Pre-School: Small Group and Classroom Strategies


1. Listening, Attention and Turn Taking 3. Speech Strategies
2. Language Activities

Listening, Attention and Turn Taking

The following activities encourage good listening, attention and turn taking in small groups and a classroom environment. You can also use these activities at home with other children.

Story Time

Two children in school uniform readingStory time is a great time to encourage good listening, attention and turn taking skills. For children with Down’s syndrome, sitting and listening in a group can be challenging. This may be due to delayed understanding, but can also have a physical cause. Children with Down’s syndrome often have low muscle tone and poor proprioceptive feedback, which can make sitting still difficult for them. Therefore, it is important to think about the physical environment during story time, as well as the language levels you are asking children to understand.

Here are some ideas to help children participate in story time:

Give each child a mat to sit on throughout the story. This will help provide a boundary of where each child should be during the story.

  1. Make sure your child can sit comfortably. For very young or small children, this could be a floor seat with lots of support which allows the child to sit on the floor with his peers. If your child has an occupational therapist, they can provide more information on seating that will support your child and help her to focus.
  2. Always sit the child among his peers, preferably with children who will provide good role models. This ensures that the child with Down’s syndrome is part of the group, and can copy what other children are doing, i.e. sitting still on the mat.
  3. ‘Talking through’ story activities will help understanding, and keep children focused on the activity.

Here are some ‘talking through’ story activities that may help:

Stories about Body Awareness, Body Parts, etc.

Repeat what is in the story and ask the children to identify body parts on themselves, for example, ‘Elmo flapped his ears. Where are your ears?’.

Stories Incorporating Actions, e.g. Running, Jumping, Sleeping, etc.

Emphasise the action words, and ask the children to perform the action.

Sensory Stories

Use objects and toys that relate to the story, to keep the children focused on the story theme, for example:

  • ‘Dear Zoo’, by Rod Campbell – collect together plastic or soft toy animals to match the animals in the story, put them in a bag and pull them out one by one as they appear in the story. Let the children pass each animal around and explore them.
  • ‘Barry the Fish with Fingers’, by Sue Hendra – have some sparkly, blue fabric that the children can wave to make the sea.
  • ‘That’s not my…’ books, by Usborne Children’s Books – have touch and feel items to pass around to reinforce the adjectives in the story, e.g. shiny – silver foil; rough – sandpaper; soft – cotton wool balls; etc.

Most stories will contain everyday objects that children can explore. Talk about the object in the book, and about the one that each child has, e.g. brush – ‘The girl’s brushing her hair. You can brush your hair. Feel the bristles. They’re sharp.’


Texture Books

Textured cards can be made for books that are read often, or favourite books. Children can explore these textured cards while the book is read and you can talk about what is happening. Children can take these cards home to tell parents about the story.

Sound Books

Sound books may also interest young children. Read some of the story, and ask the children to push the appropriate sound. You can create a sound bag of items that make the same sounds as noises talked about in a story book, using items that reflect objects and textures talked about in the book. You can practice with children being ‘loud’ and ‘quiet’ like the characters in a story.

Familiar Books and Words

Written word cards can be made for books that are read often, or favourite books. Children can explore the shape of the words, and match them with the same word in the book. The child can take these cards home to tell parents about the story.

Listening for Items in the Story

Each child has an item from the story. When she hears her item mentioned in the story, she must hold it up. Children can support each other in a mixed ability group, to help helping those who find it hard to listen for their item.

  • Music/Singing

Singing is a great way to encourage good listening. Many traditional songs and nursery rhymes have actions that go with them. Sing along and do the actions with children as a group. You can support singing and nursery rhyme with the same techniques described for stories, using objects and textures to reflect the theme of the song.

  • Musical statues

Let the children move and run around. When the music stops the children must stop – you can instruct children to sit on their individual mat, like in story time, when they hear the music stop playing.

