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Teaching Rina - my experience with non-English teaching materials

Ruth Palatnik describes her experience of teaching her 9 year old daughter Rina how to read. When Ruth discovered the lack of resources available in Hebrew, she started to explore her own ideas and create materials at home.

Palatnik, R. (2003) Teaching Rina - my experience with non-English teaching materials. Down Syndrome News and Update, 3(3), 84-87. doi:10.3104/dsupdate.238

Ruth Palatnik is the mother of a large family, including Rina. She is active in the local Down syndrome support group, and by profession is a registered nurse, though not working at present. Many of the teaching ideas mentioned in this article were suggested by teachers and therapists over the last few years, and Ruth points out that they are not all her own ideas.

Today parents and teachers of children with Down syndrome are lucky, in that a wealth of information is available to us. Publications from DSE such as Down Syndrome News and Update and Down Syndrome Issues and Information are colourful and up-to-date. In addition, publishing houses such as Woodbine House and Brookes, amongst others, frequently publish titles related to children with special educational needs. These sources, not to mention the Internet, supply us with a wealth of information.

In addition, parents and teachers today have a vast array of resources from which to choose. Due to the increasing amount of integration in America and Britain, there is a thriving market for resources for people with special educational needs. The result is an ever-growing range of "special educational needs" English language materials including phonics and language cards, specialized workbooks and software packages. The "cherry on top of the whipped cream" is that these items can be obtained with speed and convenience via Internet shopping. There are, however, two major drawbacks that arise for many of us who live outside Britain, Australia, Canada, and the United States: cost and language.


Many parents who live in non-English speaking countries are still battling against school systems that have not embraced integration. Even if laws favouring inclusion have been passed, it takes time for theory to become practice, just as it took time in the US and England. As a result, parents trying to include their children may often find themselves footing bills for therapists, learning assistants, and other items not paid for by the government. We paid about $4000 last school year just for our daughter's therapists and teacher.

Parents with expenses like these, as well as teachers in countries whose budgets are not supportive of integration, may find purchasing professional-quality materials, virtually impossible. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that although the "special needs" market is growing, it is still a "specialist" market, and is priced relative to the producers' needs to stay solvent within a small marketing base.


When Rina was small, at the pre-reading level, I did not find language a problem. I was able to buy all sorts of "surplus" discount-priced picture books, colouring books, etc, and it did not matter that they were in English. Picture cards, matching games, etc. are probably readily available in any country due to their use for typically developing preschoolers. However, once your child (student) reaches the level where you want to start teaching him/her (non-English) reading, language becomes a barrier to many teaching materials. Languages differ not only in alphabet and vocabulary, but also in phonics, sentence structure, etc. Also, cultural differences will affect how suitable even purely visual materials are for use at home or in the classroom.

Our need for proper material

My daughter Rina, now 9 years old, has always studied and spoken in Hebrew. Last year she progressed to reading simple stories of short sentences. However, to our dismay, her teacher and I discovered that nearly all the material available in Hebrew at the first grade reading level were problematic for at least one of the following reasons:

  • The use of "literary" Hebrew words: Literary Hebrew is not used much in day-to-day speech and is therefore not part of Rina's vocabulary. Hebrew is not my mother tongue and this also contributed to the problem.
  • There were not enough illustrations to catch and hold the interest of my "bouncy" daughter.
  • They contained sentences, which were too long.
  • They were culturally inappropriate.

We wanted to provide Rina with materials that would be culturally appropriate, colourful, with short, easy sentences, and of topics that would interest her. In addition, at times we wanted to provide reading materials that would help us obtain other non-reading objectives. These usually were books centring on themes such as holiday seasons, trips, and family celebrations.

