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Founder, Special Reads for Special Needs
• National Speaker
• Award Winning Author
• Reading Educator & Consultant
• Reading Program Developer
Energize and inspire your audience at your next conference, parent or educator group with Natalie's practical and proven methods for teaching learners with Down syndrome to read!
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This booklet leads you step by step through the process of teaching reading to a child with developmental delays.
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Praise for Natalie
"I was just at the Educational Therapists Convention in California and bought your Pre-Primer CDRom. I showed it to a first grade student today who loved it! The clarity and simplicity and repetition are perfect for reinforcing basic words. I would like to order the rest of the series as soon as they're ready."
- S.M., Illinois
"My daughter is 8, has Down syndrome, and has been slowly learning sight-words for about a year in first grade. On Sunday, I read your instructions and started "Fast Flashing" the words for the book "Spaghetti!". By Tuesday, she said the words before I did when I showed her the cards-- so I gave her the book. She read it...she loves it!!!!
Thank you. It is so exciting to find something that 'turns the key'."
- T.A., New York
"I have two boys with Down syndrome. Mendy (13) LOVES your books and reads them over and over for his reading tutor (he even prefers them over Super Heroes). 'I want Pizza' is perfect for Yitzi (13), and now he sight-reads many more words than before. Since they love your books, I was wondering what to order from your site next..."
- C.L., Maryland
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Q. Is there a secret to teaching reading to our kids with Down syndrome? Or our teens? Or even adults with Down syndrome?
You bet there is. In fact there are several secrets. Knowing these can make the difference between years of discouraging struggle vs. soul-satisfying reading success.
I’ve seen this satisfaction spread over my students time after time. It’s particularly awesome in my older students, often teenage boys who somehow missed the reading boat when they were 5 or 6 and it would have been oh-so-much-easier to learn it.
I love it when these teens have progressed with me to the stage that I get “the hand” when I move to assist them with decoding a word. “The hand” wordlessly says, “Chill. I’m figuring this out for myself.”
Okay, so what are the secrets?
1. We teach our kids with Down syndrome to read on their terms, on their turf.
What do I mean by that? I mean two things:
a. First, that we teach them according to their individual learning style. That may take time to figure out, because Down syndrome notwithstanding, each child has their own unique learning preference. But once we understand how that child will best learn to read, we’ve hit the mother lode.
b. Second, that we start out teaching them using reading materials built around their hearts’ interests almost exclusively. We make simple picture books with magazine pictures, we buy the latest children’s reader books on their hot topics and modify them, etc. (I’ve covered that subject in an earlier article on my site: scroll down to read “How to Motivate Your Student with Down Syndrome to Read.”)
2. We teach reading keeping three essentials in mind. We are going to…
a. Reduce the task size. We will break up any reading task into smaller, digestible sizes.
b. Increase the frequency of the brain’s exposure to the reading materials we’re showing (e.g., flash cards).
c. Increase the time-duration of the learning unit. The time in which it would likely take a child with typical learning ability to learn a reading task will be multiplied by ten, plus or minus a few.
3. With our reading materials, we cleverly blend the crisply fresh fare with the slightly stale, the new with the old. Here’s our challenge:
a. We need to keep repeating previous reading material that the child has yet to master but is getting tired of.
b. We need to continually introduce fresh new material that keeps the learner engaged and wanting more.
If we can accomplish this balance, things will go very well indeed. Our learners will stay engaged and interested in learning to read, and in that longer process, will be ultimately successful.
4. K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple and Silly. (Yes, I know there’s another version of this acronym!)
So what do I mean by KISS? We need to learn to look through the eyes of our learners with Down syndrome. Here are some tips:
a. Literally look at the eyes of your student. Where are they focused? Some students look anywhere but at the word you’re focusing on. Bring them back to focus on the task.
b. Are they having a hard time “seeing” what you’re trying to teach them? Try to see through their eyes: is it visually clear? Is it simple? Is the type large enough? Is there enough spacing between words so that the child doesn‘t have to struggle to mentally separate and recognize adjacent words? I double space between all words in my reading materials; I wouldn’t think of doing otherwise. It’s a huge help, as is using very large type, especially in the early stages of learning to read.
c. And for the silly part…listen to Dr. Langdon Down, identifier of the syndrome: “Individuals with Down syndrome have a heightened sense of the ridiculous.” Of course they do. How many times have you doubled over with laughter at your child’s humor? So make the materials funny, silly, ridiculous…it works.
