For Families and Carers : Communication series

These resources, co-written with a speech and language therapist, offer practical tips and activities for supporting children and young people with Down’s syndrome to develop their communication skills.

The series includes resources for supporting communication, language and speech development and can be used by families and professionals alike.

There are lots of specific activities you can use to support your child’s communication, speech and language development in this Communication Series. Most of these can be incorporated into everyday life.

For different ideas explore the resources below.

Introduction: Embed communication into everyday life

Use the ideas summarised in this series throughout day-to-day life, when feeding, bathing, changing and playing.

Parents do many of these things with their children without thinking about it. These activities highlight what comes naturally. Parent/child interactions can happen less with a baby who has Down’s syndrome. That is why it is useful to keep these things in mind when interacting with your baby or child.

Introduction: Make communication visual

It is important your child’s communication is supported with lots of visual cues.

This can be gestures, objects, pictures and photos in your everyday environment. Use them as visual prompts to share with your child when you are talking with them. There are signing systems (such as Makaton and Signalong) which are very easy to learn and are a useful means of communication for your child. Gestures and signs help children to understand what you are saying and support them while they are learning to talk. Ask your speech and language therapist, if you have one, about local groups where you can learn to sign with other people. If this is difficult there are great online resources too so you can learn in your own home. Mr Tumble (CBeebies- BBC) uses signing. Signing along with Mr Tumble is a fun, topic based way of learning simple sign language.

Introduction: Observe your child and respond

Watch your child’s behavior and respond to his or her ways of communicating.

This may be by smiling, making noises, looking and/or gesture. Copy your child and then give him or her the word and the sign for the thing he or she is interested in. By watching you can build up an understanding of what your child is interested in. Parents do this with their children without thinking about it, but sometimes children with Down’s syndrome need watching a bit more closely because their attempts to communicate can be more subtle or take a little longer.

Introduction: Be animated

When your child tries to communicate, respond enthusiastically.

Smile, and give positive feedback; use your face, vary the tone of your voice and use gesture/signs. Being animated will help keep your child’s attention and focus on your facial expressions, words and gestures.

Introduction: Be repetitive

Use lots of repetition. When your child communicates with you, copy back what the child has said or done.

For example, if your child is interested in a dog and says “d” or “g” (or any other sound), repeat back, “Yes! Dog!”. Do the same thing with gestures and signs. If your child tries to sign but it’s not quite right, respond by saying the correct word and making the sign.

Introduction: Be on your child's physical level

This will help you to see what your child is watching and interested in.

It also helps your child to focus on you – to listen to you and pick up on non-verbal cues, like your facial expression and how your lips and tongue move when you make sounds, talk and sing.

Introduction: Take time

Some children with Down’s syndrome need more time to respond.

Use your observational skills while you pause and wait when communicating and interacting with your child. It may take children longer to process what they see and hear, and it may take them longer to respond by moving, gesturing, signing, vocalising or speaking. Always give your child time. Be aware of your own speed of talking too.

Introduction: Praise and reward

Almost all children enjoy social interaction as a reward. Give your child lots of praise and smile to show how pleased you are.

Children may enjoy other rewards too, like a favourite expression, song or activity – depending on their interests and age.

At any age, a social response and praise for communication will encourage them to do more.

Pre language skills for babies and young children
Encouraging Communication
Early Language: Developing understanding
Early Language: Using visual support

Children with Down’s syndrome are good visual (seeing) learners and often have poor auditory (hearing) learning skills.

Children with Down’s syndrome may also take longer to process information.

Visual support can help to support your child’s speech and language development. An added bonus of using visual information is that your child will be able to spend longer taking it in, because visual information lasts longer than auditory information, the timing of which is finite. Visual supports can help your child’s understanding and also help your child to learn to communicate. There is no research to suggest that signing reduces spoken language.

