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.
The more eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that the opening paragraph of this post has changed slightly, and that’s thanks to some of the questions that came out of my first post and some further research I’ve been doing. It may seem silly, but it hadn’t occurred to me to ask if M could see anything at all – I thought she was completely blind. Speaking to her during our second lesson today, it turns out that she can actually see light and dark, colours, and some shapes. Blue and pink are her favourite colours, and we talked about which colours are girls’ and boys’ colours, because I love blue too, but happen to hate pink!
I also asked M how she remembers new language, particularly new vocabulary, she replied that she listens and repeats it, then relaxes, then repeats it again. She does seem to have a very good memory, but I’ll be interested to see how much she retains from today’s lesson when I see her next time (either on Wednesday or Thursday).
She doesn’t use the computer, or seem to use technology much at all for her learning, although I’m not sure if she understood what I was getting at when I asked her this. She told me that they used to use the computer at school, but now they read and write on paper, learning Braille.
Our lesson was based on ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ from Aesop’s Fables [affiliate link to Kindle edition via Amazon]. I used the Compass Classic Readers version, which is accompanied by a CD. This is what we did.
- I told M we were going to listen to a story, but first I wanted to ask her a question. “Have you ever told a lie?” We talked about what a lie is, and she told me she doesn’t like lies, and the only time she’s ever told something like a lie was during a show with some of her friends, when they all pretended to change their identities.
- I gave her the title of the story and said that she might know it already. As expected, she knew it in Russian, but not in English. I asked her to tell me the story, and recorded her while she did so.
- We listened to the story (about one minute in total) and compared it to what she’d told me.
- I played the story again, this time pausing after each sentence. I asked her to tell me if there were any words she didn’t know. This didn’t work, as she seemed to understand everything at this point.
- The third time I played it, I asked M to repeat each sentence. This is when it became clear that there were some things she didn’t understand or couldn’t repeat. I made a note of these for later. We repeated each sentence a few times if necessary, with me isolating difficult bits of speech and clarifying things she didn’t get.
- The fourth time we listened, I played a few words, paused the CD, and asked her to tell me what came next. I tried to pause at the places where she’d had trouble in the previous exercise.
- I asked M to tell me the story again. I didn’t give my instructions very well, but eventually she understood that she didn’t have to repeat what she’d heard verbatim, but rather tell the story again in her own words, adding any language that she wanted to from the text we’d heard.
- To finish off the lesson, I played the two recordings so M could hear the difference. She didn’t know I was recording her before, but didn’t seem bothered when I played them to her. In fact, she was laughing about it!
The first version
S: What did he do?
M: He…I forgot it in English.
S: OK. That’s OK. What do you remember?
M: He has got a sheeps and he cried “Wolf! Wolf! Help please!” Mans came but…it’s was a false. Then boy again said “Wolf!”, cried “Wolf! Wolf! Help!” and man came. Not…no, not wolf. It’s…it’s a false.
S: Mmm-huh. It’s false. It’s a lie.
M: It’s a lie. Then he’s cried again and wolf ca…wolf came, and…boy…boy shouted “Wolf! Wolf! Help!” They…but mens don’t…they thought that it’s not true. But it was true, and wolf ate… all sheeps. Yes?
S: Yes! That’s exactly the story.
Taken from pages 32-33 of Aesop’s Fables (Compass Classic Readers level 1), as retold by Ken Methold (no copyright infringement is intended – this is purely meant to show how the text I used in class fed into later production by M.)
A shepherd-boy looked after the sheep belonging to the people of the village.
One day he cried, “Wolf! Wolf!”
Hearing him, the villagers ran to help him drive away the wolf. However, when they reached him, there was no wolf to be seen. The boy thought it was very funny.
“You weren’t quick enough,” he said to them. “The wolf has run away.”
Thinking he was very clever, a few days later he shouted “Wolf!” again. Again, the villagers came to help him, and again he said, “You weren’t quick enough. The wolf has run away.” The angry villagers went back to their work in the village.
