Teaching reading skills to children with Down syndrome
Hughes J. Teaching reading skills to children with Down syndrome. Down Syndrome News and Update. 2006;6(2);62-65.
Research supports the view that all children with Down syndrome will benefit
from being read to and from being in reading instruction from an early age as
these activities will improve their spoken language and memory skills. Children
with Down syndrome learn to read in the same way as typically developing
children. They build on their good visual memory skills but find it more
difficult to use phonics. In other words, they benefit from learning to read
through a 'whole-word' learning strategy initially, bringing in phonics
knowledge at a later date. While children who are introduced to reading in their
preschool years show the highest levels of achievement, studies indicate that
teenagers and young adults can continue to develop their reading abilities if
given appropriate instruction.
Benefits of reading instruction
Reading is a fundamental life skill. Print is all around us in our daily lives
and we acquire reading and writing skills for practical use (street names, sign
posts, adverts, instructions) and for pleasure (writing a card, making a
shopping list, looking up a television programme). Reading will help children
with Down syndrome to develop vocabulary and grammar knowledge and will give
added practice, and therefore improve spoken language skills. Reading practice
will also help to develop working memory skills. The ability to read and write
facilitates easier access to general knowledge and the school curriculum and it
supports the skills necessary for problem solving and thinking strategies.
There is also evidence for the beneficial effect of reading on speech and
language skills. Case study records suggest that early reading activities
encourage progress to longer utterances and improved grammar in speech. They
also suggest that reading improves articulation and speech intelligibility (the
ability to be understood by the listener). For most children with Down syndrome,
language comprehension (understanding) is better than language production
(talking/signing). This means that children with Down syndrome understand more
than they can say, probably due to a variety of issues, which may include
problems with word retrieval, sentence structuring and speech-motor control.
Working memory difficulties may also contribute to the speech and language
delays that children with Down syndrome often face, limiting the amount that a
child can organise and say clearly in a sentence. Reading provides opportunities
to practise saying sentences that a child is unable to generate spontaneously
even through he or she understands them. When children are reading aloud, the
sentence is organised for them and the print is available without having to
remember it, so the demands on the working memory system are reduced and its
capacity can be used to plan and articulate each word more clearly.
Principles for learning
Reading stories daily to children from infancy right through childhood will help
them to learn to read. Children who are read to know that books are fun and
provide entertainment. Children who are read to often have larger vocabularies
and they will know that the words on the page have meaning and tell the story.
One of the most important ways in which parents of children and teenagers with
Down syndrome can help them to be ready to read and be interested in books, is
to read to them and talk to them about the stories they have read.
It is important to teach whole words and to develop reading for meaning as the
first step â€“ learning letter sounds will come later. All children learn a visual
'sight' vocabulary of words, remembered and recognised as whole words. As they
start to read, they slowly develop the phonic skills (letter sounds that make up
words), which will lead to them being able to sound out unfamiliar words and
spell. A child should have a sight vocabulary of at least 50 words, which can be
read and understood with confidence in simple sentences, before teaching any
The incidence of mild to moderate hearing loss in children with Down syndrome is
high and remembering some simple guidelines can help to compensate for their
difficulties. Many children may only have a small amount of hearing loss,
although hearing levels can fluctuate, but even a small amount of hearing loss
affects listening and can affect behaviour, performance and language learning.
Therefore, it is advisable to take account of possible hearing difficulties at
all times by gaining your child's full attention before starting and working in
environments that do not have competing background noise.
Children can only read with understanding if they already know and understand
the words, the grammar and the sentence structures used in the text. Therefore,
it is important to introduce reading activities at each child's comprehension
level. Children with Down syndrome will usually be delayed in language
comprehension compared with other children of the same age and it is important
to begin with vocabulary that they understand and with short simple sentence
structures. As children with Down syndrome progress and begin to read simple
text with confidence, using language that they already know, reading then
becomes a powerful tool to use to teach new vocabulary and grammar.
Reading activities can begin when a child understands 50-100 words and can match
and select pictures (e.g. picture lotto games). The same method used in these
types of activities will be used to teach sight words.
Reading activities can start by using pictures to match on a 2 or 4-picture
- Choose a picture and say "This is a â€¦.(cup) â€“ which one is the same?"
- Guide your child's hand to complete the task successfully, even if that means
physically moving his/her hand to guide the picture to the correct match.
- Provide as much support as your child needs to be successful and take away
support as your child becomes familiar with the activity. This is called
'errorless learning'. It is important to remember that this is not a test and
your child is meant to succeed each time.
- Practise this game until your child can successfully match all the pictures on
the board with minimal, if any, support.
- Using the pictures that your child has just matched with minimal support, ask
him/her to 'give me (or show me) the â€¦..(cup)'.
- Guide your child through the correct response; continue to practise with these
words until your child can select each picture when it is named.
- Children may name words using signs or spoken words.
- Articulation problems may mean that spoken words are not clear. Praise and
encourage approximations to word-reading, as practice helps children to make
their speech clearer.
- Show your child the picture and say 'What is this? It's a â€¦â€¦ (cup), can you
- Encourage your child to imitate the word.
- Repeat words after they have been said or signed, providing a model for
- Use 'errorless learning' and prompt children with the correct answer, until
they can say the word without hesitation.
Once your child can match and select pictures confidently in this way, written
words can be introduced. Words for reading can be chosen from your child's own
vocabulary (the pictures they are matching and selecting correctly each time).
Once your child can match pictures, it is important to go back to the beginning
and teach the same words, but in the written form (with no picture), playing the
same matching, selecting and naming activities with the words. All children are
likely to begin to learn to read with some of the words that are very familiar
to them and are heard and used throughout daily routines, such as 'Mummy',
'Daddy', child's name, brother's and sister's names, important people or pets.
