Q. Where do I start? My son knows only a few sight words.

My son has Down syndrome; he’s heading into first grade and is still an emergent reader; he knows only a dozen or so sight words at this point. I want to bring him along fast so he won’t be too far behind his classmates; where do I start?

A. Start with the EMERGENT READER BUNDLE. This bundle will take a year or so to master, so it’s a small investment for a year’s worth of work that is sure to jump-start his reading. At this point, we want to both hook your son’s interest and make reading seem easy to him. The EMERGENT READER BUNDLE is both high interest and fulfills the pre-primer requirements, which he has to master before moving on to PRIMER and FIRST GRADE READING bundles.

If you are determined to teach your child to read (or to pass this information on to his educators), a better option is the 3-in-1 BUNDLE which contains the whole program through First Grade proficiency. The 3-in-1 Bundle is budget-friendly, offered at a lower price than the combined individual prices of the 3 bundles. With the complete program, you’re set for final success.

Either way, begin by giving him a choice of his favorite among the 5 picture books in the EMERGENT READER BUNDLE; my guess is it’s going to be either “Spaghetti” or “I Want Pizza!” You’ve got a pack of Pre-Primer (Emergent) high frequency flash cards in your shipment; select flash cards that pertain to the book you’ve chosen. Some of the words will be in that pack of black word cards, and some will be in the PDFs of red “content/high interest” cards I email you as soon as I get your online order. How to teach? I’ve made it easy…your Bundle includes a new “Educator’s Guide”, a “Start Here” quick guide, and of course the book that details everything, “Whole Child Teaching.” As your child progresses, help him work his way through the next two literacy levels on our site.

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Q. How are your reading materials different from other programs? What makes them effective?

A. Any parent or educator who has taught a child with Down syndrome to read knows that two essentials have to be in place for success: (1) the materials have to hook the child’s interest, and (2) the materials have to be designed for the learning style of the learner with Down syndrome, regardless of age. If either of these elements is missing, the reading train easily falls off the tracks, and I have seen the results of that derailment too often with older students.

Special Reads materials target favorite topics (favorite foods: pizza, ice cream, etc.) while at the same time introducing high-interest books that teach the essential word lists in a visual format designed for the Down syndrome learning style.

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Q. How is your material designed to be “Down syndrome-friendly?” Is the visual design of your materials different from other reading programs?

A. How the brain sees the page is one of my primary concerns. Special Reads books and materials are designed to make perception and retention as easy as possible for a learner with Down syndrome. In specific terms, this means: large sans-serif type; double spacing between words; extra space or “leading” between lines of type; extra white space surrounding the text; separation of text and illustrations at the emergent reader level (this reduces distractibility); and of course, topics of high interest to the learner, including the liberal use of humor. Is the brain eager to attend to a topic of low interest? No, of course not. This is particularly important where Down syndrome is concerned, since our learners can be very strong-willed. That’s why, as I explain in my book “Whole Child Reading,” we “Go in through the heart and teach to the brain.” We first engage them with the topics.

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Q. Is the Special Reads method evidence-based?

A. Yes. We have built our methodology primarily on the base of right-brain research and practice done by Dr. Glenn Doman, Dr. Robert Doman, and the parallel work of Drs. Heguru and Sichida in Japan. For example, our “Fast Flash” method of using flash cards was developed by those educators based on research and practice involving “right hemisphere learning.” Their revolutionary and ground-breaking teaching has transformed learning for our children with cognitive delays.

We recommend taking a look at the extraordinary work of Dr. Robert Doman through the NACD (The National Association for Child Development.)

We also align ourselves closely with the ideals of knowledge, practice, and research achieved by Down Syndrome Education International of the UK, arguably regarded as the gold standard for Down syndrome education. Their approach is well documented and has a long track record of success; we recommend studying their iiSeries titles on Reading and Writing for Individuals with Down Syndrome for solid supplemental information.

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Q. Why do learners with Down syndrome sometimes stall in the reading process?