A week later the boy shouted “Wolf!” again, but the villagers did not believe him. However, this time there really was a wolf, and it killed all the sheep because no one came to drive it away.
The second version
[a few false starts]
M: A shepherd boy…[long pause]
S: It’s alright. Tell me in your own words.
M: Shepherd…a shepherd boy shepherd the sheep.
S: That’s right. That’s perfect!
M: It’s how tongue twister.
S: Yeah, it is!
M: Shepherd the sheep.
S: A shepherd boy is shepherding the sheep.
M: The long time…[long pause]
S: So tell me, don’t worry about the exact words, but tell me the story yourself and if you want to use words from the story, you can, that you heard, but you don’t have to. So, tell me the story like you did at the start. [and that was my third attempt at the instructions! Hmmm….]
M: Ahhh. The boy looked after the sheep. The shepherd boy looked after the sheep. Not far…not far away worked…worked a villagers, and he shouted “Wolf!” Villagers came…came but holever…
M: …however, it’s st…they…it’s not was [?]. Boy thought that it was…boy joked…he said with laugh: “Quick enough, the wolf is run away!”
He thought he was clever…that he was clever, and few days later he shouted “Wolf!” again. Again, villagers came to help him, but it’s no…but it wasn’t the wolf. Boy again said the life [?] “Quick enough! A wolf is run away!”
The week later, he shouted again “Wolf!” but villagers don’t…believed him. But it’s was wolf, but… however… it’s very was a wolf and it killed all sheep, because… it wasn’t…nobody came to…drive it away.
S: Well done!
From the first telling, the only specific piece of language I highlighted was 1 sheep, 2 sheep. M already knew this but had forgotten it, and added the example of 1 fish, 2 fish herself. As you can see, she used it correctly the second time round.
Language that caused problems in the text when she was repeating the sentences (stage 4 of the lesson described above):
- looked after: due to connected speech, M didn’t pick this up, but knew it once I’d repeated it.
- belonging to: she couldn’t isolate this either. I’m not sure if she fully understand it, and will ask her again next lesson.
- drive away: new vocabulary. She thought it meant ‘kill’ from the context, which is understandable. I explained “You make it go away, but don’t kill it. You don’t want it to come back.”
- hearing him: difficulties remembering it when repeating the text – it was at the beginning of quite a long sentence, and obviously didn’t seem to carry enough meaning for her to feel the need to remember it
- There was no wolf to be seen. A new structure
- You weren’t quick enough: M didn’t hear or reproduce the negative. I isolated it a few times, but she never produced it.
- went back to: M kept saying ‘came back to’
- in the village: no article, which is quite typical for Russian speakers
What I found particularly interesting during this was that M asked me “Why did he make a pause?”, referring to when he introduced direct speech. I don’t think many of my sighted students would have noticed that.
The second telling shows M playing with the sounds at the beginning, and forming quite a complex sentence. She’s taken some of the language from the text into her version, like ‘looked after’, ‘quick enough’ and ‘run away’. It’s a richer, more colourful version than her first telling.
However, there are a lot of grammatical errors, and this is my challenge now. How can I improve her accuracy without just having lots of repetition and memorisation? The accuracy needs to be transferable to other structures, not just the exact sentence we’re practising at that point. Grammar chants were suggested by Olga Stolbova, which I’m going to try. All other suggestions will be gratefully accepted!
To finish off, here is a link to all of the resources I’ve managed to find on teaching languages to blind students. I haven’t managed to find anything which particularly helps in my current context (young learner, 121, quite high level already), but there are ideas scattered through the resources which might be useful later. A lot of links on lists of resources I found seem to be out-of-date or broken.
I also contacted the American Federation for the Blind (AFB), who replied with the first three links from a Google search (I appreciate the effort, but it seems a little pointless!), and the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB – the UK equivalent) to ask for help, but I’m not sure if I’ll get anything from there either.
I’ve pretty much exhausted my ideas for Google searches now, so think that I’ll move on to trial and error, and blogging 😉