Ben Reading

How Ben Learned to Read
When Ben was around a year old I picked up a set of baby flash cards for him that had shapes on them.  The kid loved them.  We rarely used them as actual flash cards.  Sometimes we would stack them, or he would roll around with them on the floor.  As he got older he would take them in and out of the cardboard box they came in.  From them he learned to love flashcards. 

In the fall of 2009 when Ben was about 19 months old, the time change really messed with him, and my good sleeper became an early riser.  The boys were riding the bus to school, and  got up at 6:30 to get on the 7:00 bus, so Ben was up too.  Since I still had to shower and get ready for work, I needed some way to contain Ben and entertain him.  I had heard from other parents that sign language could help Ben communicate and had gotten a video that I did not like.  Another parent told me to try  “Signing Time” so I ordered my first DVD and it had just arrived.   So every day after the boys left, I put Ben in the playpen, turned on my one "Singing Time" DVD and got ready for work.  It took at least 2 weeks for him even to pay attention to it.  So I was surprised one day a few weeks later, when I came down to check on him, and found him signing cookie with the video.   I finally got more videos and soon began to rotate them, making sure he watched each video for at least a week.

In February 2010 my husband and I had the opportunity to attend a Down Syndrome Education International conference in Kansas City.   They taught us about visual learning and issues with working memory.  They suggested that kids with Down syndrome should learn to sight read before they are taught phonics.   It was at that conference, where I first saw a video of a 4 year old little boy with Down syndrome, who read a sentence that was something like " The bear drank milk".  Then he took a cup and held it up to a stuffed bear to drink.  I was stunned.  Never before had I even imagined that reading would be something a child with Down syndrome could learn that young.  At the time I thought how great it would be if Ben could learn to read like that, but the boy in the video was in a special school using a special reading system called See and Learn.  While most of the information is available free on-line, I did not think I would be able to implement the system in a way that Ben would be able to actually learn to read.  We had missed so many on the steps in there system already.  So I went back to the beginning of their program and started with the letters.  At that point my goal was just to get him to speak, not to teach him to read. 

In the next few months I really fluttered and fizzed out on the See and Learn system.  I tried making some of my own flash cards by taking pictures of things around the house,   putting the word on them and printing and laminating them.  He would look at them occasionally, but not consistently.  Ben did continue to watch the same "Signing Time" video every day for a week and was picking up more signs easily. 

While on vacation that August, while shopping in a flea market, I found a set of "Your Baby Can Read" videos.    I did not think he would really learn to read from it, but figured it would not hurt to expose him to more words since and may help him speak sooner, so I bought it.  The flash cards that came with the set were awesome (the same set that Randy dropped).  The instructions said to play it over and over again multiple times a day.  To a toddler who was basically addicted to Signing Time videos, that half hour could also be called torture.  But I was able to slip one in on him about once a week.   
 Life continued on as normal with the daily video and flash cards that were mostly used to entertain him while he was in the stroller at one of his big brother's sporting events. 

Then, last December (2010)  Ben and Randy were looking at flash cards and dropped them.    This particular set of cards has the words on one side and the picture on the other.  As Randy was trying to sort the deck out, Ben was signing the word before he could flip the card over to the picture side.  I had been out with the big boys and when we got home Randy said  "Look what Ben can do".  Sure enough Ben correctly signed 80% of the words in that flash card set.  At the time Ben was 32 months old.  Ben now can sight read close to 200 words and signs around 300 (February 2012).     He uses a combination of signing and speaking to help us understand, when his speech is not completely intelligible.

That was my first glimmer of hope that maybe Ben could learn to read like the boy in the video.  The problem was that we did not really know what exactly was teaching him all his sight words.  He was not watching "Your Baby Can Read" enough for him to have learned it there.  So one day I grabbed the doodle board and wrote eat to see what he would do.  I knew that word was not on the "Your Baby Can Read" video, but it was a sign that he knew from "Signing Time".  I was not really that shocked when he signed it.  He had learned at least some of the sight words from "Signing Time.  Actually I think it was a combination of both programs.   "Your Baby Can Read" got him looking at the words more, and the sheer repetition of "Signing Time"  along with our very inconsistent attempts with flash cards taught  him the rest.  

The doodle board became our best friend, since I did not have flash cards with all the words from Signing Time.  He loved to sit with me and read words (and still does).  We soon got a smaller board that can go with us when we are out and about.  It is easy to practice a few words here and there. 

A few months later we went to our local Special Olympics Young Athletes program, and I remember looking around the room at the other kids and feeling a tiny bit superior that Ben was reading sight words at age 2.  Then he went up to a cute little 4 year old girl in our Down syndrome group and shoved her down to get to a ball.  I came crashing back to reality.   Yes he can read, but he still has lots of other things he can work on like standing in line, waiting his turn, speaking intelligibly and many other basic social rules.  He has a head start in only one area of many, that will be difficult for him to master.   So while it is great that he is reading and that will help him in many of the other areas that he needs to work hard on, it does not mean he is ahead of anyone. 

 We have gotten more signing videos over the last year.  Videos are now played with the captions on, and only get played once before he asks for a "New Time".   I have been amazed at how quickly he was able to sight read the words from them.    Two weeks after we got the "Welcome to School" video, I wrote down "pay attention" on the doodle board and he signed it.  I was shock and said something like "Wow! That's amazing".  He just looked at me and signed smart.  Yes Ben, you are smart!

This whole experience has taught me is that there is no limit to what kids can achieve when they are motivated to do so.  Those original flash cards, are what motivated Ben.  Find what motivates your child and then work on it.  You will be surprised at how fast they master the task.  Set the bar high and they will rise up to meet it and exceed it.  Recently we have started working on the sight words he will need for school and reading short sentences.  It is slow going be he is making progress.

Here is a video of him reading in 2012.

Update October 2012
Ben is in the 4 year old preschool class at our public school.  At our IEP I stressed that I wanted Ben to be a word rich environment and that he understands much better when he is exposed to the written word.  At home if I want him to learn a word I get out the doodle board and write it for him a few times.  He seems to pick them up rather quickly.
Just last week the new special ed teacher told me after school "I have to confess, I kissed your child today, and more than once!"  (She also knew Ben before she became involved with the school, so it was OK).   But then she went on to explain why.  She decided to test Ben on his sight words and he scored an 80% on the first grade sight reading list.  Now I have to admit that he does not always get the ending sounds on all his words, and she gave him credit for some that I probably would not have given him credit for, but over all he did quite well.  Not bad for a 4 year old. Hopefully his love of reading will help him as he continues on to Kindergarten next year.

Here is a video of him reading in 2013.

Update May 2014.
Now at the end of Kindergarten Ben is reading sight words at a 3rd grade level.  He really likes lists and we make him lists regularly on the doodle board so he can follow the steps.  His night time board usually says something like this:  1.  Go Potty,  2.  Take a Bath,  3.  Keep the water in the tub.  4.  Put on pajamas, 5.  Brush Teeth, 6.  Kiss Mommy,   7.  Go to bed.    He reads his list without help and does each one of these things then crosses the number off the list when he is done.  Sometimes he tries to be ornery and  tries to mark off something he does not want to do, like keep the water in the tub at bath, but for the most part, writing a list for him gives him a visual of what we want him to do, and he loves showing us that he can do all the things on the list.  It gives him such a sense of accomplishment when he gets to cross them off.   I will try to get a video and post it soon.