5. Administer Daily Doses
It’s all about the brain. It’s all about creating synapses and making them fire between neurons over and over and over and…you get the picture. Short, daily doses do the trick. 5 minutes once a day beats an hour a week hands down. It’s the frequency that does the magic. Here’s why:
What happens when you show a child a flash card? And particularly when you teach with flash cards using the simple and rapid-learning “Fast Flash Method” (scroll down to read my earlier article, “Fast Flash Those Word Cards!”)?
I’ll let Dr. Oz elaborate on the topic (I’m embarrassed to admit that I got this from reading his “You: Staying Young” book—not that I’m at the age where I need the book, you understand).
Dr. Oz writes, “Learning begins with those power connections in your brain: neurons firing messages to one another. Your ability to process information is determined by the junctions between those neurons, called the synapses. The ability of brain cells to speak to one another is strengthened or weakened as you use them…essentially, the more you use those synapses, the stronger they get and the more they proliferate.” (Italics mine.)
So in your child’s brain, it works like mathematics: you put in the information repeatedly, patiently, repeatedly…did I say repeatedly already? It works like nothing else will work.
So now you’re prepped, primed, and ready to roll…you’ve got the essential secrets to teaching reading to a child with Down syndrome. Or a teen or adult; the approach is the same; only the interests differ (pay attention to Item #1b in this article for older non-readers or older emergent readers).
But what about materials? What do you use to get your program jump-started? The very best I can recommend is the NEW BUNDLE: Step One Starter Set on this site.
Why do I consider it the best? Because it embraces the full spectrum of both essential tasks and entertaining, engaging materials, in a clear, accessible format. In short, it accomplishes what I’ve encouraged in this article.
It gives your child with Down syndrome an entertaining but effective program of a full year’s worth of learning materials, most of which are built around the popular kid topics of favorite foods. Does your learner like pizza? Ice cream? Spaghetti? I rest my case.
Enjoy the ride!
This one’s easy. We work with whatever floats their boat, whatever fires their jets. What do I mean by that? We begin to teach reading by focusing on topics that they care about more than anything in the world, and work from there.
Particularly with learners who have a reputation for being strong willed (what, my child?) it’s essential to hook their motivation. It’s not an exaggeration to say that engaging motivation is a prerequisite for teaching your learner with Down syndrome to read.
Our children have enough challenges before them; to struggle to read about things which do not interest them in the least is counter-productive. We want to hone in on their absolute favorite things on the planet and work with reading from there.
We begin by making an “A” list. Start your project by listing three items in each of these categories:
Your list of 9 topics will vary greatly depending on the age of your learner. Once you’ve completed your list, you’re armed with 9 different routes to the heart of your learner’s reading motivation.
Now you begin. This plan, which is research-based and respected as best practice for teaching individuals with Down syndrome to read (regardless of age!), begins with sight words coupled with personal books.
Head to your nearest office supply store and stock up on the following simple items:
1. 5” x 8” blank index cards for making flash cards (if you can’t find blank, use the reverse side of lined index cards)
2. A ream of 110# card stock paper, white (for printing your books)
3. Several red markers: broad or chisel-tipped (for making flash cards)
Your job will be easiest if you have access to a computer and a printer, and I’ll assume you do as we progress through this reading process. But if you don’t, you’ll just write everything by hand.
With your Hot Topic List and your office supplies in hand, you’re going to write your first book.
For this exercise, I’m going to assume that you have an emergent or beginning reader as a student. If your learner is more advanced, simply write your reading books at a more advanced level.
