A mom messaged me recently on Facebook. Her 10-year old daughter with DS, in a fully inclusive setting, has had great teams for several years and her reading level was assessed at Level O (on the Orton-Gillingham scale) on last year’s IEP. A new team this year dragged her reading materials back to Level D because her comprehension level wasn’t up to Level O. Seriously? So let’s look at this comprehension question.

Is it true that our learners with Down syndrome typically lag behind in comprehension vs. reading?

Easy answer: Yes.

Does that mean that we should hold them back in reading levels until their comprehension level catches up?

Duh. Oh, I hope no one is seriously asking that question. No.

Do we simply keep on coaching them in comprehension?

Bingo. Of course.

For starters, let’s mention that there is Referential Comprehension (relatively easy and teachable) and then there is Inferential Comprehension (typically a bear for many of our kids because it means learning to think through abstract ideas or situations). We can approach Referential Comprehension first; once that is rolling along well, we can coax Inferential into the picture.

Are there simple things we can do to help our children get accurately assessed for comprehension?


And it’s our job as parents and advocates to CLEARLY get this message across to any staff who is going to be assessing our children for comprehension. I can’t stress that enough. If staff doesn’t understand how our children can best understand a question, the assessment will be far off the mark. In addition, if the child is nonverbal or has hearing issues, an appropriate comprehension test should be used. This should be common sense, but “common sense ain’t so common.” I can’t stress enough that parents need to be proactive in making sure the correct test methodology is used, and that the following tips are in place:

Here they are:

1. Use relatable grammar and language when asking the child a question.

What I mean by this is that each child understands a question from within an individual framework of cognitive ability. The evaluator needs to understand HOW to ask a question of that particular child. I remember long ago watching Emily Perl Kingsley (of Sesame Street and “Welcome to Holland” fame) on TV with her then-young son. The moderator asked her son a question. After some moments of silence, Emily rephrased the question to her son, and he promptly answered it. With my own son, now 34, I still ask questions that are phrased in a way that I know he can understand them and respond.

So here are specific tips on how to do that:

2. Avoid compound sentences if possible.

If the evaluator uses compound sentences, they’re asking for two (or more) separate concepts to be processed and worked with in “working memory” at the same time, with a conclusion drawn. Certainly an evaluator should avoid that unless they want to hear confused silence on the other end.

3. Place the critical part of the question LAST.

Our children typically have short auditory memory and what you said LAST will be what they remember. This is why, when we’re teaching a child that W is pronounced “double-U,” if you then ask, “What’s this letter?” you’re likely to get “U” for an answer.

Let’s say we’re testing the comprehension of this story: A little boy named Michael has a puppy; the puppy wanders into a deep puddle and can’t get out. Michael puts on his boots and wades in to save the puppy.

So, for example, if the comprehension question is, “Why did the little boy walk into the puddle after he put his boots on?” You’re probably going to get silence because you just asked about putting boots on. So you would phrase it this way: “After Michael put his boots on, why did he go into the puddle?” Ah. Michael went into the puddle. And you’re asking me why. Oh, I see.

4. Use fewer words in the question.

The fewer clear words, the better. Notice in the example above, I replaced “the little boy” with “Michael.” To answer that question, I didn’t have to string 3 things together in my working memory; you just gave me the only one I needed: Michael.

Dolch comprehension tests

I’ve been working for weeks on a new product for my reading program: Comprehension Evaluation Books for Dolch levels pre-primer, primer, and first grade. Of course, I designed these tests to go along with my reading program, which is based on the Dolch high frequency word list.

A sample will give you an idea of how we can approach an emergent reader still at the starting gate. This is a sample “question” from my very first level of pre-primer comprehension. It doesn’t require the learner to speak, nor to hear. The comprehension is evaluated only after the child has learned to read each book. The instructions are for the child to read the sentence silently and circle the correct picture.

Good luck in making sure that staff knows HOW to assess your child’s comprehension before that goes in your child’s records! It can make all the difference.


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