Teaching Reading to Teach Talking

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Leslie W. Duffen
Published by: The Down's Syndrome Association (UK)
Second Edition, August 1991
  Reprinted with the permission of Susannah Seyman, Information Officer
The Down's Syndrome Association (UK)
155 Mitcham Road
London SW17 9PG, UK
0181-682 4001 Fax: 0181-682 4012

My daughter Sarah is now 7½ and has a reading age of between 8 and 9. This, in other children is not too remarkable, but Sarah has Down's Syndrome. Most of you will be familiar with the Ladybird reading schemes and it will perhaps help you to understand what sort of level she is reading at if I say that we have read all the 'a' and 'b' series up to and including 10a and 10b and she is just about to start 11a. Ladybird themselves suggest that 10a and 10b are for an ordinary child of 9 to 9½. Sarah has Down's Syndrome.
When I started teaching Sarah to read, I knew nothing at all about teaching reading and even less about any theories of language development. I think this is just as well because if I had I would never have started. All this talk about reading readiness and about fluent speech as a prerequisite for learning to read is absolute nonsense. If I had listened to all that I would never have started teaching Sarah reading, and nobody else would have taught her to read either because, with a reading age of 9½, she still cannot pass the accepted test of reading readiness.
For instance for one of the tests, they say that if she cannot repeat back to you a short story you have told her, she cannot learn to read. Sarah can recollect and recall, not necessarily the same sentence, but she shows from question and answer quite clearly that she understood every word of the story. In other words, she is not just reading it out ('barking at print' is current jargon in teaching).
Before Sarah could read, a lot of us said that she understood much more than she could say. I am sure a lot of you would agree with this and equally I am sure a lot of you have heard experts say, "nonsense, she cannot understand more than she can say". If you tell a child something and afterwards she understands it, it is not easy to tell that she understood it from what you said. If the child is reading a page from a Ladybird book, it is much easier then, to be sure that she understands it.
I am personally convinced that it is possible for a child to be literally years ahead in ability in understanding compared with the ability to produce either speech or writing.
I have been told that there is a defect in the part of the brain of children such as ours, which is associated with the ability to integrate speech, and I am sure, after my experience with Sarah, that she has normal intelligence in terms of understanding, but that there is something wrong with her ability to integrate and produce the spoken or written word. I think that reading has helped her in that. Our children seem to have enormous difficulty in being able to progress from saying single words to producing sentences. While Sarah was still at the stage of only being able to talk in single words, she was actually able to read.
At one time she could not reproduce a sentence she heard, but only those she had read. I remember that the first sentence she ever said was, "we went to Exeter", because we live near Exeter and this longer sentence she had learnt to read. She came up with, "we went to Exeter" the day after we went to Exeter and a week after she had read the sentence. In other words, she learned to read the sentence and then was able later to produce it in context on the right occasion.
That was just the beginning, but that is why I am convinced that reading before she could talk helped to develop her speech. I am not so certain that it has helped to develop her. Intelligence testing and language are so interwoven that it is difficult to demonstrate the existence of intelligence without the control of language. Even the non-verbal intelligence tests are explained in words or the understanding of the test in the terms of words must be in the child's mind.
The fact that Sarah can read with comprehension at a level considered to be probably a year ahead of her chronological age has been demonstrated to several educational psychologists, teachers, and others. A year ago they would not believe this and she was transferred from a normal school to the diagnostic unit at another normal school, because they just thought she was producing sounds. Now, however, they are convinced that what I have said is correct.
Now, of course, that she can read and can talk, I cannot prove to the 'experts' that a few years ago she could read and could not talk. At that stage they were not interested. Again, I cannot prove that her reading helped her to talk, but there were many instances when she reproduced sentences she had read, but not heard. Now, of course, she has read and heard so much that there are no clear cut distinctions.