A. Two reasons: (a) the materials used don’t interest the child, and (b) the child’s learning style cannot relate to the teaching methods used. In either case, progress will stall. First, the material topics have to engage the child’s interest; this is obvious to anyone who has taught a child with Down syndrome. We want the child’s will and interest on board, or the teaching process is a difficult uphill battle with limited success. Secondly, the teaching method has to match the child’s learning style and strengths. In the case of Down syndrome, it is well documented that our children are strong visual learners. This is true, but we must present materials large and clear in order to take advantage of that strength. If the visual field we offer the child is cluttered, distracting, or has too-small text, we put unnecessary stumbling blocks in the student’s learning path. I cover this in detail in my book “Whole Child Reading,” which is included in all Reading Bundles, and can be found on Amazon and my site as well.

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Q. What do you mean by materials being a “reading insurance policy?”

A. I sometimes refer to my High Frequency Book Series as an “insurance policy,” designed to make sure that students learn the essential vocabulary that the school will insist they master in progression. Too often in the literacy process, essential (but boring) high-frequency word lists are only partially learned, hit-or-miss style. This happens when the teaching materials are more loosely structured, with a high-frequency word list scattered throughout multiple books/resources. Our series of High-Frequency Books are tightly designed so this doesn’t happen: each book is mastered in turn and builds necessary vocabulary so that the next book can be learned. In other words, there is no guesswork involved: the child either has or has not mastered the book and is or is not ready for the next book. Special instructions for using the Fast Flash teaching method are always included, and that technique greatly accelerates the learning process.

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Q. Do your materials come with complete teaching instructions?

A. Yes. Detailed instructions are included with each Reading Bundle so that you know know where to start, how to teach, and how to test with the materials. You’ll have 3 resources in your bundle: the book “Whole Child Reading,” the “Educator’s Guide,” and a “Welcome” quick-start guide. In addition, you can email Natalie if you have questions; and of course you can arrange a Personal Consult with her.

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Q. What follows your three reading levels? Are there other more advanced programs available?

A. At the moment, no; and other Down syndrome-oriented programs address only emergent reader levels. Currently, only Special Reads also offers Primer and First Grade Levels. We sometimes get questions about a Second Grade Bundle; but we find that the easier path is to learn to modify the classroom material the child is expected to learn once they have mastered fluency in our First Grade Bundle. Modification involves enlarging and simplifying the material visually, as well as often simplifying the material cognitively for better understanding. You can also consider the option of arranging a Personal Consult with Natalie.

In a video consult, Natalie can give you a reading plan tailored to you child’s interests and level and guide you through a process which involves incorporating modified trade books, personal books, and more.

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Q. Can my child’s teachers participate in a Personal Consult with you? Does it cost more than a standard consult?

A. Natalie welcomes the addition of educators to your consult session, and the cost is the same as one-on-one. Short of bringing Natalie to speak to your organization, this is the best way of spreading the information that educators need in order to help your child progress quickly. A new service we offer now is this: when a school orders our 3-in-1 Bundle, Natalie offers a free training session for an hour with any staff who will be working with your child. Through Zoom, Natalie meets screen-to-screen with the educators.

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Q. How fast can I expect my child to progress?

A. That depends on how often you are able to work with your child. I often tell parent groups that they have two basic options when it comes to teaching reading.

Teaching Option A: Work with your child daily—or as close to that as possible—for 3 years or so, and your job is over for life. Once an independent reader is launched, they’re launched, and there’s no turning back.
Teaching Option B (which I often see): The child receives literacy support in fits and starts, on and off, over 20 years or so, frustrating everyone and never reaching success.

In plain language, my advice is to put your foot on the gas and don’t let up until your child is an independent reader. The reason for this advice is the fact that literacy, even at the emergent reader level, builds on itself: if there is a break in teaching/literacy support, foundations begin to crumble and the information that was once stored falls away. We want to build that literacy boat until it’s launched and sailing on the open seas. Ask any parent of a child with Down syndrome who has launched a reader: your job is over, and you never have to visit it again.

