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Teaching English to blind students

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Throughout the years that I taught English to the blind I had to answer many questions asked by people who had no experience dealing with the blind.

Chok Seng, Malaysia
  • How do you describe colours to the blind?
  • Are colours important to them? Are they fashion conscious?
  • How do you teach poetry to them?
  • How do they conceive concepts?
  • Can they learn science?
  • Do you know how to read Braille?

Of all the subjects teaching English to the blind is the easiest. Having said so there are one or two things teachers who are not trained to teach the blind may need to know before they can be an effective teacher to a blind student.

  • Understanding degrees of blindness
  • Understanding the background
  • Setting up a readers service
  • Technological help
  • In the classroom
  • Reactions of other students
  • Teaching tips
  • Conclusion

Understanding degrees of blindness
First and foremost the teachers have to understand the visual condition of their blind student. The teachers do not need to understand the medical implication of the blind student's blindness, just how much residual vision he or she has.

  • Is he or she totally blind?
  • Does he or she have some sight left that he or she may be able to read big print?
  • Eighty percent of learning is through sight.

Whatever amount of residual vision that is left of a blind person should be utilised to the maximum. So students with partial vision should be encouraged to read big print books.

Understanding the background
The next thing to do is to learn the background of the student. How and when he or she became blind. If the blind student became blind when he or she was, for example, at the age of eight or nine, he or she has certain visual memory. He or she will conceive ideas and images differently from someone who was blind at birth.

Setting up a readers service
When confronted with a totally blind student do not despair. Read teaching material to the blind student and get him or her to Braille the material before lessons. The problem of a shortage of material in Braille has always plagued teachers for the blind.

Textbooks could never be brailled in time for my blind students. I always had to cope with one chapter at a time. But from my experience I can say that setting up a readers service for the blind is never too difficult. Just spread the word that there is a need for a pool of volunteers to read books into tapes or to blind students and there will be many volunteers.

Technological help
Also, nowadays there is computer software that is able to download material and transcribe it into Braille dots. The machine for brailling out the dots is quite expensive though. Not knowing Braille is the least problem of teachers who are not specially trained to teach the blind. Technology can overcome that problem. Blind students can be trained to use the computer. There is sound synthesis software such as text to speech and voice recognition that can be installed on the computer. This software varies in price, but there are a number of programs which can be downloaded for free.

In the classroom
When in the classroom the blind student cannot see the board so the teacher has to be more vocal and say out every word he or she puts on the board including direction of where the words are. For example, teaching the format of a letter say out, 'On the left hand corner of your page you write the address. The address of this college is number twenty-nine, Green Lane'. Remember the blind student cannot see the board but he or she can hear well. When plans or diagrams are used, you can emboss them for your students by sticking string to cardboard. Here teachers may have to use their ingenuity.

Reactions of other students
I also tell teachers that the blind students in the class should not disrupt the lessons too much, meaning that the teacher should carry on as usual except for slight adjustments. Having a blind student in the midst of sighted students brings out the best of the sighted students. I have seen many sighted students come forward willingly to help their blind classmates and they even take the blind students on outings around the town. Things generally work out fine. One of my blind students was the top student of the graduating class.

Teaching tips

  • I have used talking books and taped dialogues for reading comprehension lessons.
  • I use real objects in my lessons. I brought in kites when the reading passage was about kites.
  • I took my students to the kitchen and we had a lesson on how to prepare sandwiches and how to make tea.
  • I took my senior students to a lower court to record the proceeding of court cases. I was able to do all these things because there were usually only eight to nine students in a class.

Blind students may be visually impaired but their other senses are intact, so teachers of the blind should utilise the other senses. Learning a language is very much tied up with culture, exposure and experiences. Blind students may not be able to acquire exposure and experiences the same way as sighted students. So teachers of the blind may have to do a little more than other teachers. Bring experiences and exposure to the blind students.

Well, basically, a blind student is a student first and blind or visually impaired second. Like many others things, blind students learn the importance of colours through their association with the sighted. The approaches towards teaching English to blind students are the same. When a blind student is out in the sighted world studying side by side with sighted students he or she is usually able to adapt to his or her environment. All the teacher needs to do is talk to the blind student and ask him or her whether there is any special requirement.