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Children with Down syndrome (DS) have several general characteristics in common which play an important role in how well they are able to engage in literacy learning; some of these characteristics are cognitive, whilst others are physical. This paper identifies some of these shared characteristics and highlights the implications of these for literacy instruction in mainstream classrooms; it then provides examples of possible differentiated instruction in reading and writing, and support that teachers can give to DS children so that their specific needs are met within a regular classroom context. Finally, it highlights how teachers, professionals and parents can work together in an organised way to ensure that DS children are being equally supported at both school and home. DS children make a unique contribution to mainstream classrooms; their emotional, physical and academic needs can be demanding for the teacher but when these are met, progress can be made. This progress will not happen overnight but as the saying goes, "Good things take time."
Shared Characteristics of Down Syndrome Children
Perhaps the most important characteristic of DS learners is that their chronological age and physical maturity are not indicative of their intellectual development, which develops at a much slower rate. For example, a DS student who is 10 years old might function cognitively and linguistically at the same level as a typical 5 year old (Farrell & Elkins, 1994). DS students usually have trouble with the development of their gross and fine motor skills, which combined with a very low muscle tone affects the individual's ability to maintain an appropriate posture whilst learning. Fine motor skill problems mean that simple activities such as holding a book and turning a page can be difficult, as is handwriting (Jordan, Miller & Riley, 2011).
Because children with DS often struggle to produce speech sounds and speak clearly, it is widely accepted that DS children's receptive vocabulary, is more advanced than their expressive vocabulary (Farrell & Elkin, 1994; Jordan et al, 2011). Stoel-Gammon (2010) states that DS children generally have a slow vocabulary growth; by the time children are six, a DS child has a productive vocabulary of around 330 words whereas his mainstream peers have productive vocabularies of several thousand words.
Although hearing loss is a characteristic of these children, they compensate by being highly visual learners and when learning to read rely on their stronger visual processing skills to learn new words, rather than focusing on letter-sound correspondences. Being visually inclined, DS students learn to read using a sight-word approach in which they recognise whole words based upon appearance and place no emphasis on letter-sound relationships (Lemons & Fuchs, 2010).
DS children have a high interest in social interaction and enjoy opportunities to cooperate, share and learn with other people. They also have high emotional needs and require four times as much positive feedback as other students do (Down syndrome WA, 2009).
Implications of these Shared Characteristics for Literacy Instruction
DS children are sensitive to failure and lack consolidation strategies when learning. For this reason, Buckley and Bird (1993) recommend that teachers minimise student failure; teachers can do this by heavily scaffolding them through each step of a new reading or writing task until they can complete it without the teacher's intervention. Buckley and Bird highlight that DS students experience considerable difficulty correcting mistakes, much more so than other children, so preventing mistakes occurring in the first place is important in the early stages of new learning, especially with handwriting.
There are very strong links between DS students speaking, reading and writing skills. As mentioned, DS students learn to read best by learning sight-words rather than focusing on letter-sound relationships to decode them. This impacts on the way that teachers teach DS children to read as it is not the same way that they will teach the rest of their mainstream students (Buckley & Bird, 1993). As DS students are learning sight-words, teachers should encourage them to correctly pronounce them as well; these two skills interact with and inform each other so that the child grows to understand the meanings of words. The teaching and learning of writing directly links to speech and reading, too. Because DS students have little knowledge of syntax, learning to write using common language structures influences how they begin to speak; basically, they learn the structure of sentences through learning to write them and then begin to mimic this structure when they are speaking (Buckley & Bird).
Although the usual approach to reading and writing for DS children is through sight-words knowledge, it is possible for them to learn letter-sound relationships; teachers can assist this by pointing out letter-sound correspondences in words that students already know well and drawing their attention to onset and rimes within that word (Buckley & Bird, 1993).
Because DS children do not follow auditory instructions well, teachers need to present information/directions/explanations/instructions in a visual way. Farrell and Elkers (1994) highlight that DS students prefer print because the visual message does not fade away like a verbal message does. Kirijian, Myers and Charland (2007) mention that the teacher's informed selection of literacy materials can keep DS students engaged on the content for considerably longer periods of time than they would be the case if they were using regular classroom materials.
As DS children have difficulty with cognitive development, muscle tone and fine motor skills, they find reading and writing tasks more tiring than others in their class do; teachers need to be aware of this and give them smaller amounts of work to complete or allow short breaks during lengthier activities (Down syndrome Ireland, 2011).
Differentiated Instruction for Teaching Down Syndrome Children Writing
Before any writing can take place, teachers need to ensure that their DS students have their bodies supported in an upright position so they are not expending energy trying to maintain an upright position because of their poor muscle tone. Because fine motor skills are poorly developed, DS students' handwriting instruction can be adapted to having the child tracing letters in the air or on a sandy surface with a finger, rather than making them draw with a pencil on paper like other students. Once they have a strong pincer grip, the teacher can scaffold handwriting by using a highlighter to form letters which the DS child can trace over; this will need to be done many times before the child is able to copy it, himself. It is important that teachers never assign the handwriting to practice and walk away to check on other students because if the DS student makes a whole row of incorrect letters, he is learning bad habits that will be very difficult to correct. During these writing lessons, a feel good factor is vital for DS students to learn so it is better for them to only write 3 letters during this time and have the lesson finish with them happy than for them to have to write more and end up hating writing time (Down Syndrome WA, 2009).