Visual support can include:

  • Objects
  • Photographs
  • Pictures
  • Line drawings
  • Symbols
  • Written words
  • Gesture
  • Sign

Visual support varies in the level of understanding it requires. The easiest visual support for a child to understand is a real object because your child does not have to make a representational link. The ability to hold, feel and explore objects will aid understanding. Photographs of real objects are the next level of visual support you can use. Photos are only two dimensional but give a real representation of what you are talking about. Pictures, line drawings and symbols are increasingly abstract so your child will benefit from visual support from photos before they will benefit from visual support from line drawings and then symbols.

Gesture and sign are more momentary than objects and pictures, but they are essential in supporting your child’s language development. Gesture and sign have the added advantage that your hands are always with you throughout you and your child’s daily routine so no extra equipment is required.

Signing

Makaton and Signalong communication systems are commonly used with children with Down’s syndrome.

Do not worry if you are unable to learn a formal signing system. Using natural gesture and lots of expression in your face and voice will also help your child to understand.

Visual supports for speech sounds

Children can also learn about speech sounds using visual supports, such as Jolly Phonics pictures and gestures, See and Learn Speech resources and Cued Articulation by Jane Passy.

Written Words

Children with Down’s syndrome are typically good visual learners; some can recognise written words from an early age and will begin to learn to read.

Whether you use photographs, pictures, line drawings or symbols, write or type/print the written word underneath to give them this opportunity.

Further information

Early Language: Developing First Words
Early Language:'All about me' personalised books

There are many reasons why making personal books is a particularly good thing to do for children with Down’s syndrome. Sharing personal books is a fun way to engage with children. As most children understand more than they can say, using personal books can help them to communicate – they can use the book to tell people about themselves and the things they do. Sharing books can also help them learn to understand language and to practise saying words. Seeing words in print also introduces reading, which is an activity enjoyed by many people with Down’s syndrome.

Creating an ‘All about Me’ or Personalised Book can support:

  • Attention and listening
  • Vocabulary development
  • Initiating communication with others
  • Information sharing
  • Recognising written words

If your child is learning about single words, follow the instructions that follow.

You can create these on a computer, tablet and some phones. A useful app to create All About Me Personalised books is “Special Stories”.

If you don’t have access to these then printed photographs stuck onto pages with clearly, hand written words underneath are just as good.

If your child is learning about single words, make books that use single words, to practice vocabulary. It can be helpful for the vocabulary in your child’s book to overlap with the vocabulary you have chosen to target for teaching.

Early All About Me Personalised Books should include photographs of things that are important to your child, such as real life objects, toys, people, pets or animals in your child’s life. These first books designed to teach vocabulary should have a photograph and single written word on each page. Early books may only have four or six pages. As your child matures you can build up to having more photographs on each page.

As your child’s vocabulary understanding grows, you can make books that include action words as well as naming words, e.g. if your child enjoys kicking a football you could have a picture of him or her kicking a ball. To begin with you might just have the word “kicking” written under the photograph, but as your child’s language develops you could expand this into short sentences, such as “Tom is kicking the ball”.

Using All About Me/ Personalised Books

  1. Share your child’s personalised book, talk about the photographs. Say and sign the word. Point to the written words. Familiarise your child with the words in the book.
  2. See if your child can match the real object (e.g. favourite toy) to the photograph in the book. To do this have the page open with the picture of the object. Give your child two toys to choose from and see if he or she can match or point to the one in the book.
  3. See if your child can match a photograph to one in the book. To do this make a second, loose copy of each photograph. See if your child can match the loose photograph with the ones in the book.
  4. Make a second copy of the written word. Encourage your child to look at the word, then help match the word to the word in the book. Initially use words that look visually different, e.g. “dog” and “Mummy” or “ball” and “tractor”. Visually similar words can be words of a similar length or words that start or end with similar shaped letters. These are harder for your child to differentiate between.
  5. Take your child’s personalised book out and about. Encourage him or her to share it with other people, at playgroups and nursery or with family members. This will encourage your child to initiate communication, communicate independently of you and share information about what is important to her or him.
  6. When your children go to school, their personal book can be extended into a communication or conversation diary. This type of communication book is described in a separate resource [Coming soon].
Symbolic Sounds and Early Vocabulary
Early vocabulary pictures and words
Listening cards
Nursery rhymes

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