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Friday, 26 July 2013

Teaching reading to people with Down syndrome: Busting the myths - Myth buster #3 Reading is more than functional!

Third of six blog posts on the development of reading in children with Down syndrome, written by Dr Kathy Cologon, based on her recent academic paper, Debunking myths: Reading development in children with Down syndrome.

Myth buster #3: Reading is more than functional! 
Kathy Cologon,
Macquarie University

In this series of blog posts I am addressing six common misconceptions in order to support families and teachers in providing opportunities for people with Down syndrome to learn to read. It is my hope that, by drawing together research on reading development in people with Down syndrome more people will have the opportunity to become readers.

Reading can be a source not only of participation, choice and opportunity, but also of personal and shared enjoyment and engagement through reading for pleasure. However, if a person is not given the opportunity to learn to read then this wonderful world of reading is not available. The only way to find out how much someone can learn is to teach and keep on teaching!

While I am writing this series of blog posts to parents and teachers, I am aware that many people who have Down syndrome may also be reading this – if you are I hope you find this interesting. You, like me, have the right to learn to read and I hope that reading is a source of as much pleasure to you as it is to me!

There are a number of myths that may result in inappropriately low expectations and unnecessarily limited learning opportunities. In this series of blog posts I address six of these myths concerning (1) receptive and expressive language (what we say and what we understand), (2) phonological awareness and phonic decoding (awareness of sounds and applying these to reading), (3) functional reading or reading for pleasure and learning, (4) ‘reading readiness’ or (non)linear development, (5) optimal learning age and, (6) reading comprehension. These blog posts draw on a recent paper published in the Australian Journal of Teacher Education. I have included a link to the full paper at the end of the blog post for those who are interested in reading more on these topics. I would like to express my thanks to the editor of the journal for permission to use the paper in this series of blog posts. Many thanks also to all of the people with Down syndrome, families and teachers who have allowed me to share in their journeys and from whom I have learnt so much.

Macy loves books
In this blog post I will discuss the notion of functional reading.

Beyond functional reading 
Myth #3: Reading instruction for people with Down syndrome needs to focus on functional reading.

Reality: While functional reading is one important part of reading, reading is about much more than this. People who have Down syndrome can and should be given the opportunity to read for learning and for pleasure.

A functional reading approach typically involves using sight-word instruction to teach someone a set of words that are considered ‘functional’ for everyday life. For example, STOP, DANGER, TOILET, EXIT, MALE and FEMALE.

Functional reading is important – as the name suggests, it is functional for everyday life – but it makes up only one small part of reading. If we return for a moment to the words of the mother from the first blog post in this series, the mother of a 5-year-old girl who has Down syndrome shared:

“I want her to be a reader. Not just for bus timetables [or] stop signs, but a real reader, like to really love reading books for fun and to learn.”

Achieving this dream requires engagement beyond functional reading. In the not so distant past, this would not have been considered possible. However, there is no longer any question that for this little girl, reading for pleasure and learning is a realistic and achievable goal. However, when functional reading is the major or sole focus of reading instruction, this involves a severely limited approach to reading that leads to only limited learning possibilities – and prevents the realisation of this dream.

Let me illustrate. For example, when I was in my late teens I went travelling to Europe with my one of my sisters. Amongst the places we visited was Paris. We were very excited to be visiting Paris and made sure to brush up on our ‘schoolgirl French’ – in particular paying attention to speaking and reading functional words that we might need to get around and stay out of danger. This was very helpful to us as we made our way around the city. However, we could not read or participate as literate people within this context. We could not pick up a book or a newspaper and read this for pleasure or for learning. If we were migrating to France, our learning approach would be very different as we would be seeking to become literate in the French language. We would need to learn how to ‘crack the code’ of the French language (see the previous blog post on phonological awareness and phonics), rather than learning a predetermined, functional, sight-word vocabulary.

Fundamentally, a functional reading approach is like relegating someone to the role of a permanent tourist, rather than a literate member of the community. The danger of an over-emphasis on functional reading is that this approach comes at the expense of facilitating reading development for communication, education, participation and pleasure.

People with Down syndrome can learn to read not only for functional purposes, but also for pleasure. The key is lifelong learning opportunities without limitations or ‘glass ceilings’ dictated by a lack of learning opportunities often brought about due to low expectations.

For full details of the research I am drawing from see: 
Cologon, K. (2013). Debunking myths: Reading development in children with Down syndrome. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 38(3), 130-151.

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