subtitled: Giant Post on Teaching My Child with Down Syndrome How to Read
Many people have asked about my teaching methods in helping Eliza learn to read. In some ways it has been very similar to teaching the other children - she has progressed through the same stages of letter recognition, learning the main letter sounds, and understanding how those sounds work together to form words. On the other hand her progress has naturally been slower than the other children and we need to use additional strategies to accommodate her cognitive delays, speech limitations, short attention span and less than average motivation. The infatuation with letters and the progressive steps of phonemic awareness that seem to happen naturally through 'osmosis' in a print-rich homeschool family environment need to be helped along and purposefully encouraged with the special needs child.
Special learners need lots of repetition and constant reinforcement of lessons, and using a variety of methods and materials is important to maintain interest over time as the learning is slower. While using a single resource like Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons might be fine for a typical child, for my special learner I have maximized our use of creative and widely varied materials. We also take advantage of her most favorite things and use them for learning purposes: Eliza loves books, music, puzzles, Signing Time, and the computer and so we've capitalized on our use of these for educational gain. In order to accommodate short attention spans it helps to practice frequently in short little 'lessons' throughout the day - a few 15 or 30 minute blocks scattered throughout the day can be more effective than trying to sit down for two hours straight. When we are doing learning work I often have Eliza sit right on my lap to help keep her focused and on task. Patience and perseverance are key.
Eliza has known her letters for a few years now and she learned them in quite the typical ways - lots of letter puzzles (this Lauri one is our favorite), foam letters in the tub (children love how they stick to the walls), letter blocks, alphabet books, singing alphabet songs and on and on. And then of course reading lots of books in general, pointing out letters, writing notes, labeling household objects, forming letters out of pretzels, straws, sticks, or whatever, file folder alphabet games, magnet letters on the fridge, chalk on the sidewalk, white board, chalk board and magna doodle. We have an alphabet of wooden letters and a collection of bottle cap letters (and if my littles didn't already know their letters I'd make these scrappy letters- so cute!).
We don't have sandpaper letters but I did make Eliza a book years ago with one capital letter on each page, each one made of a different texture - duct tape, sandpaper, velvet, ribbon etc. When she was learning her letters I encouraged her to trace the letters with her fingers as I told her each one's name. There's also alphabet cereal and alphabet soup and you can make alphabet cookies. The possibilities are truly endless.
Another great help was the Signing Time ABC DVD which remains a favorite to this day. All of the Signing Time DVD's are helpful as the printed words are shown on the screen at the same time as they are signed in ASL and spoken, really helping to teach the concept of words being made up of letters and letter sounds.
Once the letters are learned, or even before they are all learned, comes the process of learning the sounds they make. This is easily accomplished just through everyday conversation and playing and all, taking note of words and letters and sounds - This is your belly button. Belly button starts with B. B makes the buh sound. Buh buh buh belly button. that sort of thing. Again, alphabet books either purchased or home made showing lots of words beginning with each letter provide lots of opportunity for practice and review. We have made simple index card sets - put a letter on each card and glue on pictures cut from magazines of things starting with that letter. Collecting objects for sorting according to their beginning letter
and alphabet puzzles such as this one with a picture for each letter are useful as well. You can also play games such as name three things that start with b, find five things in this room starting with p, or which one of these six things starts with a different letter.
And then once the sounds are learned we can start to put them together into words and embark on that great accomplishment of skill and deciphering and comprehension and speech we call reading.
It's always nice to learn how to spell your own name first, and singing is often the easiest way to learn something. I teach them a little song to the tune of Farmer in the Dell - We're going to write your name, we're going to write your name, E-L-I-Z-A, we're going to write your name. Make up a cute namecard and leave it in a prominent place for a reminder and write frequent personalized love notes. Another good first word is 'Hi' - just two letters but repeated over and over again the child gets the idea that letters make words. Just a little note like 'Hi Eliza' gets across the big idea that we can communicate through reading and writing.