One booklet featured drawings of a girl, wearing leg braces, drawing a picture. This story was used to introduce to Rina the idea of "disabilities". We felt this was important not only to start the process of Rina's self-awareness of her challenges, but also so that she would react positively to others with disabilities. In addition, we were able to write sentences to say 'the girl drew slowly, carefully choosing which colour to use' and at the end of the story it was noted that 'she felt satisfied with her drawing'. This was to reinforce the concept of working 'slowly and neatly', which was (and is) important for Rina. Therefore, with one story we worked not only on reading and language, but also reinforced behaviour "slogans" and opened the door to discussion of disabilities.

Home-made materials: my experience

We based most of Rina's reading materials on pictorial sequence stories of three or four panels, or on very expressive pictures from picture books (Figure 1). Line drawing sequence stories are usually readily available in pre-school workbooks or in special education materials.

Figure 1a: A booklet about rabbits. The pictures were done with clip art graphics and photo, plus an old family photo of Rina

Figure 1a: A booklet about rabbits. The pictures were done with clip art graphics and photo, plus an old family photo of Rina.

Figure 1b: A booklet made from photocopied line drawings of a simple sequence. Color was added by felt-tip pen.

Figure 1b: A booklet made from photocopied line drawings of a simple sequence. Colour was added by felt-tip pen.

First, I wrote a text to tell the story. At the beginning, I would write texts of only four or five sentences. As Rina gained proficiency in reading, I was able to write a text of longer length. Then I was able to match 4-8 pictures to the text. Other sources of topics for stories were family events and outings. Even the simplest event could be expanded to a story, e.g. taking care of the neighbour's bunny for a few days, a day trip.

Once I had chosen a text and pictures, I would produce a week's worth of materials from the basic story. I usually typed out the text, typing each sentence separately using 'word art' in Microsoft Word. I used a slanted black text and straightened out on the page. This way I could move the text around the page and adjust its size easily. The biggest advantage of using 'word art' was that I could manipulate the text and pictures irrespective of each other. Handwritten text with cut out pictures (see "Pictures" below) can be made very cheaply. An advantage of computer materials is that copies for other children can be readily made and adapted if needed. Another, advantage was that I could easily change the font, to provide Rina with experience in reading different styles of type.

I constructed booklets of four to eight pages. Eight paged books were made easily of four sheets of paper glued back-to-back, to form two individual two-sided sheets (Figure 2). I laminated them and then sewed them together down the middle. After tediously sewing several books together with needle and yarn, I discovered that I could sew two laminated sheets together using sewing machine with no problem.

Figure 2: Layout plan for 8 page book

Figure 2: Layout plan for 8 page book

Additional reading practice: worksheets

To reinforce her reading, I made several other types of worksheets and materials, with varying styles each week.

First, I would print out or photocopy a second copy of the pictures used in the story. I found that the result is clearer if this is done before laminating the book. I usually laminated these second pictures as well, at the same time as the book, as Rina is hyperactive and often was tempted to try to destroy materials, which lamination prevented. Then the aide would write out on construction paper single sentences of the text. Rina could then read the text and match these to the pictures. If the book was based on a sequence story, these pictures of the sequence enabled the aide to work with Rina on her speech. I made materials in this way, virtually every week.

Some of the stories were based on one large picture and Rina's aide suggested printing out individual verbs, nouns and/or very short sentences, which could be read and placed on the appropriate place of the large picture. If two figures in the picture were doing the same activity, one male, and one female, this enabled us to work on differentiating between masculine and feminine verb forms.

A memory game of individual nouns from the text, as well as similar sounding words, could also be made, along with matching pictures. This game encouraged Rina to read carefully, rather than guess the words. I would print or draw the cards with eight cards to a sheet of paper. I would colour the back of the cards with oil pastel, one colour being used for the word cards and another for the illustrations. This way the pictures and words would not show through on the other side. Then I cut them out and sent them, along with the other items to be laminated, (Figure 3). I was lucky to have a cheap lamination store nearby. My ten-year-old son was nicknamed "the lamination kid" by our local printer, as I invariably sent him running before the weekend to laminate all the materials for the following week. Laminating in bulk can be cheaper than doing it in bits and pieces.

