The Ups of Teaching Children with Down Syndrome

As recently as the 1970s in England, children with Down syndrome were dismissed as "uneducable" and banned from the school systems. Sue Buckley, a professor of psychology, writes about her experiences as an adoptive mother of a child with Down Syndrome in England. After adopting Regina as a 16 month old, Sue began researching educational options for her daughter and noticed that there were few studies done to understand the way children with Down Syndrome learn.

The assumption was that children with Down syndrome are globally delayed, but what Professor Buckley recognized is that children with Down syndrome have a particular profile of learning delays and relative strengths. This realization led her to begin a research fund to assist children to learn to read at a young age. Many parents found that teaching their children to read produced improvements in spoken language and memory. As one parent wrote to Professor Buckley, "It was a 'life-changing' experience to see videos of preschool children with Down syndrome reading, and to realize that, although my daughter could not yet talk properly she would very soon be able to start learning to read."

Thus, what are methods that successful educators use to teach reading to children with Down syndrome? And, how can reading carry over to areas such as verbal and social skills? Those are the questions I will attempt to answer in this article.

Different Needs, Different Methods

No two children are alike; however, for most children with Down syndrome social understanding is usually a strength, beginning in infancy. Many of the cues that indicate how someone is feeling are non-verbal, such as facial expression, tone of voice, posture, and gestures. Therefore, even if a child does not understand all of the spoken language around him, he can use the non-verbal signals to comprehend the social situation.

Down Syndrome Education International, a charity designed towards bettering education for children with Down syndrome, clarifies that children with Down syndrome tend to have better social understanding and social behavior than other children with similar levels of cognitive and communication delay and this can help them to be successful in communal activities and in inclusive education.

In infancy and preschool years, children’s delayed language skills will not greatly hinder their social interaction; however, as they grow older, language begins to play a larger role in social interaction. Therefore, they might have more difficulty in becoming socially competent or in controlling self-regulating activity. They will be older before they understand why certain behaviors might be dangerous or inappropriate.

Children’s rate of language development will influence many aspects of their social development. As children's understanding of language develops, it is possible to reason with them and explain why certain behaviors are desirable and others are not. Of course, this can be done effectively in non-verbal ways, but requires significantly more patience on both the child and adult’s behalf. As their language and communication skills develop, children experience less frustration and can explain how they feel or ask for what they want.

This is where reading comes in. Research has shown that developing reading skills in children with Down syndrome can trickle down to language development, which in turn can influence social skills and behavior. So, how can we teach children with Down syndrome reading skills?

Reading and Down Syndrome

Children with Down syndrome are usually able to learn more effectively from what they can see than from what they can hear. Unlike others, they have difficulty learning their first language from listening. Therefore, children will understand and remember how to say words and sentences earlier if they learn how to read from a young age.

One of the first steps towards successful reading is simply being read to. From an early age, children can appreciate that books are entertaining and fun. This will encourage them to want to read for their own enjoyment as they grow older. Reading is a fundamental life skill, but it also provides children with Down syndrome with a sense of mastery and competence because it is something they can do well.

Once reading instruction begins (for children with Down syndrome, this can be as early as two years of age), it is important to begin with whole word and to develop reading for meaning as a first step. Once children gain a significant "sight" vocabulary, they can begin to learn how to sound out new sounds and words through phonics instruction. From there, reading can help speech at the level of sounds (phonemes), whole word production, and sentence production. On the Down Syndrome Education International website, one mother gushes about the benefits of reading for her daughter who was in a inclusive classroom:

"[Reading] helped her speech. For example, when she began to read at age two, she spoke understandably but imperfectly as she left out definite and indefinite articles, prepositions, etc. The change came when she was able to sentence build in flashcards. Today her speech is mature and her teacher commented at the last parents’ evening that the extent of her vocabulary and her turn of phrase would leave many in the class standing.

It helped in the way other children regarded Emma, and not least, her own self-esteem. They knew that in reading she was among the best in the class. This apparently less able child wasn't so less able after all!"

Methods to Teach Sight Words

Of course, even parents can help their children learn how to read through a variety of games that encourage the recognition and memorization of sight words.

Once your child can match and select pictures confidently in this way, you can go back to the beginning and teach the same words. This time, work with the written word, without pictures playing the same matching and naming games. Feel free to make your own lotto boards with familiar words like favorite foods, sibling names, or favorite places.

Final Thoughts

Obviously, this is not a quick process, but with persistence and patience, children with Down syndrome can reap the benefits of reading. When reading is fun and exciting, children gain self-esteem and confidence. Perhaps more importantly, reading promotes language development, which in turn can support social development. So, let’s take out those board books and start reading!

An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net.

This article first appeared in issue #14 of Down Syndrome Amongst Us


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