Teaching Children with Down Syndrome to Read: Our Top Ten Resources for Beginning Phonics

Last fall, I began teaching Junior how to decode words. Having taught my five other children to read, I knew that I would have to make each step along the way very incremental and use materials that were hands-on and visual. I was ready for the process to be slow and bumpy, so I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly Junior learned to decode CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words.

So today I’m sharing with you some videos of Junior at work and the resources and methods we used that worked best.

At the time I took the videos for this post, Junior was just shy of turning five. So, some of you may be wondering why I would try to teach so young a child with T21 how to read. Shouldn’t I be focusing on speech and fine motor skills? Isn’t teaching a child with developmental delays how to read at such a young age pushing him too hard?

For those of you who haven’t yet seen my first post on Teaching children with Down Syndrome to read, I would like to reiterate the research and writings of Sue Buckley, author of Speech and Language Intervention in Down Syndrome. She writes:

Children introduced to reading activities designed to teach spoken language, as early as 2 to 3 years of age, show significantly advanced speech, language, literacy and verbal short-term memory skills in childhood and teenage years… When print is used to support first language learning from 2 to 3 years of age it seems to have a qualitatively different and much greater effect, possibly as a result of brain plasticity at this age.

Sue Buckley, Speech and Language Intervention in Down Syndrome, p. 143.

So, yes, teaching young children with T21 to read is a powerful way to teach them to speak. Furthermore, according to Buckley, parents who have taught their children with T21 to read at a very young age have found that their children found reading to be “an easy and enjoyable activity.” Indeed this is the case with Junior, who finds great pleasure in reading and will read by himself for an hour a day, at least.

But, back to resources and methods. If your child has not yet started to learn how to read, begin with this post: Teaching children with Down Syndrome to read. If your child is ready for phonics, this is the post for you.

Before I attempted to teach Junior to sound out words, I made sure he could do the following:

  • recognize and name all the letters of the alphabet, upper and lower case
  • say all the letter sounds
  • read at least 100 words by sight

Once he could do all of these, I suspected he was ready to learn to decode. After all, he had watched me model sounding out words with each of the 100+ words I had taught him to read by sight. He also knew to put an “s” sound at the end of a plural word. He was beginning to clue in to the fact that individual letters translate into specific sounds.

Since Junior had had so much success with matching sight words to picture cards, I used resources that would allow us do the same with sounding out words. Also, since reading comprehension tends to lag reading ability in children with T21, I wanted to associate a word with a picture, as much as possible, especially in the beginning. This way, sounding out a word would always be meaningful.

So here’s what we used:

  1. Spin and Read Blocks

The first thing I did was just let Junior play with and explore the short /a/ spinner. Then I taught him the vocabulary on the short /a/ cards. Once he knew the names of all the pictures, we began using this for decoding and spelling. For detailed instructions on how we used the Spin and Read Blocks for decoding and spelling, download this file:

2. Montessori-Inspired Beginning Language Bundle – Pink Set

This bundle has over 250 pages of cards and pictures. It’s pricey, but the very large font on the big picture cards is extremely helpful when first learning to sound out words. We used only the large picture and word cards and the cards where your child matches the word to the picture. Start with all the short /a/ words and teach them by word family (ie. teach all the -at words, then the -an words, then the –ag words, etc).

To use the large cards:

  1. Demonstrate how to sound each word out slowly while pointing to the letters you are sounding out. Then say the word at normal speed and encourage your child to repeat.
  2. You sound out the first two letters of a word and let your child sound out the last letter.
  3. Start sounding out a word and let your child sound out the last two letters.
  4. Practice sounding out rhyming words
  5. Cover the picture on the card with your hand or a sticky note and let your child practice sounding out the words. Let him peel off the sticky note to see the picture after he/she sounds it out properly.

Here are two videos of Junior using the large cards:

In the first video, Junior is practicing familiar words. To help him succeed, I group the words he practices by family. In this case, he practices words from the -en and -et family. I also use this as an opportunity to work on articulation.
In this video, Junior has to sound out two words that are less familiar.