  • Shakers and Percussion

Have a bag of percussion instruments, or use homemade noise makers (e.g. an empty pot filled with rice to shake; an empty crisp packet to rustle). Have matching items laid out in front of you. Make a noise with your noise maker without the children seeing. Then ask a child to choose which item they think made the noise from the items on display. The child can shake, rustle or bang the item and together the children can decide if it made the same noise as the hidden item.

In this game remember not to give each child their own noise maker, as they may make too much noise for anyone to hear the target noise maker!

You can also encourage children to copy the number of times you clap your hands, shake a shaker, etc.

General Listening, Attention and Turn Taking Games
  • Name Game

Roll a ball. Call a child’s name and roll the ball to the child. The child can roll the ball back to you, then you say another child’s name and roll the ball to her, etc. If the children know each other’s names and can say or sign them, they can take it in turns to roll the ball to each other.

  • Listening Game

Each child listens for his name. When he hears his name, he takes a piece of puzzle from a bag and places it in the puzzle.

Each child has a picture of an object. Each time a child hears the word and sees the sign for the object on her picture, she posts it in a postbox.

  • Listening Lotto

There are commercially available sound lottos, which many children enjoy. These can be a great way to encourage listening, attention and turn taking skills.

Language Activities

In all language activities, remember to:

  1. Gain eye contact and ensure all children in the group are looking at you.

You may need to refocus the children’s attention. You can use silent reminders to look and listen, for example hold your hand up when you want the children to look at you and be quiet. Children will begin to notice and then prompt each other to look and listen. Children with Down’s syndrome are often good at copying and following the lead of their peers, so will learn to look and pay attention when appropriate.

  1. Ensure the child with Down’s syndrome sits close to the teacher so he can see and hear, and to ensure distractions are reduced.
  2. Be aware of noise levels

Children with Down’s syndrome are more likely to have hearing difficulties. They may also be more easily distracted, may have sensory sensitivity to loud noises, and may find processing information with background distractions difficult. It is not always possible for a preschool or nursery environment to be quiet, so ensure you compensate for this by getting down to the child’s level, gaining eye contact, and ensure she is looking at you when you give specific instructions.

  1. Break down the instructions into small steps

Children with Down’s syndrome often cannot remember or process more than one item of information at a time. It is harder for all children to process and understand information presented in a group, so breaking down instructions will help all the children in the group.

  1. Use visual clues to assist understanding and recall

This is particularly important for children with Down’s syndrome. When you communicate with a child with Down’s syndrome within a group, is important to use signs, gesture, pictures, symbols and writing to support speech. These strategies are very likely to benefit other children in the group as well. It is useful to display any visual clues, so children can refer back to these when necessary.

  1. Emphasise key words
  2. Model answers for unfamiliar questions. For example, ‘Look at these pencils. They are different. One is red and one is blue. Can you tell me what is different about them?’
  3. Consider whether the child would benefit from being given a choice of answers. For example, ‘Why do we need glue? Is it for cutting or sticking?’
  4. When asking a question, consider whether it would be useful to prompt the child by beginning to complete the answer, for example, ‘How do we know he is sad? We know he is sad because … ?’
  5. Allow time to process instructions.
  6. Refocus the child regularly, to ensure he is still paying attention.
  7. Check the children have understood your question and/or instruction.

Encourage them to indicate to you when they have not understood. When young children do not understand, their behavior may indicate this. They may become restless, lose focus, and distract others. Think about why they might have failed to understand. For example:

  • Topic does not hold their interest
  • Presentation needs to be more animated
  • Sentence too long or grammatically complex
  • Unfamiliar vocabulary
  • Lack of visual aids to support understanding
  1. Expand children’s sentences. If the child says, ‘Look. Fire engine.’ You say, ‘Yes, it’s a red fire engine.’
  2. Be repetitive in your teaching of new concepts and vocabulary.

Use lots of encouragement, praise and rewards.

