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Friday, 16 August 2013

Teaching reading to people with Down syndrome: Busting the myths - Myth #6: Reading for meaning

This is the final post in this series of six - our grateful thanks to Dr Kathy Cologon for taking the time to write about her work for a wide audience, and for generously sharing it with us here.

Myth buster #6: Reading for meaning  
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.

James reading at school with his teacher
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 final blog post of the series I will discuss the development of reading comprehension.

Reading Comprehension

Myth #6: People with Down syndrome cannot understand what they are reading.
Reality: People with Down syndrome can understand what they read. However, appropriate educational opportunities supporting reading comprehension development are essential.

In the past it was incorrectly assumed that people with Down syndrome do not comprehend what they read and instead recall words by rote as meaningless memorised sequences of letters – referred to as ‘barking at print’. In reality, research provides clear evidence that people with Down syndrome can and do comprehend what they read. Reading comprehension is an area, however, where people with Down syndrome may need particular support for learning. 

One issue for reading comprehension lies with the extent to which methods of measuring comprehension rely on spoken language. It is essential to carefully consider whether the approach used for measuring reading comprehension is actually measuring reading comprehension or whether it is in fact measuring expressive (spoken) language. 

Engaging in a wide range of meaningful, personally relevant, fun, and contextualised literacy experiences is important for all people in learning to read. People with Down syndrome often need ongoing support for developing listening and reading comprehension through meaningful and broad engagement with the world. Supporting reading comprehension development requires carefully reflecting on the activities we engage students in, to make sure that we are in fact teaching and not testing. Teaching new concepts as they are introduced is important rather that a) assuming they are understood without teaching, checking or reminding, or b) assuming that they are not understood and therefore can’t be read. Teaching strategies to check for meaning, drawing on context and clues within the text and connecting with and building on current experiences and knowledge, are important for reading comprehension.

There are considerable negative implications if the myths discussed in this series of blog posts are perpetuated – including that the myths may become self-fulfilling prophecies. People with Down syndrome may find that developing reading comprehension skills is particularly difficult given:
  • A lack of phonological awareness and phonic decoding instruction (instruction to support development of awareness of sounds and applying these to reading) limits capacity for a person to develop the ability to read unknown words; 
  • Measurement of reading comprehension generally relies on expressive communication, which is not a true reflection of understanding (comprehension);
  • What a person knows or comprehends now is not what they are capable of learning (no matter a person’s age, the time for learning is now!);
  • Reading comprehension includes, but is not limited to, understanding a bus timetable – it is crucial for reading for learning and pleasure – but reading instruction is often limited to functional reading;
  • On the basis of assumptions regarding ‘reading readiness’ or linear development people are often held back with reading until they meet a required assessment level on a reading comprehension measure.
People can be very frustrated and unhappy about being held back, but are sometimes not supported to express this. For example, as illustrated in a case study by Julie Hooton and Anna Westaway [LINK TO] when a learner does not reach scores required on a reading comprehension test and is therefore kept back at the same reading level, this is frustrating and demotivating for the learner. This also limits reading development.

On the other hand, piercing the glass ceilings – or approaching literacy learning opportunities free of myths – can have very positive results. A growing body of research demonstrates that advanced reading ability is a possibility when opportunities for learning to read – including an emphasis on making meaning and on phonological awareness and phonic decoding – are provided. Case study evidence demonstrates that supporting people to continue with reading development and supporting reading comprehension along the way can be highly successful (see the case study in the paper I am drawing from for this series of blog posts [LINK TO]). This involves making connections with meaning – rather than holding a person back on reading levels.

Providing support to enhance the development of reading comprehension is important. This requires placing emphasis on meaningful literacy experiences and linking reading to the learner’s everyday experiences and interests. 

The last word…

A holistic approach to literacy learning is important for all learners – including people who have Down syndrome. This requires building on the interests and strengths of the learner and engaging with quality literature, environmental print, experimental literacy and all forms of exchange of human communication through the rich experience of literacy learning. 

People with Down syndrome commonly have a relative strength in reading, but realising this strength requires learning opportunities and appropriate expectations. People with Down syndrome can develop advanced early reading abilities, but can also learn to read later in life. People with Down syndrome can develop phonological awareness and phonic decoding skills. People with Down syndrome are capable of understanding what they read. People with Down syndrome can be exceptional readers and can engage in reading alongside their peers in inclusive educational settings. However, the continuing discrepancy between what is possible and what occurs for many needs to be addressed.  

As Professor Sue Buckley of Down Syndrome Education International has written, “the only way to find out what level of literacy each child is able to achieve is to give him or her every opportunity to learn, with well-planned teaching activities from preschool years to adult life”. 

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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