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Child Development and Learning Difficulties



Archive for May, 2021

Supporting reading in Williams syndrome

By Admin, on 22 May 2021


There are typically three ways to read words. One is a logographic approach in which children do not read any particular letters or the word itself but they recognise the shape of a word within a context. For example, very young children might recognise the word school because of the ‘ool’ shape. My own sister thought she could read when she was five years old because on the motorway she could recognise the word “exit”. This is the very first step in learning to read. The two other routes of reading are a phonics approach or sight word learning approach. In the phonics approach, children learn to recognise the letters and their matching sounds. Once the children know the letters and their sounds, the phonics approach allows children to read words that they have never seen before. For example, a child that has learned the letters C, A, T, B, and S can read the words: ‘cat’, ‘bat’, ‘sat’, ‘at’, ‘cab’ etc. Although the phonics approach is very good for learning to read new words you have never seen before, it requires you to break down the words in letters, sound each of these letters out, keep track of which letter you have sounded out and which one is next in line, and then blend of the different sounds back together at the very end. This approach therefore requires a lot of ‘working memory’ or the ability to hold information in mind and manipulate that information. In some languages, especially in English, not all words are written the way they are pronounced. For example, Leicester is not pronounced “lajtsesta”. So, for these words a phonics approach cannot be used and children need to learn to read some words by heart or use a ‘sight word reading approach’.

What approach works best for children with Williams syndrome?

Looking at their overall strengths and difficulties, children with Williams syndrome (WS) generally have good verbal short term memory (repeating information they have just heard) and have good phonological abilities. However, working memory abilities are lower than children of a similar chronological age. In addition, children with WS, also learn at a slower pace.
Reading abilities have been found to be delayed in children with WS. Yet, the abilities that relate to early reading proficiency, such as good phonological awareness and good vocabulary abilities, are similar to typically developing children. Still, there is a lot of variability in the reading abilities of children with WS with some children being quite fluent readers and others struggling to read. This is mainly because many children find it difficult to learn the letter-sound combinations. Finally, many individuals with WS who do read quite fluently still find it difficult to understand what they are reading.

There is only one study that I know of that has examined whether children with WS would benefit from a phonics approach or a sight word reading approach to reading. Beccera and colleagues (2009) included 44 children with WS aged 8 to 17 years old in their study and divided them according to their educational plan and parental reports in to those children who primary followed a phonics approach and those who followed mainly a whole word approach. They found that children who primarily followed a phonics approach had better reading outcomes compared to those in the whole-word approach. However, some caution is required when interpreting this study as children were not randomly allocated to a group in this study and the children in the phonics-approach had better working memory and higher overall cognitive abilities (they did find that reading levels correlated with overall IQ) than those children in the sight word reading approach.

So, what can we conclude thus far?
Young children with WS often struggle with early reading abilities because of 1) their overall language delay and limited vocabulary and we know that language and vocabulary is a precursor for reading in WS, 2) they have limited working memory abilities and thus they struggle to break down a word into their individual sounds, keep track of the letters they have sounded out, and then blend the sounds back together, 3) they have overall learning difficulties which makes both learning sound-letter combinations and learning sight word reading difficult.

In sum, using just one approach is unlikely to help children with WS to read. The Reading and Language Intervention (RLI) designed by Down Syndrome Education International and at The Centre for Reading and Language at the University of York, for children with Down Syndrome includes a reading strand and language strand. The reading strand focuses on both phonics and sight word reading whilst the language strand teaches vocabulary, utilising visual approaches to introduce and reinforce the meaning of new words in a variety of different contexts. Although we have no studies that have examined the impact of RLI training for children with WS, seeing the multi-faceted approach to reading and what we know about reading in WS, this approach might benefit children with WS as well as those with Down syndrome.

Becerra AM, John AE, Peregrine E and Mervis CB (2009). Reading Abilities of 9 – 17-Year- Olds with Williams Syndrome: Impact of Reading Method. Front. Hum. Neurosci. Conference Abstract: 12th International Professional Conference on Williams Syndrome. doi: 10.3389/conf.neuro.09.2009.07.030

For more information about the Reading and Language Intervention (RLI) see: https://www.dseinternational.org/en-gb/resources/teaching/rli/design/

Home Learning Environment of children with Williams syndrome

By Admin, on 21 May 2021

(Erica Ranzato, Andrew Tolmie, Jo Van Herwegen)

Photo source: Unsplash_Annie Spratt

Home Learning Environment (HLE) refers to all of the activities and opportunities provided by parents to support their child’s overall academic success. It includes the frequency of home learning experiences, the availability of resources that promote learning, children’s participation in the learning activities and parents’ attitudes towards learning. Cross-cultural research on typically developing populations suggests that the HLE during early years has a pivotal role for the development of children’s literacy skills (Senechal & LeFevre, 2014) and mathematical abilities (Mutaf-Yildiz et al., 2020).

