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

Posts tagged ‘YL’

Rethinking the visual, again

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.

My first ever sketch-notes

On Monday, I was lucky enough to cross paths with Katherine Bilsborough, one of my fellow TeachingEnglish Associates. She was in Palma (where I’m working this month) doing a seminar on behalf of OUP. The other presenter was Jessica Toro, who I know from going to IH Director of Studies conferences. It’s a small world!

Their sessions were very useful, and since I didn’t have wifi access, I decided to take my cue from Christina Rebuffet-Broadus and have a go at my first ever sketch-notes. Looking at Christina’s notes now, I probably tried to pack a bit too much into mine, but I’m quite pleased with them for a first attempt. You’ll notice the notes from Jessica’s talk are a lot more adventurous as I got more confident 🙂 Let me know if you want text explanations of anything I put on there.

Katherine’s talk was about how to make the most of your coursebook, particularly if you’re working with primary-age children.

My first ever sketchnotes - from Katherine Bilsborough's talk

Jessica told us how to help students get ready for young learner exams.

Sketchnotes from Jessica Toro's talk

Both sessions had lots of activities in them which makes me a tiny bit more confident about offering advice to teachers about young learner classes next year!

Thanks for inviting me Katherine 🙂

Rethinking the visual: week eight

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.

Putting braille letters on the keyboard

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 playing with the plastic braille letters on her keyboard

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.

Side note

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 🙂

Hitting the drawing board

This is a very simple two- or three-stage activity I’ve successfully used with small classes of young learners and teens to revise both grammar and vocabulary. They love drawing on the board!

Stage one: drawing


Drawing the past simple

Divide the board into a space for each student/team.

Say a word (e.g. car, trousers) or a sentence featuring the grammar structure you want to practise (e.g. I went to the beach. I played with my brother.)

Ask the students to draw a relevant picture. They shouldn’t worry about their artistic skills, just draw anything that they feel represents the language.

Repeat, ensuring they don’t clean the board in between.

When they have about 10 pictures, stop! 🙂

Stage two: hitting


Before giving students the flyswatters, I normally give them two rules:

  1. If you hit anyone with it, we stop.
  2. They’re very cheap. If you hit the board too hard, it’ll break and we’ll have to stop. (This happened once!)

Give the students flyswatters.

Call out one of the words/sentences.

The students hit the relevant picture.

Start with them hitting their own pictures, then move them around – this can be quite challenging if other students have interpreted the language in a more abstract way!

You can also ask one of the students to be the teacher. With small groups, you replace them as the player.

Stage three: cleaning (optional)

Repeat stage two, but this time, instead of flyswatters, give the students board rubbers. They clean the relevant picture each time you say the language.

When there are only two pictures left, they have to tell you the words/sentences.


You can also use paper rolled into a tube instead of flyswatters. Stage two works well with flashcards too.

Adults would also enjoy this game.

With larger groups it could be done in teams or on paper.

Simple, minimal preparation, and lots of fun! Enjoy!

Rethinking the visual: week seven

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.


I promised M last week that I would bring English money to the lesson today. She was very excited when she took the purse out of my bag. I had three notes: £5, £10 and £20, and ten coins, including 2p, 20p, 50p, £1 and £2. We started with M feeling the different coins, talking about how they were different. I taught her to identify each of them, and she was surprised to learn that some English coins aren’t round. When she first touched them, she only felt the faces, not the sides, and it took her a while to understand what I meant when I asked her if the coins were circles. She had a lot of trouble counting how many sides there were on a 20p/50p piece, and it was easier for her to count corners. I challenged her to find coins that were the same: there were four 20p, two 2p and two £1 coins. I also asked her to calculate how much money she was holding at various points.

With the notes, M compared the sizes of the three: if you’ve never seen English money, each note is progressively bigger, so there’s a noticeable difference between the size of each. She then took out some Ukrainian money, and told me that English money is bigger.

For the last fifteen minutes of the lesson, M told me about food that she liked, including honey-flavoured chewing gum. She doesn’t use ‘You shouldn’t…’ for prohibitions, like not swallowing gum – she replaces it with ‘You don’t…’.


