Thursday, 12 January 2017

Speech and Learning to Read (Part 1)

Hanging out with the chooks
Recently, I have had a couple of people ask me if I have done a blog post on how I have taught Felix to read so I thought I'd put it in writing for anyone who is interested. I'll do it in two parts; the first being speech, and the second being reading.

Firstly, I just want to say that I am not a teacher. I don't claim to be an expert on teaching a child to read. The following is just my own personal experience with Felix and what has worked for us. Secondly, every child is different. Some kids love to read, and others hate it. Each of our 8 kids have all been keen readers but we had no TV in the house for years so reading was the alternative for them. My kids have all had some friends who were never interested in reading, but excelled in other areas instead. Similarly, I have adult friends who only read when they absolutely have to. If your child is not interested in reading, even after trying everything, you're not doing anything wrong. It may not be their cup of tea..... but they will get it eventually!

We were lucky enough to have a pre-natal diagnosis with Felix. I say lucky because it meant we were able to make plans, research, ask questions, and have conversations about things we wanted to put into place for him. We knew the sky would be the limit for him but, initially, we focussed on the basics. We wanted him to be able to walk, talk, read, write, be kind and loving, and have beautiful manners. I'm proud to say, that at six years old, he has accomplished all of those things.
My hero!

Anyway...back to speech...
Initially, during my pregnancy, I read up on breastfeeding a baby with Down syndrome. Breastfeeding helps with tongue control and mouth placement so, it was important to me in those pre-speech days, to get him off to the best start by breastfeeding him if I was able to. Breastfeeding him was definitely not easy, and I'm thankful I had 7 successfully breastfed babies under my belt to give me some experience. I persisted, and fed him until he was 18 months, when he weaned himself.

Sign language has been discovered to be very beneficial in developing speech, contrary to the outdated view that using signs will make your child become lazy and refuse to speak. We started signing with Felix when he was only a few months old. By 8 months old, he used his first sign, and we were amazed at how quickly he picked them up. Even though he didn't use verbal speech until around 4 years of age, from 12 months onward, he could sign more words than typical kids would have been able to speak at the same age. I even insisted he sign "please" and "thank you" years before he could speak the words, which was pretty adorable!

Christmas fun.
Adult speech during play was so important in developing Felix's speech and vocabulary. If I stacked 5 blocks, I would count them... 1,2,3,4,5. I would talk about putting the red block on top of the blue block, or putting the triangle next to the rectangle. When we were driving in the car, I would point out the blue sky or the big green tree. I felt it was important to surround him with language, and use the correct words for things. A sheep was never a "baa baa", it was always a sheep. A baby was never a "bubba", it was a baby. I pointed out words on signs and tried to make him aware of his surroundings by showing him traffic lights, and planes in the sky. Recently, a little voice in the back seat of my car said, "Mum! Stop! Look for trains!" He was pointing down a side road. Sure enough, the sign, just before the train line, said Stop, look for trains!

Felix's ipad was a pivotal part of his speech and language development. He got it just after his second birthday and, up until recently, it has always only had educational apps on it. I can honestly say that the ipad apps taught him so many things way before I even thought about teaching them to him. I remember being blown away that he knew all of his colours (and I mean ALL....even grey and silver!) It was the same for shapes. I know adults (myself included) who couldn't tell you what a trapezoid is, but he nails it every time! All because of using the educational apps on the ipad on our long drives to the city. I figure, if he's going to be using an electronic device, he may as well be learning from it.
Growing up so fast....

Being our first baby in a very long time, and an extra special one at that, I  tried to focus on buying him toys and puzzles with some sort of educational value; cause and effect, shape sorting, matching etc. With a bit of luck, those were actually the things he was naturally drawn to, and he developed a love for letters and numbers very early on. From birth, he had a whole wall covered in alphabet letters and he was fascinated by them. I think all of these things combined, contributed to his speech development, and ultimately his ability to recognise letters and read.

Felix has had a Speech Pathologist off and on since he was tiny. To be honest, these have been very hit and miss for us. I would say, for the first 3 years of his life, his speech therapy was a bit of a waste of time, as his therapists were very new to the job and none had ever worked with a child with Down syndrome before. Recently, however, we have found an amazing speechie who visits Felix at school, and works with him there. She goes out of her way to go the extra mile for him and she has fantastic suggestions, which she regularly communicates to us. Felix loves her!
Say cheese!

I could go on and on, but that is a basic overview of Felix's speech development and the things I think have helped us get to the stage we're at now. Good luck to those of you walking a similar path at the moment. There will be times of discouragement, and days when your child doesn't seem to be making any progress at all. Those months and years waiting to hear that first word can be agony.
I've been there many times in the past 6 years and I'm under no illusions that I won't shed many tears in the years to come. Hang in there....our kids are so worth all the hard work!!

In my next blog, I'll talk about some of the practical things we have done to teach Felix to read.

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