DSE Conference TEACHING GEMS, PART 2: Phonics, Teaching, Testing

Bringing the Best of the Conference to You, Part 2Blue Ribbon 2

Part 2! If you couldn’t attend the Down Syndrome Education Conference in California last month, or even if you did, here are some gems from the conference that can help you teach your child. Part 1 was Comprehension and Working Memory. Today is Part 2: Phonics, Teaching Format for Reading, and Testing.


  • In learning to decode, even a typically developing child can take two years to move from sounding out “kuh-ah-tuh” to the point of realizing that those sounds really mean “cat.” Two years! So be patient and keep working at it.
  • Bulletin! The DSE, after much evidence-based practice, teaches phonics in this way:
    1. First teach letter SOUNDS
    2. Teach the letters later, after learning sounds; don’t try to teach two things at once. Children learn the sounds more easily than the letters.
    3. Then teach how those sounds work together in words.

W card


  • No-Brainer: Take a look at the “w” sample, to prove the point of teaching letter sounds first. Not only is the sound obviously much easier to learn, but because of our children’s poor auditory memory, since “yew” of “duh-buhl-yew” is the last thing the ear hears, that letter to them is “yew” or “u.” I’ve had a number of students identify “w” as “u”. Of course!
  • Remember that the brain reads by sight; we are all sight readers! We learn sounds by spelling. I can attest to that: when I was in Kinder/First Grade, phonics in this country was “out,” as in out of fashion. It simply wasn’t taught. Did I learn to read easily? Guess. “Look, Jane, Look. See Dick. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!” Aha! Anyone else remember those books?
  • Last word on phonics: ability in phonics lags behind word reading, but gets there in the end.

The DSE Format for Teaching Reading

The methodology the DSE uses in RLI (Reading and Language Intervention) to teach children with Down syndrome to read uses scripted lessons taking about 20 minutes and looks like this. Wouldn’t this be revolutionary in schools?

  1. The child reads an “Easy Book,” which the DSE defines as a book with vocabulary which is 95% known to that particular child. (Note that these Easy Books can be–and are often–Personal Books, in the early stages of learning.)
  2. Next, the child is helped to read an “Instructional Book,” defined as a book with 90% known vocabulary.
  3. Then sight words are taught.
  4. Followed by teaching letters and sounds and how those sounds work together in a word.
  5. Finally, the “Instructional Book” is repeated.

I have incorporated this into my teaching, only changing the terms I use with the child: we do an “Easy Book” first and then our “Learning Book.” And of course we want to make sure that whatever we’re using as a “Easy Book” for that child had better be SUPER easy!

Errorless Testing

thumbs_up_bciyI’ve preached Errorless Testing for years. So does the DSE. In the 1970s when Pat Oelwein and her early intervention team at the University of Washington came up with the approach of errorless testing order (matching, selecting, naming), the DSE took it and ran with it. With this method, we always keep things successful; so for example, if a child chooses the wrong card, instead of saying “No,” we find another option, e.g., we just push the correct card toward the child as a prompt. We keep the door to success open. “Good job!”

If you want to know more about RLI go to www.dseinternational.org. And if the DSE gives a Conference near you, be there if you can!


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