Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Last summer I had the immense pleasure of meeting and working with M, a nine year old from St. Petersburg who spends her summers in Sevastopol. I decided to blog about her classes because I found it very difficult to find information about how to teach a 121 class with a young learner who was almost completely blind, and hoped my posts would help others. Teaching M required me to approach lessons in a completely different way and the result on my blog was the Rethinking the Visual series. If you’d like more background I’d recommend reading them first.

This year I was back in Sevastopol for four weeks to do a CELTA course, and I was very happy when, on my first day at school, M and her mum came in to see if she could have classes for the summer. They’d just arrived in the city and didn’t realise I was there, so there was lots of hugs and laughter 🙂

The first lesson we had was based around a present I’d bought her just one week before at the Casa Battló in Barcelona, without knowing if I’d see her or not.

This is the only picture I can find of the gift – a braille picture of the house. I was so excited when I saw it and bought it instantly because I’ve never seen anything like it before (please let me know if you have and where I can get others!) M really enjoyed exploring it, and we revised some house vocabulary. Using the palm of her hand I showed her where Spain is in relation to Crimea and where Barcelona is in Spain. We also talked about Gaudi.

Over the next four weeks I had eight one-hour lessons with M, and I was very happy to see how much difference another year of school has made to her reading and writing abilities. Last year she vaguely knew the letters in braille, and I needed to refer to my list often to confirm which dots she needed to make some of the letters. She can now read braille pretty fluently, and write it confidently. We wrote down new vocabulary in every lesson, which is a big difference from last year, and she could still remember where Barcelona is and who Gaudi was at the end of the month.

The main problem she still has is that of all children her age (and many adults too!): spelling. Whenever M wrote down new words I always tried to elicit the spelling from her, and she had about an 80% hit rate. During one lesson she asked me about how to know if a word is spelt with ‘c’ or ‘k’. It happened to be the first lesson when I was being observed by A, the teacher who has taken over from me for the rest of the summer. Between us we came up with sets of words to help M remember some spelling rules. I thought we’d come up with most of the c/k rules during that hour, but kept coming across more exceptions or ‘groups’ during the rest of the month – the rules are so much more complicated than you can come up with off the top of your head!

M’s school had lent her two books for the summer, Mary Poppins, and another of short 1-2 page texts accompanied by exercises on topics such as dinosaurs and Tutankhamun. Some of our lessons were spent reading the short texts, with M spelling out any words she didn’t know. We would then take the exercises and answer them orally, and I would try to expand her world knowledge wherever I could. After reading a text about the jungle, she was particularly excited to discover I’d lived in one for four months and asked me lots of questions about the experience. I used her hand again to introduce her to Borneo.

Most of the texts were accompanied by a project, although I don’t think they were designed with visually impaired students in mind. Her school wanted her to do one of these projects as part of her summer homework, but it was difficult for her parents to help her because they don’t speak English. M chose a project about dinosaurs. In it, she needed to find out about different dinosaurs and put together fact files about them. The problem is that she still doesn’t know how to use a computer, so the only ways she can do research are if she is lucky enough to be in a braille library (do such things exist? I assume they must somewhere!) or if someone else does it for and tells her about it, which is what we did. I went on to a dinosaur site and tried to give her as much autonomy as possible by getting her to choose the ones she wanted to find out about and tell me exactly what she wanted to know – I tried to work as a search engine rather than doing the work for her. The project also said that she should draw or find pictures of the dinosaurs, but we ran out of time to do that, so I hope her parents will be able to help her with that.

M really wanted to find a girl in the UK to chat with. She’s ten now and was looking for someone of a similar age. I have a thirteen-year-old cousin so have put them in touch. They’ve sent each other a couple of voice messages. M was very excited by the exchange and is looking forward to having a proper Skype chat with my cousin. If you know a ten-year-old girl with a B1 or higher level of English who’d like to chat with M, let me know and I can try to put them in touch.

The biggest challenge with the lessons this year was that they were at school rather than at her house. In the third lesson, when we were in our third different classroom, I gave her a tour of the school, showing her where all of the rooms and doors were so she could find her own way around and had a better idea of the size of the rooms and school. It was interesting for me to see how being in a different environment affected her confidence initially, and how much more comfortable she obviously felt once she knew the layout of the school.

I did get to go to her house one day though, for pancakes and home-made cake with her family. We explored their garden, full of home-grown fruit and veg, and played with her two little sisters, the older of whom was trying to teach me Russian by pointing at a picture of a unicorn and saying the word repeatedly until I said it back to her 🙂 She was also singing ‘Let it go’ when we arrived, but only knew that line. Films and songs are certainly powerful – she’s four!

I’ve really enjoyed teaching M again this summer. I have no idea when I’ll be back in Sevastopol, or if I’ll be in Saint Petersburg at some point, so I’m not sure if or when I’ll see M again. I really hope I do because she is one of the fastest learners I’ve ever met. She’s already B1 (intermediate) in English, and has just started learning Spanish. I’m sure she’ll be an interpreter one day. I’ll watch her progress with great interest, and I hope I’ll get to teach her again at some point.

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Comments on: "Rethinking the visual, again" (6)

  1. I love your “Rethinking the Visual” series and I’m always excited to read your posts about M, Sandy. I truly believe you’re offering us invaluable insight into a situation few of us have experienced and I find your posts so informative since I get to learn so much from your lessons with her. I’m sure every lesson is like opening new doors and exploring new possibilities. Also, what a great gift you bought her, I had never seen anything like that before, so thanks for sharing that pciture with us, too.

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  2. Wow! It’s great to see how much progress M has made in a year.
    I know of several Braille libraries in England and Germany but as far as I’m aware, they are libraries that send books out to people, not places where people can go to look up information.
    I like your idea about being M’s search engine. When I was younger, I worked in groups or with a partner because I could take notes a lot faster than the other people in my class. It was teamwork whereby they hunted through the library for information and I wrote and organised our findings.
    As soon as I got online, all this changed and I was able to research anything I wanted to without needing help. If access to a computer and some basic training could be organised, this would give M a lot of independence and equip her with the tools she will need for future studies.
    Your and M’s focus on spelling is also important. If Braille users just focus on the abbreviations, they may not know how certain words are spelled, or they may follow logical rules and miss the exceptions. For example it’s logical to think that very is written with two “r”s like cherry or berry. You may not learn that it is an exception if you only ever write the abbreviation “v”.
    It sounds as though M is very smart and eager to learn.

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    • Hi Kirsty,
      Thanks for the comment and for clearing up my question about Braille libraries. The point about the abbreviations is a very good one, and one that hadn’t occurred to me before.
      I’m hoping that they’ll introduce M and her classmates to computers this year – she said she knows they will at some point, but I’m not sure what year it will be in. I think it will completely revolutionise the way she approaches the world because it will open so much out to her. At the moment, she seems to be reliant on what other people can provide for her. I wonder if they want to ensure the children are confident with Braille first before they introduce computers to them?
      And M is most definitely smart and eager to learn – I wish all the students I taught were like that!
      Sandy

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  3. I love reading your “rethinking the visual” posts. Fascinating.
    Feels great to be a teacher at such times, right?
    Big Kudos to you!
    Naomi

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