The director of my school had spoken to M’s (non-English-speaking) mum to tell her more about the Cambridge Flyers exam and to find out the answers to a few questions I had about M’s reading and writing, particularly about whether she could use a computer. The first few minutes of the lesson were a three-way conversation between M, her mum and I talking about what the exam normally involves and how it might be different for M – we’re still waiting to get the exact details of the format of the braille version of the exam. It turns out that M can’t really use a computer at the moment, and won’t have school lessons in this for another couple of years. I asked if it’s OK for me to do some typing work with her, and her mum said that was fine. When she was at school, she’d had a typewriter-based touch-typing exam where the students were blindfolded to make sure they were doing it properly, so she appreciates the value of touch typing!

Fingers touch typing

Photo taken from ELTpics by @acliltoclimb, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license

Once her mum had left, M and I talked about being blind again. She has only ever been able to see light and dark, and has a friend who has always been completely blind, and has difficulty understanding what it means to see. She tries to explain it to him as your brain being a computer and your eyes being two screens, but she says he doesn’t understand that. Every time M tells me things like this, I appreciate how lucky I am not just to be able to see, but to understand the concept of seeing too. It’s impossible to understand how much being (almost) fully sighted has influenced my life, and it’s easy to see why videos like this, of a boy hearing his dad’s voice for the first time, can be so striking.

We spent the next thirty minutes or so playing with the keyboard on my computer. I taught M where the home keys (F/J on my QWERTY keyboard) are, and what the other keys in the home row are (ASDF with the left hand; JKL with the right hand – no semi-colons yet!). I did this by putting my hands into the right place and getting her to feel their position, then putting her hands in the same place, and showing her how she can find the home keys herself because of the small raised bit on them. She typed a few letters herself based on my dictations, and also by having her hands on top of mine while I typed simple words so she could feel how I move my fingers to press the right keys. We typed the words ‘sad’ and ‘lead’, as well as strings of letters. She was very excited by the whole process.

We tried to use the Mac Voiceover screen reader to get it to read what she’d written, but I discovered it doesn’t work with all of Microsoft Word, only the menus.

Finally, M wrote the order of all of the letter keys into her notebook in braille. She suggested that we put braille stickers onto the keys to help her remember the positions to start off with, which I think could be a good idea. I have an external keyboard which I don’t use very often, so I might prepare that for her.


M started the lesson by telling me a Halloween story, but I can’t remember why! It was all about a woman who liked to eat children! One of the new words which came up was ‘rug’, because she used to hide the children in a hole under the rug (I think!)

I tested M’s spellings of the months from last week, and she was much better. She got about two thirds of them right, and found remembering ‘-ember’ very easy. In fact, she tried to put it into lots of months!

j-a-n-u  (me: -uary)   j-a-n-u-a-r-y
f-e-b (me: it has a silent letter ‘r’ – f-e-b-r-u-a-r-y) f-e-b-r-u-a-r-y
m-a-c-h (me: m-a-r-c-h) m-a-r-c-h
How many letters? (4) j-u-n-e (took a lot to remember this!)
o-g (me: a-u-g-u) a-u-j-u-s-t (not j, g) a-u-g-u-s-t
o-c-t-e-m-b-e-r (me: no e-m) o-c-t-o-b-e-r

We then went on the computer again. I spent an hour on Thursday evening figuring out how to use VoiceOver, and discovered that I could write things in TextEdit (a basic text programme) and it would read them out, as well as saying what you type as you go along. I wrote a short letter for M which I got it to read out. She then wrote a lot of letters, mostly using the home row of keys, and a couple of words. I had to remind her quite a few times not to move her hands from the home keys, as she would often use different fingers or put her two hands together to write particular words. I emphasised that it’s important for your fingers to ‘remember’ the letters if you want to able to type quickly, so they always have to type the same letters. This is what we wrote:

Hello M______,

Here is a letter from Sandy. If you type in here too, it will read what you write.

Do you want to learn how?


jffjjfjfjffj ffjfjfjjff jf jkjfk llkjfggjklhffghjkl; fj jk jhjgfdslk;z;hgjkllsddaaaalallala dsaasdsddds a fd fdss d  sadsassssassa  d  ads ssad sad jsajasjas jaas a jas jjklfdss ssssdddffssfs fsdjklsdeaaaajaj kaff af d sssd a  sad jkljhsah hs hashsa hsdda has   sasaD fsa fdj sdfsaaaa d s saasd a sddsf dasmmsdfsam mmmkmmml k

  k  jmjmjmjmjmjmjmjm           jlmjmjmjmjkklkljjllllllkjj jmjmjmjmjkjjmjmjm jmjmjmjmjmjmmmmmm   m jkl  m jklm jklmjklmjklmjklm jklj j jkklnjkln mn m, mhhjjhggmmmm                       mmmm,.,m,.mmmmm jkjhnbmvfj m  mj mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm mm jkfd masha dfdfsdfsdsdfsfdsfdsfddf fd m______m j m________ j mfdsfghbbv cv dsfgertym,.lkjjklmjkljjnnnbbbvvvgggffffffdddddsssssaaa nbmnkjkl, ,,     lljhll;

