Teaching English to Blind and Visually Impaired Pupils
Anna Maria Aiazzi, Italy
Anna Maria Aiazzi graduated in Modern Foreign Languages (English Language and Literature) at the University of Florence on October 29th, 1999, discussing a thesis on V. Woolf's 'Orlando'. She took her Ph-D. degree in English and American Literature at the University of Florence on July 19th, 2004, discussing a dissertation on English Modernist writers (Vorticism) and Quantum theories. Since 2002 she has been teaching English Language and Culture mainly in Italian secondary schools of second degree, in and around Florence From 2004 to 2006 she attended the SSIS-course at the University of Florence. On April 14th, 2007) she also took a degree as Teacher for Impaired Students at the University of Florence (to teach in secondary schools of first and second degree). While attending this course she taught in a special school for blind pupils in Florence. She is among others the author of the article 'Teaching as a Matter of Love' published in HLT. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In the last school year I had the opportunity to teach English at a state vocational school for blind and visually impaired pupils. This school gives Italian blind adolescents and adults the possibility to take a Certificate of Secondary School Education, to learn a job and become (hopefully) economically independent. The school, which has got a well established reputation, offers a three-year course for switchboard operators (or massophysiotherapists) which attracts pupils from all over Italy. In that same period I was attending a post-graduation university course as a teacher for impaired students, so I was particularly motivated to teach to blind pupils because I could have the opportunity to experiment in practise what I was investigating in theory about typhlology. I must admit that the attendance at the course proved to be fundamental for me, not only from a methodological and pedagogical point of view, but also from a psychological one, because I felt supported and reassured about what I was doing.
First of all I was equipped with basic instruments which helped me to ‘break the ice’ with my pupils and to avoid some common mistakes people usually make when dealing with the blind. In fact, people speaking to a blind person usually tend to censor their speech by avoiding verbs like ‘to see’, ‘to look’, ‘to watch’, partially out of embarrassment and partially out of the mistaken belief that they could hurt the sensibility of the blind or visually impaired person. But blind people can also ‘see’, ‘look’ and ‘watch’, not obviously through the sight but through the sense of touch, which is their privileged way of approaching the outer world. So, avoiding to mention these verbs of perception and the actions they imply makes the blind or visually impaired only feel more conscious of their disability.
Another important step was to learn the Braille alphabet and be able to read Braille writing. Little by little I was able to correct the written works in Braille typewriting some of my pupils did. Although such work was time and energy consuming, it was very helpful to me because I could better understand the practical problems my pupils had to face when writing or reading in Braille English. Only a few of them, though, wrote and read in Braille; most of my pupils wrote their English works on computers using special hardware for the blind and visually impaired, such as scanners and Braille displays, vocal syntheses and screen readers. In any case, learning Braille gave me the opportunity to get closer to my pupils’ perspective and better understand the limitations and difficulties with which they processed the English language and culture through reading and writing.
Even though blind pupils are generally very quick at reading Braille, with their fingers flowing harmoniously through the pages, they still need more time to make sense of what they read. Teachers should bear in mind that blind pupils might not be able to keep the pace of their classmates since they have more difficulties in understanding the meaning of a text, being their attention more focussed on deciphering letters and words than on processing their meaning. The teacher has to stop very often to make sure that all the pupils can follow and understand the text correctly: this takes a lot of time and energy, both on the pupils’ and on the teacher’s part. In fact some pupils, unable to follow, can get distracted (lose the tread) and get discouraged. Blind pupils and their teachers have to come to terms with time, being aware that they need much more time in anything they do than fully sighted pupils.
Books in Braille can be another pressing problem, because they are expensive and difficult to be found. Furthermore, Braille writing takes a lot of space on the page, so that a page in black ink can become three pages in Braille. So, books in Braille are very voluminous and not handy. My pupils had no English books in Braille and I had to prepare my own material using the technology of the school. For the visually impaired I prepared large prints of the same files according to their residual vision.
With Braille it is important to keep in mind that writing follows in a continuous way on only one line, so it is not possible to skip lines to make random lists or to draw charts, because pupils can get confused. Blind pupils, when they do exercises in English, in handwriting or on the computer, have to have all the elements they need on the same line and cannot skip lines forwards and backwards to look for useful information, as in fill-in exercises, otherwise they get lost. The kind of exercises blind pupils can do, and the kind of activities teachers can arrange on paper, are thus rather limited and repetitive. I came to terms with this problem trying to do grammar exercises as much as possible orally by providing hints at the missing information the pupils needed to complete their exercises.
