Rethinking the visual: first lesson

On Thursday I had my first lesson with M, a very enthusiastic nine-year-old girl. She was a pleasure to speak to, and knows a lot of English. She’s also completely blind.

I’d met M a couple of days previously when she came to the school for a placement test. I knew she was coming, but wasn’t really sure how to test her, since she couldn’t do our traditional written placement test or access any of the visuals that most young learner testing relies on. I opted for asking her various questions to try and gauge her level, and concluded that she was high elementary, possibly pre-int. She spoke quite fluently and was very excited about using her English.

Before our first lesson, she and her mum took me to their house. During the five-minute walk I realised that I’d misjudged her level, and she was actually much better: quite a confident pre-intermediate. She was telling me facts about the Great Fire of London and Oliver Twist, both of which she’d listened to and remembered. She was showing off a much wider range of language than I’d been able to get from the placement test, and it was clear that what I’d planned for the first lesson would be too easy.

We ended up doing a mini test, where I described animals and she guessed what they were. I had some finger puppets from Ikea which I thought would be good as they’re very tactile. She told me that she had the same puppets at home (they’re in Sevastopol on holiday), so she knew the characters. There were only a few words I could teach her: veil, sack, firefighter, hose and tiara. We played another game, which she suggested, where I had to say the character/puppet and she had to find it from the pile as quickly as possible.

Ikea finger puppets
Image from:

M also told me a bit about her school. She’s in a class of 10 at a specialist school for the blind, where she’s learning to read and write braille. I don’t know (yet) if braille is international or if it is written differently in different languages. This is just one of many, many questions I need to find out the answers to.

Our next lesson will be on Tuesday, and I’m slightly worried about it, because I’ve realised I’m not sure exactly how to approach teaching M, not just doing activities with her. I’m very aware of how much I rely on visual stimuli in my teaching, like pictures and writing on the board, so I’m thinking about how to do things differently. I need to come up with some kind of programme showing what I’m going to teach her so that her parents know I have a plan! It would be very easy for us to just talk or listen to CDs in our lessons, but then I would feel like I’m short-changing her. So here are my initial questions/challenges:

  • How can I help M to remember and retain new language when she doesn’t have any way of record-keeping (at least, as far as I can tell at the moment)?
  • How can I improve M’s accuracy in a more varied way than just getting her to repeat phrases back to me? (She has problems with things like ‘I don’t afraid’)
  • If I use CDs, what activities can I do with them, beyond questions and answers? The vast majority of what I do at the moment relies on visual stimuli.
  • She loves songs and has a very good memory for them. What can I do with songs beyond just getting her to memorise them and ask me about words she doesn’t know? What kind of songs could I use?
  • She told me that she likes ‘stories, especially about girls’. We have a handful of graded readers for young learners which come with CDs. I can use these CDs, but (yet again!) what kind of activities can I do? (beyond answering questions and predicting what will come next)

I have a feeling that my lessons might be quite same-y at the moment, and I don’t want her to get bored! At the same time, I’ll be teaching her for two one-hour lessons a week, and I need to make sure my planning time isn’t disproportionate!

I’ve already asked for some help on facebook, and these were the suggestions and comments so far (so I don’t lose them!):

  • Guessing games
  • Songs
  • Chants
  • Listening games
  • Bingo
  • Poetry
  • Read her part of a story and she guesses what comes next.
  • You say a sentence with a magic word and she guesses the word. Eg if the magic word is ‘monkey’. You say ‘I like reading monkeys’ and she guesses ‘book (s)’.
  • Create a story/narrative using sound effects. Guess what you are doing from the sounds you are making.
  • Check out byMichael Harrison
  • Enrich your storytelling with sound effects – a webinar by Dincer Demir
  • Have a look at story books to help you. There are loads of story books available and it might help. Instead of preparing a reading, prepare a listening and pre-teach vocabulary, etc.
  • Remember she’s blind, not an idiot – talk to her as you would talk to any other 10 year old girl. Ask what she wants to do. Has she listened to the audio books and what does she think about them? What software is there out there for her to be creative? Maybe have her do her “homework” in the form of audio and tactile productions (maybe do a podcast together for other girls her age?) or some form of 3D extravaganza! Find interesting fruit, vegetables, bottles, clothes etc and go through shapes, smells, tastes etc. (can she tell bottles for poison from other bottles for instance?). Talk about school, what she wants to do when she’s older, what kind of music does she like to listen to etc?
  • I second Sorcha Ogle’s comment about how to talk to her. Nonethless, be sensitive to things that she might not be able to visualise. Like a fire. Discuss scenes you’ve read/listened to so as to see how she visualises them.
  • A guide for teaching visually impaired students (although this is for those with some residual sight)
  • Touchy-feely books are amazing for these students.
  • SEN teacher (Special Educational Needs)
  • Also, just be aware of your language. If you are quite a visual person you are more likely to say things like ‘I see’, etc
  • You could collect things on a walk that she could feel & smell to talk about to learn about nature. Sounds and tactile things will be very beneficial to promote talk for learning but I suppose it also depends on the topic
  • Consider some form of cooking or gardening – so she can learn the smells, taste and English words for things like Lavender, Basil, Rosemary, Pine, TeaTree, Lemon, Citronella, Orange, Lime, Rose etc (she could grow up to be a perfumer!)

