Teaching reading to develop language
Joe Kotlinski and Susan Kotlinski
Love and Learning was founded 15 years ago to help special needs children develop language and reading skills.The authors of the scheme describe how their experiences of working with their own daughter, who was born with Down syndrome, convinced them that reading was an attainable goal for her and one which could bring her much enjoyment as well as serve as a vehicle for learning. The method is based on three concepts; (1) language learning starts from birth; (2) reading enhances language development and (3) the thoughtful use of technology coupled with parental involvement.
Kotlinski J, Kotlinski S. Teaching reading to develop language. Down Syndrome News and Update. 2002;2(1);5-6.
Love and Learning was founded 15 years ago to help special needs children develop language
and reading skills. Our earlier experience of working with our own daughter, Maria, who was
born with Down syndrome, convinced us that reading was an attainable goal for her and one which
could bring her much enjoyment as well as serve as a vehicle for learning. As our work with
her continued, it became apparent that reading dramatically impacted on her language development
as well, and our work with other children showed us that the gains Maria made were possible
for them also. In fact, the more Maria taught us about the potential of children with Down syndrome
and the more we learned about the related work in reading/language being done in other places,
the more convinced we were that a major breakthrough was taking place which would require a
re-evaluation of the potential of these wonderful children.
We made our first books, audio tapes and video tapes for Maria soon after her birth when we
were unable to find anything commercially available that was appropriate for her special learning
needs. We based the origin and development of our materials and technique on the understanding
of three basic concepts. The first is that a child's language development starts soon after
birth. Research done by psychologists at the University of Washington in Seattle indicate that
infants as young as six months are able to discriminate between variations of specific vowel
sounds and will respond to those sounds most typically used by the adults with whom they interact.
This study indicates that rather than being a passive receiver, an infant is in fact organizing
and categorizing these small units of language called vowels into meaningful categories. This
finding is consistent with the current interest and research into the importance of a child's
first three years as it relates to brain development. The importance of this early period in
an infant's life is now being recognized for all children, not just those with special needs.
But if these are crucial and important years for typically developing children, they are particularly
so for a child with learning difficulties. So it is important that we maximize the advantage
nature gives us in these early years to impact on our children's later development by providing
stimulation and learning opportunities for them. This is, of course, the thrust behind early
The second concept upon which Love and Learning is based is that teaching reading to
a child with Down syndrome actually enhances language development. Our experience with Maria
when she was very young was that the words she learned to read were those she most readily incorporated
into her spoken vocabulary. Equally amazing to us was the rate at which she learned to read.
At 3Â½ years she could read and comprehend 250 words and we found her articulation measurably
improving. By 5Â½ years, she could read and comprehend over 1,000 words and was evaluated to
read at the 98 percentile of all children of her age. The fact that articulation and vocabulary
increase with reading ability was something we heard from many parents whose children use our
materials. Children with Down syndrome are typically visual learners and since reading is language
made visual, it is the ideal means of helping with expressive language, normally a deficit area
for them. The ability to read also is a powerful and dramatic way to reverse the stereotypes
many people, some professionals included, hold about our children. In addition, the ability
to read and the praise it elicits from others enhances a child's self-esteem. And of course,
reading opens up an entire new world of learning and enjoyment that we want all children to
The third concept basic to the Love and Learning technique is the thoughtful use of
new technology coupled with parental involvement. Technology here refers to video tapes, audio
tapes, computer programs and especially television, all of which can be powerful teaching tools.
Maria's reading history
months: We began showing Maria lower case alphabet flash cards, one time through
the alphabet each day, spending 1-2 minutes. The alphabet was used not to teach reading
concepts, but rather to give Maria examples of simple sounds that she might try to imitate.
- 12 months: We began using an alphabet/word audio tape at nap and
bed time. This was not intended to be sleep learning and Maria was awake most of the
time the tape was playing. She would usually not fall asleep until all the letters of
the alphabet and associated words were said. We made a video tape for her using these
letters and words and added flashcards with these same words as well. At about 1 year
of age Maria developed myoclonic seizures and required medication. The medication stopped
the seizures but had the side effect of dulling her sensitivity/response to sensory
input. Her lack of response to audio stimulation was initially diagnosed as a moderate-to-severe
hearing loss. Further testing indicated that her lack of response was due instead to
the seizure medication. We continued using the audio tape, video tape and flash cards.