Home-School Books

Section D4, All about Me/Personalised books, discusses news telling and relaying information. It may also be helpful to have a home-school book between parents and school staff to share information about the child’s day. Involving the child with Down’s syndrome in creating home school news is not always practical, but a note book can provide key information to help adults prompt the child to tell her news, and also to help adults understand a child’s speech, if she initiates a conversation about her day at school or something that happened at home.

Children can be involved in home-school books too. Quick and easy ways of sharing can be:

  • Photocopying or sending home a piece of school work.
  • Drawing a picture about an outing at the weekend, to illustrate parents’ comments in the home-school book.
  • Sending an item of interest to school with the home-school book, to prompt discussion about what the child has been doing.
  • Photographs if easily printable at home or school.

Many young children enjoy stickers and view them as a reward. You can use a sticker to prompt parents and carers to ask about something significant their child has done during the school day. Use a label sized sticker (add a fun sticker, to make it look more like a reward sticker, or quickly draw a picture relevant to what the sticker is prompting, for example a picture of a biscuit). Write on the label sticker, for example, ‘Ask me about cooking today!’ The parent or carer is then prompted to say to the child, ‘What did you make in cooking today?’ The response may be a sign, a word, or the child may show, ‘Biscuits!’ The adult has used a minimal prompt to encourage a conversation about an activity their child enjoyed, and the child is encouraged to tell news independently.

Visual Timetables

Young children benefit from the use of visual timetables to help them understand routines and expectations about their day. Visual timetables are also useful prompts to support language, as they give children a picture to refer to when adults are taking about what happened or what is going to happen. See more about visual timetables here.

Speech Strategies

There are many group activities to support work on speech sound production, for example:

  • Nursery rhymes
  • Early phonics programmes, e.g. Jolly Phonics and Letter Land
  • Rhyming stories and poems

Speech work is more FUN if the games are played in small groups. This also creates an opportunity for practising non-verbal and language skills. For example, turn taking, listening, eye contact, negotiating, requesting, etc. Motivating games for group speech work include:

  • Setting a piece in an inset puzzle
  • Threading a bead on a string to create a snake
  • Hopping Frogs
  • Mr Potato Head
  • Throwing a sticky dart on a dart board
  • Bowling skittles
  • Magnetic fishing games
  • Kim’s game (also great for short term memory practice)
  • Any game or activity that the group of children find motivating and rewarding.

Each time a child takes a turn to discriminate (hear the difference between two speech sounds) or produce a speech sound, her turn in the game provides motivation and reward. This makes practising speech sounds more fun. Remember to give each child a turn at the game, even if he does not discriminate or produce the target speech sound correctly. Just reinforce, ‘Good try …’ and model the correct production or discrimination.

When supporting speech development in a group setting, the principles remain the same as working on speech sounds in an individual setting (see Section E, Developing Speech). Always consider the child’s ability to produce speech sounds, and their overall developmental stage. It is easier to work with a group of children who all need to practise the same target speech sound. Always work in the following order:

  • Repeat the sound on its own
  • Repeat the sound followed by a single vowel
  • Repeat the sound at the beginning of a word, end of a word, and then middle of a word. Begin with one syllable words. Words with more syllables are harder to say.
  • Say the sound in a word using picture prompts. Make sure you do not say the word to your child. Copying is easier than saying a word spontaneously.
  • Say the sound in a word within a short phrase. It is easier to say the sound if it is at the beginning of a single syllable word in a short phrase. As the child’s speech production develops, you can include words with more syllables, and change the position of the target sound in the word (middle and end of the word).
  • Say the word in a longer sentence. Use picture prompts, and play games creating silly sentences or nonsense rhymes.

Remember to:

Only correct the target sound that you are working on. Drawing attention to other speech errors can confuse the child.

Keep activities fun and interesting, with lots of rewards.

Click here for more on speech strategies.

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