To use the smaller match-the-word-to-picture cards:

  1. Lay out three picture cards. Name the pictures.
  2. Give your child a word card. Help him/her sound out the word slowly.
  3. Ask him/her to place the word under the correct picture.
  4. Once your child can do this easily, increase the number of picture cards.
Junior reads a word and matches it to the correct picture

3. Montessori Movable Wooden Alphabet

Having a movable alphabet enables children who are not yet able to write learn to spell. And spelling is an important part of learning to read. To avoid overwhelming your child, give him/her only the letters he/she will need.

To use for decoding:

  • spell out the word with the letters
  • pull each letter down as you or your child sounds out the word
  • read the word slowly and then at normal speed
  • let your child the correct picture from a matrix of 2-3 pictures

To use for spelling:

  • put a picture on the table (from either the pink set or the word spinner cards)
  • give your child only the letters he/she will need to spell the word and place them above the picture
  • help your child segment the word (say each sound one at a time), choose the correct letter, and place it under the picture. Don’t worry if you do most or all of the segmenting. As long as your child is able to choose the right letter, he/she will eventually start to understand how to segment. The important thing is that he/she is successful and enjoys the “game” of spelling words.
  • if you’re using a picture from the word spinner set, place the picture with the word faced down. After he/she spells the word, flip over the card and let your child check the spelling.

Again, to help your child be successful, spell words by family. So, help your child spell cat, hat, fat, mat, etc. then bag, rag, tag, etc.

Once your child is successful at this, you can increase the matrix of letters that he/she will choose from for spelling words.

In this video, Junior spells the word “log”. I give him the sound for the first letter, but he is able to segment the /o/ and /g/.
In this video, Junior spells “dol” instead of “dog.” No big deal; I just help him with that last /g/ sound.

4. Short Vowel Stories, Adapted

Once Junior was proficient at reading and “spelling” short /a/ words, it was time to start reading stories with short /a/ words. So I adapted Short Vowel Stories, which I had written many years ago for my oldest daughter. Here’s a preview of the adapted version:

On the page with colored pictures, I would have Junior read a word and then find the corresponding picture in the box below. Then we would read the story, which used words he had just practiced on the previous page.

You can download them for FREE here: Short Vowel Stories Adapted for Children with Down Syndrome.

Or you can purchase the new edition at Amazon: Short Vowel Stories, 2nd Ed.

5. Rhyme to Read series. I found this gem of a series in print at our local library. However, it is available for download at RhymetoRead.com. This series teaches children to read by focusing on rhyming and word families. The lessons are very incremental and cumulative. I like that the pages are clean and uncluttered, and that publisher uses a very simple font and puts double spaces between the words.

6. CVC Emergent Readers from the Kindergarten Connection (TPT)

Learning to read with fluency takes a lot of practice. So, we practiced the short vowels with these cute little readers, which you can download and print. Each book focuses on a word family.

7. And then we practiced even more with Emergent Readers by the Moffat Girls.

In this bundle, each book features a sight word while giving students practice with the short vowels.

8. Bob Books

Then there’s the favorite Bob books, which I have used with all my kids. These books progress quickly, so I recommend using them after your child has practiced with the emergent readers listed above.

9. Practicing Word Families on the Easel

Now that Junior has learned to sound out CVC words, we are currently working on words with consonant blends. However, it’s important to keep reviewing previously learned material. So I have him practice three word families on the easel each day. I usually put words he learned to read by sight at the top of the list to give him a clue.

10. Spelling Puzzles

Junior really enjoys doing puzzles, so these are fun for review. I only give him puzzles of words he has already read.

Junior uses a word puzzle to spell the word “hen”

Finally, don’t forget: Level 1 readers and/or books with repetitive text from the library

Of course, the best for the last. Reading real books is highly motivating for Junior. So we take out lots of easy readers from the library each week. (It’s easier if you put them on hold before hand.)

When we read books from the library, we do it mainly for enjoyment. (The most important reason!) If he comes across a word he does not know, I sound it out for him, have him repeat the word, and we move on. Usually by the end of the book, he has learned that new word by sight anyways. It’s amazing how many words he has learned to read just by this process alone.

I also use reading books as an opportunity to work on articulation. In fact, I suspect that the written word has turned into a visual prompt for his sound production.

To end, here is a video of Christopher reading:

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