Children with Down syndrome usually experience considerable delay and difficulties when learning to talk, though they typically understand much more than they can express. As a mother raising a child with Down syndrome, I have found resources with helpful, simple, and fun suggestions to boost children's language development. If you are raising a child diagnosed with Down syndrome, encourage his development and communication skills with 12 activities recommended by various experts in early literacy and Down syndrome education. Pick the activities that best match your child's age or skill level, be enthusiastic, and don't forget to reward your child's efforts with praises and hugs.
EARLY COMMUNICATION SKILLS (AGES 0 to 2)
Listen to Me
Train your baby to discern speech sounds early in life by playing babble games, says Sue Buckley, the chief scientist at Down Syndrome Education International, a leading research and training organization based in the U.K. Hold your baby so she's facing you, with proper head support, and slowly make sounds like "a-ah" and "oo-oo" before moving on to early consonants like "d-d-d" and "m-m-m." Use exaggerated lip movements. You will be delighted by her efforts to copy you. The Down Syndrome Education store (store.dseenterprises.org/collections/see-and-learn-speech) sells picture sound cards that can be used starting at 9 months to teach your baby to listen, discern words, and copy your lip movements.
Sign It, Say It
Visual learning is strong among people with Down syndrome, but remembering verbal information is more challenging. Help your baby learn the names of familiar objects by using simple gestures along with words, says Buckley, co-author of the book Speech and Language Development for Infants With Down Syndrome (0 to 5 Years). For example, put your hand to your ear when the phone rings and say "phone" or pretend to drink from a bottle or cup while saying "drink."
Together, You and I
Draw your child's attention to an object like a rattle, favorite toy, or picture and encourage her to look at it as you talk about the item. Gradually build up the length of time she can pay attention with interest as you describe the item. "Activities that encourage joint attention, where the child and caregiver look and listen to the same thing," Buckley says, "also help children learn language faster and improve attention span."
One at a Time
In her book Early Communication Skills for Children With Down Syndrome, Libby Kumin, Ph.D., a speech-language pathologist at Loyola University Maryland who has worked with people with Down syndrome for 30 years, says that all communication depends on turn-taking between listener and speaker. Rolling a ball back and forth is a simple way to practice this skill. As you roll the ball, say "mommy's turn" and as your child pushes it back, say his name ("Jack's turn"). Once he is pointing or speaking, have him point to himself and say "me" or his own name.
BUILDING VOCABULARY (AGES 2 to 3)
I Want That!
Teaching your child the meaning of signs and symbols can help him communicate as his language skills are emerging. In its practice guide, "That Sign Means Ice Cream," the Center for Early Literacy Learning (earlyliteracylearning.org) in Asheville, NC, recommends showing toddlers a real object or activity along with a matching image. Take pictures of objects or activities your child likes so he can "ask" for what he wants by pointing or handing you the picture. Always encourage him to say the word too.
Rainbow of Learning
Play this fun game for learning colors: Gather many things of one color from around the house -- a red shirt, stuffed animal, blanket, cup -- and put them all in a red bag or laundry basket. "A visual activity based on real-world objects can make it easier for a child with Down syndrome to understand a general concept," Dr. Kumin says. If the child is at the one-word level, name the color as you pull out the object. If the child can process a two-word phrase, say the color and the object's name.
Tell Me More
Children with Down syndrome need more time before they form multi-word phrases. Research shows that they generally have a 100-word vocabulary (including signs and/or spoken words) before they begin to put words together. Transition your child from a one-word to a two-word stage by using a technique of imitation with expansion. First, repeat a word your child has said and then expand it by one word. For example, if your child says "boat" while playing, follow up by saying, "Boat. Boat go." If she says "dog," you could say "Dog. Black dog." Repetition is essential, Dr. Kumin says, so don't get frustrated if you have to do it many times.
A Visual Helper
Use a pacing board to elicit two-word phrases. At its simplest, this tool is a rectangular piece of laminated cardboard with two colored dots spaced a few inches apart. "The board serves as a visual reminder to put two words together," Dr. Kumin says. For instance, in modeling the phrase "Car go," point to the first dot as you say "car" and then the second dot as you say "go." Use hand-over-hand assistance to help your child point, and that motion will serve as a tactile cue. As your child progresses, draw more dots to provide cues as he learns to increase the length of his phrases.
EXPANDED VOCABULARY, LETTERS, AND SOUNDS (AGES 3 to 5)
Tea Time Is Learning Time
When the language you use is related to everyday activities, it makes learning functional and more motivating. Add on to your child's noun vocabulary by teaching action words like sitting, drinking, eating, washing, and brushing. Host a tea party or bathtime with dolls and stuffed animals (include one for your child and one for you) and then describe what the dolls are doing. Then follow your child's lead -- have her feed, wash, and dress the stuffed animals or dolls and encourage her to talk about what she is doing, using two- or three-word phrases ("Dolly is drinking" or "Mommy washes teddy").
Wow! A New Word
Build on your child's visual memory strengths by using praise to increase self-esteem and expressive language. Joe and Susan Kotlinski, parents of a daughter with Down syndrome, created Love and Learning (loveandlearning.com), a system to teach reading to children with Down syndrome. They suggest taping an 8 1/2" x 11" sheet of paper in a prominent place. Each time your child says a new word or one you haven't heard in a while, stop what you are doing and make a big show of saying, "Oh, that's a new word!" and write it on the sheet. Print the word in lowercase letters on a 5" x 7" card. Then show the card to your child and say the word at the same time. Later, when you read to your child, show her the card again and repeat the word. In time, your child will attempt to say new words to add to the list.
Write letters on the back of colored circles and place the circles face down. Have your child turn each circle over and make the sound. Prompt your child by making the correct sound, but decrease the prompts over time. Start with just a few circles, and sounds your child is already making, and slowly add new ones. "Most children with Down syndrome are likely to begin learning letter sounds between 3 1/2 and 5 years of age," Buckley says.
"Because of their visual memory strengths, children with Down syndrome can be taught to read early, when they can understand 50 to 100 words, and can match and select pictures," Buckley says. Make a game with words the child readily responds to, like family names or foods. Print two related words, like Mommy and Daddy, in large type on a piece of white paper and laminate it (use cardboard backing if you wish). Print or type each word again, separately, on small cards and laminate those. Place the big card, face up, in front of the child and have her hand you the small cards that correspond to the words on the big card, one at a time. Increase the words that appear on the big cards to three or four.
Vicki Vila, a former editor at The New York Times, is a freelance writer and editorial consultant. She blogs about raising a child with special needs at modernmessy.wordpress.com.
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