Ava, a Great Non-Verbal Reader

Ava, a great little reader who’s non-verbal

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My involvement as a mother (Jonathan, DS, 31) and as a teacher (of reading, exclusively to DS) combines to make me a fierce defender of our kids’ abilities and potential. For me to read the clinical observations, “identifies some objects: ball, balloon, cat, apple; attends well to pictures; signs a few words” on an evaluation for my bright 6-year old student who knows a solid reading vocabulary of 75 words and signs upward of 60 words…well

Let me just say that it sorely tempts me to completely blow a Zen mindset by yelling a string of interesting words and doing a war dance around my living room.

Taking a wild guess, I’m thinking that most of you who are parents of kids with DS who are non-verbal have felt a similar reaction at some point.

This blog is about you and your child running into the brick-walled mindset of low expectations, and what you’re going to do about it. You can do something about it, and part of my message in this blog is that you must. “Must” because if you decide to take a proactive role in this, the results can amaze you.

Prove It

We have to prove:

  1. that our children are smart;
  2. that their receptive language is ‘way beyond their expressive language; and
  3. that there is far more going on inside of their heads than some of them can possibly express.

There are a few ways to do this. One tool is using that video feature on your smartphone; another is knowing who to send that video to; and the most powerful tool of all, showing your child reading on that video.

Yes, reading. Some of my students with apraxia (CAS) or similar speech and language diagnoses are among my best readers. Are they still nonverbal? Yes. Can they read? You bet. Can we prove this? Yes. And you should see the eyes pop open when we do prove it.

A Story

He can READ?

To bring home the unconscious connection humans make of equating reading ability with intelligence (and therefore high expectations), here is a story:

In 1990, my son Jonathan was 5; I was teaching him to read, and he lugged around his homemade personal books wherever we went. There were no pictures in these books until the last page, so anyone watching him knew he was actually reading. One day, a guest was visiting and listening to Jonathan read. When he finally finished book number 4 and trotted off, my guest turned to me, obviously confused. “But…” she hesitated, “…I thought mental retardation came along with Down syndrome.” Her unconscious reasoning was: This little kid is reading; he can’t possibly have mental retardation. He has to be smart in order to read. That comment was my first eye-opener; in the next few years, many more such moments followed.

How Do We Prove They Can Read?

So how do we accomplish this? How do you teach your child to read and prove she can?

We teach our non-verbal children with DS/Apraxia (CAS) to read in the same way we teach a child with the single diagnosis of Down syndrome. Best practice for teaching children with DS is common knowledge among those who specialize in it, but it is still largely unknown in most school systems. (One of my aims in life is to see that change.) You can find more details about current best practice in my new book coming this Fall from Woodbine House. (To my surprise, one mom tipped me off that it can be pre-ordered already on Amazon, so here’s the link: Whole Child Reading: A Quick-Start Guide to Teaching Students with Down Syndrome, Autism, and Other Developmental Delays.)

But for a non-verbal child, we obviously have to test and prove reading differently. Far and away, the easiest slam-dunk way to prove reading is to teach, and then video, your child completing a 6-up lotto or matching game (4-up for the very young). I’ve created many of these, and my students with apraxia love them. Why? Because it’s easy to prove they can read—and they love proving that.

Signing the words of a simple picture-less personal book is ideal as well, if the child can sign clearly enough to convince an onlooker. This may or may not work for your child, as some of our kids like to cut to the chase and give somewhat vague signs that they know we’re going to understand anyway. But Lotto games are absolute proof of reading.

Lottos: here’s one for you!screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-9-47-29-pmscreen-shot-2016-10-03-at-9-47-19-pm

Warning: in using ready-made matching games or in creating them yourself, don’t put the word sheet in the same order as the pictures. Our kids are brilliant at memorizing the position of the picture on the page, and if they’re matching pictures to the word sheet, they’ll bamboozle you every time and have you thinking they’re reading when they’re not. So mix up the position of words on the page; make it totally different than the order on the picture page.

I’ve created many of these lotto sheets. Here are two freebie PDFs for  my latest set, “Chips and Salsa.” It’s great for kids who love to eat Mexican food: Chips & Salsa Pics and  Chips & Salsa Words  Print 2 copies of each page (lamination is a great idea); one of each will be your board, and one of each will be cut up to match. Fast Flash the words first with large flash cards you make yourself; play the game; then Fast Flash the words again.

