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Cracking the word code

Learning to read early with their peers brings a multitude of benefits for children with Down syndrome, says Jonathan Rix.

How do you help children with Down syndrome to speak? The answer is to teach them to read. Roughly one in every 1,000 children born in the UK has the condition. The majority of children with Down syndrome are in mainstream schools, and the ones in primaries are typically developing reading skills years beyond those in special schools.

A study in 1999 by the Down Syndrome Education Trust concluded that children with Down syndrome who get reading lessons early will in the long run have improved speech, language and short-term memory skills.

It also found that those who have been included in mainstream classes showed gains of more than two years in spoken language skills and three years in reading and writing ability, as well as social skills.

Of course, learning to read is important for all children, but it seems that for children with Down syndrome effective early reading lessons also have a huge impact on their developing speech. So what can teachers do to best serve these pupils?

Ideally, the process should start before school, but this is not always possible. Whatever the age, it begins with understanding what books are for and then the learning of sight words, those that children will instantly recognise without having to work out. Teachers start the children with matching, selecting and naming pictures.

They can then match words to pictures or words to words, and play whole word games, using up to 40 word cards at a time in a variety of creative ways.

The use of some phonic activities can run alongside this whole-word approach. Letter sounds can be learned with peers, and once the child is reading whole sentences, phonetic strategies can be taught for unfamiliar words. An inclusive approach like this can be very effective, and some children with Down syndrome are now reading at the expected national curriculum for their age.

The motivation to read has to be maintained, of course. Children are more interested in words they know, or those which are important to them, and they should use them in reading situations as early as possible. Errorless learning is important too, with children not being told they are wrong, but being prompted with the correct answer, until they can recognise the word without support.

Jonathan Rix is lecturer in inclusion, curriculum and learning at the Open University's Faculty of Education and Language Studies. World Down Syndrome Day is March 21.

The power of words

Guidance on supporting reading for children with Down syndrome is available as part of Up for Reading, a sponsored campaign to promote the benefits of reading and literacy for all children, launched last November by the Down Syndrome Educational Trust. Visit

Children are sponsored to read for a few minutes a day for a week, with proceeds going to the Trust to support early intervention in reading for children with Down syndrome. The campaign is supported by Lucy Cousins and Quentin Blake, author-illustrators of children's books, and Michael Morpurgo, the children's laureate. Schools can get involved before March 31. For information or to order a fundraising pack visit

The POPs Family series (POPs stands for Plenty Of Potential), is a scheme of books and games written by Marie Dunleavy, who has a child with Down syndrome. It has fun whole-word and phonics activities.

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