Teaching Preschoolers with Down Syndrome to Read with See and Learn

This post is for my five-year-old nephew, Aidan, whose school has been shut down for the third time this year. Aidan has a lot of developmental delays that mimic Down Syndrome, and virtual school is… well… virtual. So my sister asked me to show her how I’m teaching Junior to read. She lives across the border, which is also closed. So, I made her these videos.

Having a child with Down Syndrome is such an adventure. Never did I think that it was possible to teach a three-year-old with T21 to read. All my other children had learned to read when they were about five, so I figured that Junior would probably begin to read around seven or eight.

Thus, I was both surprised and intrigued when I came across some papers by Sue Buckley and colleagues. She had done extensive studies on teaching toddlers and children with T21 how to read. Based on her research, she discovered that not only was it possible to teach many toddlers with T21 how to read sight words, it was also extremely beneficial. Buckley writes:

Reading activities may be the single most important intervention for promoting the speech, language and cognitive development of preschool children with Down Syndrome….. we are quite convinced that it (reading) is the single most effective way to help children overcome the learning difficulties associated with Down Syndrome.

Buckley, Sue. Reading and Writing for Infants with Down Syndrome (0-5 years)


Children introduced to literacy as a language teaching activity in preschool years reach the highest level of achievement.

Buckely, Sue. Reading and Writing for Individuals with Down Syndrome – An Overview.

Needless to say, six months ago I began teaching my 3-year-old with T21 to read. The goal was to enable him to say 2-3 word phrases without being prompted. You see, Junior can repeat almost anything I say, but he has difficulty retrieving words from his mind without a verbal or visual cue. When he does say a word unprompted, it’s often unintelligible. But learning to read is making a huge difference. Once he learns to read a word, it’s not long before he starts using it unprompted in speech and with greater clarity. Furthermore, his MLU (mean length of utterance) is increasing, meaning his phrases and sentences are getting longer. I can’t tell you how exciting it is for both of us to see him learn to read and speak.

Today I’m sharing with you, step by step (videos included!), how I’m teaching Junior to read.

As I said earlier, Junior and I started this process six months ago. We began with DSE‘s See and Learn Phrases I — the printed kit, not the app.

Yes, the app is cheaper, but following Dr. Skotko’s advice, we want to keep our kids away from screens as much as possible. So if you can afford it, buy the printed kit. I think there’s something about holding the books and handling/organizing the cards that helps children learn. Each See and Learn Phrases Kit comes with excellent instructions for parents. What I’m outlining below closely follows the instructions and offers additional tips. It’s a recipe for success that works well for Junior.

Reading Readiness

With typically developing children, we look for signs of reading readiness before we start teaching them to read. Not so for children with T21, says Buckley. “Such signs do not apply to children with Down Syndrome.” According to Buckely, all that is recommended children with T21 have before learning to read is a vocabulary of 50+ words, either by speech or sign language. I think it is also extremely helpful if children know the letter sounds before learning to read. But if they don’t there’s no need to wait. Children with T21 tend to be strong visual learners and can learn to memorize the shape and look of a word without knowing the letters. They can learn their letter sounds alongside learning to read. Several times a week, Junior and I pull out wooden letters or an alphabet puzzle and we practice the letter sounds.

Setting up the learning space and schedule: Here are some guidelines for when and where to teach reading.

  • Commit to reading sessions twice a day if possible. Shorter and more frequent is better than one long session. Keep the reading sessions at the same time each day because children with T21 thrive on routine. Junior has his reading lessons right after breakfast and then right after lunch, six days a week. Saturdays are noisy, busy days at our house with all the siblings home, so having a reading lesson after breakfast and lunch can be distracting. However, Junior loves an audience. He is highly motivated by being able to show off his reading to his siblings.
  • Keep the reading sessions short and sweet. End before your child grows weary of the activity. Five minutes when you’re first starting is great. Little by little your child will hopefully be able to extend that to 15 even 20 minutes.
  • Choose quiet times when there are few distractions.
  • If you’re using the kitchen table with a table cloth, make sure it is solid-colored with no designs. We want our kids to focus on the words and to have no visual distractions.
  • If you’re using a kitchen table, make sure your child is seated high enough and has a chair with good arm and back support. We are currently using an Ikea highchair. The fact that Junior’s feet dangle is not ideal, but we do like having a large surface to spread our cards out on.
  • Alternatively, use a child-sized table and a chair that offers good arm and back support. Children with low tone need as much support as possible when doing tasks that require a lot of focus.
  • Make sure the room is well-lit.
  • Use a large book stand when you’re reading books together. Encourage your child to use a pointer to point to each word he/she reads. These will promote good posture. They will also prevent your child from reading too closely to the page, something children with low tone are apt to do.