M____ likes studying with Sandy. [I wrote this to demonstrate touch typing, and to reinforce the fact that she shouldn’t move her hands from the home keys while typing. M dictated the sentence!] ‘ljjj kjkljk jkljkljkljkljkljkljljkjlkjlkkjljkl

As we walked down the stairs after her lesson, M was chanting ‘J-K-L’, which is her favourite group of keys I think!

M’s parents asked about VoiceOver and I told them they can use it on the iPhone too. We managed to switch it on, but couldn’t switch it off again afterwards. I hope they’ve managed to do it by now (it’s Sunday as I write this!)

Rethinking the visual: week six

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!

Tossing a coin

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 bitexam 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.

Rethinking the visual: week five

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.

[Note: if you use a screen-reader and are having trouble with the Audioboo plug-ins, there are links in line with the text. Please let me know if this doesn’t work for you.]

Our lessons are starting to be a bit more routine now, as I’ve found activities that work well with M and that she enjoys. I need to make sure that routine doesn’t become dull, but I’m also pleased to now have a set of reliable activities I can draw from.


We started the lesson with a spelling test, based on the furniture labels we made during our last lesson on Friday. M could read all of the words and tell me the contractions, although she couldn’t remember any of the spellings by herself.

One of M’s favourite mistakes is ‘I very like it’, so thanks to Jane Harding da Rosa, I taught her a chant to correct this, which we did with I, he, she, in the past simple and with will.

M remembered all of the other chants and poems we’ve studied, and we then spent about 20 minutes on chapter 4 of Alice in Wonderland. The title of the chapter is ‘The Rabbit sends Alice on an errand’. M’s examples of errands led on to her telling me all the different things you can buy in a newsagent’s in the UK, like newspapers, magazines, sweets and little toys. I added basic food like milk and bread, which made her laugh – she didn’t believe me at first!

To finish the lesson, M asked me questions about me and my friends. There were a few mistakes which I’m recording here for future reference:

  • I’m ready listen.
  • on Russian
  • Where do you born?
  • Where your family live?
  • Do you miss about London?


As I walked into M’s house on Thursday, her sister was watching How to train your dragon, so we ended up chatting about it for a few minutes. M asked me a few words in Russian which I didn’t know. I tried to make notes of some of the words to look up, but this is difficult if M doesn’t know the Russian spelling. The only one I managed to find later was ревнует, which means ‘jealous’.

I had two new chants for this class, dealing with two of her mistakes from Tuesday. The first was for ‘I’m ready listen‘. We transformed it to use ‘she’s’ and ‘they’re’ as well as the original ‘I’m’.

The second was for ‘on Russian‘. We transformed this to use the past simple, as well as ‘she’, ‘he’ and ‘they’.

We were going to listen to chapter 5 of Alice in Wonderland, so in preparation I taught M the word ‘pipe’ (the caterpillar is smoking a pipe when Alice first meets him). I used my pen and bottle lid to make the shape of a pipe for her to feel, and compared it to cigarettes, which she already knew.

It's a pipe of course! (made from a bottle top and a pen)

It’s a pipe of course!

Then something great happened: M came up with her own impromptu poem! 🙂

I don’t want to smoke.
I don’t want to drink.
I want to be beautiful.
This is my dream.

She said it was her first poem in English, and asked if we could write it down. This took us half an hour, starting with M learning how to write her full name (including punctuation, along the lines of S. J. Millin) at her request, then how to write a title – she decided on ‘My Dream’. We wrote the whole poem in the long form with no contractions, but including symbols for punctuation, thereby practising how to code capital letters, full stops and apostrophes, as well as understanding the word ‘space’. I spelt the words for M, and tried to encourage her to predict the spellings herself: “What do you think is next?” She seemed a bit reluctant to do this – I’ll try to get her to do more spelling without reading at the same time, as it’s something I think she’s not very confident with. As with most learners, she also mixes up e/i/y.

