Literacy Can Build Language Skills

Libby Kumin, Ph.D., CCC-SLP
Down Syndrome News, Vol. 21, Num. 10
Newsletter of the National Down Syndrome Congress.
Reprinted with the permission of Carla Putnam-Veal, Resource Coordinator
© National Down Syndrome Congress

Literacy, the ability to read, opens many doors. Until quite recently, it was thought that only an exceptional child with Down syndrome would be able to team to read, that most children and adults with Down syndrome could not team to read. In 1997, professionals and parents agreed that most children with Down syndrome can learn to read. Reading may be a successful route to assist children with Down syndrome to learn language. It is now recognized that reading and writing (including handwriting and computer word processing) are all interrelated as language and communication skills.

Studies that compare channels for learning have found that children with Down syndrome frequently have strengths in visual processing and difficulties in auditory processing, as well as oral and motor planning difficulties. Reading enables the child to learn language concepts through their strong visual channel. Because of the complex neurological and muscular coordination needed to speak, speech is the most difficult form of communication for children with Down syndrome and it takes longer to develop. Treatment for oral motor and speech skills should be part of a comprehensive program. I believe that, when reading and sign language are used, the child can progress in language at the same time he is learning to speak.

What can I do to prepare my child to read?

We tend to think of reading as a specific skill to be mastered. But we are now more aware of the role of the environment in fostering literacy. Children need to get to know about books. When an infant turns the pages of a vinyl book in the bathtub, this helps to foster a culture of reading. Children need to see books, magazines, and other reading matter at home and in early school settings. Children may turn the pages and look through the pictures in a book well before they are actually able to read the book. They need to be read to, and to have time to explore books.

When adults and children read a book together, youngsters team many pre-literacy skills, such as how to hold a book, and to read from top to bottom and from left to right. They begin to recognize that printed words have a regularity and that they differ from marks or scribbles on a page. They team to progress from page to page. The factor found to be most highly related to teaming to read is whether or not a child has been read to.

Sharing reading with a child is an important step on the road to literacy. Before the child can actually read, books can be used to stimulate language growth.

Point out the characters in the book. Have the child point to the characters as you talk about them. Talk about what is happening (the plot), and describe the action. Some books have individual pictures of objects (e.g. Brimax books) that can be used to teach language labels, e.g. cup and table, others have a great deal of action (e.g. Dr. Seuss books) while others focus on a specific concept (e.g. the beach or snow). Your child can demonstrate comprehension by pointing, or by pantomime or pretending, even before he or she can speak. Children love to read books about themselves and their own experiences. Use photographs to make personalized books that relate directly to the child's daily experiences.

What methods are used to teach reading?

Some methods focus on teaching language and reading as an integral whole, while other methods focus on teaching the skill of reading through phonics or through a series of sight vocabulary words. The most widely used approaches to teaching reading are:

Are there specially designed methods and materials available to teach reading to children with Down syndrome?

There are two reading programs which provide "how to" information and materials which are specifically designed to teach children with Down syndrome to read, Love and Learning by Joe and Sue Kotlinski and Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome by Patricia Oelwein. Sue Buckley has written extensively about teaching reading to children with Down syndrome. (See bibliography at the end of this article.)

Are there other literacy experiences that can reinforce reading skills?

Literacy involves reading in daily life, as well as reading books. This might include reading newspapers and magazines, reading words on the television screen, reading and understanding advertisements, reading words on the computer screen, making sense of maps and schedules, reading travel guides, reading street and highway signs, reading directional and informational signs such as "Exit," "Rest Rooms," and "Telephone." Many of these skills are most effectively learned and practiced in real life activities. When you go for a walk, comment on and read the street signs. When you go to the supermarket, read the signs for fruits and vegetables. Read the labels on food boxes, and discuss what you can make from that food when you get home.

Television, videos and computer software can be used to assist learning and to practice and reinforce reading skills. Television shows such as Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow teach and reinforce reading and language concepts. Educational videos are widely available. You can often borrow videos at many local libraries. Children's librarians are excellent sources for information. Software such as Reader Rabbit, Sticky Bear Weekly Reader, Laureate Learning Software such as First Words or First Verbs, Stanley's Sticker Stories, and the Living Books Series are being used successfully to teach reading to children with Down syndrome.

Beyond the Basics: Advanced Reading Skills

In early elementary school years, kindergarten to grade 3, reading is generally taught as a subject, and the emphasis is on learning to read, i.e. mastering the skills of reading. By third to fourth grade, the emphasis shifts from learning to read to using reading to learn. By then, it is assumed that children have basic reading skills, and children are expected to use reading to learn other subject matter, such as social studies and science. In middle school and high school, reading demands become more advanced and reading is used to develop world knowledge. When reading, adolescents may be expected to analyze a character, or to consider motivation and mood. Reading is used as a learning tool, but also as a predictive tool to organize the world.

Reading and language are closely related, and reading and literature can be used as the basis for teaching narrative skills, i.e. storytelling skills. Narrative skills develop from basic summaries into sophisticated analyses in which the young adult or adult can discuss the story's meaning, the theme of the story, their reaction to the story and the implications of the story's meaning for daily life and for future planning. Advanced literacy skills might include writing your own endings to stories, reading long multi-chapter books, rewriting a story into a play, reading several stories on the same topic and comparing the similarities and differences in the stories.

Reading is an important skill that can enhance the quality of life. Reading can provide a strong channel through which children can learn advanced language skills. The ability to read opens up many more opportunities for jobs and a greater range of independent living and recreation opportunities in the community.

Abridged Bibliography: Literacy and Language

Buckley, S. (1995). Teaching Children with Down Syndrome to Read and Write in Nadel, L. & Rosenthal, D. (Eds.) Down Syndrome: Living and Learning in the Community, New York: Wiley-Liss, 158-169.

Buckley, S. (1984). Reading and Language Development in Children with Down Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Teachers. Portsmouth, England: Down's Syndrome Project.

Buckley, S. & Bird, G. (1993). Teaching Children with Down Syndrome to Read. Down's Syndrome: Research and Practice, 1, 34-39.

Conners, F.A. (1992). Reading Instruction for Students with Moderate Mental Retardation: Review and Analysis of Research. American Journal of Mental Retardation, 96, 577-597.

Elkins, J. & Farrell, M. (1994). Literacy for All? The case of Down Syndrome. Journal of Reading, 38, 270-280.

Fitzgerald, Roberts, J., Pierce, P. & Schuele, M. (1995). Evaluation of Home Literacy Environment: An illustration with pre-school children with Down syndrome. Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 11, 311-334.

Fowler, A.E., Doherty, B.J. & Boynton, L. (1995). Basis of Reading Skills in Young Adults with Down Syndrome in Nadel, L. & Rosenthal, D. (Eds.) Down Syndrome, Living and Learning in the Community. New York: Wiley-Liss, 121-131.

Kumin, L., Goodman, M. & Council, C. (1996). Comprehensive Communication Assessment and Intervention for School Aged Children with Down Syndrome. Down Syndrome Quarterly, 1, 1-8.

Love and Learning videotapes, audiotapes and books to teach reading, Joe and Sue Kotlinski, P.O. Box 4088, Dearborn, MI 48126-4088, (313-581-8436).

Meyers, L. (1998). Using Computers to Teach Children with Down Syndrome Spoken and Written Language Skills, in Nadel L. (Eds.) The Neurobiology of Down Syndrome (pp. 247-265). Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

Oelwein, P. (1995). Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Teachers. Bethesda, M.D.: Woodbine House.