Preparing the First Lesson

Before you start each reading session, set aside the exact books and cards you will be using. Choose one of the books in the kit that you think your child will be most interested in. Then find all the word cards and matching pictures for that book. Decide which two words you want to teach first. Make sure they are visually very different. For example, if you start with the Washing book, choose the words “washing” and “baby”. Set aside those particular picture and word cards. Now you’re ready to get started!

Step 1 – Reading the Book

Once your child is seated, let him/her freely explore the book for a few minutes. Then read the book to your child three times in a row. Remember to use a book stand and a pointer to promote proper posture. Point to the words as you read and talk about each picture, asking questions such as “What color is the ball?” or “What is the cat doing?”. Encourage your child to repeat each phrase after you read it.

Note: the materials used in these videos are from See and Learn Phrases 3

In the following days, as you read the book with your child, see if he/she can anticipate an fill in some of the words. You can do this by reading the first word on a page and then pausing to see if your child fill in the remaining word(s). If your child doesn’t fill in, no problem, keep on reading. But with enough repetition, I think you’ll see that your child will eventually fill in the ends of the phrases/sentences.

Step 2 – Matching

A) Teacher matches word to picture

Show your child the two picture cards you preselected. Name each picture and prompt your child to repeat you. Eventually your child should learn to automatically repeat a vocabulary word every time you say it during the reading lesson. This is a good time to work on articulation. Have your child repeat the word a few times if needed to work on articulating a particular vowel of consonant. Use visual cues to remind your child how to produce the desired sound.

Next, show your child a word card and help him/her place it under the matching picture. Matching the word to the picture helps children understand that the printed word has meaning and builds comprehension.

B) Child matches word to word

1. Leave the picture and matching word cards on the table. Give your child the second of the matching word cards. Ask him/her to match it without saying what the word says.

If a child matches it to the wrong word, point to the first letter of the word as a clue and say the letter sound. For example, “This begins with /r/. Which one begins with /r/?”

Always encourage your child to say the word as he/she matches it. Again, this is another opportunity to work on articulation. This time, point to the letter in the word that your child needs help with. For example, if your child is not producing a good /r/ sound, which is typical, point to the “r” in running and say, “See the r? R makes /r/. Let’s say /r/”. Then together, “/r/, /r/, running.” If needed, clap the syllables or use a pacing board as a visual reminder of how many syllables are needed.

Step 3 – Selecting Cards

1. Leave the word cards on the table. I forgot to do this in the video, but it’s a good practice to read the word cards together, pointing to the words as your child reads them.

2. Remove the picture cards from the table. Next, ask your child to select and give you the card you name.

Step 4 – Reading the Cards

Finally, flash the word cards and see if your child can read the cards!

If you’re child has difficulty reading the word cards, no worries. Just try the whole process again the next day and then the next. When we began this process, Junior learned one sight word per week. Now, with twice daily practice, he is able to learn 10-15 new sight words per week. Buckley writes:

Recent studies from Australia and the UK indicate that some 60% to 70% of individuals with Down Syndrome can achieve functional levels of literacy by adult life…. The only way to find out what level of literacy each child is able to achieve is to give him or her every opportunity to learn with well planned teaching activities from preschool years to adult life.

Buckley, Sue. Reading and Writing for Individuals with Down Syndrome

So commit to it and stick with it! We want to give our kids every opportunity to learn 🙂

Talking about short lessons, this one’s been long enough. Next month I’ll share some videos and tips on the last two steps. We’ll demonstrate how we use the two-and-three word phrase cards that come with the See and Learn Phrases Kits, and I’ll share what we’re doing to promote reading comprehension.

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