School Age: Small Group and Classroom Strategies


1. Visual Timetable 3. Language Strategies
2. Ideas for Speech Skills

Visual Timetables

The aim of visual timetables is to increase your child’s independence. Visual timetables can also be used to encourage independence during free time. Children with Down’s syndrome benefit from visual support to aid their understanding about routines and what to expect during the day.

Creating a Visual Timetable

To create a timetable for your child, use pictures or symbols with the written word underneath. Some preschools and schools invest in resource packages that can be used with a number of children. You may find that many techniques benefit all children in the class, not just the child with Down’s syndrome. It is just as effective to create your own timetable, using photographs, pictures, symbols and written words, depending on your child’s level of understanding.

For preschool children, and children with more delayed understanding, use photographs. Where possible, take a photograph of your child doing the activity, an object related to the activity, or the room where the activity happens. Something your child will recognise and which will be meaningful to your child out of context.

When creating your visual timetable, laminate each individual picture, or stick them on card and cover them with sticky back plastic. This will make your timetable last much longer! Stick Velcro on the back of each photograph. Have a strip of card with the opposite side of the Velcro stuck on in a strip. Each day, stick the relevant pictures onto the strip in the correct order. Mark the Velcro strip into sections which outline where the pictures will be stuck on in sequence.

Keep the visual timetable in place where your child can refer to it independently. For example, on the edge of a white board or a display wall. Keep the pictures close by, or in your child’s tray, so s/he always knows where to find them.

Introducing Visual Timetables

Visual timetables can be introduced in a number of different ways, depending on your child’s age and ability. Some children immediately understand that the pictures correspond with their daily routine, and enjoy helping stick up the correct activities in the correct sequence to plan their day. Other children find it difficult to make the link between the pictures and their routine. The following stages outline how to introduce a visual timetable in the most straightforward way, but it may not be necessary to go through every stage:

Stage One

  • Start by introducing one picture.
  • Stick one picture on the strip.
  • Show your child the picture, take it off together and go to that activity.
  • It can be helpful to have a Velcro pad at the activity so your child can stick the Velcro picture up. For example, on the side of the computer, book shelf, low down on the wall near the carpet for circle time, next to the work station for cookery, etc. This helps build an association between the activity and the picture.
  • At the end of the activity, your child can post the picture in a post box to indicate that activity is complete, or place it back in the correct place on the Velcro strip.

Stage Two

  • Continue with just one picture. Now encourage your child to go and take the picture before going to the activity.
  • Encourage the child to place the picture on the Velcro pad at the activity.
  • Encourage the child to post or place the picture back at the end of the activity.
  • Throughout this stage, gradually withdraw your support so your child independently follows a routine of selecting the picture, going to the activity and posting or placing the picture when the activity has finished.
  • You may need to withdraw support in stages, for example:
  • prompt to take the picture
  • allow your child to go to the activity independently
  • prompt your child to return the picture at the end
  • Or change the type of support to encourage initiation:
  • You may need to reduce the type of prompt, for example:
  • Tell and show your child
  • Physically guide your child

The important focus during Stage Two is to encourage independence and initiation. Depending on your child’s ability, you can begin to introduce different pictures for different activities. Only have one picture on display and being used at a time.

Stage Three

  • When your child can follow the routine of selecting the picture and going to the activity, you can introduce two pictures on the visual timetable.
  • Your child can now go and choose the first picture of the two on the Velcro strip, and complete the sequence as above.
  • While completing an activity, you can place the next activity on the Velcro strip, so when your child finishes the first activity and returns to the strip there will still be a choice of two. He can then select the first picture in the strip again.
  • If there is space for a number of activities marked on the Velcro strip, place the pictures in the space relevant to where they come in the sequence, so the pictures are following a timeline.
Developing use of visual timetables

The detail and complexity of visual timetables can develop through school to secondary school, college and the work place. As your child matures, she will not need to go through each stage of introducing a timetable outlined above. If visual timetables are used throughout life, then she is likely to use them with increasing independence to organise her day. Always consider your child’s individual needs. For example, the size of print used, pictures, symbols or written words, and the amount of information provided on a single page.

Below is an example of a secondary school child’s Year 7 timetable created on Boardmaker online:

Other resource packages are available.

Encourage your child to organise the timetable at the beginning of each day. Use individual, laminated stickers so he can select the lessons and stick them on. This then serves as a prompt that he can carry around school to remind him which lesson is next. The same technique can be used for adults in the workplace, to develop knowledge of routines and increase independence.

Ideas for Speech Skills

Developing Speech [ Needs Link ] covers the principles behind working on speech sound skills, from discrimination to production. Many aspects of speech sound work can be reinforced in the daily curriculum, when staff are aware of which target speech sounds to reinforce with a child. For example, if a child’s speech sound target is to produce ‘t’ at the beginning of words, or if she is still developing this speech sound in isolation, then it would be inappropriate to ask a child to produce ‘t’ clearly when working on early phonics, or to correct ‘t’ when a child produces the sound incorrectly in everyday speech. It is important that all staff working with a child are informed about specific speech targets and how to support these during the school day.