1. Write the text for your first reading book. For a beginning reader, try to limit yourself to a vocabulary list of only 10-15 words. Here is an example of what you might do; keep in mind that each short sentence occupies a page all by itself. I am Joseph. I love my Mama. I love my Daddy. I love Sarah. I love my family. The End. After each short sentence page, the next page turn will reveal a picture all by itself: pictures will be of Joseph, then Mama & Joseph, then Daddy & Joseph, then Sarah & Joseph, then a picture of the whole family. Kids love “The End,” because it gives them a feeling of reading accomplishment and success, so teach those words from the beginning. With this example, you’ve got a total of 11 vocabulary words. Perfect for your first book.
2. Create flash cards for all the words, using your index cards and the red marker. The most effective reading method for learners with Down syndrome uses large red letters, so make your words as large as possible on your 5” x 8” cards. Either print them or computer in red ink, or use your red markers and try to make the letters as uniform and well-formed as you can. You’re after visual clarity, so keep that in mind.
3. Take photos which correspond to your text (digital camera is most convenient if you have one), or use magazine cut-outs if appropriate.
4. Write the text on your computer and print it, with these guidelines:
a. Set the page setup as landscape
b. Use 70 to 100 point type, black ink
c. Use the 110# index paper stock you’ve bought
d. Print only one short sentence to a page
e. Assemble your book with NOTHING ever on the left page when you’re looking at a double- spread.The best way to bind it is to take it to an office supply store/kinko’s/etc and ask for “plastic coil binding.” Don’t use “comb binding.” It lasts about 5 minutes in the hands of a child before coming apart.
f. Assemble it in this way:
1. text page on right side page
2. turn the page
3. picture page illustrating the previous text, on right side page also
4. turn the page
5. next text page, right side page
6. turn the page
7. next picture page illustrating the previous text, right side page again
So this is what we’re doing: we are creating a book which is Hot Topic for your learner with Down syndrome, a reading book which is highly motivating and personal. We’re coupling that with your learner’s first reading vocabulary. And we’re going to use the fastest, most effective method for teaching those sight words.
And what’s that method? We call it Fast Flash. It’s simple, astonishingly effective, and has a decades-old track record of success.
Here it is: divide your flash cards into groups of 5 or so; show each set 3-4 times to your learner, calling out the words as you move the cards at a rate of approximately one per second. There are brain-based reasons which support this method, and we’ll cover that in another lesson. But for now, just try it and you’ll believe it!
Then read the book to your learner and enjoy it together. End by showing/calling out the flash cards again, 3 or 4 times in a row, as before. End of session!
A frequent question is: “Does my student have to repeat the word aloud as I flash them?” No. The only requirement is that they look at the cards and listen as you say the word.
As your learner begins to be able to recognize the words, encourage him/her to read the words aloud. Eventually you’ll have an independent reader for this book, and that’s just the beginning.
Many parents and educators have made the amazing discovery that, using this reading method, their learners with Down syndrome grasp and retain all the vocabulary words in as little as a few weeks’ time. When this happens, motivation and excitement are so high that your learner gets on the reading fast track and, with continued reading support, just keeps going.
We love to see what you’ve created; so if you feel inspired to send us a photo of your child and his/her reading book, please do!
I could give you an official quote from a highly respected research source to back up this claim, and I certainly will later in this article.
But I want to start with the story a young man I’ll call Brian.
A recent transplant from out of state, Brian arrived at my tutoring doorstep nearing his 12th birthday. He was standing at my door only because he had missed the boat. That elusive reading boat had somehow passed him right by.
He could read only a few color words and the names of his former classmates, the latter skill sadly being of no use whatever in his new home in California.
In addition to Down syndrome, Brian had just a touch of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), and basically had only one interest in life: emergencies. Ambulances, hospitals, and “Call 911!” floated his boat, big time.
These restrictions and his disinterest in reading not withstanding, his parents ached for Brian to be able to read. So here he was.
My method with our learners with Down syndrome, regardless of age, is to begin teaching reading by focusing laser-like on what interests them most.
