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Teaching vocabulary and preparing for reading

Children with Down’s syndrome are strong visual learners. Using visual strategies such as Makaton signs and pictures to teach vocabulary can really help as they make language more visual. This enables children to overcome difficulties they may have learning language from just listening. Specific vocabulary teaching should occur alongside natural everyday opportunities to hear and practise single words and signs.

When to start

You can begin to teach vocabulary when your child is:

  • Ready to learn their first words
  • Showing an understanding of objects and what they do
  • Trying to babble and communicate using simple gestures

This is usually around 18 months of age.


Some families have found the DSE See and Learn language and learning packs or apps useful resources.

You could also use the 100 word check list and picture cards provided by your speech and language therapist.

Picture Card Activities

Stage 1 – Looking at the pictures

  • Spend time with your child looking, naming and signing the pictures. You may like to begin by choosing a small number of words to focus on, for example, food words, animals or transport words.
  • As well as looking at the picture cards, reinforce the same words and signs when you are playing with your child or during everyday activities.
  • It is also a good idea at this stage to encourage your child to practise matching objects together (object-object matching). Using one of the words you have been practising, say and sign the word, for example, ‘ball’ and show your child the object. Encourage and help your child to then find another one, in this example another ball, from a small selection.

Stage 2 – Matching the pictures

  • Once your child is familiar with the picture cards you have chosen to look at, the next step would be to encourage your child to match two of the pictures together from a small selection. You could do this by playing simple lotto games or looking at a picture book with your child. Encourage your child to look at the pictures in the book, then find a matching picture from a small selection that you have out in front of them.

Stage 3 – Selecting pictures

  • Once your child is able to match pictures together, encourage your child to listen and observe a word you say and sign and then select the correct corresponding picture from a small choice.

Stage 4 – Naming pictures

  • Help your child to practise saying and signing the correct words for the vocabulary pictures you have been working with.

Please note:

Your speech and language therapist can help you identify which stage your child should be working at and give you ideas as to how to carry the activities out with your child and keep it fun.

Contact us

For more information please contact the Speech and Language Therapy Service at Ryegate Children’s Centre on 0114 271 7617.

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Please note: this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s NHS FT. These details may not reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If this information has been translated into another language from English, efforts have been made to maintain accuracy, but there may still be some translation errors. If you are unsure about any of the guidance in this resource or have specific questions about how it relates to your child, always ask your healthcare professional for further advice.

Resource number: SL121

Resource Type: Article

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