How Sarah learned to read

To begin with, we always had plenty of books lying around. This by itself does not, of course, enable a child to read. When she was about 3½ it seemed to me that she was associating some words and pictures and remembering the associations. It was very vague, because I would say "cat" and she would turn to the picture of a cat without apparently looking at the picture. I then bought the Ladybird book on teaching reading, the early A and B books and flash cards. Fortunately, I ignored the section on reading readiness!
At this time Sarah could say a lot of words, but not a single sentence. She could go on repeating word after word after us, but could not or would not repeat a sentence. We started with flash cards associating words with pictures - and got nowhere. Then we took the reading with understanding approach, that is, the child must understand everything she reads - and got nowhere. We wasted a colossal amount of time and Sarah was getting very fed up with the whole business. So we abandoned all the different things we had tried and went back to the basic one of memorising flash cards by deadly monotonous repetition.
The reason we did this was because Sarah first read a short sentence from words which she had individually memorised, quite by accident without necessarily understanding them. I think kids come to understand by using the same word in different contexts.
We had talked and talked to Sarah but she did not actually say, "we went to Exeter", until she had read it. After this we concentrated on building up a very large sight vocabulary by the repetitive build up of flash cards although this was a deadly monotonous drill which Sarah hated. We found that working with one or two cards just did not work, but a batch of 20 or 30 did. I would show each card to Sarah, say the word and get her to repeat it while looking at the word. She had got to look at it. After we had gone through the whole batch in this way two or three times, I would get Sarah to read the cards before I did. If I showed her the card and she did not immediately say the word, I would say it for her so that she never got a chance to fail on any word. If I showed her 40 cards, she would get 35 right and the other 5 she would not have a chance to get wrong.
Similarly, I never criticised her. If she did get a word wrong, I never said "silly girl" but merely said "that pile" and she got used to putting the word into either of two piles: right, and not immediately recognised. The pile of words she did not get right immediately, I just read out to her with no further testing. To me, testing should be for the teacher's benefit to guide him or her on the right way to teach the child. It should not merely be used to criticise the child or see how good he or she is. The number of new words introduced was always very much smaller than the number she already knew. It took us something like a year to work up to doing 20 minutes of flash cards a day, and we never spent longer than this. We had, of course, started with 3 or 4 and I was surprised when I found that the larger batches worked better.
People have suggested that my success with Sarah must be because I am a natural teacher. This is just not true. I am naturally short-tempered and impatient and I needed an enormous effort of unnatural patience and control when she would not do something that I knew she could do. I am sure that a trained teacher would have done better than me.
Concurrently with the flash card exercise, Sarah also learned to recognise all the letters of the alphabet, being able to write every single one of them after just a few months. In other words, we do not just rely on word shape as in true Look and Say. Also concurrently she started forming sentences and reading them aloud. It was clear to me right from the early days that Sarah had the ideas for sentences in her mind, but could not form them. She could say one or two words and express the rest by gestures.
You may have heard of the 'Break Through to Literacy' scheme where little flash cards are put into tracks to make sentences. She would tell me what she wanted. I would find all the words and put them in the track and she would read the complete sentence because it was made up of words she had learnt individually. After reading it two or three times, she would look away and repeat it. Until very recently, if I had said to her, "we went swimming yesterday afternoon", she would have been unable to repeat it, but if she had read the sentence, she could have repeated it. In other words, the things she reads aloud stick, but the things she hears do not stick.
Nowadays she writes a lot of sentences and we have got away from the need for flash cards. A year ago last Christmas, she was writing her 'thank you letters, admittedly simple ones and by copying. Now she is doing creative writing. Six months ago she wrote, "we saw a rainbow like an arch". She needed help to get the spelling right, but the sentence was her own. I am sure she must have got the word 'arch' from Playschool.
As well as going through the Ladybird series to 10a, 10b and now 1c, Sarah had lone a lot of reading from the library. She first went about three years ago, picking her own books and reading them. There seemed to be a dearth of books young enough for her which were not just picture books. Now it is all right because she ran read things like 'Basil Brush in the Jungle'.
Many people have criticised me for following this fierce sounding programme and inferring it must have done some harm, but we never did more than two hours in the day, spread out in widely spaced periods of not more than 20 minutes. Now hat she is at school, we only work at weekends and holidays (ignoring any reading for pleasure during the week). Before she went to ordinary school, as a five year old, she was a better reader than most and she is still the best reader in the infants class. All the basic work was, of course, done before she went to school. I was lucky because I was unemployed and could devote a lot of time to Sarah. As a result, I have now enrolled as a student at a teacher training college.


From my experience of teaching Sarah to read, I have reached several conclusions. One is that the concept of 'reading readiness' has no more validity than a concept of 'listening readiness' might have. To say a child must have a certain level of skills, experience and ability before learning to read is to deprive that child of one of the major methods by which he or she can acquire those skills, experience and ability. To me, reading is one of the main methods by which children acquire the language skills which enable them to learn to read. Having taught Sarah, reading seems to be easier than listening and both of them are much easier than talking.
Talking is difficult. It is the production of ideas, the integration of concepts, the putting together of words - that was what Sarah found difficult. The ability to recognise and associate a specific graphic with a moderately specific sound and sometimes but not always a very much less specific meaning which we call reading, is to her much easier.
The visual memory usually develops earlier and becomes more efficient than the auditory memory. Simultaneous input to both memories has a reinforcing effect. The reader can control the rate of input and the repetition in a way denied to the listener. I suggest that the receptive skills of reading and listening are relatively easy. The big step is from there to the productive skill of speech. This step is helped by early and varied reading experience.