Robert of San Jose

Robert of San Jose

Comprehension, That Elusive Pot of Gold

In general, poor reading comprehension plagues our kids with Down syndrome–and their weary parents right along with them. Why is comprehension often poor? And what can we do about it?

I’m splitting this blog into two parts, so you’ll actually have time to read it. (Long blogs do not play well with overscheduled parents.)  Next Friday in Part 2, I’ll give more information along with some simple tips for improving reading comprehension for our children/teens/adults with Down syndrome. But today I’m asking you to take a closer look at one reason why comprehension is so often a problem, and what we can do about it.

An Acceptable Ratio of Reading Level/Comprehension

In the first place, please know that reading comprehension in our kids typically lags behind two grades or so. So if your child is reading at a fourth grade level (awesome!) but comprehending what he reads at a second grade level, he’s doing alright. This is not cause for alarm. You will keep working with him, and hopefully well-trained educators will as well; as his reading level progresses, so will comprehension.

The last time my son Jonathan’s reading was evaluated in high school (he’s 28 now), he read at a 7th grade level and comprehended at a 4th grade level. Was I worried? No. It’s well known that newspaper articles target a 4th grade reading level, so that level of comprehension should serve him just fine. In addition, that was ten years ago; he’s been reading as a way of life ever since, and it’s safe to say his comprehension kept progressing.

Reading to Grandma

Jonathan (18) Reading to Grandma

Why Is Comprehension Often Poor?

There is the obvious cognitive component to comprehension delay, of course. And perhaps lack of effective comprehension support. But there is another stumbling block that KOs comprehension in the first round.  What is the purpose of reading instruction? Is it to learn to decode words? I have tutored children with DS who were “reading machines,” decoding any word that couldn’t walk off the page. But when you ask them questions about what they just read, they have no clue. So, no, ability to decode is not the purpose of learning to read–and yet you might think it was, based on some practices. What is the whole purpose of learning to read? And why do we tend to forget that purpose in a pressured panic to push our kids into fitting into a curriculum (inclusive or otherwise), into early phonetic training, etc.?

A Comprehension Story

I taught Jonathan (DS, 28) to read when he was 5. It’s important for you to know that by all professional accounts, Jonathan is average for DS–right smack in the middle of the DS spectrum. (Personally, I think he’s sometimes close to brilliant, but I admit to some bias.) I taught him initially through huge homemade books about his life. I used super-large type at least an inch high and created equally large flash cards for the words in those books, teaching him with the Fast Flash method. As he progressed, the books and the type got smaller and the text blocks longer.

Two and a half years later, my job was finished. I didn’t have to teach him reading any more; he was launched as an independent reader. In all that time, I never once tested his comprehension. It didn’t seem necessary; he loved his books and devoured one after the other.

Put To The Test

Then when he was nine, he had to be evaluated for some required educational reason. The evaluator handed him a paper and asked him to read the story aloud. He did. The story was of zero interest to Jonathan: it was about a boy wearing boots who waded into a puddle to fetch his puppy. Jonathan hates boots (or any foot covering) and he is deathly afraid of any animal larger than a flea or smaller than an elephant. This story was not on topic for him.

The evaluator then asked him a barrage of comprehension questions. “Why did the boy go into the water?” “Why was he wearing boots?” etc. I froze. Jonathan had no training in comprehension. But to my immense relief, he calmly and correctly answered all of her questions.

Why Was Comprehension So Easy in This Case?

I puzzled over this: why was comprehension effortless, in spite of the fact that the material he was asked to read was of low interest? And in spite of no training in comprehension techniques?

Then it hit me: from the first moment I put a word card in front of him, Jonathan always read for content. Because he learned to read from books written about his favorite things in life, he got the crazy idea that the whole purpose of learning to read words was so that he could understand what the book was about. What a concept.

Reading For Meaning

Understanding text with no pictures!

