Read All About It…

Once upon a time, in an era not so very far away, it was believed that people with Down’s Syndrome were ‘ineducable’ – in other words, education was wasted on them because they could not respond to it. Even medical professionals gave this out as fact: and thus, no statuory provision for their schooling was made.

We now know that this is a myth. It has been proven to be a myth – nowadays all children with Down’s Syndrome go to school. But the belief persists among some sections of the general population. You made have heard it yourself. And it is natural to worry, when your child is diagnosed with a condition that brings learning disability as part of the package, about whether or not he/she will acheive the golden milestone of learning to read and write.

Don’t. Children with DS can learn to read and write, and the majority do.

Freddie, I would estimate is somewhere in the middle of the ability range for a person with DS, and may or may not have some autistic traits, but at the age of seven is already on the road to literacy.

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Children with Down’s Syndrome struggle with verbal/auditory short-term memory, BUT they are good visual learners. In fact, when information is presented in visual form, their information processing skills can be in line with their non-verbal mental age. So reading, like using Makaton and Signalong, is a great way to help support the development of their verbal communication skills – because it links sounds with a visual image of an object/concept, which, being easier for the child to process, helps them to understand and remember the sound (word) that goes with it. It’s a kind of ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ at the same time.

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This irritating electronic toy effectively combines sound and visual images to teach letter names and sounds. I bought it for Freddie when he was very young, not with the intention of teaching phonics, but because he liked noisy cause-and-effect toys – when a letter tile is inserted it sings a catchy little jingle using the name and letter-sound, and the image of the letter is both visible and touchable on the surface of the tile. As a result of playing with it, Freddie learnt his letters ‘by accident’.

I’ve read with Freddie since he was born (as with my older two). It got me some funny looks from other mums in the neonatal unit – really the only time I’ve been concious of being stared at – sitting by the incubator having ‘kangaroo time’, with an old baby book of his sister’s in my free hand.

He’s always loved to look at books and handle them. Yes, some got damaged, and a few were utterly destroyed, but we chalked that up to ‘collateral damage’. We were lucky to have a large stock of pre-loved books from his brother and sister – they’s already served two children, so it wasn’t the end of the world. And he grew out it; I haven’t seen him nibbling a book in nearly a year.

He tended to gravitate towards books with bold illustrations: perhaps because he is very visually orientated, and perhaps because , like many people with DS, he may have reduced visual acuity, even with his glasses on.

I think that school are teaching him to sight-read, that is: teaching him to recognise whole words, rather than by their phonic components. It certainly seems to be the way he does it, and I have learned that is the way that children with Down’s learn to read best – perhaps because, as part of their communication profile they tend to have difficulty learning the sound-structure of words. But here’s the great thing – when he reads aloud to me, if he comes across a word that he does not recognise, he doesn’t get disheartened (as I have often seen ‘typical’ children do), he just asks me what it is and then repeats it. I know we’ll have to do this many times until he can reliably remember the word, but it doesn’t matter to either of us, because we know we’ll get there in the end.

Another thing I have noticed, and it’s one in the eye for those who are adamant that ‘screen time’ of any sort is detrimental to children, is that he responds much better to a book or story once he has seen a visual version of it – such as a television adaptation. He adores reading The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom having seen the TV animations, and even managed to sit through a stage production. But he wasn’t at all keen on reading Stick Man until it was on TV this Christmas.Now he can’t get enough of the book.

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We have a bit of a Julia Donaldson obsession, but if it encourages his love of reading, why not? One of the best tools you have to foster a love of reading in your child is their personal interests and inclinations, which you can utilize to your advantage. So, watch TV with the subtitles on, read the cornflakes packet, or the logo on the dutbin lorry, whatever it takes.

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