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Exploratory study suggests targeted instruction may improve phoneme blending and word reading skills

Example teaching activities used in the intervention

A new study, published online ahead of publication in Child Language Teaching and Therapy, suggests that explicit instruction targeting phoneme blending may improve phoneme blending and word reading skills for some children with Down syndrome.

The ability to combine distinct phonemes to make a word (for example, ch-a-t = chat) is important for learning to read, yet can be a particular challenge for many children with Down syndrome.[1] Teaching approaches that help children with Down syndrome to develop their phoneme blending skills might also help the development of reading skills.

To explore this idea, researchers at DSE and the University of York, UK (some of whom are now at University College London and at the University of Oxford) conducted an exploratory pilot of an intervention designed to explicitly teach phoneme blending skills. The results of this study are reported in a paper recently published online ahead of publication in Child Language Teaching and Therapy.[2] The study was conducted in conjunction with a larger study funded by the UK Big Lottery Fund, and supported by additional funding from the Nuffield Foundation and Down Syndrome Education International.

The researchers designed an intervention to support the development of phoneme blending skills. The teaching program was delivered by Teaching Assistants working with 10 children with Down syndrome in mainstream schools in England who had previously participated in a larger, controlled trial of a comprehensive reading and language intervention. The children’s progress on a range of phonological and reading measures was monitored during a period prior to receiving the intervention to provide a comparison for progress observed while receiving the intervention.

The intervention was delivered in 30 daily sessions lasting 10 to 15 minutes (over 6 weeks). Each session comprised of six activities introducing 2 or 3 new letter sounds every second day: visual blending with pictures, visual blending, oral blending with pictures, oral blending, nonword reading and sentence reading. Sessions progressed through the sequence of phonemes outlined in Letters and Sounds.[3] The intervention was scripted and Teaching Assistants were provided with the necessary resources, together with a manual and DVD-based training, including a demonstration of each of the teaching activities. The intervention was delivered alongside the book reading and sight word learning activities contained within the comprehensive reading and language intervention they were using with the children.[4,5]

The researchers found that during the intervention period, the children, on average, made more progress on measures of single word reading and phoneme blending than they had done during the comparison period. Teaching Assistants reported that the intervention was easy to implement and enjoyable and had benefits for the children’s development.

This was an exploratory study involving 10 children with Down syndrome and not including a randomised control group. It offers preliminary evidence that some children with Down syndrome can learn to blend phonemes in words following targeted instruction over a short period of time, and that this may help some children improve their word reading skills. The gains in word reading achieved by individual children varied widely and future research will be needed to further evaluate whether we can identify the children for whom the intervention may be most useful. A larger study, with a randomised control group, is also necessary to confirm these findings.

Although this study should be interpreted with caution, it is encouraging to see some children benefiting and teachers may wish to consider how they teach phoneme blending to children with Down syndrome - particularly those struggling with blending.

DSE is considering how it might make the evaluated blending intervention available and is continuing research in this area.

Further information

Supporting educational research

Down Syndrome Education International and Down Syndrome Education USA support developmental and educational research that improves outcomes for many thousands of children with Down syndrome around the world today. DSE has a successful 30 year track record of delivering improvements in early intervention and education for young people with Down syndrome through original scientific research and practical, evidence-based publications, training and consulting services. Our teaching resources, guidance and information services help over 150,000 people in over 160 countries each year.

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  1. Kay-Raining Bird E and Chapman RS (2011). Literacy development in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood in persons with Down syndrome. In: Burack J, Hodapp R, Iarocci G and Zigler E (eds.) The Oxford handbook of intellectual disability and development. 2nd edition. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 184-99.
  2. Burgoyne K, Duff FJ, Snowling MJ, Buckley S and Hulme C (2013). Training phoneme blending skills in children with Down syndrome. Child Language Teaching and Therapy.
  3. Department of Education and Skills (2007). Letters and Sounds. London, UK: Department for Education and Skills.
  4. Burgoyne K, Duff FJ, Clarke P, Buckley S, Snowling MJ and Hulme C (2012). Efficacy of a reading and language intervention for children with Down syndrome: A randomised controlled trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 53: 1044-53.
  5. Burgoyne K, Duff FJ, Clarke P, Smith G, Buckley S, Snowling MJ and Hulme C (2012). A reading and language intervention for children with Down Syndrome: Teaching handbook. Cumbria, UK: Down Syndrome Education International. Buy from DSE's UK store | Buy from DSE's US store