Mistakes from this lesson were:

  • She must to give him a fan.
  • You will bigger/smaller.
  • If I will drink this, I will bigger.

I’d like to practise first conditionals in a future lesson, but haven’t done any grammar with M yet, so I’m not really sure how to go about it. Does anyone have any suggestions?


In our third lesson, M had shown me two metal figures she has. Today they were joined by two more: a crusader knight and Saint Viteslav, a Russian soldier (as far as I remember!). This lead us on to a brief discussion about crusaders, Christians and Christianity, with M referring back to her cross which she showed me last Friday. She also revised the ‘soldier words’ we’d looked at previously: helmet, shield, sword, and greaves. (I know ‘greaves’ isn’t the most useful word, but it’s easy for her to feel them on the soldier, and she asked for it!)

Taking her notebook, M read her poem from Thursday, along with the words we’d studied previously, without any prompting from me.

M told me she likes mystery stories, and proceeded to tell me The Mystery of Blackdown Wood, which I’d never heard of. In the first couple of sentences she mixed past simple and present simple a lot until:

“In the past or the present?”

“Can I tell it in the present?”


“Tom don’t want to go into the wood.”

“Tom doesn’t… Or it’s all the same in the past: Tom didn’t want to go into the wood.”

“Oi! Tom didn’t want…”

After that she told the whole story in the past simple without needing any more prompting from me. The only past form which gave her trouble was “They hided” instead of “They hid”. At one point she couldn’t remember a word, and spontaneously came out with our chant from Tuesday: “I know it in Russian, in Russian, in Russian. I know it in English, but I just forgot!” 🙂

For the next part of the lesson, I gave M a choice of activities. She chose to learn the names of the things in pot of little objects which I’d brought along, consisting of:

  • two paperclips;
  • two treasury tags;
  • two Cuisenaire rods of each value from one to six;
  • a small white stone;
  • a plastic thing (it’s for keeping an exercise ball inflated, but I figure the word ‘thing’ or ‘thingy’ is a good term for her to learn);
  • two elastic bands.

A selection of random objects

It’s a very random collection of objects, basically consisting of everything I could find which was small enough to fit into a little pot and wouldn’t be dangerous (no pointy bits!). I plan to use them to help me clarify grammar with her later, although I haven’t worked out exactly how yet. Most of the objects are in pairs, as one idea I had was for me to model sentences using one set, and M to copy and modify them using the other set.

To teach M the names of the objects, she took them out and I asked her if she recognised any of them. The only word she already knew was ‘stone’, and in fact, she’s been carrying her own moonstone around for the last couple of lessons. When she picked up the treasury tags and the paper clips, she couldn’t use either of them, so I also showed her how to do that. She put the Cuisenaire rods in size order, and I told her they were used for maths, which she loves. I’ve recorded the words and sent them to her so she can listen to them again between now and our next lesson.

We listened to chapter 5 of Alice in Wonderland to finish off the lesson. I showed her how to use the volume and sound controls on my Mac so she could stop it whenever she wanted to. In the end she preferred to just sit down and listen through without stopping. On a side note, I’d like to Kirsty Major for her very useful comments about screen readers, touch typing and computer use on my previous post. This inspired me to start trying to show M around my computer and give her more control over the technology.

At the end of the lesson, as has become our habit, M put my computer in its case, then the case into my rucksack. Every lesson she gets faster at this process. She likes carrying my rucksack down the stairs, and won’t let me take it even though it weighs a ton! When one or the other of us dropped one of the things from the pot during the lesson, M always tried to find it, and this also gave me the chance to practise ‘right’ and ‘left’ with her, as she confuses them a lot. I think it’s important to get M doing as much as possible in the lesson, and avoid doing things for her. Patience is very important, as obviously in many cases it would be faster for me to just pick something up and give it to her. In the long run, this won’t help M though. As with any lesson with young learners, I’m not just teaching English. Motor skills and coordination are just as, if not more, important for M as they are for all children to learn.

Rethinking the visual: week four

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.

From now on, I’ll summarise all of our lessons from each week into a single post. For the sake of clarity:


Braille was developed to enable blind people to read and write. A single ‘cell’ of braille consists of six dots. Different combinations of dots are raised from the page to denote different letters or symbols. They are numbered:

The Braille Cell

The Braille Cell (image from the American Foundation for the Blind)

For example, ‘a’ is written with only dot 1, ‘l’ is written with dots 1-2-3, and ‘x’ is written with 1-3-4-6. For a fuller explanation, go to the American Foundation for the Blind ‘Braille: deciphering the code‘ page.