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Q. How important is confidence in the reading process?

A. How important? It’s huge. Early success opens the door to confidence, which provides the foundation for more success, then more confidence, and on and on. Confidence is the boost that is so needed with learners who have Down syndrome; many educators are aware of a refusal to learn that is really a “fear of failure” in this student population, and we want to avoid this shutting down at all costs. That’s why we stress the importance of early and quick success, and provide instructions in our Reading Bundles for using “errorless testing techniques.” We set them up for success. We want to create the experience of, “I did it! I read a whole book all by myself!” Never mind that the book was only a dozen pages long; it was indeed a “whole book,” and the emergent reader is thoroughly excited (as are his parents and educators) and ready for more. That’s the confidence and experience we are seeking.

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Q. Why don’t you use picture icons with words? And why are illustrations separated from text pages at the emergent reader level?

A. Using picture icons instead of (or above/below) sight words is like asking the brain to learn to read two different languages simultaneously. Everything I design is geared to making the brain’s job easier, so why would I make that job difficult? In my experience, using picture icons is a crutch that actually delays learning to read.

For example: To the immature visual pathway in the brain (emergent reader level), an unfamiliar word looks like undecipherable black squiggles. If you had your choice of trying to perceive and retain the information that “d-o-g” means a cute pet that barks, vs. your choice of looking at a picture icon of a dog, which one would you look at? Exactly. The child looks at the picture, which is easy, and doesn’t learn to read the word, which is hard.

In the same way, research has shown that in the initial stages of learning to read, placing illustrations alongside emergent reader text in a book can actually delay the reading process. The illustration is the attractive item, the effortless item; why should an emergent reader pay attention to the text instead of the picture?
The only exception to this that I have seen was with several students with Down syndrome who were also on the Autism spectrum. Amazingly, these students uniformly seemed to ignore the illustrations completely and lasered in on the text only. Not surprisingly, they learned to read quickly and well.

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Q. My daughter with Down syndrome is 28 and can’t read; is it too late?

Early in her school years she was interested, but didn’t learn then, and gradually lost interest. Recently she was given a cell phone and wants to learn to text! Is there any way I can help her learn to read at this point in her life? Where do I start? Is it even possible?

A. In my experience, it is possible, and I have seen reading success happen even in this kind of scenario; but it requires much more effort on the part of the parent, and success, though steady, will typically progress more slowly. As long as you’re prepared for that, and celebrate each encouraging moment of progress, you can likely help your daughter reach a functional reading level. Older emergent readers (teen through adult) need an individually designed approach to reach success because their interests are at a higher age level; they will find most emergent reading material too “babyish;” but there is a way around that problem. A Personal Consult with Natalie will give you a plan tailored to your adult student’s interests and reading level.

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Praise for Special Reads
“My daughter is 8 and has Down syndrome. She’s in first grade and has been slowly learning sight words for a year. On Sunday, I read your instructions and started “Fast Flashing” the words for the book Spaghetti. By Tuesday, she said the words before I did when I showed her the cards–so I gave her the book. She read it…she loves it!!!! Thank you. Is is so exciting to find something that ‘turns the key.’ And we have certainly learned a new way to use flash cards!”

 -T.A., New York

boy with Down syndrom practices reading

“My kids (K through 2nd) are learning so much faster now. I had kids I had almost given up on for learning sight words. It just wasn’t sinking in, after a year and a half of trying to teach them any sight words. After attending your workshop, I made the flash cards large, in red, flashed them quickly like you showed us, and used your program. In a month and a half, every one of the kids learned 15 sight words. It’s amazing. This is an incredible, incredible program.”

 -L.L., Special Educator, Oklahoma

Down syndrom reading student

“I can’t imagine anyone who works with your materials not being thrilled with them. My students love them.”

 – D.O., Speech Language Pathologist, Ohio

Learning to read with Down Syndrome