Another obvious limitation is the fact that teachers cannot use images, drawings or pictures to teach English, or anything implying the visual code, such as blackboards. If we consider that eighty per cent of learning is through sight, this is a severe limitation, also because, on my part, I am an essentially ‘visual-verbal’ learner and teacher, that is, I make an extensive use of the visual code when I teach, by writing on the board, gesturing, miming and showing objects to pupils. So, I had to ‘re-invent’ and adapt my teaching method, trying to use, as much as possible, other sensory codes such as hearing and touch.
Here the risk that many teachers can run is to use hearing as a privileged code to teach blind pupils too much, by trying extensively to put ideas into words and talk about things. This excessive tendency to teach through the use of the verbal code is dangerous because it can misdirect pupils and make them build distorted mental images. Relying on the auditory code too much is also dangerous because blind pupils have, on their own, a natural tendency to ‘blindisms’, that is, to speak extensively and repeat words and gestures without knowing their real meaning, so teachers may tend to encourage them when, on the contrary, they should try to restrain their pupils in case of exaggerations. If it is not easy to find a right balance in the use of the different sensory codes, teachers should always remember that, as far as possible, the best way for their blind pupils to learn and to build reliable mental images is through touch. I had the occasion to experience it when I could make my pupils touch geographical maps in relief of the United Kingdom, instead of simply describing them orally.
I have spoken of ‘blind’ and ‘visually impaired’ pupils without pointing out that these terms have totally different implications. A blind person can be blind from birth, can have become blind in early childhood or in different phases of his/her life: a person who is blind from birth has more difficulties in building effective mental images and in processing the outer world than a person who has seen for some time and can remember what he/she has seen. The latter does not usually need a lot of explanations about things and events, whereas the former will never be able to understand certain mental concepts such as colours or particular shapes and will never have an independent motor development. A visually impaired person can have different degrees of residual vision which can range from low vision to legal blindness: different stages of visual impairment can affect his/her life in a significant way which is difficult to categorise.
With blind or visually impaired pupils, in any case, rapport is fundamental: to establish a human relationship with them, which is really sympathising and not patronising, is the essential step to teach anything. If this is true for any pupil, it is truer for blind pupils or any kind of senso-motor and mental impaired pupils. These pupils are more sensitive and psychologically fragile than other pupils; they need to rely completely on their teachers and feel self-assured in order to be able to develop their cognitive skills. In the case of blind or visually impaired pupils we have to consider that they are very unsure about the world that surrounds them because they cannot rule over it completely; in particular, blind pupils from birth are usually very unsure persons who incessantly pursue reassurance and gratification. If it is right to give them verbal reassurance when necessary (i.e. to explain them what or who is in a room), teachers should avoid to treat them as young children who constantly need to be guided. It is also important to pay attention to one’s tone of voice, because the blind are very sensitive to it and can interpret people’s moods from slight modifications of it. A slightly angry or bored tone can be misinterpreted and can affect the learning-teaching process if not well understood by the pupils or explained by the teacher.
The ‘innate’ egocentrism and uncertainty about the outer reality blind people have can often affect classroom activities, especially pair-work and group-work, which are very difficult to be carried out with blind and visually impaired pupils, because they ask continually the teacher’s attention on them and need to be constantly reassured on what they have to do, even if the teacher has previously given them plenty of explanations on what they are expected to do and knows that they are perfectly able of doing it by themselves. Nonetheless, they are rather passive in their general attitudes and tend not to take any initiative, constantly interrupting the lesson and asking for further explanations which are not needed, so that they seem not to be able to work independently without the teacher’s support.
In this respect, I have realized that I would not help them by giving them all they asked me, that is, by complying with their passive attitude and self-centredness; on the contrary, the best way to help them was to stimulate them, as far as possible, to find answers and solutions by themselves, that is, to become more responsible of their learning process in order to increase their self-assurance and esteem. What gratified me most was my pupils’ curiosity and their desire to go on studying English independently, exploiting all the resources they could find out of the school: this confirmed me they had understood that English is a live language and not only a school subject as they had always considered it before.
Barnes R., Kashdan S., Teaching English as a new Language to Visually Impaired and Blind ESL Students: Problems and Possibilities, "American Foundation for the Blind" (www.afb.org).
Seng C., Teaching English to Blind Students, "BBC British Council" (www.teachingenglish.org.uk).
Voice Blindness in "Wikipedia" (www.en.wikipedia.org).
Zanobini M., Usai M. C., Psicologia della disabilità e della riabilitazione, Milano, FrancoAngeli, 2005.
Please check the Expert Teacher course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Building Positive Group Dynamics course at Pilgrims website.