Teaching Preschoolers with Down Syndrome to Read – Part 2 (And Why We’re not doing Phonics, Yet)

Last post, I shared some videos showing how Junior is learning to read using See and Learn Phrases by Down Syndrome Education. We demonstrated the first four steps of learning to read using sight words.

Today, I’m sharing videos of the last two steps and discussing why we’re breezing through with sight words instead of slogging through phonics.

Let’s begin with a quick recap of the first four steps: 1. Reading the book, 2. Matching cards, 3. Selecting cards, and 4. Reading cards. We use these steps to teach new words. You can check out the videos here.

Step 5 is Reviewing Old and New Words.

As your child learns to read more and more words, it’s important to continue reviewing previously learned words. Errorless learning is a way of teaching that minimizes the amount of mistakes a child will make. Success is highly motivating for children; errors, on the other hand, often cause discouragement or frustration, particularly for young children.

To reduce the possibility of error, we go through the sequence of matching, selecting, and reading word cards even with previously learned cards. This may seem redundant to the teacher but is very beneficial for the child.

To further reduce the possibility of error, start with a matrix of two or three picture cards, and as your child’s confidence and competence grows, expand that matrix to five. Again, encourage your child to say the words aloud, even when matching and selecting. This way your child is using multiple senses: hearing, seeing, touching.

Step 6 – Using the Phrase Cards

  1. Gather all the phrase cards that correspond to one book. For example, if your child is learning the words in the Washing book, set aside all the phrase cards from that book.
  2. Present the picture phrase cards one at a time, helping your child name the cards.
  3. Have your child read each phrase card and match it to the corresponding picture card. In this video, Junior does this activity very easily. Remember that he has been doing this for process for 6-7 months. When your child is new to reading the phrase cards, you many need to cover some of the words so your child can focus on one word at a time.
  4. To build reading comprehension, talk about what’s happening in each picture. Open-ended questions such as “What is the cat doing?” are sometimes hard for children with T21 to answer. They may have difficulty retrieving the word they want to say. If this is the case with your child, ask questions such as, “Is the boy happy or sad?” or “Is the tiger running fast or slow?” Sometimes children will just repeat the last word you said, so make sure you switch around the placement of the correct answer. For example, if the tiger is running fast, you might say “Is the tiger running fast or slow?” one time, then another time “Ist the tiger running slow or fast?”
  5. Once your child can read all the phrase cards from two books successfully, you can start mixing up phrase cards from previously learned books and cards. Have your child match phrase cards and picture phrase cards from a variety of previously learned books.
  6. When you are confident that your child knows how to read the phrase word cards, simply flash them. Once your child reads the card, show him/her the corresponding picture card. Remember to work on articulation as needed.

And now, What about Phonics?

In Reading and Writing for Individuals with Down Syndrome, Sue Buckley describes the three stages of reading:

  1. Logographic Reading – reading by memorizing the look and shape of whole words and building up a store of easily recognized words
  2. Phonetic Reading – reading by sounding out/decoding words using phonological awareness
  3. Orthographic Reading – eventually children associate sound patterns with morphemes and decode words using rhymes and word families.

According to Buckley, phonetic reading for children with T21 tends to be very challenging due to mild/moderate hearing loss, difficulty with articulation, and difficulty classifying and analyzing speech sounds. Thus, she recommends waiting until a child has established a sight vocabulary of 50 words and can read and understand simple books before teaching phonics skills. Buckley writes:

The larger a student’s sight vocabulary, the larger the database that he or she can draw on to begin to understand how letters or groups of letters in the words represent sound.

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

She further writes:

For most children (with or without Down Syndrome) phonics, which are most useful for writing and spelling rather than reading, are learned most effectively during writing and spelling activities.


Children with Down Syndrome show that ability to move on to be alphabetic readers when they reach about the same reading skill levels as typically developing children i.e. word reading at about 7 to 8 years.

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

Hence, when your child is just new to reading, it’s better to focus on reading logographically and to wait on phonetic reading until a bank of sight words is established.

