Developing Literacy Skills

Most teenagers with Down syndrome will have been introduced to reading and writing during their primary school years, but individual rates of progress vary widely. Some teenagers will start secondary school able to read and write at the level of a typical 8-9 year old. This level of literacy is enough to allow them to record their work and to read and write short texts. However, some other teenagers will still be at the beginning stages of literacy development.

Strategies for teaching reading and writing to teenagers:

    • Select words appropriate for the teenager’s language comprehension level and interests, and that can be used to build sentences
    • Make individual books based on the teenager’s experience and interests
    • Create sentences for use in everyday conversations
    • Teach whole words first, then introduce letter sounds and syllables using the teenager’s sight vocabulary to help them to understand phonics
    • Make reading and writing both fun and functional (creating a newsletter or newspaper, keeping a diary, or writing letters)
    • Choose words and sentences that relate to the teenager’s interests or knowledge from everyday life and things the individual likes to communicate about and do – these are more likely to be learned and used by the teenager
    • Teenagers learning to read should receive daily practice
    • Teenagers should have use of a computer and software to support all aspects of literacy teaching
    • Use photographs and pictures to support storytelling, description of events and writing

Teaching adolescents with Down syndrome to read and write requires enthusiasm and creativity, but the methods are those that will benefit many other pupils. It is important that secondary school pupils are given reasons for reading and writing. Functional tasks such as sending an email to someone, filling out an application form or reading the newspaper should be incorporated into their regular programme. The benefits of being able to read are extensive, but in particular, the spoken language of teenagers with Down syndrome will improve as they learn to read. All teenagers with Down syndrome should be included in reading instruction, supported as necessary to help them learn, and be provided with reading books and other materials for use in the classroom and at home. They will also benefit from some additional materials to help them to learn, such as personal word cards, adapted and home-made books.

When planning literacy teaching, take account of:

    • The age of the student – try to use age appropriate resources
    • The level of hearing loss, if any. When was their last hearing test?
    • Vision: has the pupil had a recent vision check? Do they need to wear glasses?
    • The student’s level of oral language comprehension
    • The speech skills of the student
    • Their phonological awareness level
    • Existing level of reading skills
    • Existing level of writing skills
    • Level of handwriting skills
    • Level of spelling skills
    • Level of auditory memory skills
    • Conversation and communication skills
    • The level of support for learning at home
    • Student’s interests and leisure activities
    • Student’s level of motivation and approach to learning
    • The opportunity for use of different media and computers
    • The social and academic confidence and self esteem of the student

More skilled readers may need additional activities to continue to develop their reading comprehension and writing skills. Teachers should try to maintain a focus on language development throughout all teaching and learning activities and in the classroom environment. Literacy can be used to support and develop working memory and learning across the curriculum.

(Adapted from Down Syndrome Education International)

For teaching literacy, a three-pronged approach exists:

    • Learning to Read: Focused reading, writing & spelling programmes – learning the technical skills involved in reading and writing – accuracy, fluency, word attack skills
    • Reading for Meaning: Developing comprehension skills – understanding what you read and relating it to what you already know
    • Reading to Learn: Supported literacy across the curriculum – supporting the student to access the curriculum including learning important subject-specific vocabulary, how to extract the key points in a text, summarise information, etc.

Pupils with Down syndrome in post-primary school should be supported in all three areas.

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