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.
On Monday M’s mum phoned the school and asked if I could push M a bit more in the lessons. M wants to have longer texts to try and memorise, for example. I’d been trying to focus on writing, as this is the skill she has the most trouble with at the moment, but I think M didn’t feel that this was pushing her enough. She’s used to doing a lot of memorisation, and is very good at it, but I think it’s important to try and balance her skills. At the moment her speaking and listening are excellent. She told me that she can read in English, although she’s a bit slow sometimes – I don’t have any materials to test this, apart from what she’s written herself. Her main problem is spelling – she’s not confident when spelling words, partly (I think) because she hasn’t had enough exposure to spelling patterns, in the way that a sighted learner would see words again and again, and learn them partly by their shape. She also only seems vaguely aware of sound-spelling relationships, particularly with respect to vowels.
I spoke to the director of my school, and we decided to find out whether it would be possible for M to do a Cambridge Flyers exam, the highest of the three Young Learner Exams. According to the Cambridge website, it is possible to organise a braille version of all Cambridge exams except for Starters (the lowest YL exam), provided enough notice is given. We asked her mum if M would like to prepare for the exam and take it in summer 2015. She was very excited about this idea and agreed straight away. This has given us a new-found focus in the lessons, but has also added a lot of things for myself and my school (we’re the only Cambridge exam centre in Crimea) to prepare. Luckily the director and the Centre Exam Manager are both very supportive, and I’m sure we’ll be able to manage!
The Young Learner Exams are mostly picture-based, which means that the braille version will be quite different to the standard version. However, I don’t know yet exactly how different. On the special circumstances page, Cambridge describe options like having a written description of a picture instead of the picture itself. The candidate can also have a lot of extra time, although exactly how much needs to be agreed before the exam. M will need training in how to take the exam, but will also need to be very confident in her reading and writing abilities, which is another reason to set the exam date for summer 2015 – it will give her lots of time to prepare. I need to find out whether she can use a computer or not, because if she can, the spelling activity on Quizlet might be an accessible and fun way for her to practise spellings too.
M heard me take my pot of objects out of my bag, and asked to touch them again. She remembered most of the words. In the process, she joined two paperclips into a mini chain, then got very frustrated because she couldn’t take them apart again. She ended up bending one of them out of shape to separate them, then trying to make it usable again. This took up quite a few minutes of the lesson, but she wanted to solve this problem before moving on. I was talking to her throughout, trying to explain/show her (by touch) how to break apart the chain, so I don’t feel like this was a waste of time, but it’s this kind of process which I think might make M feel I’m not pushing her enough – I’m not sure if she sees it as part of the lesson, or if she only feels that explicit memorisation etc activities are part of the teaching. For the other part of the revision stage of the lesson M remembered the chants I’ve taught her.
We then talked about the exam. I wanted to make sure Flyers was the right level for her, so I did the only exam task that doesn’t rely on pictures (as far as I can tell). For the first part of the reading and writing paper for both Movers (the middle of the 3 exams) and Flyers the students have to match definitions to words. In Movers there are six definitions, with eight words accompanied by pictures. In Flyers, there are 10 definitions, 15 words, and no pictures. There is an example for each task. I used the sample papers from the Cambridge website (the Movers task is on page 37-38, and the Flyers one is on page 68).
- I read the definitions from the Movers task, including the example, and M got every word quickly and easily without needing the word list.
- I read the Flyers definitions, including the example. Without knowing the list of words, M got questions 1, 3, 6 and 9 right.
- I read the list of words twice, slowly, including all of the words that she’d already matched to definitions.
- I read the definitions again, and M could ask me to repeat the full list of words if she needed it. After this, she only had trouble with questions 2 and 10. She was also a bit confused about question 4, ‘cupboard’, because she knows ‘wardrobe’ but isn’t confident with the difference between that and a ‘cupboard’. I told her that wardrobes are for clothes, and that ‘Every wardrobe is a cupboard, but not every cupboard is a wardrobe.’
- The main problem with question 2 was that the original definition ‘This is white and we put it on food. Children often like it on chips.’ can apply equally to ‘sour cream’, which is very popular in Russia, and was M’s original answer. Once she realised it was ‘salt’, she joked that about thinking of sour cream before salt.
- The only real problem word in the whole exercise was ‘meals’, the answer to questions 10, which she said she had never heard before.
This activity proved that Flyers is the right level for her in terms of vocabulary knowledge. However, in the exam she would need to be able to read all of the definitions herself, as far as I understand, and write the answers, meaning that her spelling needs to be confident – the words will be there for her to copy, but already knowing how to spell them will make a big difference.
M had a purse full of Ukrainian coins on her desk. They are her ‘treasures’, and she likes swapping them with her friends. When she tried to clear them up, a couple dropped on the floor. I told her where they had fallen, using ‘right’ and ‘left’ among other phrases. She mixes up the two a lot, and came up with her own method of remembering them – she got a hairband and put it on her right arm as an aide-memoire. I need to test her again next week to find out if she really can remember it.
She then asked if I could teach her how to play heads or tails. Again, I appreciated how much I learn from being able to watch other people. Apart from the fact that catching is difficult when you can’t see, there are the little things I’ve learnt from watching others – to hold my hand away from my body, to cup my hand slightly when throwing the coin (we did that rather than flicking it), how much force I need to throw it enough to flip it, to put it on the back of my other hand when I catch it… Again, all of this took about 10-15 minutes, but it was full of explanation, so there was a lot of listening and speaking practice. I promised to bring English coins on Friday, which I did, but only as far as school where I promptly left them on my desk!
I gave a copy of the Flyers word list to M and asked her to count how many sheets there are. Multiplying that six by 120, the approximate number of words on each page, we got 720 words – I know the last page is mostly empty, but once you include the words from lower levels and the numbers, it’s probably about right. I told M that for the Flyers exam she would need to know all of the words, as well as being able to spell them. I think there are some that won’t be a problem, for example bit, exam and ring, but not many. We started off with the months, including the capital letter, which I dictated for M to write in her notebook.
M told me about a trip to a children’s park she’d been on that morning. She went on a ride with her 3-year-old sister, D, and the attendant told her to “Wave if D will cry.” She then told me about Treasure Island and a poisonous drink: “If he will drink it, he will die.” I’d already decided to practise first conditional structures with her, and these two sentences added to the list of examples. In Russian you use a future form in both clauses of a conditional sentence, and students normally transfer this to English.
I tested M on the spellings of the months. She read them first, spelling as she went. When I tried to test her on random months, she had trouble with all of them except May. She added a note underneath her list, saying ‘i’ – the letter she had trouble with in ‘April’, and ’ember’, the ending for three of the months. She also showed me how she rubs out mistakes when she writes braille.
She asked if we could listen to chapter 6 of Alice in Wonderland next, as we hadn’t done it all week.
That left us with only a few minutes to start work on the first conditional. I read her three examples with mistakes, the two above, plus ‘If I’ll eat this, I’ll be bigger’, and asked her to spot the mistake. She couldn’t, and I explained that ‘will’ is not with ‘if’. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise until we listened together that the jazz chant I’d found would actually compound the problem of repeating ‘will’ instead of solving it – I’d missed the key word despite having read it multiple times and listened to it twice! I’d climb the highest mountain, etc, if you will come with me. We ended up with no time to consolidate this point. I need to look at Young Learner coursebooks to find out how they introduce this grammar normally. I’ve got a few games/activities to practise it, but I’m not sure how to show the rule clearly.