Provide practice in creating/constructing sentences
    • Develop phonic skills
    • Teach spellings
    • Make personal books with the child using their own sentences
    • Support literacy skills with computer-based activities
    • Ensure that learning to read is a fun and relaxed process which is based on the child’s own life and interests

(From Down Syndrome Education International)

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