We used the milk cap cards seen here for early letter practice,
Slide your finger under the text whenever you read to the child - this helps with learning the left to right pattern of reading and helps the child see that words are made up of letters.
You can play 'store', making little card labels for the various objects you set up for play. At times we put labels on common household objects, taping up cards for simple things like table, chair, potty, window, book, plant and so forth. While these might be more difficult words for the child to actually read, it is helpful for conveying the idea that letters make up words that we can read, reinforcing beginning letter sounds, and allowing the child to pretend to read the words. Just the action of looking at a word card on a familiar object is helpful - the child points to the word and names it, and although the child may not actually be reading the word it is still teaching the very important concept that letters make words that we can read and say out loud, and that it's not some magical thing that only grown ups can do. I can remember my other children developing print awareness at a very young age - one of my babies would look at the print on the tag on her bib and babble, but as I said, this concept may take the special learner longer to understand and you might need to help it along. 'No' is also an easy-to-read and very useful word (!) - we've had 'No' signs on things like the freezer and wires and other no no's. You don't want to over-inundate the child with a label on every item in the house, but you can do these things a little at a time and change things out and rotate and so forth to maintain interest and variety.
For learning word families I use various tactics such as flip books which vary the beginning letter.
I've made little card sets with word groupings that have similar middle sounds, such as 'ee' or 'oo' - use colorful or shiny letter stickers if you have them for a little pizzazz. For words with 'oo' in the middle I've used loose leaf reinforcement stickers for the oo's, and then written other letters on cards. You change out the first and last letters while sounding out words like toot, boot, coop, hoot, etc (or use two p's if you dare). Cheerios can also be used for 'oo' practice.
Just like hand motions and fingerplays enhance a child's learning of songs and rhymes I try to incorporate a bit of that with learning to read. Eliza does know the ASL alphabet well, so I might use sign to help reinforce things. Just today we were practicing words with 'ee' in the middle and I signed double 'ee's for her every time I made the long e sound, helping to differentiate it from short e. I did the same thing with 'oo' - I sign 'owl' which has two 'o' handshapes, and say whoo whoo whooo like an owl, to teach the oo sound and remind her it's different from a single o which makes the short o sound. We put our fingers to our lips for the 'sh' sound, I give a little pretend pinch for the 'ow' sound, pretend to shiver for the 'br' sound - that sort of thing. These associations really help to reinforce new sounds.
Just singing the letter sounds is helpful as well, as music makes anything easier to learn and remember. I often make up little ditties to familiar nursery rhyme tunes to teach new things.
If you watched the video of Eliza's earliest reading you saw how I write one word at a time on the white board for her to read. There are many advantages to this strategy - it keeps her interest as she is curious as to what is going to come next and it prevents a feeling of overload - I reckon that to a brand new reader a whole sentence could look as overwhelming as War and Peace and makes it too hard to even think of trying. But one word at a time is doable. When I get to the end of the sentence I draw a picture to illustrate the sentence, and that is a little reward for my little reader. She knows a funny picture comes at the end so that provides added motivation to try and find out what it says. We also go through and read it again for practice before it gets erased.
With my other children I would make what I called a 'Read and Draw'. I would divide a sheet of paper into four or six sections and write a simple sentence in each box. The child then would read each sentence and get to draw the picture for each one, for example Six pink pigs on a big bed. A red cow in a box. Eliza is not that advanced of an artist, so I haven't done this with her yet but rather we draw the picture for her after she has succeeded at reading, but my other children used to enjoy it.
Sometimes I use the white board, and sometimes I write sentences on paper using the same one word at a time method. The paper ones can be saved and Eliza likes to re-read them all for practice. The pictures then serve as cues if she gets stuck on a word in the sentence. We have a bunch of these one page 'stories', and you can see the sense of pride and accomplishment in Eliza's eyes as she goes through them.