Thanks to Kylie Malinowska, Charles du Parc, Julie Raikou, Martin Sketchley, Sorcha Ogle, Naomi Epstein, Elena Lysytsia, Sue Annan and Catherine Buckby for their help!

Andrea Wade had a story which was very interesting:

I taught a blind student in Italy. I found it incredibly hard, especially in the beginning. As you say, we tend to rely on visual stimuli. For me, one of the biggest problems was not being able to rely on body language to convey a message. I would find myself making gestures and facial expressions to get my meaning across and then kick myself when I remembered he couldn’t see me! The breakthrough came for me when, one day, my student told me he could ‘hear’ me when I smiled or frowned and that he preferred it when I smiled! I suppose he could hear it in my voice, but it was a turning point for me. After that, I was my usual expressive self with gestures and expressions – I lost my self-consciousness – and, with this, came much greater understanding between us. I learnt a lot about myself through teaching him – and a lot about him, too because I found one of the best ways to teach him was through getting him to tell me about his life and his experiences.

Interestingly, I haven’t felt self-conscious or nervous at all – M is very easy to talk to – but it’s an important reminder not to bring any negativity I might be carrying with me into the classroom.

Ultimately, I want to make these lessons as useful as possible for her, and this very long post is an attempt to ask for any suggestions! I’ll be blogging more as the lessons continue, and will hopefully see some progress in my lessons over the course of the posts.

19 thoughts on “Rethinking the visual: first lesson

  1. Sandy,
    Looks like your insticts are leading you well.
    A few initial thoughts:
    1) Don’t give up on recording words she has learnt. Surely she must have a computer. Text to speech software is free (for her to go over a page on WORD that you have brought). Doesn’t she know touch typing? Or learning it? Also, Quizlet says the words out she can have growing flaschards of vocabulary you are working on.
    2) How about creating a podcast on the second lesson of every week? You could discuss what and how she wants to say, work on the necessary background and then have the weekly recording.
    Sounds like you have started well!
    All the best!


    1. Thanks very much Naomi – that’s exactly the kind of idea I needed. I’ll ask her about computers next time, as well as more about how she remembers vocabulary. I like the podcast idea too.


  2. I think you could also take her out to a garden or any other place from time to time and be her eyes and describe what you´re seeing and also ask her to guess so it´s not you speaking all the time.

    I also think the idea of creating a podcast with her could be of great help even when teaching her new vocabulary because that way she would be able to revise it again.

    You can also ask her to listen to tales or short stories on some sites on the net and then ask her to retell the story. Or you could start telling her a story and stop and make her guess what she thinks is going to happen next.

    Well, I hope it helps!!

    All the best!


  3. From Charles: I’m sure you’ve thought about some of this; but as she seems bright and motivated I’m sure she can give some input into the learning process. If she has access to a method of recording herself, you could record some questions and ask her to record her answers. Something along the lines of What do you remember about the story about the Elephant? Did you enjoy the story? How difficult was it ? why? why not etc.


  4. Out of curiosity, what are her goals regarding English? Why is she learning and what does she hope to use it for now or in the future?

    I was thinking, with songs – especially ones she is familiar with – perhaps she can change the lyrics in ways that work on a specific language point.

    She sounds like a really interesting student. I hope you guys enjoy learning from each other and I look forward to hearing more about the experience.


    1. That’s a very good question. I think at the moment she’s just enjoying the process, but I’ll ask her next time we have a lesson. I like the idea of changing lyrics and words. There’ll be another post later today I hope…


  5. There are some English methods accompanied by ebooks that have grammar or vocabulary quizzes where everything is heard and the students can guess the answers. (For example Spark, Express Publishing)


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