Transition into
Elementary School

Focus on Communication and the Student with Down syndrome

In the elementary years, the communication issues of students with Down syndrome will continue, so the need for communication support remains unchanged. Ideally, students with Down syndrome will receive support with their communication skills from several sources:

  • The Speech Language Pathologists and other communication professionals employed by the school board and/or the Local Health Integration Network (LHIN)
  • The instructional team at the school, which will work with the student to support their receptive language skills and help them express themselves in both academic and social contexts
  • The family, which will employ supportive strategies at home, and look for opportunities to expose the student to stimulating language experiences when the child is not in school

The research on the unique communicative abilities of children with Down syndrome has not reached fixed conclusions, but there is a consensus on some points. Everyone agrees that children with Down syndrome have large deficits in expressive speech and language. This means that they speak less frequently than their classmates, and their utterances are less developed, and use more fractured grammar, than the utterances of typically developing children who are years younger. Children with Down syndrome fare slightly better in terms of receptive vocabulary: they sometimes understand words they cannot yet use themselves. Surprisingly, there seems to be little correlation between the communicative ability and the intelligence of students with Down syndrome, which means that they can be quite capable while being communicatively compromised.

Research findings have also concluded that students with Down syndrome demonstrate great difficulties with intelligibility. In fact, most elementary-aged students with Down syndrome have significant difficulty being understood by anyone outside their closest circle.

There are several repercussions of these findings:

  • The expertise of Speech Language Pathologists and other communication professionals is essential to the school success of students with Down syndrome. SLTs may have to consider giving diagnoses to students with Down syndrome that have not commonly been allocated to them in the past. Dyspraxia is rarely acknowledged in children with Down syndrome, but many of these students have the characteristics to justify such a diagnosis and giving it to them might be a significant move in getting them the support they need.
  • When students with Down syndrome are seen by speech language pathologists, these professionals may instinctively use the same techniques that they use for typically developing students. Given the unique speech and language profile for young people with Down syndrome, however, SLPs may have to tailor their methods and their techniques. As an example, Dr. Shelley Velleman has argued for “phonotactic” rather than “phonetic” therapy, with a focus on “word or syllable shape” as a possible way of addressing the special challenges faced by students with Down syndrome. (Velleman, S. L. (2002). Phonotactic Therapy. Seminars in Speech and Language, 23(1), 043–056.)
  • The current division of responsibility for the same child being shared between should be monitored to efficiently leverage the length of service (school board SLPs deal with their language issues, while Local Children's Treatment Center's SLPs deals with their articulation and phonetic issues). The communicative profile of students with Down syndrome is more complex, and requires more intervention, than previously understood. IEPs should reflect the ongoing and genuine requirement for students with Down syndrome to receive expert language support for longer than has been offered until now.
  • The teaching team at the school will benefit from professional development on how to ensure that the slightly higher receptive capabilities of the student with Down syndrome are met, while their weaker expressive capacities are supported. There are many resources around to address this need. (See Communication Resources section.)
  • Families must continue to read to their children, even as they progress through elementary school, and take all other opportunities to support their children to communicate clearly and accurately about the topics that interest them.

NB: No IEP for a student with Down syndrome, at any grade level, is complete without a plan for the development of the student’s verbal communication skills. There are opportunities to support and extend the communicative ability of students with Down syndrome in every academic subject. The Speech Language Pathologists and other communication professionals employed by the school board and/or the Local Children's Treatment Center's. Speech and Language services can be accessed through this link.

Following are some important tips for Parents and Teachers when collaborating to improve Elementary IEPs for students with Down syndrome:

  • Supplement speech with gestures [i.e., “Liam, do you predict that the magnet will attract (gesture or sign) the button or the paperclip? Okay – let’s see you try! Let’s see if it attracts (gesture or sign) the paperclip. Good! What happened? (Student responds.)”]
  • Read stories and academic material one-on-one with the student and review important words and phrases [i.e., adult reads an illustrated Indigenous legend: “The Creator placed the swimming creatures in the water. He placed the crawling things and the four-legged animals on the land. He gave life to all the plants and insects of the world.” Okay … so show me a “swimming creature”.  What do you call that? (Student responds.) Yes – a fish. Now show me a “crawling creature” …. etc.”]
  • Direct the student’s attention to interesting things and narrate with a focus on key terminology [i.e., “Watch Shakina. She’s going to serve. Look what she does – she hits the volleyball with her fist. Can you show me your fist? Okay! I’ll hold the volleyball up high, you hit it with your fist. … Nice! One more time!”]
  • Leave communication gaps that require student input [i.e., before the student logs on to their iPad, EA asks, “Are you going to choose a Math game or a spelling game?” and requires the student to respond, with gesture or words, before they can start]
  • Employ extended wait times to allow the child time to formulate a verbal response without additional talk [i.e., teacher asks student, “Take a look at the colour wheel, Pierre. Which colour complements green? ….. pause of 7 seconds …… “Which colour is opposite green?” …… pause of 8 seconds …… Pierre: “Red.”]
  • Respect home languages. There are many examples of bilingual children who have Down syndrome. Communication in two languages offers cognitive advantages to all students.