Emergent Literacy in the Homes of Children with Down syndrome
Thomas L. Layton, Ph.D.
Current thinking views literacy as an interaction between listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Each is an important function for the other. Listening, for instance, is an important part of comprehending the theme of a story; whereas learning to read can help to produce sounds correctly, or to develop vocabulary skills, as well as for expanding longer sentences. Writing teaches the child spelling, left to right orientation, correct production, and fine motor skills. Other concepts involved in emergent literacy include: learning to read from left to right, understanding print is related to speech, knowing letters must be learned, and organizing language through appropriate grammar (van Kleeck, 1990).
It has been documented that typical developing children are highly exposed to literacy before entering school. For example, children from literate homes usually have over 1,000 hours of informal reading and writing encounters before entering school.
In recent years, a few investigations have reported on book reading between parents and children with Down syndrome. The findings suggest that more and more parents are reading earlier and more often with their children. Furthermore, parents do expect their children to be able to read independently and for pleasure. The intent of this brief article is to introduce some of parent-child reading methods to help increase early reading for children with Down syndrome. Some parents may already apply these methods. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the suggestions will stimulate additional reading between parents and child.
In our clinic, we encourage parents to introduce reading in a naturalistic setting even before the child has learned to speak. For instance, environmental print can help the child develop initial symbol awareness. This can be done by cutting pictures and words from the child’s favorite food products, toys, games, etc. The parent can collect the pictures in a box for future use or laminate them and attach stick-on-magnets so they can be displayed on the refrigerator (or a magnetic black-board). We have even taken our camera and went around town snapping pictures of favorite places to visit, like McDonald’s, Winn Dixie, the library, Toys R Us, etc. We then laminate the pictures along with written words and place them on the refrigerator. The child can go to the refrigerator and select the picture when he/she wants to get something, or go somewhere. Parents can also select the pictures and talk about getting ready to go to the library and then put the Library picture in a special spot. When it is time to really go to the library, the child can go and get the picture and take it with him/her. (This type of activity helps the child to associate pictures with an activity, to talk about future events, and to anticipate what is going to happen.) Later on when dad arrives home from work, the child can go find the picture, show it to dad, and talk about where he/she went. Thus, the child is talking about past events.
Reading stories on a daily basis is important. There are several strategies that can help the child attain higher language skills, learn to express the meanings of stories, and help to acquire early word concepts. First, the child should pick out the story. Successful reading begins with an interest in the story. However, the books should contain a repeated line throughout the story. Some of our favorite books are "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?," "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," and "Tthe Napping House" for young beginners, age 14 to 30 months. For more advanced children, i.e., 3 to 5 years, parents might want to consider: "Stone Soup," "Are You My Mother?," and "Just Grandma and Me." This last one has a video interactive CD, produced by Broderbund Software, Inc.
Reading the story aloud is important. During the reading the parent should ask lots of questions. "What is this?" "What do you think is going to happen next?" "Where is he going?" Reading the same story over and over, on different days, also prepares the child to answer the questions. If your child answers the questions with only one-word utterances, expand them to two words. Or, if he/she answers with short phrases without auxiliaries (i.e., is, are, was) or with missing articles (i.e., a, an, the), insert these elements in the child’s phrases.
While reading the story stop and try to discuss the story applying it to some real life experience that your child had. Always, comment on your child’s contributions during the story (even if most of what your child is saying is unintelligible). You should point out words in the story, and see if your child can find the same word on the next page.
After you have read the story a few times, pause at important times during the story so the child can complete the sentence; for example, in the book "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" the repeating line is the title of the book followed by, "I see a red bird looking at me." The parent could stop after the title line to see if the child can repeat the next line. If not, provide part of it, such as, "I see a red (pause)" and wait for the child to respond. The parent can also make purposeful errors for the child to correct; for example, for the previous line the parent could say, "duck" instead of "bird", i.e., "I see a red duck looking at me." This allows the child the opportunity to change the sentence by correcting the parent. This is a powerful language skill and tells the parent the child was listening.
The parent can introduce writing along with the story. You can begin simply with drawing a picture of the story, such as, drawing a red bird, yellow duck, white dog, etc. Have the child tell you what he/she is drawing and then label each picture. Then, the next time the story is read the child’s picture can be used to help find the pictures and words in the story.
The parent can also have the child simply copy meaningful words from the story. The parent simply writes the word on the paper and has the child copy it. Remember that initially the child’s copying may not look anything like the adult’s. Regardless, praise the child and show it off. It is the doing that is more important than the product. We have also found that writing and tracing daily improves hand strength, coordination, as well as, letter identification. Practicing drawing and writing is important.
We use felt-tip pens rather than pencils or colors because they require less motor strength to use. We even use a mirror rather than paper to help the child write initially. It requires less effort than paper, and it can easily be wiped clean with a squirt of water.
Another important strategy is to teach the child to write his/her name. This is most rewarding and is a good first word to learn: it teaches the child individual letters, form, and shape. Most children want to learn to write their name. The parent could begin with tracing and copying. You could use alphabet magnets to help the child learn to spell the name. Then leave the magnetic letters on the refrigerator for the child to see his/her name. You can take them down and mix them up. See if the child can put them back in the correct order. Later on you can use the same idea to teach other words.
Parent-child book reading and writing are excellent ways to help a child learn his/her sounds and to improve language skills. Not only that, it is fun. It is a easy and enjoyable method of teaching your child. So, go have fun and good luck in your book reading.