Teaching Children With Down Syndrome to Read

A couple years ago I thought I was on to something big when I discovered See and Learn – http://www.seeandlearn.org/.  It touted itself as THE way to teach children with Down syndrome to read.  Better yet, the first few steps of the program had recently been completed and were available for free download.  They claimed they were teaching children with Down syndrome as young as 2 years old to read, and that many children with significant language delays were learning to speak right alongside learning to read with this program.  They had a date posted when they would be releasing more of the program, and the impression I got was that that would be free as well.  The fact that it was developed by Down Syndrome Education International, a well known charity – http://www.dseinternational.org/en/gb/ and had a high profile among Down syndrome publications, conventions, support groups, etc. added to its credibility.

The program had a reputable study published that seemed to boost their claims, and the fact that they were offering downloadable copies of the first steps of the program made it very attractive.  Unfortunately, the release date of the additional materials came and went without any materials being released.  Strike one.

As I recall, there was initially an emphasis on the fact that very young children were succeeding in this program.  As Noah was about 4 at the time, I was thrilled to have what looked like a very simple program at my fingertips.  The directions were very clear.  There was a very specific script and process to use, and it seemed like a very logical program that just made sense.

Since the materials were available on-line, it was very easy to get a grasp of the program and make your own materials to maximize the benefit of customized pictures rather than stock photos.  See and Learn no longer offers the materials nor the instructions of even the first few steps of the program for free.  So if you want to know how the program works, you have to buy the expensive kits.  Strike two.

While the program was still downloadable for free, I printed off what I could and sat down to get to work with Noah and eagerly awaited the dates posted when more would be available.  I quickly found that while Noah was good at matching picture to picture, he was not anywhere near being able to match word to word.  Pulling the cards out every day and encouraging him to match wasn’t helping him, but it sure was frustrating him.

You know how they say that people with Down syndrome love routine and repetition?  Well, not Noah.

See, when God made Noah, he didn’t break the mold – He didn’t use a mold.  Give Noah something he has never seen before or that he has seen but has never been allowed to touch, and you’ll have his attention for at least 15 minutes.  Let him see the same stack of cards you used yesterday coming out again today, and, well, you better grab a big glass because the whine is going to pour.

Initially I kind of panicked when I saw that THE reading program for kids with Down syndrome wasn’t going to work for Noah.  I mean, if he can’t even do something specifically designed for kids with Down syndrome, he can’t do it, right?

Later, I saw the See and Learn program for sale at the National Down Syndrome Congress Convention and I was shocked by its price.  I remember thinking, is this really what I have to use to teach Noah to read, because I just don’t think this is going to cut it.

Then I remembered how my other kids learned to read.  None of them learned to read the “right” way.  We usually make it about half way through a reading program before we give up because it is too tedious and there are too many places we get stuck.  See, my children all start to sight read around age 3 and then they plateau.  They stay at that place where they can sight read rhyming words and names that start with different letters for at least a year or so.  Then they start recognizing words here and there, then it’s the Bob books, and somehow by the time they are 5, they are usually solid readers.  It’s never all phonics, it’s never all sight words, it just all slowly unravels in their brain and somehow it all comes out right.  If they were forced to stick to a program and nothing else, they would probably not learn to read until age 6 or so (which would be fine, just a whole lot more work).

So why would it be any different with Noah?  His time table is a lot different from my other children, but he is no more likely to adhere to a specific reading program than any of them.

What I took away from this was a reminder I learned many years ago – “Take what you want and leave the rest.”  What I took away from the See and Learn program is that matching is a very important pre-reading skill and can be learned at a very early age.  We started by matching colors when Noah was about 3.  We found a million ways he could match color to color – blocks, file folder games, cars, Duplos, stickers, balls into matching colored boxes, clothespin task cards, etc.  The possibilities are endless.

Now, at almost 6 years of age, Noah has gotten to the point that he can match letter to letter, and he can also match flashcards of names of people in our family.  Using words that are relevant to Noah is very important.  Often with children with Down syndrome, if they don’t see the purpose in what they are doing, they will refuse to do it.  Using words that Noah has a high interest in is a key to success in these types of activities.

It is important to remember, though, that making your child a great matcher of words using this technique does not equate to reading.  I have heard several stories lately of children who “learned to read” using the See and Learn process, but they can only “read” using the index cards they learned with.  If you put that same word on a piece of paper or in a book, they have no idea what it says.  I think bridge activities could rectify this situation easily, but it is important to keep that in mind as your children learn to work with matching words.   Bridge activities could include things like reading simple (even handmade) books that use the working words, finding the target word on a page containing the word alongside other words, spelling the words using Duplos with letters printed on them, matching the word typed in a different font to a physical object, etc.