The graphics are eye-catching enough that Rina overcomes her reluctance to work at reading, and is seen here reading cards of a memory game before they were cut out and laminated.

Figure 3: The graphics are eye-catching enough that Rina overcomes her reluctance to work at reading, and is seen here reading cards of a memory game before they were cut out and laminated.

Sometimes, I prepared a memory game to fit the topic rather than the text.

For example, the week that I prepared the story about the girl with a leg brace, I fashioned a Pelmanism-style memory game. This game has word/picture cards for children with disabilities and their aides, e.g. "blind girl" and "seeing-eye dog". The cards are placed face down and the child has to try to find the pairs. The memory games have the advantage of allowing reading and memory practice. However, if your child has trouble with memory games, it might be preferable to play with these cards face up, so as not to discourage them from this reading practice. Memory could be worked on in a separate non-reading activity.

In a variation of the above, Rina had to draw a line from the words to the matching pictures on worksheets. I often used this format to match phrases, rather than single words, to a picture. Often I intentionally tried to make the phrases sound similar, to discourage guessing, e.g. a red plant, a red plate, a crooked plant, a cracked plate.

I was able to make questions to check comprehension by putting single sentences of the text to a clean sheet of paper, and altering them slightly. This was easy to do if the text was typed in single line sections with word art. The questions could be fashioned as either 'true/false' or 'fill in the blank', (Figure 4).

Figure 4: A worksheet to check comprehension. At the top is a fill in the blank question, followed by several true/false questions.

Figure 4: A worksheet to check comprehension. At the top is a fill in the blank question, followed by several true/false questions.

I created more worksheets by copying lines of text on to a clean sheet and then handwriting the same line of text underneath in cursive writing. A lined writing space was then provided for Rina to copy the word(s). Again, one added picture made the sheet that much more appealing. As she progressed in her reading and writing ability, she sometimes even wrote a three or four sentence story, (with help) related to the sequence. Her story was either the original story in 'her own words', or a similar story on the same topic.

A further type of language worksheet was made by taking a sentence from the story, and altering it to a different tense. The verb would be erased and replaced by a blank line. It could also be changed from masculine to feminine or from singular to plural. Rina would then fill in the blank with the missing verb form. Depending on the level of the child, this could be done either by letting the child cut out the answer from a "basket" of possible answers, and pasting it in place, or by copying the correct answer from a "basket". A more able child could write the verb from his/her own knowledge without a "basket" of possible answers. A similar and easier format was to take an action picture from the story, and a similar picture of the same verb, but in the opposite (M/F) form. Then the child cuts and pastes (or writes): he, she, Rina, Joshua, Grandpa, etc, placing them below the correct verb form. This can be expanded to include plural verb forms as well.


The pictures we used came from many sources. The easiest source of was photocopies or scans of the sequence on which the story was based, or digital photos of family events. I bought a digital camera thanks to the wonderful article by Honor Mangan in Down Syndrome News and Update [1] and have found it very useful. The ability to download the pictures when needed meant that I could write a booklet on family events while it was still "news". This outweighed the lower quality of the pictures compared to regular film. Scans of large multi-faceted pictures, for example, of an open-air market with many booths allowed me to select several small sections of the picture for individual sentences.

Rina, aged 8, feeding her niece's rabbit during vacation.

Figure 5: Rina, age 8, feeding her niece's rabbit during vacation.

Another easy to use source was clip art collections. The drawback of using scanned pictures or clip art is the cost of the ink used in printing them. Often I printed in black and white to cut the colour ink costs. If I wanted to add some interesting colour, it was easy to do with art pens, especially if I set the printer to print with a less strength of ink concentration, which also saved ink.

I am not an experienced computer user, but quickly enough I discovered that I could easily turn and flip pictures by pasting them to windows "paint" program, and clicking "picture". In "paint", I am also able to doctor pictures that do not fit my cultural norms. I found no need for fancy graphics programs, which I wouldn't know how to use anyway.