During the actual writing activities, teachers often need to support DS students with both the formation of ideas and then scribing them; this is often done through joint construction of texts by the student and teacher (Moni & Jobling, 2000). As mentioned previously, teachers need to encourage DS students to articulate their thinking as they read and write. To encourage this, the teacher acts as a scribe by writing down the student's ideas for him. Next, the teacher and child take turns physically writing the draft together; this is done to avoid fatigue in the student and help him to achieve something that would be beyond his ability if working unaided. By co-constructing texts, the teacher is also modelling the thinking processes required for writing; these texts can then be used for future reading practice as it has meaning for them. Another way that teachers' can differentiate writing for DS students is to encourage them to use a word processor to type up their co-constructed draft; during this exercise, the teacher can reduce the scaffold by removing herself from the student and giving him a chance to work independently (Moni & Jobling, 2000).
Differentiated Instruction for Teaching Down Syndrome Children Reading
For the DS student, teachers need to create individual reading goals and tasks that are much simpler than those set for the rest of the class. When learning to read, DS students require considerable more repetition to solidify learning than their mainstream peers do (Jordan, Miller & Riley, 2011). By teachers combining repetition of an activity with materials aimed at the DS child's visual learning preference, they are able to capitalise on meeting both these needs in one go. As pronunciation of sight-words is an issue for DS children, teachers need to model this at the same time that learning the word is occurring.
In several regards, DS children learn to read in an opposite way to mainstream pupils. DS children learn the whole word first and attach meaning to it at the same time, whereas other students will use letter-sound correspondences to read the word and then apply meaning to it through sentence context. Once DS children know a word, the teacher can build on this by offering phonics instruction using that word, initially segmenting it into onset and rime and eventually identifying letter-phoneme relationships if the child is able to.
DS children struggle with comprehension as their grammar and syntax knowledge is poorly developed or non-existent (Buckley & Bird, 1993). To overcome this, teachers can make simple books based on the child's own experiences and write sentences with the child's spoken language needs in mind so that he is reading words, phrases and sentences aimed towards helping him to talk with greater clarity (Buckley & Bird). DS children require small 'bite sized' reading tasks rather than the ones typically given to other students; this enables them to feel a sense of achievement and end the lesson on the all important positive note.
Because DS children have high social needs, teachers can incorporate them into group and peer activities to increase learning opportunities skills (Snowling, Nash & Henderson, 2010). Teachers can also offer reading support to DS students by providing modelling of reading as peers read a text aloud whilst the DS student tracks the print in his own book; the same text can be repeated by several students as the repetition is important for learning to occur. A similar affect can be achieved by using technology such as computer programmes that read aloud while students follow the text on screen.
How Parents and Professionals can be Involved in a Literacy learning Partnership
Due to the demands of teaching DS children literacy, teachers have severe constraints placed on their time as one-to-one instruction is the most effective way of teaching them. As such, it is necessary that the teacher receives help from a teacher aide or volunteer so that she can devote attention to the other students in her class. The price of having an inclusive classroom is that special needs students place pressure on the teacher. To cope with this, the teacher needs to gather together a support team that can share these demands and work cooperatively to teach the DS child. With regards to literacy learning, it is important that this school-based support team works closely with the DS child's parents so that school and home literacy events are aligned and focusing on a specific outcome. When DS children are learning a specific reading skill, teachers or specialists can instruct parents how to reinforce this same learning at home (Snowling, Nask & Henderson, 2010). For example, Snowling et al. state that parents often fail to ask higher-level questions during reading activities with their DS children; as such, teachers can offer specific instruction to parents on how to do this, likewise for onset/rime segmentation and phonological awareness instruction. This approach ensures that the child isn't being instructed in two possibly counter-productive ways.
Regular meetings and conferences between teaching staff and parents should be held to assess progress and plan for next step learning. These meetings also give both parties an opportunity to discuss any concerns and keep each other informed about other aspects of the child's life, such as health/emotional state etc, which may have an impact on learning ability.
Teaching DS children is not a simple task. They bring a combination of needs into the classroom which if individually broken down would each provide a challenge for the teacher to accommodate. The first step to teaching DS students is knowing the issues that they face when learning to read, write and speak; these issues are both cognitive and physical and have implications for how classroom teaching and learning is accomplished. DS students don't learn the same way as mainstream students do; they require very heavy scaffolding and progress very slowly when developing literacy skills. However, individual teachers are not alone in this task; they have the support of other professionals and the child's parents, and collectively this group provides the child with the emotional, physical, and academic support needed to become an active and valued member of both the classroom and wider society.