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Friday, 2 August 2013

Teaching reading to people with Down syndrome: Busting the myths - Myth buster #4: Ready already!

This is National Literacy and Numeracy Week 2013

Fourth 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 #4: Ready already!  
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.

In this blog post I will discuss the notion of ‘reading readiness’.

‘Reading Readiness’ or (Non)Linear Development

Myth #4: All people need to learn the skills for reading in a linear process wherein each skill is dependent on the previously learned skills.
Reality: Many people, including people with Down syndrome, have uneven development. Waiting for someone to achieve ‘readiness’ or master pre-requisite skills may prevent or at least limit reading development.

In the past, the concept of ‘reading readiness’ – which is the idea that a learner needs to master a series of pre-reading skills before they can learn to read – ironically prevented many people from learning to read. In research with diverse groups of children, including children with Down syndrome, this concept of ‘reading readiness’ has been shown to be inappropriate and out-dated.

‘Reading readiness’ makes a series of assumptions about a person, for example in regards to their spoken language development, fine motor skills, contextual experiences, cognitive development, vision and hearing. In reality there are many variations in human development and there are also many different ways in which a person expresses their interests and developing understandings.

The notion that a person needs to learn a set of pre-requisite skills before they can learn to read is based on an understanding of reading as a linear process that is developed in the same way and same order for all people. As discussed in the first blog post of this series, some people learn to read before they can learn to speak – and speech is commonly assumed to be a pre-requisite to reading. 

Another example, also drawing on a previous blog post, would be phonological and phonemic awareness. Rhyming is considered to be an easier phonological process than blending together or segmenting apart the sounds in words (phonemes). However, for some people (including many people who have Down syndrome), rhyming appears to be more difficult than phonological tasks like blending and segmenting phonemes. If we waited for a learner to master rhyming before moving on to more complex phonological skills then the learner might never get to move on and progress with reading development. 

Likewise, if we waited for a person to develop a pre-requisite level of auditory short-term memory before teaching phonics the person might miss out on that essential aspect of reading development altogether. If we waited for a person to learn to speak before beginning literacy learning opportunities the person might not learn to read and his/her speech would not benefit from reading. If we wait for a person to reach a pre-requisite level on a measure of reading comprehension (as I will discuss further in the final blog post of this series) before the person moves to the next level in reading we may prevent continuing reading development. This can also be vey frustrating and demotivating for the person themselves.

While it seems logical to learn things in a specific order, this can actually inhibit learning. If a learner seems ‘stuck’ then the opportunity to move on to the next skill (which might be considered harder but for a range of reasons could be easier) might be just what is needed! Learning is to some extent a process of trial and error and sometimes it takes a little courage to just try something new, more or different. Contrary to the mythical concept of ‘reading readiness’, in reality, many people with Down syndrome have uneven development. Waiting for a person to achieve ‘readiness’ or master pre-requisite skills may prevent or at least limit reading development. 

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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