Reading and Writing Tips for Children with Down Syndrome

Natty writes her name independently
Yesterday I found a scrap of paper on which Natty had written her name, independently, without a model, and without anyone even watching. 
This was a momentous occasion for all of us, something we have been working towards for years if the truth be known.

I don't have all the answers, or all the ideas that will work for your child, all children develop at their own pace and enjoy different activities. Natty just happens to like writing and here are a few of the things that worked for her as she begins to write. 

We didn't do these activities exhaustively, but at Natty's pace and when she felt like it. Doing activities in a fun way in short bursts is much better than forcing your child to sit and endure a task for a long time. Other activities for speech and physio took over at different times as did hospital stays and so on. This is just a guide.

When Natty was around 2 years old, a speech therapist from charity Symbol UK visited our local area and told us she was ready for sound work. We were using Makaton and Natty was making some lovely sounds and simple words at that point (It's hard to remember, but I think 'Daddy' and 'cake' and 'star' and 'biscuit' were among her first essential utterances.) We were also using the See and Learn materials from DownsEd which involved matching pictures in the early stages.

She put 2 cards in front of Natty, one with an 'a' and one with a 'n'. She then held up an 'a' card and using Makaton she asked her to find the 'same'. Natty did this with her eyes. I remember watching her closely and seeing her look at the other 'a'. She had done it!

This was a very emotional moment for us all and there a few tears. Why? Because we could have been doing this sooner, but had lacked the guidance. Because we were relieved to see the way forward. Because we wanted everyone to know what was possible for children with DS. Because we knew a lot of hard work was going to be involved from now on...

Jolly Phonics and Ruth Miskin cards
We rushed out to buy various sets of flashcards with the letters written clearly on them. A set sat in the bathroom at home and pre-school (potty time seemed to work well for us as a time to work with sounds). Most usefully we bought 2 Jolly Phonics friezes, from Amazon, showing all the sounds and an accompanying action. For example 'a' is a tapping motion going up the arm, signifying 'ants crawling up the arm'. 
We played the CD with catchy rhymes in the car. (Available from ELC).

Children with DS are visual learners, so seeing a picture as well as doing/watching an action helps cement the sound they are hearing/producing (in the way that Makaton works wonders for language development).
Daddy Downs Side Up and I spent a week of evenings cutting them to size, laminating them and rounding the corners for safety. Time and money well spent, as we still use them. If you can beg, borrow or buy a laminator you will use it constantly.
  • Focus on one sound/action at a time.
  • Choose sounds your child can already make at first.
  • Then show 2 different cards and ask them which one is 'a' for example. Looking at the right card counts as a correct answer, so little one doesn't have to be able to point.
  • Children who are able to walk love finding the letter sounds hidden around the house, or jumping onto the correct sound on the floor.
  • With 2 set you can play snap and other matching games.

When Natty began school at 4, she knew most of her phonic sounds by sight. However, she began reading, using a whole word approach. There is evidence that children with DS are very able at this, recognising whole words by shape alone. It's very useful for high frequency words that follow no logical sound pattern as well. So we: 
  • Made flashcards with words on and stuck them around the house/ on the fridge 
  • Matched the mini flashcards to words that were the same within texts. 
  • Made simple games of snap/bingo with the words
She then began reading simple texts using these words (Oxford Reading Tree), but we kept up the individual phonics work with a view to her learning to blend and write. After all, we all read using a combination of whole word recognition, blending and prediction based on understanding of what will come next.

Natty traced her name onto her
Pre-School graduation mortar board
Next came learning to write these sounds that she could by now read. 

The correct writing position is vital, so that your child has core stability, giving the strength to write.

We purchased a variety of pencil grips and played around til we found one that suited her fingers. We then found triangular pencils with grooves cut in them and we moved to those.

We began by using dots for Natty to trace over (you can find fonts that do this on your pc or you can create the dots freehand), letter shapes to colour in (free downloads are widely available online) and guided Natty's arm from the elbow to make the shapes to encourage errorless learning. There are also letter tracing Apps for iPhones and iPads.
Natty the Kumon tracing books (available from Amazon) as they provide simple steps to writing in a fun, bright and interesting way.

Natty's TA made sure that she was sitting in a stable position at her desk. In order to have core stability and pencil control your feet must be grounded. At school Natty has a foot wedge, a textured cushion which stops her fidgeting and a writing slope. At home we used either a small chair and table, or later on a Tripp Trapp chair which has a built in foot ledge. You could use cushions, books or a toilet step for your child's feet. We found a writing slope in IKEA for around £2.

Seating position is crucial
A writing slope makes life easier

To stop paper and slopes sliding around cut a length of non slip material (available from kitchen shops) to put underneath.

When Natty was showing signs of being ready to write independently, we introduced the Ruth Miskin flashcards (part of the Read Write Inc scheme), again a couple of pounds from Amazon. They show a picture within each letter and give you a catch phrase to remember how to write each one. (Shown above).
  • 'round the apple and down the leaf' for 'a', shown above.
  • 'down the tower and across the tower' for 't'.
  • 'down the horn, up the horn and round the yak's face' for 'y'.
  • For the capital N of her name we just shouted 'up down up STOP', which Natty adored.
Natty practised writing over countless different printed towers, apples and yaks, before we removed the pictures altogether and simply repeated the phrases as she wrote. We are just at the beginning of the writing journey, but here she is, writing her name without help and leaving it proudly for Mummy to find.

Here's a little video we made at home last year of Natty, in Reception class, learning her sounds and words and beginning to read. Mia was the camera woman by the way!


  1. the video is brilliant....(well done Mia for capturing your mum and little sister in action and for the spontaneous reinforcements!) when I tell others that my 4 year old daughter can read, no one really believes- haven't been able to capture her reading on film either. This video speaks volumes! I was also impressed with Natty's speech clarity....Credit goes to you Hayley:)

    1. Thank you J's Mum. Our kids are amazing aren't they!

  2. This is really interesting, I know what Santa is going to be bringing!! My older son is learning to read with phonics and Toby copies the sounds and thinks it's great fun!

  3. I've just reposted this on my page as we just heard Lauren got into nursery class for September and she'll wear the same colour uniform as Natty #oneexcitedmummy


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