Reading and Writing for Children with Down Syndrome (5-11 years)

Teaching Phonics

  • Learning how letters link with the units of sounds that build words helps to develop children's phonological awareness. Teaching that helps to make the sound system of a language more explicit helps children to recognize, produce and monitor the sounds that they say and write.
  • All young children and many older children with Down syndrome benefit from practicing saying the sounds that make up speech and joining the sounds together to build syllables and words. This is particularly useful way of teaching children with speech motor difficulties, who may be considered as having speech dyspraxia.
  • Linking sounds with letters or groups of letters (graphemes) may help speech perception, phonological awareness, reading, spelling and writing, and speech production. It is also likely to help their higher order language processing, by increasing their perception of grammatical words and promoting the development of grammar comprehension.
Children should learn about phonics from an early age, beginning with learning about letters, their names, and the sounds they make.
Children with Down syndrome will bring different degrees of phonological awareness (the ability to hear the sounds that make up words) to the reading task. They will have differing abilities to produce or say sounds even when they can perceive them, different abilities to recognize sounds in words, even when they know them as isolated sounds, and different abilities to say single words, words of different length and complexity, and sentences. Individual starting points and rates of progress will vary, as will the stage at which the learner will begin to use phonic skills for reading and writing and the extent to which their skills will develop. There is no accepted pattern in the way that children with Down syndrome will hear, perceive, identify, recall or produce sounds, although learning to read, write and spell, practicing speaking and developing clear speech will all affect this system of learning.
Skilled readers with Down syndrome, who began early (in preschool years) and have continued to develop literacy skills with their peers, may be very good at reading using their phoneme and grapheme knowledge. It is not unusual for such readers to be able to read and pronounce, and sometimes spell, words that are considered to be years ahead of their chronological age, for example, word reading similar to typically developing 16 year olds when they are 10 or 11.
There is an accepted order for teaching phonics that is used in most phonic teaching schemes. The authors' advice is to teach phonics from the typical age - many preschool children with Down syndrome know letter sounds and names, even if they cannot clearly say all of them. Learning to finger spell letters of the alphabet will help children to learn letter names and sounds. For most children a phonic teaching system used for teaching typically developing children in school is usually adequate. Later starters may need more age appropriate materials than the typical infant resources.
Children will learn how to hear and see the letters in words, beginning with short phonically regular words of two and three letters. They will practice seeing and hearing where the sounds are in the positions of the word, written and spoken. Working with rhyming sets of words helps to simplify the task.
Children with Down syndrome will be enabled to participate in this type of work by showing their choices manually, rather than verbally. They will also be helped by having a smaller selection of choices, even two, to choose between. Letter cards, letters that can be handled, or pointing to select letters from a short list, will all make this easier for them.
Children who develop handwriting skills early may be able to write letters as they participate in phonic teaching games and activities. However, most young children in the infant age range (4-7 years) will need to use letters on card, made of sponge or plastic, letter magnets, and suitable computer software until they have learned to write the letters of the alphabet. Children with Down syndrome can be explicitly taught to read, write and say sounds together to develop their speech production alongside reading and writing skills (Figure 19, Figure 20 and Figure 21).
Many infant programs or activities are suitable for teaching these skills - they are skills that all children learn in school. There are also junior and secondary programs designed for older children with reading difficulties that present typical infant targets in more age appropriate ways.
Some programs suit children of any age, although young children with Down syndrome may not understand some of the vocabulary used in all age programs, and the suitability of the vocabulary content should be checked. Children with Down syndrome are likely to be learning phonic skills more slowly than the majority of pupils, but there are many other children in schools that have difficulties in this area of learning and development. The same resources are likely to suit all of these children, for example, children with dyslexia, Down syndrome, hearing impairments, language impairments, developmental delay and children learning English as a second language.
Children with Down syndrome vary greatly in the development of their phonic skills. They need the same variety of teaching methods for learning to read and write as other children, with some additional methods to compensate for language, memory and handwriting developmental delays.
They do not need phonic skills to make progress with learning to read, as they will learn using their good visual memories, but they benefit from learning phonics to build their speech, language, reading, writing and spelling skills. Many children and young people with Down syndrome will be able to use phonic skills to read novel words and to write and spell, and some will accelerate in their reading and writing development once they have mastered these skills. All children should continue to learn phonics throughout their education.
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