Monday, July 25, 2016

Down syndrome and the Pursuit of Literacy: An Update

One of the most frequently asked questions we receive is about how Josie learned to read.  That question inspired this post:

Today, we're following up on this topic to expand beyond sight words and phonics, and to discuss how we're working on reading comprehension.  As mentioned in the original literacy post, Josie was enrolled in the GiGi's Playhouse Literacy Program shortly before she turned 3.  Her first book was about her family members and page by page, she read "I see Mom...I see Dad...I see Merryn." (for a cute video, click HERE).  I took the GiGi's Playhouse Literacy Tutor Training and one of the most important things I learned was to introduce subjects that the child is interested in; that makes the whole experience more fun for the little reader. For example, I tutored a teenage girl with Down syndrome and her personalized book read "I like Katy Perry...I like Justin Bieber..." 
We kept introducing new sight words and new entry level books.  Josie really enjoyed it and it emerged as a clear strength.  We also continue to work on word families and phonics as we go.  However, in her last IEP meeting - the big, scary (gulp!) Kindergarten prep one - the Kindergarten teacher emphasized the importance of reading comprehension and processing how the pictures illustrate a story.  She said that in kindergarten, the students are asked to draw lots of pictures.  Pictures of what they did over summer, pictures of their pets, pictures of their families...etc.  
I immediately broke out in a cold sweat.  Handwriting/drawing are fine motor activities that have a firm spot on Josie's "non preferred" list.  Unlike memorizing sight words, writing/drawing do not come easily to Josie.  So I knew we needed to provide Josie with lots of opportunities to learn to understand the significance of how pictures can tell a story, and then work on her drawing skills.  

Reading Comprehension: 
Josie has a really awesome speech therapist who broke this down for me step by step so I could help Josie over the summer.  She suggested going to the library and letting Josie pick out an armload of children's books.  As we read, I ask Josie "wh" questions (Who?  What? Where?) "Who ate the cookie?"  "What are they doing?"  "Where is the pig?" 

1.  Ask question.  Allow 5 seconds of processing time.
2.  If child does not answer, repeat the question.  Wait 5 seconds.
3.  If child still does not answer, tell child the answer.
4.  Immediately ask the question again so the child provides the answer.  

Avoid asking "Why?" "How?" and distancing questions (questions about something that happened in the past).  These are more difficult questions and they may leave the child feeling frustrated and defeated.  

Also, have the child turn the page.  This is an important step in keeping the child engaged.  

Another tip:  At school, they use a token economy system.  Josie collects a given quantity of laminated smiley face cards to trade in for an incentive (a mini Oreo, 2 min of iPad, etc.).  Her SLP hides the cards throughout the book.  This adds an extra layer of fun for Josie.  

It's easy to take for granted how complicated it can be to learn that pictures have meaning and that we can create pictures to communicate our thoughts and ideas.  Josie would much rather read and talk about books than to take a crayon to a piece of paper and draw pictures.  That's why I tried to ease into this activity on her terms.  I referenced what I learned from the GiGi's Literacy Program and I focused on drawing images of things that interest Josie.  

1.  Start by drawing people/things that interest a child (favorite foods, TV characters, etc.).
2.  Show child a photo of the item you plan to draw and talk about the attributes of the image featured ("Here is sister.  She has long, straight, brown hair.").
3.  Model (you draw first to show the child).
4.  Let the child try to draw.

I got out a "First Words" book with simple photographs of items by category like "Fruit" and "Nature."  Then, I let Josie select what she wanted to draw.  She chose bananas - no surprise since she loves bananas.  So first I modeled how to draw a banana, then I had Josie try.  

Then, using my impressive Microsoft Publisher skills (you didn't know I was that fancy, did you?  All of this Apple stuff is a fad.  Windows is here to stay!  Full Disclosure: I always say that I married the "PC Guy" from the Mac commercials), I created worksheets of Josie's family members.  I included a photo of the family member, and a box next to it for Josie to draw the person.  Using the "Dotcirful" font I downloaded, I added the person's name for her to trace and then I included a line below so she could try and write the name.  
Because this is a non-preferred activity, it's handy to have some Teddy Grahams or chocolate chips nearby to keep her motivated!  I know that when Josie starts scribbling instead of making an effort,  it's time to call it a day. 