Variety and maintaining interest is key with special learners, so we also mix it up and use the keyboard. Eliza sits on my lap, I set the screen to a giant font, and I type one word at a time. When she was first starting I would change the font color for every word as well, again to stimulate interest and motivation. Now she is better at reading and I don't need to be quite so engaging -if she seems to get fidgety I'll change the color or font after a few sentences rather than for each word. Occasionally I'll print something out to keep.
(illustrated by Mary Rose)
We are also using an online phonics program. I debated for a while about doing this, as Eliza is so enamored with the computer I didn't want to feed her already over active cyber appetite. But we realized it would be good to capitalize on her enthusiasm, so I bought a subscription to the Click-N-Read program. It has been helpful as the computer graphics and sound combine to reinforce and solidify the phonics we are learning. It also regularly introduces new sight words, and Eliza picks them up readily in this format. We only do a couple of lessons a week so she doesn't tire of it or get bored, and I've been pleased with her progress. It has also helped her to develop that all-important skill of using a mouse! There are also several sites with free phonics games such as Starfall, or Owl and Mouse (scroll down for letter sound games) - just google online phonics games for many others. If you are interested in a full program you can preview trial lessons from Click N Kids or Explode the Code, and if you decide to buy the Homeschool Buyer's Co-op has great discounted prices on both.
Another strategy for all little readers is to make little books suited to their interests. I cut a sheet of paper in half, fold and assemble it into a little booklet, then it's ready for a custom easy-to-read story. Write a few sentences about the child and her favorite pets or toys, add some cute pictures, and you have an irresistible little reader. Keep the words simple with large, clear text and lots of white space.
Bob Books are also great as the small format, simple pictures and limited text on each page makes them very friendly and non-intimidating. But homemade books can be tailored to the child's interest and are also colorful and more attractive, and again we need lots of variety. Here are a few 'vintage' books from when Anna was learning to read - she had a favorite little stuffed dog named Jack so I wrote numerous stories about Jack.
I make these very simple books without using staples or tape. Cut a sheet of paper in half and then fold each half. On one half, cut in an inch on either end along the fold:
On the other half, shave off a thin slice along the fold, starting an inch in from the ends -
it will look like this when you open it up:
Then take the page with the snipped ends, roll it in half and slip it through the slit page like so:
Then you open it up and have a book with interlocked pages. You can snip the ends of more than one half sheet of paper to make a book with more pages. You can also make these with full sheets of paper so the finished books are the size of a half sheet of paper. I like to use the small version as shown, with the finished book the size of a quarter sheet of paper and just right for little hands. These directions are from Dinah Zike's Big Book of Books, which incidentally is a great book with all sorts of creative ideas for making homemade books.
I also take every opportunity to reinforce to Eliza that she is learning to read, again for encouragement and motivation and the repetition, repetition, repetition that is needed with these children. For example, I am currently reading Winnie the Pooh aloud to my little girls, but even in the midst of that seemingly giant book there are words that Eliza can read and I point them out and let her say things like ow, no, Owl, and Pooh to help out. This helps remind her that she is a real reader and helps boost her confidence.
It goes without saying that frequent praise and encouragement are welcome and needed, especially with reluctant learners. I often think of my DS book on gross motor skills; when it describes helping the child learn to crawl the author encourages you to get on the floor across the room, wave your arms, gather the siblings, rattle toys and 'generate hoopla'. These children often lack the self-motivation that other children typically have and we must constantly and in all things 'generate hoopla'. Cheer them on every step of the way. Share their accomplishments with siblings and others. Have them read their lessons of the day for Dad when he gets home - he can add his praise and encouragement and your student gets the lesson reinforced again. Eliza has even read to her Nana via Skype!
Finally, a friendly reminder that all children are unique and progress at their own rate and in their own fashion. I post all this not to invite comparisons but to give hope and encouragement and concrete ideas for helping our special needs children learn to read. Remember our children will do what our children will do when our children are ready to do it, and no matter what they do or don't learn in this life they are made in His image and will always Shine.