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Sign language has been discovered to be very beneficial in developing speech, contrary to the outdated view that using signs will make your child become lazy and refuse to speak.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.


  1. My little one with Down's is 8 months old. I plan on teaching him sign language. Hopefully that will help him communicate with us better. What other things did you do to help him read?

    1. Hi Maribel, I found sign language to be very beneficial for us. I started by using signs for the words I used around Felix the most. Eat, drink, more, and finished, were all signs he used regularly once he learnt them. The signs for different animals were good ones too, as I could incorporate them when I read him stories, and sang songs with animals in them. It made them lots of fun and he picked them up easily that way. Sometimes it seems your child will never learn to use the signs, but be patient and keep using them. One day it will all "click" and it will progress from there.
      I think the most important thing, when getting your child ready for reading, is communication and visuals. Use language for everything. Even at 8 months, use words like big and little, tall and short, behind and in front. Talk about colours and shapes. If you are reading a book about a cat, point to the word "cat" on each page. Make language part of your every day play. Our kids, with DS, are very visual learners. If you have access to a printer, and laminator, print up some pictures of familiar things (these will be different for each family), and put the word on the picture; Mum, Grandma, banana, boat etc You can also do action ones; dancing, reading etc You can use these as flash cards. The repetition of the familiar words will help develop reading, and spelling. If you don't have access to a computer, keep your eye out for sight word cards/flash cards at the shops. I pick them up whenever I see them. They are often quite cheap (under $5) and you can use them instead of a story for little ones. They will enjoy looking at the pictures and the words will start to become familiar to them.
      As your child grows, point out words on signs or in shops. Felix loves our local "Stop. Look for Trains" sign.
      One of the best investments in our house, have been matching puzzles. We have quite a few. Some are matching shapes; the word "square" on one puzzle piece, and a picture of a square on the other (Felix knew what a trapezoid was by the time he was 3!) Others we have match numbers (the written word to the numeral), opposites, animals etc
      In the early years, we kept television watching to an absolute minimum, and encouraged interactive play instead. Felix did get an ipad at two years old, which has been so beneficial to his reading and learning. We filled it with educational apps (no movies or TV shows), and he soon picked his favourite apps and became proficient in them. He actually learnt his colours from the ipad!! There are so many fun,educational resources available. Make the most of them. Let's face it, we all have days when we just need to drink a hot cuppa and have a bit of a break. Felix's ipad time has been a life saver for me some days. Knowing he's learning while he's using it is a bonus!
      Don't overthink things. You don't need to set aside hours to "teach" your child. You will find that you will be able to incorporate a lot of these things into your day to day life. Language is everywhere!!
      Good luck! x x x

  2. I love all your ideas for keeping him engaged in play with talking and identifying what's around him. Our son, Elijah, is 4 and he's really motivated to talk, sing, name it. I love getting more ideas. Thanks for sharing you story.

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