1. Google - Enter "reading comprehension work sheets" into Google and you will be overwhelmed by the results.  Sometimes, I just use a Google image search to get ideas and then I customize my own worksheets using Microsoft Word or Publisher (Windows rules!  LOL!).  Likewise, there are tons of drawing resources available.  The other night, I googled "how to draw Mickey Mouse" and I found step by step instructions.  Josie loved it. 
2.  Sight Word Flashcards - Sets of flashcards can be found all over the place: Target, Barnes and Noble, Toys R Us...You can even do a Google search and find free flashcards that you can download and print.  Tip: Use a hole punch and put the flash cards on a ring so they don't get scattered everywhere.  I almost always have a ring of flash cards in my purse for waiting room entertainment.  This set is Josie's absolute favorite.  
3.  Lakeshore Learning - My dear friend, Kristin, introduced me to this awesome store.  She's a former classroom teacher turned stay-at-home mom and she is an expert at finding fun and engaging opportunities to educate her children.  Lakeshore Learning has thousands of colorful and interactive toys and games that capture kids' attention and make learning exciting.  Our loyalty to Lakeshore Learning grows with each product we acquire.  We just got these super cool "Positional Words for Emergent Readers" books and they are such a neat way to have a hands-on reading comprehension experience. 
4.  Pinterest - Pinterest is a clearinghouse of creative educational ideas.  I have nothing more to say about that.  You need to see for yourself.  Enter "reading comprehension" into the search field and prepare to be inundated.  
In closing (numbered lists seem to be working for me with this post so I'll stick with that):
1.  Repetition, repetition, repetition - One thing I've noticed about Josie is that a new activity is almost always met with a refusal.  The child has no shortage of attitude.  However, as Josie becomes more familiar with something, her interest in the topic and her willingness to attend to a task grow.  That's a huge reason I work with her outside the classroom.  I want her to enter school with a general knowledge of a topic so that she feels confident and empowered when the teacher expands upon it.  
2.  Processing Time - This is a HARD one for me.  Josie's SLP told me that when I ask Josie a question, while tapping a picture, while saying her name over and over, followed by re-phrasing the same question 40 different ways, Josie just assumes that I'm talking to myself and she tunes me out.  Kids with Down syndrome require more processing time.  It's an exercise in self-restraint to ask a question and then offer silence and patience while she contemplates an answer.  And it's amazing how many times it seems like she's ignoring me and daydreaming, that she actually offers a relevant response 10 seconds later!  
3. Scheduling - I was recently asked what our daily schedule looks like in terms of time allocated to academic activities.  The truth is, we don't have a schedule for this.  Sometimes learning takes place in a structured manner - with books and worksheets at the kitchen table.  Other times, it happens informally by chatting about a book that we see in a doctors office waiting room.  
4.  Disclaimer - I do not have a degree in education.  I have no formal credentials and I honestly don't know what I'm doing.  A real teacher might give you entirely different advice that what is cited above.  This post was just designed to address the question of what we've done that has worked for Josie.  If nothing else, it's just a testimony that an ordinary mom can expand their child's skills in simple ways at home.  After all, it's really just providing opportunities to read and to draw.  


  1. Great ideas. I love the photos of your girls at the library. I don't have a degree in education either, but I have one comment about the 'ask a question and wait 5 seconds' rule. I've learned Beth takes 7-10 seconds to respond to just about everyone, family, friends, waiter, etc. I know every child is different though and I'm excited to see Josie succeed in Kindergarten!

  2. Thank you so much for the awesome tips! So great that literacy is a strength of Josie's - she seems to really enjoy reading! I'm sure she'll do wonderfully in kindergarten!

  3. Great tips - thanks for sharing!