Some aspects of speech skills are easier to work on in a small group or in the classroom. These include metalinguistic or phonological awareness skills. Metalinguistics refers to the awareness and understanding that language exists as a system that can be talked about. It refers to a child’s ability to talk about and reflect on features of language, that leads to the development of self-monitoring skills in spellings, word formation, sentences and comprehension.

Metalinguistic skills include:

  • Awareness and understanding of what a sound, word and sentence are
  • Understanding the difference between real and invented words
  • Making judgements about whether a sentence makes sense
  • The ability to hear how many sounds are in a word
  • The ability to identify how many words are in a sentence
  • The ability to identify and generate rhyme
  • The ability to segment and blend sounds in words

In the classroom, many children, not just those with Down’s syndrome, benefit from the use of strategies to support development of speech.

These include:


Start with simple rhyming words, for example:

moon spoon
cat hat
jog log
puff rough
pat mat

Have pictures to represent each word. Ask children to listen to two words and decide whether or not they rhyme. Mix children of different ability, so more able children can model for those who find identifying rhyme more difficult. Other games include:

Make a resource for rhyming words alongside pictures

  • The teacher saying, ‘If these rhyme – stand up.’ And calling out pairs of words.
  • Silly rhyme games, for example, the teacher asks the children to complete a silly rhyme, ‘dog jumped in, he got stuck in the ____’.
  • Or make up rhymes with children’s names, ‘Ben ten’ or ‘Jane Spain’, etc. …
  • Sing familiar rhymes and leave out key rhyming words for child to complete.
  • Complete unfamiliar rhymes in a poem.
  • Rhyming books are a useful resource for identifying rhymes

When children can identify single words that rhyme, you can introduce sentences with rhyming words. For example:

‘I saw a fly up in the _____’

See if the child can make up her own rhyming words and sentences with rhymes.

Many children with Down’s syndrome find rhyming activities difficult, and find it hard to hear words which rhyme. Group games developing rhyming skills will give them lots of exposure to rhyme and word structures. Hearing and explicitly talking about sounds will increase awareness.

Syllable Segmentation

Encourage children to clap out the syllables of each other’s names, or the syllables of words on picture cards.

You can use pacing boards (as described in Section E) to help children visualise how many sounds there are in a word.

An alternative to a pacing board, which works well in a group, is to have a line of ‘hop scotch’ squares, or ‘lily pads’. The children step, jump or hop onto a square or lily pad each time they hear a syllable in a word. This is a fun game to play with children’s names. The child who goes the furthest has the most syllables in his name! You can get the children to take a step for each syllable and then draw a chalk line to show how long names have more syllables.


Rhythm requires auditory processing, output and segmentation, and is another easy activity to play as a group. For example:

  • Clap out familiar nursery rhymes or poems. Encourage children to clap along. At a more advanced level, see if they can identify which nursery rhyme or poem is being clapped. To make this easier, begin by clapping two nursery rhymes or poems, then re-clap one and see if the children can identify it. Use a picture to represent each nursery rhyme, so they can point at the one they hear.
  • Copy clapping rhythms.
  • Copy rhythms played with percussion instruments.

DSA Nursery Rhymes Resource

Initial and Final Sound Identification

It is easier for all children to identify the first sound in a word, compared to the last sound. Play games where children first have to identify the first sound in a word. These games support early phonics and later spelling activities. Use written sound and picture cards like Jolly Phonics and LetterLand to correspond with the sounds, so children can see the sounds that make up a word. Start with short, consonant – vowel – consonant (CVC) words, for example:

 c – a – t d – o – g c – u – p t – a – p

ABC Cards Resource

If the target sound is ‘c’ for ‘cat’, begin with the picture sound card for ‘c’. Tell the group that this is the first sound in the word. (Prior to this activity, check children’s understanding of the concepts of ‘first’ and ‘last’ – see Section E. In a group activity, the child with Down’s syndrome may not fully understand ‘first’ and ‘last’. This is not a problem, as the activity itself will provide a good model for these concepts). Then give the children a choice of two cards that are familiar to them, and ask them to select the sound they hear at the beginning of the word.

When children are confident at identifying initial sounds, you can introduce identifying final sounds in words of one syllable.

For advice on specific speech sound work, refer to Section E. Many of the activities included in Section E can be adapted for use in the classroom and small groups.

Language Strategies

Remember to...

With all language activities, remember to:

  • Gain eye contact and ensure all the children 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 (or use a picture card). 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.
  • Encourage good listening, paying attention and turn taking
  • Break down 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 children to follow instructions.
  • Use visual cues to support children’s understanding and recall. This is particularly important for children with Down syndrome, who remember what they see more easily than what they hear. When communicating with your child, it is important to use signs, gesture, pictures, symbols and writing to support speech. It is often useful to display any visual cues which children can refer back to as necessary.
  • Check the children have understood your question and/or instruction. Encourage children to indicate when they have not understood. When young children do not understand, bear in mind that their behaviour may also indicate this. The child 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
  • Create opportunities. Reinforce targeted vocabulary and concepts in everyday classroom activities. It is essential that the child learns to use new language in lots of different situations, and not only in specific contexts.
  • Be repetitive in your instructions. Show, explain and show again.
  • Be prepared to simplify your own language.
  • Use pauses to help children process what you say, and to give them extra thinking time.
  • Be aware of the speed of your own speech. Fast speech is harder to process.
  • Use Plan, Do, Review strategies. For example, talk about what you are going to do, your aims, the resources you need, etc. While carrying out activities, name the resources and describe what the child is doing and going to do next, using short sentences. When the activity has been completed, encourage the children to think and talk about what they have done. Help the children structure this by using words like, ‘first’, ‘next’ and ‘last.
  • Help with general organisation. Teach routines, and encourage children to tidy up with items categorised and kept in specific places. This helps children understand that things belong in sets, and is crucial for learning and remembering new words. For more on this look at Section G7 Developing Vocabulary.
  • Give as much information as possible about changes in routine. For example, if a teacher is off sick, explain this to the child with Down’s syndrome specifically, as he may miss general notifications given in class. Be prepared to repeat this information, rephrase it, and answer questions.
  • Be positive. Remember to tell the child with Down’s syndrome in a small group or class situation what she is doing right. Don’t just pick up on the things that they do wrong! It’s important to give lots of praise for positive behaviour, as this will encourage the child to repeat good behaviour.
  • Avoid sarcasm. Sarcasm is confusing. Give clear and explicit instructions and feedback.
  • Continue to expand on the child’s speech. For example, if the child says ‘Tom drink’, you say ‘Yes, Tom is drinking juice.’
  • Model and extend grammatical structures. For example, the child says, ‘It grewed’, you say, ‘Yes. It grew, now it’s taller than mine.’

Use lots of encouragement, praise and rewards.

Classroom Environment
  • Where is the child with Down’s syndrome sitting in relation to you, when you are talking?
  • Who is the child sitting with? Is he likely to be distracted? Will the children nearby be positive role models?
  • Is the child sitting in the right size chair? Physical restlessness can affect listening.
  • Is her table cluttered with distracting materials?
  • Can he move easily from one part of the classroom to another? Negotiating obstacles can interfere with short term memory for questions and instructions.
  • Are the classroom resources kept in a consistent place, clearly labelled with symbols, words or pictures?
  • Pupil Grouping

– Is it best for the child to work in pairs, in groups, alone?

– Does this vary according to the activity?

– Do peers with stronger language skills give the child with Down syndrome the space and encouragement to contribute, or do they dominate?

– It is important to provide a range of peer group models, and not always group the child with Down syndrome with his less able peers.

Put Conversations in Context

Children with Down’s syndrome are more likely to miss the background chat to a conversation. Give explicit information about the context of a conversation to improve understanding. This can be achieved through pre-teaching vocabulary, and using pictures, symbols and written word prompts to support spoken language. This will help both a child who does not understand and is finding a conversation or classroom discussion difficult to follow, and an adult who cannot understand because a child’s speech is unclear.

It is always easier to discuss shared experiences, rather than events that are known to one person only. Art and craft sessions, play activities, pictures in reading or library books, displays in the classroom and around the school, are all useful shared experiences on which to base conversation. If children are talking about their own experiences out of context, for example when telling news about their holiday, encourage all the children to bring in pictures or objects related to their experiences. This will make the lesson a more meaningful, shared experience for all the children.

Learning Breaks

Research shows increasing the number of learning breaks in the day results in more effective learning taking place. Learning breaks require a change in the activity that will utilise a different part of the brain, for example, from a language activity to motor activity.

The frequency, length and type of learning break will depend on the individual child. If the class has been engaged in a language activity, a child with Down’s syndrome may find this more tiring and difficult than his peers. Build a non-language related activity ‘learning break’, into the lesson plan, at the frequency the child requires in order to maintain attention and process the language activity    effectively.

After a learning break, review previous material with the child to repeat and reinforce the language activity recently covered.

Before the end of the lesson, review what you’ve covered. This allows the child with Down’s syndrome to maximise learning potential through frequent repetition of newly learned language.

Spider Diagrams and Mind Maps

Spider diagrams can be a useful method for planning a story, experiment, essay, and for reviewing and summarising work.

**Example image of a spider diagram and mind map

They are particularly useful for children with Down’s syndrome, because they      encourage visual planning and organisation of language. Spider diagrams and Mind Maps assist with memory recall, sequential organisation and staying on topic.

The story title must be in the body of the spider diagram or mind map. Refer the child back to the title regularly, to keep her focused on the relevant topic. Each leg or link represents a part of the story; it could be a single word, sentence or paragraph. Key words, pictures and symbols can be included on the ‘legs’ of the spider diagram or links of the mind map during the child’s brainstorming. Using colour and shape to code the story can also make the spider diagram or mind map more visual. As the story is transferred to paper or computer, the legs can be cut off or crossed out to help the child organise the story and sequence his ideas.

Home-school Books

Home-school books are for news telling and relaying information. They may also be useful for adults 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 notebook can provide key information to help adults prompt the child to tell his news, and also to help adults understand what the child may be trying to communicate about their day at school or their time at home.

Children should 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 support 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.

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