Before the lesson on Tuesday, I used memrise to learn the English alphabet in braille. I’d got about half of the letters by then, and it turns out they’re quite quick to learn visually, at least to recognise the basics of what’s written on a page. [Update on Friday: after just a week of learning, I’m already able to recognise the letters A-T quite quickly whenever I see them, although some letters are easier to remember than others!]

I have a braille primer, including the alphabet to refer to during the lesson. There are two ‘grades’ of braille:

  • Grade 1: everything is written out letter-by-letter. There are also cells denoting punctuation. This is used for basic literacy.
  • Grade 2: a series of contractions are used to make reading and writing faster.

Contractions could be whole words, like ‘you’ being replaced by the same code as the letter ‘y’, ‘j’ for ‘just’, or they can be common letter combinations, like ‘sh’ or ‘gh’ being replaced by a single braille cell, instead of two. The primer I used has a list of these contractions arranged alphabetically for easy reference if you’d like to see examples.

Tuesday’s lesson

We started with M telling me the chants from the fourth lesson.

First writing

I then asked if she had paper ready to do some writing, and she was really excited 🙂

I’d prepared a list of vocabulary from our previous lessons, along with their braille transcriptions, with the help of a braille translator. Here are a few examples, with transcriptions below to help you read them:

'Cotton' in braille


'Slate and stylus' in grade 2 braille

S-L-A-T-E AND ST-Y-L-U-S (the tools you need to write in braille)

'How much do you weigh?' in grade 2 braille

Capital letter follows-H-OW MUCH (2 cells) DO (=d) YOU (=y) W-E-I-GH-?

I started by teaching her ‘slate’ and ‘stylus’ in English, as she had been using the Russian words. I asked her whether she knew any short forms in English braille, or only long ones. I don’t know when it’s normal to start learning Grade 2 braille in your first or second language, but so far M only knows grade 1.

The very first contraction I taught her was ‘and’, which she wrote in both the contracted and long forms in her notebook. We ended up with the following information in her book, with M asking for both the short and long forms, but preferring to only write out the long forms, with short forms as single cells written afterwards. I’ve written them in capitals with dashes so you get an idea of how her page is arranged:




In the end, we’d looked at six contractions: ‘and’, ‘st’, ‘sh’, ‘wh’, ‘in’ and ‘ar’. I don’t think she’ll remember what all the short forms correspond to next lesson, so we’ll talk about note-taking a bit more next time, but for now I think it’s just important that she’s written some words down.

She asked for ‘whistle’, and enjoyed reading out the words as a Russian who didn’t speak English might – spelling/sounding them out in a funny way. Then she did exactly what any fully-sighted student tends to do with unfamiliar spelling patterns in new words – she had trouble pronouncing ‘slate’ properly because of the spelling!

This whole process took about 25 minutes, with me using my braille primer to remind M of any letters she didn’t know and to introduce the contracted forms. I was really pleased to get some reading and writing into the lessons 🙂

I’m not afraid of you

One of M’s favourite mistakes is ‘I don’t afraid it’, so I wrote her a short poem to fix the correct form.

I’m not afraid of the big bad wolf


As I was walking through the woods

I met a big, bad wolf.


He looked at me,

But I didn’t flee,

How silly could I be?


No, I didn’t flee,

I didn’t flee,

Silly, silly me.


So the wolf and I were in the woods

And then I said to him:

“I’m not afraid of a big bad wolf.

No, I’m not afraid of you.

I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid,

No, I’m not afraid of you.”



We spent 20 minutes listening to it repeatedly and learning it – I had it stuck in my head for the rest of the day! I deliberately including a couple of new words: ‘flee’ and ‘boo’. When I recorded it, I accidentally hit the table when saying ‘boo’, so now M hits the table every time she says it! 🙂

In the lesson I only had the faster version, and I read it to and with M to help her when she had trouble.

I recorded a slow version afterwards, and sent both to her to listen to as homework.