I also highly recommend using pictures from the cheapest source, cutouts from magazines, advertisements, etc. About four or five years ago, I started to make a file collection of pictures. All year I saved magazines, and in the summer, I "paid" one of Rina's brothers money to cut pictures out and file them away alphabetically. We also found pictures in pre-school workbooks, mail order catalogues and bad family pictures, the shots that were too embarrassing or ugly to put in the family album! One day my teenage son brought home a catalogue from a local supermarket, for phone orders. The small pictures were perfect additions to recipe cards we wrote out for Rina. Reading the grocery list and recipe card allowed her to gain yet more reading practice, as she learned to make salad, hot dogs, etc. The addition of a small picture to the card made it more appealing for Rina to read. The pictures were sorted and filed in two ways; by initial letter in a card index box, with one envelope for each letter of the alphabet or in a large ring binder with plastic pouches for different topics such as:

  • Family pictures
  • Holidays
  • Verb (action) pictures
  • Various categories (foods, furniture, etc)

This binder was especially useful for making worksheets on categories and "what's different?" and for making books or worksheets on specific topics such as holidays, the dairy, etc. The filed pictures were also good to add to hand drawn pictures. I am not very artistic but adding a cutout picture to a simple hand sketch made the final effort more colourful, interesting and identifiable.


There is no real substitute for the excellent special-needs software being produced in English. Theoretically, one could make a non-English reading book/game using Microsoft's "PowerPoint" presentation program.

However, you will probably discover, as I did, that your child will learn to read more quickly than one can make the required number of presentations, especially if you are doing all this in your "spare" time.

For a teacher or school, this might make a good long-term project, although it would probably be more cost effective to buy rights to translate existing software, and market it in one's country. However, cultural differences may make software from different countries unsuitable for you.

PowerPoint can be used effectively for other purposes though; once when Rina had some behavioural problems in Kindergarten, I made a "social story" presentation about a girl who hit others and then learnt not to. This proved to be a useful resource.

Useable software for non-English materials

CD-ROMs for making flashcards and lotto boards, which can be used with any language, are available from ABA materials (http://www.aba-materials.com) and "Picture This" by Silver Lining Multimedia, available through Woodbine House (http://www.woodbinehouse.com).


  1. Mangan, Honor (2003). Teaching language through reading to a child with Down syndrome. Down Syndrome News and Update, 2(4), 143-144. [Read Online ]
Reading resources

The following items are available from The Down Syndrome Educational Trust's online shop at http://store.dseenterprises.org/ :

Reading and writing for individuals with Down syndrome - An overview. By Sue Buckley (2001). Portsmouth, UK: The Down Syndrome Educational Trust. ISBN: 1-903806-09-7

Reading and writing for infants with Down syndrome (0-5 years). By Gillian Bird and Sue Buckley (2001). Portsmouth, UK: The Down Syndrome Educational Trust. ISBN: 1-903806-10-0

Reading and writing for children with Down syndrome (5-11 years). By Gillian Bird, Jane Beadman and Sue Buckley (2002). Portsmouth, UK: Down Syndrome Education International. ISBN: 1-903806-11-9

Reading and writing development for teenagers with Down syndrome (11-16 years). By Gillian Bird and Sue Buckley (2002). Portsmouth, UK: Down Syndrome Education International. ISBN: 1-903806-12-7

Teaching reading to children with Down syndrome - a guide for parents and teachers. By Patricia Oelwein. ISBN: 0-933149-55-7.


Reading Skills in Pre-school Children with Down Syndrome. By Elizabeth Wood and Sue Buckley. (1983). Portsmouth, UK: Portsmouth Polytechnic.

Understanding Down syndrome (2) - learning to read (1995). By Sue Buckley and Gillian Bird (1995). Portsmouth, UK: The University of Portsmouth.

The Development of Language and Reading Skills in Children with Down Syndrome. By Sue Buckley, Maggie Emslie, Gillian Haslegrave, and Pat Le Prevost (1986). Portsmouth, UK: Portsmouth Polytechnic.

A photograph of a child with Down syndrome

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