Blindness no barrier in English language classroom when needs are shared
'Equal', 'liberty' and 'truth' inspire visually impaired Chinese exile in claActivist Chen Guangcheng practices vocabulary with his wife in class at New York University law school. Photograph: William Wan/Washington Post
Chen Guangcheng , the 40-year-old Chinese civil rights campaigner, is no ordinary student of English. Earlier this year, following protracted negotiations between Washington and Beijing, he was allowed to leave China with his family to study abroad. He had suffered years of harassment from the authorities and his departure put a severe strain on diplomatic relations.
But his back story, which he has been keen to play down since enrolling at New York University's law school and settling in Manhattan, is not what makes him an unusual learner. Rather it is his blindness and the challenges visual impairment present in the English language classroom.
Chen and his wife have been attending English lessons at the law school five times a week. They are both first-time learners and among the audio resources he and his teachers have been using are the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King and readings of the Declaration of Independence.
Vocabulary such as "equal", "truth", "liberty" and "self evident" present a challenge at beginner level but, the Washington Post reported, the concepts contained within the 236-year-old document are ones Chen believes he needs for his future work.
English, Chen told the newspaper, is the key to making himself understood, to maintaining relevance as a Chinese activist abroad and to learning lessons from the US legal system that could be applied to China.
"China is on a march towards rule of law and democracy, and when that time comes, concepts like this will play a vital role," he said.
Philip Herter, who has been working for over 20 years in English language teaching, is one of Chen's teachers at the university. This is not the first time he has taught visually impaired students, but he says, like most teachers, his experience remains limited.
The first step, he says, is to gain a through understanding of the student's blindness before teaching starts. "The degree of a particular student's impairment is a basic starting point. If there is any way to incorporate texts or other visual materials, then they need to be considered, and if possible prepared in advance," Herter said.
"It is equally important to talk to the student and try to find out as much as possible about his or her learning style. Does the student prefer to work with Braille, or does he prefer audio? Is the student accustomed to working with sighted classmates or would group interaction in a classroom setting be a new experience? The student's own preferences and strengths have to be considered."
Herter says that the range of materials designed specifically for visually impaired English learners is limited. Hence the choice of readings of the Declaration of Independence and other speeches.
"A lot of my co-teachers' and my work has been to generate our own materials, appropriate to this particular learning context and taking into account our students' backgrounds and their interests. As we go forward we build on what we've used before. The process is very much student-centred and, so far, I think it's been working."
But what about visually impaired learners who opt to study alongside sighted students?
Jenny Lewin-Jones has taught four visually impaired students over recent years in her modern German language course at Worcester university in the UK. She has found that the students were keen to participate in the lessons alongside up to 15 sighted learners, but also that the changes she made to her teaching and classroom management benefitted the whole class.
"I found I was doing a lot more repetition, initially for the benefit of the visually impaired student. For example, playing a video clip more times or perhaps asking more questions to check comprehension, which benefited everybody," Lewin-Jones said.
She was also aware of the need help her visually impaired student identify who was in the class and where they were sitting, so each lesson would start with a round of simple introductions, with students saying what their favourite food or colour was.
"The other students enjoyed it as well and they felt they got to know each other more as a result."
But a strong message she got from her visually impaired students was that they wanted her to "carry on as normal".
"They didn't want me to stop doing anything. They didn't want me to compensate for them," she said. "What's important is that adaptations are done in a way that students don't feel singled out. So when I showed a video clip, rather than asking visual questions, such as: 'What does the woman walking her dog say?', I would ask: 'What does the woman with the angry voice say?'. But to the rest of the students it wouldn't be obvious that I had made that adaptation."
Both Lewin-Jones and Herter agree that the choice of practical and accessible computer tools and software, such as text-to-speech programs, is transforming language teaching for visually impaired learners, but the basis for successful teaching remains the same: listen to your student.
Preparation is a key to success
• Take time to prepare. While teachers may not get much warning that they will be working with a visually impaired student, their institution should allow as much time as possible before classes starts for the teacher to seek out advice, research practice and reflect on how they will need to adapt their teaching strategies.
• Gain a good understanding of the student's impairment and background. During initial assessment the teacher needs to find out from the learner about their degree of blindness and what resources they can access. Knowing about the history of the student's condition can also inform teaching, for example someone who lost their sight later in life will have some visual memory that can be referred to in class.
• Make sure the technology works. If the student has opted to use computer software such as text-to-speech or voice recognition in class make sure the equipment is well maintained and reliable. The teacher needs to understand how it works too.