Alice in Wonderland

We spent the last 15 minutes listening to chapter 2 of Alice in Wonderland. Before we listened, I asked M to tell me what had happened in chapter one. While listening, she said ‘stop’ whenever there was a word or phrase she didn’t know. This only happened twice, for the words ‘pool’, ‘tears’ and ‘shore’. She laughed out loud at the part where Alice was having trouble with geography: “London is the capital of Paris”. “No, no, London is the capital of Britain!” 🙂


We started off with reading. M read what she’d written in the previous lesson, and I then tested her on the short forms by saying the letters, and her telling me the braille code for that short form. For example, I said ‘S-H’ and she said ‘1-4-6’. She asked if she could look at her page to check, which I said was fine, but then I started picking them randomly, which confused her. I’d read (and forgotten) that reading tasks for students using braille should be in the same order as the text, as they can’t dot around the text (skim and scan) in the way that sighted students can – I need to remember this for next time.

I also did a verbal spelling test on the words we wrote on Tuesday. M had trouble with stylus, cotton, brain, whistle. I asked her to spell her name, which she wasn’t confident about in English. She likes both the Russian and (two) English variants of her name, so we wrote them all in her book, giving me the chance to introduce the notation for a capital letter. We also added three new words from the last lesson, including two new short forms: ‘ea’ and ‘con’. After 30 minutes, her page had the following writing on it, with the arrangement determined by the number of cells she had available on each line:

[Russian name – long form] [Russian name – with a contraction] [English name – variant one] P-O-O-L

[English name – variant two] T-E-A-R-S EA C-O-N-T-I-N-U-E CON

After all the reading, writing and spelling, that just left ten minutes to listen to chapter 3 of Alice in Wonderland. There were three new words for her: ‘level’, ‘creature’, and ‘thimble’. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten to read the chapter before the lesson, otherwise I would have taken a thimble with me. As it was, I explained it to her, and held her index finger to show how a thimble protects it. She understood, and said ‘It’s like a little cup. I’ve touched one!’, reemphasising the importance of tactile experiences.

M’s mum sat in on the lesson for a few minutes, and reminded M to sit up and put her chin up a few times. Posture is very important, as when left to her own devices, M often has her head down, with her chin resting on her chest, or her forehead on her arm if she’s sitting down. I always ask her to face me when she’s talking to me, as it makes a big difference to how I feel as a listener. She likes to stand up when she’s reciting or singing, and always stands up very straight when she does this.

Her mum also asked for a copy of the English braille chart, as although her parents don’t speak English, they can help her with some of the braille writing.


To start the lesson, M decided to tell me a bit of Oliver Twist again. I really ought to reread it or watch it again so I can remember what happens – the last time I experienced the story was the an amateur musical production at uni, about 7 years ago! She asked if Dickens had written any other children’s books, to which I replied that (I think), there’s only A Christmas Carol. M asked about ‘carol’, knowing it was a name, so I explained it’s a special kind of Christmas song and gave her a couple of examples. M then displayed her beautiful voice again by singing all three verses of Silent Night in Russian. I could only remember a few lines of the English version, including the word ‘Virgin’. This took us on to a discussion of the annunciation (a word which I’ve only remembered while writing this) which is celebrated by Russian Orthodox Christians on M’s birthday, which happens to be four days after mine. As she said, ‘We’re April girls!’ M finished this section of the lesson by showing me the cross she wears around her neck, and telling me about how it keeps her safe. During this discussion, one of her favourite mistakes popped up a couple of times: ‘I very like it’. This is the next mistake I’ll try to deal with.

The rest of the lesson was spent on labelling. We wrote five words, four of which have short forms, on a big piece of paper. We put each word on a new line, leaving a blank line in between so there would be space to cut them up. There are two new contractions, (ed) and (ch), and two old ones, (ar) and (sh). Here are the words:

bed b(ed)

chair (ch)air


wardrobe w(ar)drobe

shelves (sh)elves

You’ll notice that I’ve stopped transcribing in capitals as I’ve finally learnt how to indicate how words should be brailled from this excellent braille introduction, although I’m not going to go back and change how I wrote it before. I checked this introduction because I wasn’t sure about the exact rules for using contractions, as I don’t want to teach M the wrong thing, and I’d read something about syllable boundaries and pronunciation. It actually turns out to be fairly logical. For example, you use (th) to indicate ‘th’ in words like ‘(th)(ough)t’, but not in words like ‘pothole’, where two words are joined and it’s not a /th/ sound.