They are then more likely to be interested in reading games about words for
their favourite animals, favourite food and drink, favourite toys and play
activities, social words, and favourite places. Colour words and 'big' and
'little' can also be taught, as these can also be used to teach children to join
words together in speech and sign. Reading colour, shape and size words often
seems to help children to understand them. It is important to begin reading with
words that are nouns, verbs, and adjectives so that you can move from single
words to word combinations quite quickly. Children need only learn a small sight
vocabulary to begin to join words together meaningfully and usefully. Choose a
few nouns, a few adjectives and a few verbs to make up their first 8-10 words,
so that you can build short phrases and sentences and make individual books
right away. One example of a word lotto board could be 'Mummy', 'Daddy', child's
name, and sleeping. Once your child can match and select these written words,
you could then make a little book with the simple sentences 'Mummy is sleeping',
'Daddy is sleeping', 'child's nameâ€¦ is sleeping', with corresponding pictures of
each person sleeping. You could then move on to eating, jumping, drinking, etc.
Most children love looking at photos of familiar people, so this activity is an
ideal way to maintain your child's focus and attention while learning to read.
Recommended order for matching activities
- Picture to picture.
- Word to word (matching, selecting and naming) â€“ no pictures.
- Word to picture (this can be used to make sure your child understands what
he/she is reading).
- Once your child is able to communicate expressively, take what he/she says and
make the shortest correct sentence out of it. For example, if your child says
"sand" or "play sand" when asked "What did you do today?" then write "I played
in the sand" in a little book and draw a simple picture of your child playing in
the sand (simple stick-figure drawings are fine for this). This is an example of
expansion â€“ the term used when we speak to young children and expand their one
and two word utterances. In this way, we are modelling simple, grammatically
correct sentence use and your child is practising speaking in simple
grammatically correct sentences when reading the sentence aloud.
- Make the above activity more formal by using it as a link between school and
home â€“ a conversation diary. At the end of each nursery/school day, an adult
asks the child "What would you like to tell Mummy and Daddy about school today?"
Take whatever the child says and make it into a simple, grammatically correct
sentence, with a picture added for meaning. When the child gets home, he/she
shares the diary with mum and/or dad, either by reading it or participating in
supported reading (imitating word by word, or pointing to the words as they are
read by an adult). Then parents make entries at home for the child to take to
school, to be read with an adult at school.
- Make personal books with photographs or pictures that are tailored to your
child's particular interests â€“ using words and simple sentences to label each
- Make personal books about your child's daily life â€“ 'My favourite animals',
'My day at the zoo', 'I canâ€¦', 'I likeâ€¦', etc.
- Action games where the word (verb) or sentence with a verb in it is read, and
then the action is undertaken.
Learning about sounds
Young children with Down syndrome learn to read by remembering whole words and
their meanings before they are able to separate out the sounds in words and
apply their letter sound knowledge to the task of reading. They are, however,
able to learn about letters, the sounds associated with the letters and their
names. Therefore, young children with Down syndrome should have access to and
enjoy typical pre-school (and school age) learning games about the letters and
sounds of their language, participating in phonics teaching activities with
The value of teaching reading and using reading activities to develop the spoken
language skills for children with Down syndrome can not be underestimated.
Children should be introduced to reading in a fun way, first learning to read
whole words by playing matching, selecting and naming games and then moving on
to reading short sentences and longer sentences in topic books.
All the activities and reading should be based on your child's interests and
experiences, and needs to be linked to your child's language comprehension
levels (understanding) and language learning needs. Children who have not made
rapid progress with reading will still have benefited from these reading games
and activities, as they are powerful and enjoyable ways of improving their
understanding and use of spoken language.
Reading and writing for individuals with Down syndrome â€“ An overview (2001). Sue
Buckley. Down Syndrome Issues and Information, The Down Syndrome Educational
Reading and writing for infants with Down syndrome (0-5 years) (2001). Gillian
Bird and Sue Buckley. Down Syndrome Issues and Information, The Down Syndrome
Reading and writing for children with Down syndrome (5-11 years) (2001). Gillian
Bird, Jane Beadman and Sue Buckley. Down Syndrome Issues and Information, The
Down Syndrome Educational Trust.
Reading and writing for teenagers with Down syndrome (11-16 years) (2002).
Gillian Bird and Sue Buckley. Down Syndrome Issues and Information, The Down
Syndrome Educational Trust.
Memory development for individuals with Down syndrome (2001). Sue Buckley and
Gillian Bird. Down Syndrome Issues and Information, The Down Syndrome
2. Address enquiries to: email@example.com
3. All Down Syndrome Issues and Information books are available from The Down
Syndrome Educational Trust. Please visit the downsed online shop at
Other reading resources
Interactive reading books. Greenhouse publications.
Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome - A Guide for Parents and
Teachers. Patricia Logan Oelwein (1995). Woodbine House.
Classroom Language Skills for Children with Down Syndrome - A Guide for Parents
and Teachers. Libby Kumin (2001). Woodbine House.
First Keys 2. Early Literacy skills. Widgit Software Limited.
On the Farm. Early literacy skills. Inclusive Technology.
abc-CD. Talking animated alphabet. Sherston Software Ltd.
Oxford Reading Tree, Stage2 and 3. Word, sentence and text-level activities.
Oxford University Press.
Speaking for Myself. Early language development in education. Topologika
Making Tracks to Literacy. Early literacy and pre-reading activities. Widgit
WordShark 2. Reading and spelling games. White Space Limited.
Wellington Square. Reading skills for school-age children. Semerc/Granada
Clicker. Talking word processor with 'on-screen keyboard'. Inclusive Technology
All the resources above available from downsed at
Pops books. Published by Daneth Limited.
This article was written for ICAN
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