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Friday, 9 August 2013

Teaching reading to people with Down syndrome: Busting the myths - Myth #5: The time for literacy learning is now!

Fifth 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 #5: The time for literacy learning is now!  
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 I will discuss the notion of an optimal learning age.

Optimal Learning Age

Myth #5: If a child does not learn to read in his/her early years then it is too late for reading development.
Reality: It is never too late to learn to read! Literacy experiences are very important in the early years, but if a person does not learn to read during childhood they can learn as an adolescent or as an adult.

In the past few decades, we have heard much about the impact of early experiences on brain development, and thus the great importance of the early years of life. Economic modelling from Nobel laureate James Heckman demonstrating the gain-per-dollar-spent being greatest in the early childhood years, along with research into benefits of early intervention, has led to increased interest in research and practice in the early childhood years. 

Early childhood experiences are very important for ongoing development and it is clearly imperative to support all children in having the best possible early childhood experiences. However, learning is an ongoing part of life – including literacy learning. Research with teenagers and adults who have Down syndrome provides evidence that learning to read is possible well into adulthood. We can conclude that the notion of a ‘plateau’ or point at which reading development ceases is another myth or ‘glass ceiling’. If someone does not learn to read when she or he is young they can still learn to read as an adolescent or an adult (as long as learning opportunities are provided).

Many children need ongoing support for reading development throughout childhood and beyond – and it is never too late to learn. Ongoing opportunities for literacy learning beyond the early years, utilising age-appropriate materials that draw on a person’s interests, are essential. 

Having said that, case study research has provided evidence to demonstrate that some children with Down syndrome develop reading ability at a very early age and that early reading development can have benefits for ongoing language development. Given the particular benefits that learning to read may have for spoken language development in children with Down syndrome, the opportunity to learn to read at an earlier age than expected for the general population may be developmentally important. Additionally, it has been shown that early literacy instruction leads to higher levels of later reading achievement in children with Down syndrome.

In short, for a person who has not yet learnt to read (whatever his/her age), the time to get started on supporting reading development is now!

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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