This week I used a pocket chart for a matching game, but you can use a file folder or even just lay them out on a table or a floor.

Supplies:  8 index cards and a black marker.

Preparation:  Choose four family names that all start with a different letter.  Write each name on its own card and then create a matching set.


1.  For your first attempt, in order to teach your child the game and to ensure success, lay out only one card.  Give your child the matching card and read it to him.  Ask him to set the card down next to its mate.  The dialogue should sound like this:

(Pointing at card:  “Noah.”)  “Put Noah next to Noah.”

2.  Move through the cards in the above fashion, giving positive feedback after every match.

3.  Next, repeat the procedure, but this time, lay out two cards instead of one.  Give your child one card at a time asking him to lay it down next to its mate.

4.  Continue in this fashion, laying out one additional card each round.

Teaching Reading to Children With Down Syndrome – http://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Reading-Children-With-Syndrome/dp/0933149557 is a great book that details techniques similar to those used in the See and Learn program but adds in additional information and ideas that makes it very easy to customize a program suited to your child’s needs.  All the materials can be made at home using pictures of things your child is familiar with.

So, if you’re looking for the strike three against See and Learn, you’re not going to find it.  I think there are some really good things about it and I don’t doubt that many, many children are learning to read using it.  I’m just encouraging you to not devote yourself to a program just because it is “made for children with Down syndrome.”  See what their claims are and measure that against what you know about your own child and what you know about reading in general.   Remember that reading skills should always be evolving and growing, no one program is going to teach your child everything they need to know about reading, nor is there only one right answer when it comes to teaching your child with Down syndrome to read.  (That is hard for me to write, because I really wish there were one right answer.)

Incidentally, I am using the word matching technique for word play with Bella (4) along with Noah (5-DS).  I think it’s a good strategy, period, for learning to distinguish individual letters and words.

So, how are you teaching your child with Down syndrome to read?  If your child is already reading, what worked and what didn’t?  Anybody have experience with the See and Learn program?  I’d love to hear from you.


4 thoughts on “Teaching Children With Down Syndrome to Read”

  1. I’ve also heard of having the word paired with the picture and then gradually making the word more of the emphasis rather than the picture—simplifying the picture or eliminating it little by little. Obviously this would work best with nouns. I haven’t actually used it, but it always sounded like an interesting strategy.

    1. Yes, that’s part of the same program. I think it’s picture to picture, then picture/word to picture/word, then picture/word to word, then word to word, then word to picture, or something like that. It’s all very logical but my experience is that all that work doesn’t always result in understanding that h-a-t means that thing you wear on your head. KWIM?


  2. Great post! I think one of the most important points you make is that no one reading program works for every child. Every child with DS has his or her own individual learning profile (just as all children do). As someone who teaches children with DS to read, I have found that a program may be helpful to get started–and it is definitely helpful to have a research based scope and sequence–but with every single child I teach, I create new materials and tweak my teaching strategies. There are so many assumptions about the literacy profiles of children with DS but they do not always hold true. Quite a few children have trouble with phonological awareness, but not all do. Many like repetition, but as you point out, not all do. I think it is a mistake to follow a “recipe” for every child because there will always be a group of children who need something different. I have been closely following the work of Down Syndrome International because I have been appalled at the lack of appropriate reading instruction for this population of children and I am grateful that there are people out there devoted to researching this area. For teachers who do not have sufficient training in reading instruction (and many, unfortunately, do not), a commercial program may mean the difference between a child learning to read or wasting years of time with ineffective instruction (or no instruction at all!). But the best case scenario, in my mind, is to have an evidenced-based approach coupled with an instructor who has the training, skills and experience to tailor the appproach to meet each child’s needs.

    I will be interested to folllow this thread to read about other people’s experiences!

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Kathleen. I respect your opinion immensely as you are an expert in the field. I feel like I’m treading on dangerous ground since all I have heard are good things about the reading programs tailored for kids with Down syndrome and Down Syndrome Education International in general. I think as parents and educators of children with Down syndrome, we are so hungry for tools that will work for our special kids that we may not be as objective as we could be about the things that are out there. I’m looking forward to learning just how Noah will learn to read, but I assume it will be a lot like the way his siblings learned – a little of this, a little of that, and then since it’s Noah we’re talking about, I’m sure he’ll need a lot of something before he masters the written word, I’m just not sure what that will be. I am thankful for what I learned from See and Learn when their program was still downloadable on-line. Blessings to you – it’s time for me to get caught up on your blog!!!


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