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30th May 2008 at 01:00
Learning words by sight, not sound, is helping children with Down syndrome. Biddy Passmore looks at the bigger picture

Learning words by sight, not sound, is helping children with Down syndrome. Biddy Passmore looks at the bigger picture

There are two common perceptions about people with Down syndrome. The first is that they are happy and lovable. The second is that they will never make much academic progress. Until 20 years ago, most teachers and parents assumed that there was no point in trying to teach them to read. This consigned them to a life of total dependency. But recent research has shown that reading is important to these children, helping them to talk and think more clearly.

If they are introduced to reading at an early age (two or three) about 10 per cent can learn to read at an age appropriate level, even if their mental age is much lower. And many others will benefit from acquiring some reading skills that will help them lead more independent and interesting lives.

Children with Down syndrome need to start learning to read in a different way from others. Whereas the typically developing child will learn their first language from listening to and imitating speech, children with Down syndrome learn better by the visual route: seeing the word on the page and understanding its meaning. Although they can progress to learning by the phonic method, they should not start with it.

It was not a teacher or a psychologist who first spotted this, but a parent. In 1979 Leslie Duffen wrote to Sue Buckley, a psychologist specialising in developmental disability, about his daughter Sarah, who was 11 years old and attending a mainstream school. Sarah was making exceptional academic progress for a child with Down syndrome and Leslie felt this was because he had introduced her to reading from the age of three. He felt that she had learnt to talk from seeing rather than hearing the language.

Professor Buckley set up the Down Syndrome Educational Trust and, with colleagues, began to look into Leslie's suggestions. They found that he was right: they were able to teach pre-school children with Down syndrome to recognise words by sight and this helped their language and development.

Today, research from all over the world has helped to explain why this is so. Children with Down syndrome have specific difficulties in learning by listening, mainly because most are deaf to some degree, often the result of recurring bouts of ear infection.

They also have difficulty with processing what they hear, have poor short- term verbal memory and physical problems with producing clear speech. These difficulties lead to language delay, which in turn leads to cognitive delay, so they fall even further behind their peers.

Professor Buckley, now director of science and research at the Down Syndrome Educational Trust, says that reading is the answer to many of these problems. In particular, she says, early reading develops the grammatical and speaking abilities of children with Down syndrome at the best moment, when the plasticity of the brain is greatest.

Professor Buckley suggests that a child with Down syndrome should start by learning 30 to 40 words by sight. They should be ones that can be made into meaningful sentences, so that they can enjoy reading for meaning from the outset. Once the child is successfully reading in this way, he or she can begin to learn about the ways in which the letters represent sounds and the ways the letters and sounds make up words.

If the teacher (or parent) starts to use phonic strategies before the child is reading words successfully by sight, it will be counter- productive: the child may become sidetracked by sounding out the different letters, making it harder to recognise the whole word.

This approach can be used at any stage but is best started young: as soon as children can match and select pictures and understand 50 to 100 words. It also works well with teenagers, who may be motivated to learn to read as they see the practical benefits of learning, and with young adults.

Family involvement is particularly important, says Professor Buckley. All of the skilled readers with Down syndrome she has seen have received more literacy training at home than at school. However, as inclusion becomes the norm and teachers' expectations and expertise grows, this may change.

She adds that even those children who never become independent readers will have gained language and world knowledge from the experience of learning to read.

Taking action

The Down Syndrome Educational Trust has started three research studies involving 40 families and children, including one on early reading, that will enable it to give better advice on how to tailor teaching to individual children. For more information, visit


For a summary of research evidence on teaching reading and writing to people with Down syndrome, see the chapter by Buckley, S., amp; Johnson- Glenberg, M.C. in Speech and language development and intervention in Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome, ed J.E Roberts et al, (Baltimore: Paul H Brookes Publishing Co., 2008), 233-254.

What is Down syndrome?

Down (or Down's) syndrome is a genetic condition where a child inherits an extra copy of chromosome 21. Affecting about one in 1,000 babies born in the UK - about 600 babies a year - it produces a number of physical disabilities and is the main genetic cause of intellectual impairment. Language is one of the most affected areas. Recent studies report that reading ages of five to 17-year-olds with Down syndrome range from four years and 11 months to 14 years and three months.

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