Easy-Peasy answer:

Because being nonverbal is NOT an impediment to learning to read. 

I say this for two reasons:

First, I’ve had an unusual number of students with Down syndrome who are somewhere on that broad spectrum of Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS), and they have learned to read.

Second, and most impressive, is that those students are among my best little readers. I’ve puzzled as to why that is, and I hypothesize that perhaps the brain/body energy that they would have expended on struggling to articulate is instead focused laser-like on the printed words themselves. Who knows? But “That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it!” I have also seen this laser focus occasionally in students who have the dual diagnosis of DS/autism.

Simply put, learners who are nonverbal can be crackerjack readers.


A couple of stories: Ava was just 4 and nonverbal along with Down syndrome. Her mom (Amy, are you listening?) was vigilant and Ava knew all of the signs for the alphabet as well as some signs for words she needed in her 4-year-old life. One night, Amy was rocking Ava near a little footstool into which was carved “Ava.” Ava looked up at Amy, pointed to the little stool, signed A-V-A and then pointed to herself. Amy’s jaw dropped open.

As I taught Ava over a few years, I had an epiphany one day: I was asking her to play a lotto matching game that we had done a number of times before. She grew impatient and “cleared the deck” of the game. I got an inspiration and fetched a new matching game that I thought would be too advanced for her, matching birds and their words like “pelican,” “puffin,” etc. She was all eyes and jumped right in. I realized then–and told her mom later–that I had initially insulted Ava’s intelligence. Lesson learned!

Lotto games (matching games) are fabulous tools not only for any emergent reader, but especially for learners who are nonverbal. (Search for “lotto games” in the search box to the right of this article, and you’ll be given a list of articles on “how to.”)

There are 7 levels of difficulty when teaching with lotto games, and speech is not necessary for any of them At Level 7, for example, matching a picture card to a board of 6 words, the student has to first mentally read all of the words before she knows where to place the picture card. I’ve created a glossy set of 6 different lotto games which include instructions and a link to my demo video of teaching a student with a lotto set.


Then there is Elizabeth, with Down syndrome, also on the severe end of apraxia. She also had a “tiger mom,” intensely proactive for her daughter, and when Elizabeth came to me at 7, she knew hundreds of signs. By the time she stopped our sessions a few years later, she knew over 1,000 signs. There are several ways to test our learners who are nonverbal, and I go into detail on this in my book Whole Child Reading in Chapter 13, “Teaching Learners with Autism or Apraxia of Speech.” We accept signing, picture-word identification, sentence building, and verbal approximation (as long as it’s a consistent sound, we don’t care how inaccurate it is; when apraxia is involved, all we ask for is consistency for a specific word sound.)

You can watch Elizabeth doing a sentence-building exercise on my YouTube channel*. Here’s the link to watch her: Elizabeth builds a sentence. She loved the story of Nemo, and I asked her to build the sentence, “Elizabeth swims with Nemo and his friends.” Notice, at the end of the video, that she signs the word just before I say the word.

Because she was truly nonverbal, Elizabeth’s teachers went for very low expectations in the beginning. I coached her mom to make two videos of Elizabeth and burn them on a DVD for the teachers. The first was a video of her making the signs for each word in the story she would be reading in the second video (our learners with DS are often…umm…”creative” in their renditions of signs! I wanted to make sure the educators knew her versions of those signs.) The second video was of her signing each word as her mom pointed silently to each. As you can imagine, things shifted dramatically for Elizabeth when her teachers viewed the DVD. Of course.

I always recommend that parents do this for their young readers who are nonverbal; we can’t expect our children to “perform on demand” in order to prove their ability to the teacher; but when they’re at home and comfortable, that’s another story. We can capture their real ability and potential on video.

That, dear parent, is absolutely a picture worth ‘way more than a thousand words! I love to see the attitude of respect and high expectations come over an educator who “gets it.” How can they know unless we show them?

We can do this.




P.S. *For more videos, follow my YouTube Channel:





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