It’s worthwhile, at this point, to review our goals in teaching our children with T21 to read at such a young age. For me, they are as follows:

  1. To help my son retrieve the words he wants to communicate from his brain with better ease and speed
  2. To work on articulation and intelligibility
  3. To increase length of his phrases and sentences
  4. Above all, to let him experience the joy of reading and the wonderful world of books

Teaching Junior to read logographically enables us to achieve all these goals. For example:

  • A few weeks ago, Junior learned to read an adapted version of the Berenstain Bear’s Big Bear, Small Bear. (I adapted it for him.) It uses the phrases “too big”, “too small”, and “just right” throughout the book. The very next day, he informed me (completely unprompted) that the spoonful of veggies I was giving him was “too big”, and later that his piece of cake was “too small”! I had to reassure him that the servings were “just right”. 🙂
  • A few days after learning to read the word “make”, Junior pointed to his brother who was outside cooking burgers. “Peter makes burgers,” Junior announced. And a day after learning to read “flower”, Junior pointed to a flower in our garden and said “flower!”.
  • Several of the words Junior is learning to read begins with ‘h’, which he has difficulty enunciating. With help from his speech therapists and with repeated practice on his reading words horse, here, and house, Junior is articulating ‘h’ more frequently.
  • Learning to read has increased his use of two and three word phrases. He often says phrases such as Open the gate, Fix the trains, and Go downstairs. Today he said for the first time, “Mommy, I want a hug.” (what a heart-throb!) and “Toes sticking out!” (of holes in his socks). We’re opening the doors to expressive communication, and I love it.
  • Just as gratifying is seeing how Junior relishes books and enjoys reading. If I’d let him, Junior would spend hours “reading” picture books. In fact, every afternoon he says to me, “Read book, crib”. He also enjoys learning to read new sight words and books. Ever since he learned to read the word “new”, he often asks for his “new (reading) cards”.

Anyways, keeping our goals in mind, it’s clear that getting preschoolers with T21 to slog through phonics, particularly sounding out words, is unnecessary and could even be demotivating. Reading should be a joyful experience. Now, many typically developing children struggle through phonics and only begin to really enjoy reading once they are able to decode words with ease. If we try to teach children with T21 to read phonetically without first having established a large collection of sight words, it could be years of drudgery before they finally become competent enough with phonics to start reading with ease and enjoyment.

Nonetheless, there are some activities that build phonetic awareness which I think are beneficial at this stage and age. They are as follows:

  • Learn letter sounds with alphabet puzzles and other such toys
  • Read lots of rhyming books and nursery rhymes together
  • Demonstrate sounding out the sight words your child is learning to read, but do not require him/her to sound out words him/herself (yet). This is especially helpful with words that are visually similar, such as in and on, doll and ball, duck and ducks.
  • Lay out several sight word cards your child has already learned to read that all begin with the same letter. Point to the first letter of each word and emphasize the beginning sound as you and your child read the sight words.
  • Once your child has learned to read words such as run and running, play and playing, swim and swimming, show him/her those words side by side and point out how -ing changes the base word.
  • When working or articulation, point to the letter in the word your child needs to work on and tell him the letter sound. For example, if your child is not enunciating the /s/ in swing, you can point to the ‘s’ and say, “s says /s/. Sssssswing. Can you say ssssssswing?”

Reading Comprehension

Perhaps more important than doing phonics (at this stage) is working on reading comprehension. It’s important to help our children understand what they are reading. Children with T21 who are readers tend to comprehend at a lower level than their reading level. So, as I described in Step 6, take the time to talk about the pictures and to ask questions about them.

So there we are. And I’ve saved my most important piece of advice for last: Read, read, read to your kids. Make it a fun experience so your kids will want to learn to read. Make it an enjoyable experience so you’ll both carry wonderful memories of reading together.

Next post, I’ll share some home-make books I made for Junior and some tips on how to make some of your own. Because personal books are the best 🙂

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