Understanding text with no pictures

Reading for meaning, the only true purpose of reading, can drown–absolutely lose its life–in the oceans of curriculum. So it’s up to us to start the reading journey with meaningful first steps–and meaningful second and third steps. And if your child/teen is already well into the reading process but not comprehending as you’d hoped, switch paths to reading for content, reading for meaning. What content? What meaning? Content your child cares about; meaning that your child cares about.


So that you’ll have something to think about between now and next Friday’s blog (ha! like you have five minutes to spare), here are some tidbits to mull over:

1. “Teaching reading comprehension is mostly about teaching thinking.” –Harvey and Goudvis in their book, “Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement.”

2. And this from a video by Bob Doman, founder of the National Association for Child Development (NACD), whose long-time work with our kids has been astonishingly successful: “I don’t think we need to develop another thousand reading programs or another thousand math programs. That isn’t where the issue is. I think we’re getting swallowed up and drowning in curriculum…If you look at a child neurodevelopmentally and look at how you learn and what really works, curriculum  doesn’t work…[In our work with children] We develop good, if not superior, neurological learning skills, as in ability to process information, the ability to manipulate information, and if you will, the ability to think…So that the kids can learn well, they can learn fast, they can learn efficiently.The easier it is to learn, the more fun it is to learn…We do a lot of things to turn them on to learning. And One of the things that we’ve discovered does not turn them on to learning is a ton of curriculum. That doesn’t do it.”

I can see the argument floodgates opening on that one…

So come back next Friday for Comprehension, Part 2: practical comprehension techniques along with more information. And in the meantime, I’ll repeat this thought: What’s the point of reading? To decode words and learn 10 new vocabulary words this week? Or is it to go right to the heart of our children, to help them to love learning, to understand, and to comprehend? For this, we need to approach the task differently…

See you next week,




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Showing 6 comments
  • Kristin

    Hi Natalie,
    I’ve been reading your book on down syndrome parenting and was very excited to discover that you developed a reading program for ds children. We do not have and DS children yet ( we are planning on adopting in the future) but we do have 2 children with special needs. Our middle son has dyspraxia and severe apraxia so he is completely non-verbal. Reading has been a challenge with him. In your writing and on your website here i have found so much of your advice aplicable to him even though he is not DS. Thank you so much for all the hard work and effort you have put into being an advocate and a teacher for our incrediable children! I hope someday to attend a seminar if you are in the portland or seattle area.


    • Natalie Hale

      Hi, Kristin-
      You’re welcome! Yes, so many of the teaching tips for DS apply to many other developmental delays; I’m so glad these tips have helped your son, and happy also that you’ve been reading “Down Syndrome Parenting 101!” Looks like you’re definitely planning ahead!
      All the best,

  • Anna

    Hi Natalie, thank you for such well written articles. Definitely food for thought. When my boys were young they had no desire to learn to read. They were busy hammering nails and chasing dragons to really love it. Thankfully I did lots of research to find books on topics they enjoyed to draw them in. We went to the library and found books about bugs and building things, then found great stories about dragons and dogs. Fast forward 15 years and I now have a daughter with DS. I have been using the fast flash method and the book from Woodbine House Publishers on teaching children with Down Syndrome to read. I am so thankful we did because we had no idea she was legally blind since we had been using huge print- 72 point font as far as I can guess. She now has 30 sight words and I am looking forward to mixing those words up to make a few books for her. I can’t wait to learn more from you.

    • Natalie Hale

      Awesome, Anna. I am so glad you’re on top of the reading task with your daughter! Take a look at the backlog of reading articles to see if there’s something you missed, and also let me know if there’s a topic you want covered that you don’t see there. Are you on FB? If so, “liking” my FB page, Down Syndrome Reading with Natalie Hale, will get you my blog posts automatically. All the best to you and your daughter!

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      Such children require great attention and care. Especially I like that they try to learn and change for the better

  • syeda

    It’s great to see a blog of this quality. I learned a lot of new things and I’m looking forward to see more like this. Thank you.
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