Many years ago, I did that with my own son Jonathan (now 24), who also has Down syndrome. At age 5, I made his first book, “Spaghetti,” because it was his Number One Favorite Food in the universe. Within two weeks, he had learned the eleven vocabulary words in the book, and could read the homemade picture-less book perfectly. I continued the method and creating homemade books, and he was soon off and running as a reader.
But back to our friend Brian.
I created personal reading books for Brian built exclusively around emergencies. I downloaded internet images of stethoscopes, blook pressure cuffs, wheechairs, you name it – all those things that made him sit up and take notice with eyes wide open.
I knew that this was the way in, the way to hook him, and I was prepared to make these books ‘till the cows came home, until I could reel him in and land “Brian The Reader.” I didn’t care how long it took.
After several months of this, one day Brian arrived for his lesson and noticed—for the first time—a stack of early reading books I designed and use with my other students. These books had always been close by, and Brian had always ignored them. But not today. Today he grabbed several of them and plopped them on the worktable.
“These!” he announced. I was nearly speechless. “Brian, you want to read those books?”
“Yes!” he yelled.
Veeery carefully, treading gently lest I shatter this amazing moment, I led him through reading the books. When we finished, he pushed his chair back from the table. “MORE!” he yelled.
“You want more books like these, Brian?” I was stunned.
And we were off and running. I felt like high-fiveing Helen Keller’s Annie Sullivan. Dude! Within weeks, his mother reported, “Brian came home from the school library today with books on volcanoes and Native Americans!” Who knew?
And that was how Brian The Reader was born. There are many other stories, of course, from many other teachers, but this one remains my favorite.
Now for the official research quote I promised you…This is from Sue Buckley, head researcher and director of Downs Ed International, and can be found in their series, Teaching Reading and Writing to Individuals with Down Syndrome:
“It is always too early to say that children, young people, or adults cannot learn to read…children with Down syndrome can ‘take off’ with reading at any age.”
She further states, “Almost all children with Down syndrome are capable of reaching a level of reading achievement that will be functionally useful if we, their parents and teachers, believe that this is possible and steadily help them to progress.”
Well said! And repeatedly proven to be true. It’s NEVER too late to learn to read!
Natalie is available to work with you one-on-one through phone consults, real-time video consults, and Webinar.
How do you teach reading vocabulary quickly to a child with Down syndrome, Autism, ASD, or any developmental delay? You Fast Flash!
Children with Down Syndrome or Autism are known to be strong visual learners; we can maximize that strength when we teach reading. Research shows that the brains of all children prefer to learn quickly, and children with ASD or Down syndrome are no exception. Using the Fast Flash method to teach reading works, and it’s been used for decades.
Don't believe it, because it seems counter-intuitive?
A special education teacher who attended one of my conference presentations called me several months later and said, “When I got back to school, I told my colleagues that I was going to begin teaching sight words without the images we always use; no pictures! And that I was going to be showing the words quickly, using the Fast Flash method."
"They said, 'Yeah, right. Lilke that's going to work!' But I was detrmined to give this reading method a try. Now, a few months later, they're looking at how quickly my students have learned sight words, and they're saying, 'Wow! This really works!'"
1. Group flash cards in packs of 5; this is the most comfortable number to optimize working memory for children with Down syndrome, Autism, and ASD.
2. Make sure the words are large (use a broad marker and unlined index cards, either 4x6 or 5x8). If you’re creating these cards on computer, use 100 pt. type or larger.
3. Sit across from the child, not side-by-side; you want to put the cards directly in the child’s alert line of vision.
4. Flash the cards quickly, about one per second, calling out the words.
5. Repeat, showing the cards 3 or 4 times.
6. If you’re teaching additional words, introduce the next set of 5, and so on, as long as you’ve still got the child’s interest.
7. Keep the cards fresh; replace learned words with new ones.
8. Include lots of high interest words (Wiggles, Sponge Bob, or whatever fires your child’s interest) along with high-frequency words that have to be learned.
If you’re teaching these words in conjunction with a favorite book, which I hope is the case, then flash the words once more after reading the book. This “Sandwich Method” of teaching reading [words—book—words] is very effective!
Try Fast Flash to teach reading to your child with Down syndrome or ASD—it works!