Once your child has learned the words for a lotto or two or three, video this ability and send it to your child’s Principal, the Special Ed Supervisor/Resource Specialist/etc., and the teacher. Make your child’s skill indisputably known. I have seen this work, and it’s massively more effective (and believable) than trying to convince them with something like, “You know, Sean can read 50 words now.” And if you try to prove it and Sean’s just “not in the mood,” that won’t look good! So you want to catch Sean at his best, at home.

So, know this: you have to show the decision-makers the capability and skill and intelligence of your child. Reading is one way; you will find other ways; and you will videotape them all so that others can finally understand.

Cameras Rolling,

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  • kim marquis

    Thank You SO much for this, I have spent years trying to convince my daughters educators that she CAN read even though she can’t articulate the actual words.
    She is almost 13 now and has DS and CAS (+ the high possibility of dyslexia – as myself and 2 of my other children are dyslexic- how do we test her!!!) She has lots of dyslexic traits that I see in my other children.

    From age 6 we have been able to place 4 or more words in front of her, say one of the words and she can point to it.
    If we point to a word and ask her what it says – she can not tell us.

    She is not non-verbal anymore – (in spontaneous speech), but does struggle with and ‘grope’ ‘ for words when attempting to ‘read’ a book or when answering questions.

    Your info has given me a new burst of enthusiasm – and I can’t wait to start the ‘fast flash’ method with some new words for her 🙂

    • Natalie Hale

      Awesome, Kim! I had a student recently with DS + CAS; her educators thought she had a half dozen sight words; she was actually reading more like 200, but had severe CAS. Her parents hired me to come into the school and spend an hour with all the educators who worked with her: SLP, Special Ed teacher, aide, etc. I showed them how to teach her reading and how to test her.They were very receptive, and afterwards created materials to teach her 2 dozen words that related to her school day. Six weeks later, they were both elated and dismayed; elated because she had learned all 24; dismayed that she no longer needed those great new materials they had created for her!I wish you the same success!!

  • Julie Kehm

    I am about to start your program with one of my boys that has DS. He is mostly nonverbal and is just approximating most words. Do I use the lotto method for ME to know that he is learning the words? He doesnt sign but a few words, as well. And would I just periodically do the word lotto? And if so, how often would you recommend?
    I think he will do great with this program but I dont want to move too fast or too slow so I need to know how to monitor his progress.
    Thank you!

    • Natalie Hale

      Hi, Julie! I’ve written several articles on how to test our nonverbal kids; go to my blog page, and type “non-verbal” [be sure to use the hyphen; don’t type “nonverbal” or it won’t come up] into the “Search This Blog” box. It will pull up those articles and give you solid testing techniques.The second article that will be listed is “More on how to prove non-verbal kids can read.” Don’t miss that one! And yes, of course, the lotto tool is awesome both for him (he can prove his ability) and for you (so you know he’s learning.)
      All the best,

      • Julie

        Thank you so much! I’ve just made his first book and flash cards and about to start! Very excited.

        • Natalie Hale

          Thumbs up, Julie! I wish you both great success!

  • Nana

    My situation is a bit different but I am desperately seeking any help possible. My grandson (not DS) is 10.5 and is verbal, but with below average expressive language. He has a dyslexia diagnosis (severe/profound) and is getting appropriate interventions. He also has developmental aphasia, which we have just figured out. Naturally, to decide if he is progressing in his reading /spelling we have been verbally assessing him. We now realize his aphasia makes this practically useless as although he knows what he means, his words may not come out accurately at all. When speaking of any upcoming event he may say, “I am going to go skating yesterday.” He means to say tomorrow, and he also means skiing! But his words betray him. He completely fails any rapid naming tests, and if we ask him to write it’s worse. He simply may not be able to “produce” the word he means either orally or in writing. Now think of this in the context of spelling: Is he misspelling or simply misspeaking? For oral reading fluency it’s probably never going to happen – we listen to him read and correct his “inaccurate reading”, only recently recognizing he might NOT be misreading in his brain, just misspeaking aloud. (Doesn’t change the fact he’ll never sound like/ be an accurate oral reader, but we can at least stop thinking he can’t decode or comprehend!) Kudos to you for finding out what your kiddos’ true abilities are and giving them ways to prove it.

    • Natalie Hale

      Hi, Nana- I hope you got my email response to you. All the best to you! Natalie