This is part of a series of blogposts about my lessons with M, a very enthusiastic nine-year-old girl. She is a pleasure to speak to, and knows a lot of English. She’s also almost completely blind. Each lesson is one hour, one-to-one, at her house.
Monday and Tuesday
We had an extra lesson on Monday this week because I’ll be very busy next week (more on that later!)
About two years ago I bought a cheap external keyboard to use with my laptop, and I brought it to Sevastopol with me, but have only used it two or three times. I decided that since I never use it, I would give it to M, and we could put braille letters on it as she suggested last week.
We spent most of both lessons doing this, as the first time M wrote the numbers they were backwards – she was writing from left to right on her slate and I didn’t notice until I cut up the paper. When you write braille you do it from right to left as you’re writing on the back of the paper, meaning that you can read it from left to right when you turn it over. This meant we had to do the letters twice. We also listened to chapter 8 of Alice in Wonderland.
As I left on Monday, M walked me through their garden to the gate, as always. As we went, she told me about a little song she sings for her sister, which ends with tickling. This reminded me of ‘Round and round the garden’, an English nursery rhyme. I taught her the words and the actions, and sent her a recording of it:
She repeated it to me various times through the week, and did it with her mum, dad and grandma in varying mixes of Russian and English while I was there. I think she likes it :)
When I arrived M’s mum showed me that they had worked together to put plastic braille letters onto the keyboard, as the original paper ones we’d tried were moving and were not very easy to read because the dots kept being flattened. It looks much clearer and easier to use now!
M and her mum tried to tell me about a story they’d been watching that day, but M didn’t know how to translate ‘калабок’, but we eventually worked out between us that it’s the Russian equivalent of the story of the Gingerbread Man. I’ve just watched a lovely 12-minute version of the story, with pretty simple Russian which I managed to understand most of :) I tried to explain what gingerbread was, but without an internet connection to show M’s mum a picture or get a translation it was very difficult. M’s mum drew a picture of калабок for me, which was very useful for finding out about it after the lesson.
After her mum had left, M asked if we could finish listening to Alice in Wonderland, so that’s what we did. In the final two chapters, there was the trial scene, where the king is judging whether the Knave of Hearts was guilty of stealing tarts. M asked why there were twelve creatures in a box, and I thought I would have to explain the concept of ‘court’, ‘judge’ and ‘jury’. It turned out that M already knew all of those words, yet again amazing me with the breadth of her knowledge. The only thing she was unfamiliar with was ‘trial’. As I played the story, she said some of the lines in Russian and/or English as she remembered bits of the story and predicted what was about to happen.
To finish the lesson, M asked if we could do some typing. We connected the keyboard to my Mac, I opened TextEdit, switched on VoiceOver, M started typing, and the computer didn’t say anything! No idea why, but thankfully unplugging the keyboard and plugging it in again worked. As you can see, although I tried to encourage her to produce some words, M was mostly just playing with the sounds and exploring the keyboard:
x dfhfhfhasd as sssdffdjkldfjkldfkljdfkjl;dfkj;djkldjkl;dfs;jkdfs;jkfdjs;kfdjs;kfdjsk; fdalskdjfl;a M_______ jjssss sad b,,,,,,……………………… ……..d..d……….c assd jasfasfssssffffff fbvbbbbmmm sadafssadasdddfvvbbbnnnghhhh jffvvv ffrfvrfvc fcvrtgffff dceedxced djw djdjdjdjidij dijd ditch lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv jt65555 ;
iikkiki k ki
s sans an hjinskl sandyffjkl sa sandybm,.x zmx qwertyuiop[ qqwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnm,.zzz
At this point, I noticed a couple of problems with putting braille on the keys. Braille is read using the index fingers on both hands simultaneously. If you’ve never seen this done, this video shows children who are using braille at an American primary school. It shows them reading at various points, for example at 1:20. This means that M uses her index fingers to find the keys. I can see that she may rely on this rather than attempting to remember where the keys are to ultimately use her muscle memory for touch-typing. It’s exactly the same as a sighted person ‘hunting and pecking‘. I’m not entirely sure how to combat this without someone standing over her and making her use the correct fingers for each key until she can remember them. I only have a couple more lessons with her though, so I can’t be that person. At the same time, having braille on the keyboard will give her more independence as she starts to use the computer. She’d done some typing between our lessons on Tuesday and Thursday, and listed all the words she’d typed: sad, busy, bee, M______ (her name)… It’s clearly something she enjoys being able to do.
It was also hard to get M’s attention at times as she was completely focussed on the voice from the computer, especially when it was reading the parts where she’d written the same letter repeatedly. At one point, I unplugged the keyboard and asked her to stop typing for a minute to listen to me so I could teach her how to use enter/return to get a new line.
M told me ‘Round and round the garden’ again, and then ‘I very like it’, so we revised the chant ‘I like it a lot’ from week five. She remembered it without any trouble, but it was a good opportunity to go back to some of the chants and see what she could remember. The related grammar is all in her passive memory, but she needs more exposure to natural English and explicit correction to get them into her active memory.
We spent the rest of the lesson playing with the first conditional because it’s one of her ‘favourite’ mistakes. I explained the rule for its construction (very badly), using an example from Alice in Wonderland: “If I eat from this side, I’ll be bigger. If I eat from this side, I’ll be smaller.” I told her it’s different to Russian, where you use the future in both parts of the sentence. I thought it was best to provide lots of practice and memorise some correct sentences, rather than dwell on the rule for too long, so I taught her a song.
Singing Grammar [affiliate link] is a Cambridge University Press book by Mark Hancock which aims to teach children English grammar through songs. The first conditional song, ‘If you’re feeling lonely’, is meant for teenagers, but I thought it would be OK for M, and it turned out there were only three concepts I needed to explain: ‘desert’ (v), ‘by your side’ and ‘my door will be open wide’. I played the whole song, then we worked through it line by line and verse by verse with M repeating the lines and me correcting her and clarifying any language as necessary. Here’s a short clip of the process. No copyright infringement is intended with the clips of the song you hear. Hopefully you can just about her M singing along in the background.
As you can hear, M is a big fan of ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple. She’s mentioned it a few times in the lessons, and I’m going to try to prepare some activities with it for our final lesson together in a couple of weeks. This clip demonstrates a fairly typical exchange between us, and shows how excited she gets by some things :)
After the song, I used the ‘superstitions’ activity from page 74 of the original edition of 700 Classroom Activities[affiliate link to the second edition]. I explained the concept of superstitions by using the example of ‘If you break a mirror, you’ll have seven years bad luck’. We exchanged a few English and Russian superstitions using the prompts from the book. M told me that if you are sick and you hug a black cat, it takes your bad energy away from you and will die. If you hug a white cat, it will give you positive energy. (At least, that’s what I understood!) This superstition doesn’t appear on this fairly comprehensive list of cat-related superstitions though – has anyone else heard of it? It was interesting to hear about different superstitions in our two cultures, and a very good way to finish the week.
While trying to find an example of braille reading, I came across ‘How blind people write braille‘, part of an excellent series of YouTube videos by a man called Tommy Edison, who has been blind since birth. I particularly like ‘Best things about being blind‘ (especially around the 1:00 point), ‘Intangible concepts to a blind person‘ and ‘Questions for sighted people‘. He’s also known as the Blind Film Critic and I’ve just subscribed to both of his channels :)