I was surprised when M asked if she could cut the labels out herself, although I know I shouldn’t have been as there’s no reason why M shouldn’t learn how to use scissors. This was another time when I realised just how much having my sight has influenced my learning. M held the scissors ‘upside-down’, with her thumb facing down rather than up. She also pointed them downwards/vertically, rather than across/horizontally. Finally, her hand was very close to her body, and her elbow tucked in. Taken together, this made it very difficult for her to cut the paper. I took the scissors and held them (closed!) and encouraged her to feel my hand, arm and body to feel the position of the scissors. She held them again with my help, and cut across the paper, producing a very jagged line. The second line was much straighter, as I encouraged her to move the scissors forward before closing them completely so she didn’t let go of the paper each time.

As we were cutting, M was trying to tell me about shapes she could make, and eventually got a stencil she has to show me squares, rectangles and circles. The main problem I had with understanding was that by this stage M was mostly speaking Russian. She’d been speaking more and more Russian throughout the lesson, which I think was because she was tired. This class started at 17:00, the latest one we have. The others are at 12:00 and 14:30 respectively. Although it looks like we didn’t do a lot of writing in each lesson, it’s actually quite tiring for her, as it requires a lot of concentration. The Russian made it quite hard to communicate, and for the first time I had to remind her to speak English.

While she was using the stencil to draw on some of the scrap paper, I cut out the rest of the words to make labels, and transcribed them in (Roman) letters underneath so that her parents could see what each braille cell stands for. Unfortunately I forgot to take a photo, but I’ll try to remember to do this next time. M then stuck them to the relevant pieces of furniture. Thanks to Naomi Epstein for this idea – M loved it! When I asked what she wanted to do next time, she asked for more labels. 🙂

Outside class

On a completely random note, the woman who got on the bus in front of me this morning had a three-line braille tattoo! I think it’s Russian braille, as I can’t make sense of it in English – I wanted to check it was nothing too personal, but I figure that since it’s clearly visible and this is just the first line, it’s OK to have a photo of it. I couldn’t ask her to check. What a cool idea!

Braille tattoo

Later in the day, I also saw a bit of graffiti with a skull on it, with the word ‘blind’ written underneath in English. I’m sure I would never have noticed it before!

Finally, I’ve been teaching a group of young learners (8-11 years old) this week. Our topic was spies, so what better way of reading and writing codes than using braille! Here is the code-breaking sheet:

The sentences are based on a Quizlet set I created. Can you decode them? 🙂 Students then write their name in braille at the bottom of the page. If they still have spaces in the line, they can choose an English word they know and transcribe it into braille for other students to decode. For example, if they have five spaces, they choose a five-letter word. If they enjoy this, you can give them a whole sheet of braille cells to write any codes they choose.

It’s been another fascinating week of lessons with M, and it turns out braille is a lot less scary than I thought it was to start with. If you’re working with students who use braille, or those who are interested in using it, I’d highly recommend familiarising yourself with it, as it’s quite quick and it’s made a huge difference. I can’t read braille with my fingers at all – you need to develop the sensitivity to do it through a lot of practice, but I can look and check what M has written. Another breakthrough 🙂

Rethinking the visual: fifth lesson

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.

Today we didn’t even make it into the house before the lesson started! I opened the garden gate to be greeted by M’s 3-year-old sister running towards me and M shouting “She’s found a caterpillar!” For the next 10 minutes or so, we picked up the caterpillar so M could feel it, then tried to rescue it (they were clearing the garden ready for planting), but it kept falling off the leaf. I eventually managed to put it on a bush outside, and we went in to start the lesson proper, with M telling me “I don’t afraid it” [the caterpillar] on the way.

We chatted about brothers and sisters, and I told M my brother is much taller than me. She hugged me and held up her hands to feel how tall I am, then asked me how much I weighed! I mentioned that it’s not normal to ask a woman this, but I didn’t mind telling her this time 🙂 We also discussed the difference between brothers/sisters and cousins, because the Russian words for ‘cousin’ contain ‘brother/sister’, meaning students often say they have siblings when they mean cousins. She asked about names too, and why some people have middle names.

M remembered both of the chants from the previous lesson and told me two more which she learnt at school, one of which, ‘The Spaghetti Song’, she sang in a lovely voice. At the end of the lesson, we listened to the complete first chapter of Alice in Wonderland, and she’ll be able to listen to it again for homework.


I found out that M can read and write braille in Russian, and a little in English. She said it’s very difficult to write English braille, and reading is slow. I asked her to show me how she writes, and learnt about the slate and stylus for the first time.

