Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Down Syndrome, Flash Cards, and the Pursuit of Literacy

The other day Merryn cleaned up the basement.  Guess what Little Mother Hen wanted as her reward: She wanted to drill Josie with flash cards.  Of course.  Because that's every 2 and a half year-old's idea of a good time, right?
So even though we were having a lazy day and I didn't really intend to do any academic activities with the girls, I granted Merryn her wish and I posted a little video of it to Instagram:

I have since fielded lots of inquiries about flash cards and literacy and what type of program we're using with Josie so I figured I'd write a quick post about it.
DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert.  I have a Bachelors of Business Administration.  I have no formal teaching experience.  So I am, by no means, equipped to instruct you on the proper way to educate a child, chromosomally enhanced or otherwise.  But I can certainly tell you about our experiences.
There was never a moment's doubt in my mind that Josie is capable of learning to read.  Why?  Because I grew up with an awesome big sister who demonstrated for me that people with Down syndrome are definitely able to attain literacy skills.  You guys have seen her blog posts and emails.   Leanne reads and writes pretty effortlessly.
 Who do we have to thank for that?  Mama Hop of course!  After Leanne was born, my mom went to graduate school and got her Masters Degree in Special Education and she used her knowledge and experience to work with Leanne.  Mama Hop believed in Leanne and she invested a lot of energy into making sure that Leanne reached her maximum potential.
 Given as how I had such good role models, I was eager to start working with Josie right away.  Without any educational background to draw from, I set my goals at the obvious preschool skills: Letters, Numbers, Shapes, Colors, Animals/Animal Sounds...I recently posted a video of Josie demonstrating these skills HERE.  I honestly don't remember when I started with Josie but it was before she turned 2 and I used basic capital alphabet letter flashcards.  At the time, Josie was G Tube fed so she would be stuck in a chair for 20-30 minutes while receiving a tube feed and I used flash cards as a way to entertain her.  I simply showed her the flash card and stated the letter and she loved it.

Buying flash cards can be overwhelming and tricky.  There are so many options but what I've found with many of them is that they are so cluttered up with different colors, words, and graphics that they almost become a distraction.  So my first piece of advice is to find something as basic as possible.  Just the letter.  No "A" plus the word "Apple" plus a picture of an "Apple" because at that point, I'm not sure the child understands what you want them to focus on.

I had a hard time finding an example online that was plain enough - Click HERE.  We also have this little traveling set from Munchkin and it's pretty good. The other alternative is to make your own and I would recommend something as simple as this:
This is a good set to purchase if you're interested in working on numbers: click HERE
I've found that both my girls really enjoy doing flash cards.  In fact, it was an incentive that we used to get Josie to eat in our early days of her G-Tube wean.  She would take a bite in order to earn the next flash card.  Beyond flash cards, we reinforced her skills with alphabet puzzles and foam bath letters and various other alphabet manipulatives.  And of course we sang the Alphabet song all the time!
When Josie turned 2, we enrolled her in the literacy program at GiGi's Playhouse.  GiGi's Playhouse is a Down Syndrome Achievement Center with literacy and math programs that are research-based and geared around how children with Down syndrome learn best.  The program starts with sight words because research has found that children with Down syndrome can learn phonics easier if they have already conquered 50-100 sight words.  GiGi's customizes the sight words for each child according to his/her interests.  Josie started off with a "My Family Book" that featured photos of her closest family members and she learned to recognize our names.  To watch a video of that, click HERE.
Because I love working with people with Down syndrome and because I was curious about the program, I volunteered to take the literacy training course and become a tutor at GiGi's Playhouse.  I got paired up with a teenage girl with Down syndrome and I was amazed at the progress she was able to make.  Josie made incredible progress with her tutor as well.  I have continued to introduce Josie to other sight words through the GiGi's program materials (shown in the first video in this post) and by adapting my own materials with my trusty printer and laminating machine.
To find out if there is a GiGi's location near you (or for information on how you can bring a GiGi's Playhouse to your area), click HERE.
If you do not have access to a GiGi's Playhouse but you are still interested in working on literacy skills with a child with Down syndrome, check out this book:
See and Learn is a reading program by the Down Syndrome Education International and it also focuses on the idea that children with Down syndrome are visual learners and the materials are designed with that in mind.
One more note that I can't stress enough: educational toys, TV shows, and iPad apps are great but they are no substitute for one-on-one communication with a child.  We have plenty of toys that light up and sing letter songs but these are passive forms of entertainment.  Josie's skill acquisition has been learned through  interaction with a human being. Offering your child this type of attention and quality time will not only enhance their knowledge but it will enhance your relationship and bond immeasurably.
On one hand, I feel completely ill-equipped to offer advice on this topic as I am not an educator, but I think my amateur status communicates the idea that anyone who is invested in their child's educational success can expose his/her child to the basics.  It is my hope that in introducing these concepts to my children, they enter the school setting with more confidence.  This is particularly important with Josie, as her development and skill acquisition are slower.  It is my hope that any boost I can provide to help her feel more confident alongside her peers will make her educational experience more meaningful and rewarding.


  1. Thanks for sharing! I really appreciate that information, and think you guys are such great parents!

  2. I know Merryn is still little, but has she picked up on some of the sight words too?

  3. I know Merryn is still little, but has she picked up on some of the sight words too?

  4. Merryn cracks me up. Maybe you are raising the next owner of a GiGi's Playhouse. :) I was public schooled, but I homeschool my kids. It is amazing what a child can learn with one-on-one time and attention, that's for sure! I never thought about the pics and stuff being a distraction for learning. A Beka (the reading curriculum I use) does have 5x7 plain flashcards. I guess that's why!

  5. Great post. Great mama. You don't have to have a degree in education to be your child's best teacher ;)!
    I would also check out the learning program for literacy and math skills. Great stuff and all free. http://dsfoc.org/learning-program

  6. They crack me up! JoJo is one smart cookie!