- 2.5 Years: Maria was taken off of the medication and the seizures
did not return. At about this time she started talking back to the audio tape as it
played. She also started to name some of the letters when she saw them on the flash
cards. Over the next year she started to recognize words.
- 3.5 Years: Maria had a reading vocabulary of about 250 words.
- 5 Years: Maria had a reading vocabulary of over 1000 words. In
addition she could read and translate 100 words in French and Spanish. Evaluation by
the school psychologist to determine education placement showed her to be reading in
the 98 percentile.
- 8 Years: Testing related to Maria's Individualized Educational
Plan found that she was reading at a fourth grade level with a comprehension level at
- 9-16 Years: Reading continues to be Maria's area of strength. She
especially enjoys reading the dictionary and encyclopaedia. Her word recognition has
always been at or above her age level. Comprehension of stories and subject matter has
not been as high.
Television in particular, through the use of specifically designed educational video tapes,
can have life-changing benefits for a child with special needs. We can use it to present stimulating,
fun material that fosters learning even as it entertains. When special videos are given guidance
and reinforcement by a parent and/or teacher, their possibilities are extraordinary. We have
successfully used videos to teach language (English), reading, geography, maths and even foreign
languages. And because we can play these videos over and over, the child gets the repetition
he or she needs to master the skill or concept without the parent having to do it all.
If, after repeated viewing, our children can memorize the dialogue to their favourite movie,
shouldn't we give them a chance to learn something far more useful? By using television and
video technology thoughtfully, we can present a wide, exciting array of topics in a manner which
greatly facilitates learning.
Our first learning kit teaches the names of the letters but, more importantly for language development,
we work on the sound that each letter makes as we stimulate vocalization. Parents whose children
use our materials have observed that knowing how letters sound enables their children to reproduce
the sounds that make up the word. Often a child who is leaving off the last consonant has been
able to correct his pronunciation by going back and looking at the letters which comprise the
word. Kits #2-7 continue working on improving pronunciation, vocabulary, comprehension and reading
skills as we model simple sentences, teach conversational skills and more expressive vocabulary.
Each learning kit includes progressively more material, all of which is presented in a simple,
direct format which allows the child to focus on what is being taught. The key to the process
is consistent use of the materials. The time required of the parent each day is quite short
but spending that small amount of time five days a week over weeks and months is what enhances
learning and builds up long-term memory.
After sharing our technique and materials with other families for a number of years, we were
excited and delighted to discover of the work Professor Sue Buckley at the Sarah Duffen Centre
in Portsmouth, England. She has been researching the relationship between reading and language
development in children with Down syndrome since 1980 and her work indicates that reading can
indeed be a 'way-in' to spoken language for them. Dr. Libby Kumin, author of
Skills in Children With Down Syndrome, has acknowledged the importance of teaching our
children to read when she wrote:
"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 learn to read; that most
children and adults with Down syndrome could not learn to read. Pat Oelwein at the University
of Washington, Sue Buckley at the Sarah Duffen Centre
in Portsmouth, England and Joe and Sue Kotlinski, parents from Dearborn, Michigan, were
able to look beyond those negative predictions and make an effort to teach children with
Down syndrome to read. Their efforts were so successful they necessitated an entire re-examination
of the potential of children with Down syndrome to read."
We are finding that one of the 'many doors' opened by reading is language development. We believe
that the work being done today in this area will contribute to a greater understanding and appreciation
of our children's abilities and potential.
DSE's Reading and Language Intervention for Children with Down Syndrome (RLI) is an evidence-based programme designed to teach reading and language skills to children with Down syndrome.
RLI incorporates best practice in structured activities delivered in fast-paced daily teaching sessions. It was evaluated in a randomised controlled trial and found to improve rates of progress compared to ordinary teaching.
Find out more...