Slate and stylus

Slate and stylus

I didn’t realise that braille is written on the reverse of the paper, from right to left, so that when the paper is the right way up, the reader can move from left to right and feel the raised dots. M demonstrated by taking a piece of my scrap paper and writing the first part of the English alphabet for me. I’d downloaded an html file of the Braille Bug: Deciphering the Code page from the American Foundation for the Blind, so I was able to help M with some of the letters she’d forgotten (e, i, m). It turns out it’s fairly easy (I hope!) to learn the basics of the English braille code (as the symbols are called), and I’ve started using ‘Learn Basic English Braille‘ on memrise this evening so that I can at least recognise the letters. Another ‘language’ to add to the collection 😉

As a result of this conversation, I suggested to M that she have a notebook for our next lesson, and we’ll start writing down the new words and phrases that I teach her. I found a pdf of the English braille code, including many contractions, which I’ll take with me for the next lesson. I’m also going to look into touch-typing, as I think this could be really useful for M.

Good news

I was particularly happy at the end of the lesson, as M (and her dad) asked if we can schedule an extra hour of classes from next week, taking us from two to three hours, and M said “I very like our lessons” 🙂 I must be doing something right then!

It’s hard to believe it’s only been two weeks since our first lesson – I’ve already learnt so much, and I’ve got a lot more to read, thanks to the Kaizen Program in the USA, who have sent me a lot of useful information. From next week, I’ll just publish one post a week about all of our lessons, so as not to overwhelm people too much (!), but I’ll continue the reflective process.

Teaching M has made me really appreciate how I interact with the world, and just how much I rely on the visual, and how many things I’ve learnt or reinforced my knowledge of through my sight. It’s fascinating stuff!

Rethinking the visual: fourth lesson

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.

As soon as I walked in to M’s house, I asked her mum if she had a sheet. I’d brought one with me to show her (her parents don’t speak English, and M translates everything for them), but it was too small. Luckily, they had a white sheet the perfect size. Together we dressed M as a Roman girl, as promised. I added sandals, and some string around her hair (I didn’t get the scissors until after the photo was taken!) and her outfit was complete. As you can see, she was very happy!

M dressed as a Roman

M dressed as a Roman

We talked a little bit about the fabric and why there was such a big knot (because I didn’t have a brooch or know how to make it smaller!). She asked why it was only on one shoulder, and what they wore in the winter. I said they had a cloak to when it was colder, or at least, that’s what I thought.

We could have taken this further, but M really wanted to start the story, so I’ll save talking about clothes for a future lesson, based on Naomi’s comment on my previous post.

After the initial excitement, we moved on to a couple of chants to help M remember correct version of some of the mistakes she made in the last lesson. These are the two I’d come up with:

I shouted at her.
I shouted at her.
I shouted at her a lot.

Yesterday he went to London.
He didn’t want to go.
He’s coming back tomorrow,
But his friend doesn’t know.

Once we’d practised these a couple of times, we started the reading Alice in Wonderland (Compass Classic Readers Level 2), [Amazon affiliate link to Kindle version]. I said I wouldn’t tell her too much about Wonderland because she’d learn about it during the story, only that it’s a country. I described Alice’s costume, then started to read the first chapter myself, pausing to ask M questions about what she thought would happen next. Within three sentences she realised that she already knew the story in Russian! She told me about the ‘drink me’ and ‘eat me’ before we got to that part of the story. We were running out of time, so I played the CD for the part I’d read (about one page). I sent M the first chapter and the two chants to listen to between the lessons.

This lesson’s lightbulb moment was about correction. I often use my fingers to indicate missing words or words which need to be added to a sentence, by having one finger for each word and pointing to indicate where the error is. I realised this can still be used with M, but rather than showing my fingers and relying on sight, I used touch. I tapped M’s arm to show the changes she needed to make. For example, she said “I late”, so I tapped “I am late” with three fingers on her arm to show her the missing word.

We’ll continue with Alice in Wonderland, but I need to keep looking for a story which M doesn’t know. Unfortunately all of the suitable readers we have are based on classic stories, so she’s probably familiar with them all. I don’t have internet access in the lesson, so anything I want to use should be offline. I’m also going to ask M about her literacy again too – I don’t know how much braille she knows, and whether it’s only in Russian, or if she knows some in English too.

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