We investigated for the first time the HLE of 24 primary school children with Williams syndrome (WS), using a parental web-based survey and our findings showed that:

  • Literacy-based activities occurred more frequently than maths-based activities.
  • Parents provided a varied HLE characterized by maths activities supporting different skills such as counting, digit recognition, arithmetic, and numeracy.
  • Parents engaged with their child in both formal and informal[1] literacy and maths-based activities, but informal activities occurred more often when supporting counting and number recognition skills.
  • Parents had high expectations for their child’s literacy and number knowledge skills at the end of primary school, but their expectations for their child’s arithmetic skills were significantly lower compared to the other categories.
  • Parents that had higher expectations for their child were, in general, offering more frequent learning activities at home.
  • When compared to a group of parents of primary school children with Down syndrome (DS), parents of children with WS provided maths-based activities that supported counting and number recognition less often than parents of children with DS. This might be explained by the fact that, although parents of children with WS recognised their child’s difficulties with mathematics, they may underestimate the difficulties that their child might have specifically with counting.

Although the HLE for children with WS was varied and parents had overall high expectations for their child’s academic abilities, it is recommended that parents provide short (5-10 minutes) but frequent activities that focus on maths as well as literacy development. If you would like further inspiration for informal mathematical activities, have a look at our Math@home work (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/departments-and-centres/departments/psychology-and-human-development/child-development-and-learning-difficulties-lab/educational-technologies-and-apps/mathshome).

We would like to thank all the parents who completed the web-based survey.



[1] Formal activities are the activities used by parents with the specific purpose of developing literacy or mathematical skills. Informal activities consist of real-world tasks during which parents’ teaching happens without an explicit purpose and the learning is likely to be incidental, such supporting maths learning through playing board games that involve numbers.

School transition from primary to secondary school in children with Williams syndrome

By Admin, on 19 May 2021

Most children with Williams syndrome (WS) have difficulties with anxiety when they reach the end of primary school and they often prefer a clear structure. School transition is an important milestone in children’s school career that can be stressful. Although transition to secondary school can provide new opportunities in terms of more independence and new topics to study, it also brings a lot of fear of the unknown in terms of friends, new teachers, as well as new environment.


In our recent project around school transition, parents, educators as well as children reported their concerns before the child with WS moved to a secondary school as well as after. Before the transition, children with WS were worried about their new physical environment (where toilets would be and what to do when you get ill), parents had more social concerns and wanted to know more about who else would be in their child’s classroom as well as worried about bullying, whilst teachers were more concerned about how the child would cope with new freedom and food.


Teachers and parents expressed the need for better planning around transitions and based on our research we would like to make the following suggestions:

  • Start the discussion around the child’s school transition early (start of year 5)
  • Plan for additional support that might need to be in place for meeting the child’s needs in secondary schools
  • Visit a number of schools (with the child with WS if possible) and try and meet the transition co-ordinators to discuss your child’s needs and the transition plan.
  • Ask the child’s new school to send a map of the school and pictures of teachers with short description of nice facts about the teachers and school.
  • Ask the child’s current school to provide an overview of what they found worked well and what didn’t
  • Provide the child’s new school with an overview of what the child likes/ doesn’t like where the child’s strengths lies (maybe the child with WS can do a presentation or take photos themselves of their strengths, weaknesses, interests and needs.


We are currently writing up the results of this study and hope to disseminate more detailed findings soon.


This research was funded by a grant by the Baily Thomas Charitable Trust  to Jo Van Herwegen (collaborators Dr Olympia Palikara, Maria Ashwort hand Elizabeth Burchell)



Education guidelines for children and young people with Williams syndrome

By Admin, on 17 May 2021

Recently, researchers from the Child Development and Learning Difficulties lab at UCL Institute of Education and Mary Immaculate College (Ireland) conducted focus group discussions with parents and educators (e.g. teachers, LSAs, SENCOs) regarding the reality of how schools and staff support learners with WS.


One of the main challenges highlighted by educators was the lack of information available with regards to how individuals with WS can be supported on a day-to-day basis with regards to their learning. Educators noted that, whilst parents were a good source of initial information, there was still a need for concise and easily accessible educational guidelines.


The focus groups also engendered a lot of discussion on what works in the classroom, and specifically what strategies have been used that have been successful in promoting learning in children with Williams syndrome. It was generally agreed that educators and parents alike should:

  • Build upon the strengths and interests of the WS profile and keep the individual child in mind. For example, many children with WS gave an affinity towards music and this music affinity can help them to learn. In addition, many children with WS are eager to please and respond well to praise during teaching.
  • Make the learning physical and concrete rather than abstract, especially when teaching mathematical concepts. Both teachers and parents felt that children were well adept at learning a wide variety of mathematical concepts when incorporating physical objects in the teaching (e.g. teaching addition with toys rather than figures on a worksheet).
  • Always take the child’s sensory needs into account when teaching (is the classroom maybe too loud/ the environment too distractive?)
  • Give the child multiple breaks (whether longer sensory breaks or 1 minute movement breaks) and provide learning in very small bursts of 5-10 minutes.
  • Keep a diary of what works with the individual child and what doesn’t, and that this could be shared with colleagues
  • Include clear communication between school and home: Young people with WS are not always able to clearly communicate what happened at school or home. Yet, events at home or school may impact on their anxiety and ability to learn/ concentrate. Also, parents knowing about what academic topics school is focusing on and how they support their child allows parents to support their child’s learning at home as well.


Overall, it was made clear that according to both parents and educators, education should not only include academic skills but should also include life skills as well as social skills, so that young people with WS may reach their full potential, become as independent as possible and a good quality of life in their adult years.


We would like to thank all of the parent and educators who took part in our focus groups.

Please keep an eye out on the new educational guidelines that we will be publishing by the end of this term (July 2021).


This research is being funded by the Williams Syndrome Foundation with a grant to Jo Van Herwegen