Online literacy instruction helps children with Down syndrome


The online delivery of educational tools has proved highly successful and popular – but Flinders Caring Institute researchers have probed further, conducting research to identify whether this mode of instruction can also be effective for children with learning difficulties and disabilities.

“COVID-19 has resulted in some educators and allied health practitioners transitioning to online delivery of literacy instruction – but no studies had yet investigated whether the online delivery of comprehensive literacy instruction is effective for children with Down syndrome,” says Professor Joanne Arciuli, Lead of the Communication, Cognition, and Wellbeing Research Group in Flinders University’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences.

Professor Joanne Arciuli

A pilot study led by Flinders PhD student Annemarie Murphy, with primary supervision by Professor Arciuli, explored the efficacy of online delivery of ABRACADABRA, a free literacy web application, for children with Down syndrome, when used alongside supplementary parent-led shared book reading.

While ABRACADABRA is an interactive web application designed to improve children’s reading and spelling skills through targeting skills in alphabetics, reading fluency, reading comprehension and writing, the capacity for its program to be effective for children with Down syndrome are not known. Professor Arciuli’s team has published several studies reporting outcomes for children with autism using this program and wondered whether the program would also prove helpful in educating children with Down syndrome.

Six children with Down syndrome, aged for 8 to 12 years, participated in this pilot study during the COVID-19 pandemic, with outcome variables measured at two timepoints before and one after instruction. The children participated in 16-18 hours of one-to-one literacy instruction online over a six-week instruction phase, along with twice weekly parent-led shared book reading activities.

Outcomes from standardised assessments revealed statistically significant improvements in word- and passage-level reading accuracy skills over the instruction phase compared with a no-instruction control phase – although improvements in reading comprehension skills were inconsistent across assessment measures and statistical analyses.

“Our research found that children with Down syndrome can benefit from comprehensive literacy instruction delivered via tele-practice,” says Professor Arciuli. “Our study provides critical initial evidence of successful service delivery during a global pandemic and beyond.

This pilot study provides proof of the feasibility and efficacy of online computer-based comprehensive literacy instruction for children with Down syndrome that warrants further research that includes a larger sample size of children across a greater range of ages and abilities.

Professor Arciuli is now leading a Channel 7 Children’s Research Foundation grant to conduct follow up research with a larger group of children with Down syndrome and their families, and is now advertising for research participants.

“We hope that through this new grant we will provide further evidence on how we can support literacy skills in children with Down syndrome. By working with children and their parents our aim is to assist individuals to enjoy the benefits that literacy skills can bring.”

The study – “ABRACADABRA literacy instruction for children with Down syndrome via telepractice during COVID-19: A pilot study” has been published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology.

An infographic summarising the results reported in the journal article is available here.

Please click here for information on participating in this research.


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Fundamentals of Care Inclusion and Disability