Braille Monitor                                                February 2013

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Teaching English to Blind Refugees and Immigrants

by Sharon Monthei

Sharon MontheiFrom the Editor: Sharon Monthei works at BLIND, Incorporated, one of the three training centers operated by the National Federation of the Blind, where she teaches English to refugees and immigrants. Monitor readers are familiar with her work as an author of several books on teaching and Braille. Here are the remarks she made at the Braille Symposium that describe the challenging job she has and the way Braille makes it possible for her to offer students the gift of literacy:

In this paper I want to discuss issues in teaching English to our blind new Americans. This issue was brought to my attention when I was asked to attempt to improve relations between Minnesota State Services for the Blind and local programs working with blind immigrants and refugees. Our Braille section, where I worked part-time, provided Braille materials to programs serving blind students. However, there were issues with integrating these students successfully into their classes.

The problem that these blind immigrants and refugees experienced when attempting to learn English was that their teachers, who know how to teach English, didn't know how to teach Braille or to work with this population. Conversely, Braille teachers don't know how to teach English. However, one thing they share is the knowledge that reading constitutes literacy. For blind students that means Braille.

After coming to understand the difficulties beginning English learners were experiencing at a local English Language Learning (ELL) program, I went to Seattle for a week to receive training in the way to teach English to our blind new Americans. When I got back, I realized I did not know enough, so I enrolled at Hamline University in St. Paul to learn how to do it and spent a year taking courses.

Unfortunately for blind students, English Language teachers are taught to use nonverbal methods to communicate with their students, especially in the lower levels. Pictures and drawings are prominent, and teachers use gestures and mime to get their point across. Two examples illustrate this. When I was taking courses in English Language Learning, the teacher brought in what she called "realia" [objects or activities used to relate classroom teaching to real life—the bag contained receipts] to show the class. To me it was a bag of paper. Then there was the demonstration lesson which included mime interspersed with Russian words. I had no idea what she was doing. The rest of the class appeared to learn the words.

I already had considerable experience in teaching Braille, but this was different. Not only did many of my students not know Braille or English, they had also never learned to read in any language. Humans learn to read once in their lifetimes, and this skill is transferable to other languages they may learn. But if they never learned to read, that skill must be taught as well. This may seem impossibly hard, but sighted immigrants learn to read print and speak English all the time, whether or not they were literate in their native languages.

Armed with all of this background, I began teaching English to blind immigrants and refugees in the summer of 2008 at BLIND, Incorporated. So how is it done? I start with an interpreter for a period of time ranging from a few days to three weeks. The interpreter helps me and my students establish some words and concepts so I can communicate with them. I begin by getting a cane and showing the student how to get around inside our building, including how to go up and down the stairs. I want them to begin their independence immediately.

I have a wide variety of objects which I use to develop vocabulary. These include vehicles, animals, cooking items, basic shapes, and toy replicas of people and furniture. I use a modified version of a book which Jan Bailey and Chris Cuppet wrote for teaching seniors uncontracted Braille. I teach the letters without being too concerned about the meanings of the words they are reading. I do begin to teach the various sounds of each letter at that time in a general way, understanding that the vowels are the hardest and that people learning English may not be able to hear all of the sounds of English. I also begin to teach the student how to use a Braillewriter while I have an interpreter. Writing is a key part of learning English, and I want them to write a lot to help them remember the words that they are learning.

Then I use a beginning book which I transcribed into uncontracted Braille in double-spaced format. It covers chapters on personal information, family relationships, rooms and furniture, things in the classroom--including counting, clothing, and food. I also use a book called English in Action which I read to begin to teach common English sentences and to practice speaking and listening. Because it takes as much as forty-two repetitions of a word to make it part of a student's vocabulary, I repeat and repeat basic words in complete sentences orally, and I have students read them and write them. Sometimes we even act out some concepts like in front of, behind, beside, and under. The more senses that are engaged, the more learning takes place.

After this I use parts of a book called Personal Stories, which I got from another ELL teacher, and a series of books called Talk of the Block. All of these books were designed for adults. Topics covered include family, home, shopping, and health. I also use parts of a phonics book, a grammar book, a vocabulary book, and a math book designed especially for new English learners. Many of my students have also never learned to do math, so we begin with counting and learning the names of the numbers and addition facts.

These are some things to keep in mind in teaching beginning English:

I cannot teach students all of the English that they will eventually need to know, so I also teach basic computer skills, which include typing, writing, and basic document editing. I also teach students to use email if they are interested. The Internet is beyond my beginning students, because they do not possess the vocabulary to understand what's happening on most webpages. Students will need to have a computer to take to class so that their later English teachers can read what they write in order to critique the work.

At BLIND, Incorporated, I begin working with students before they enter the full program. This may take from three months to a year, but more typically six to nine months. Then they begin cane travel, and, if that goes well, they transition to the full program from one to three months after that. There they acquire survival English in a very practical way.

I teach some math to my students because many of them do not have a math background. Money is an excellent way to start—counting various coins and discussing our base ten system. If I have time during the training process, I use a math book called Number Sense which was designed for this population.

What equipment do new English learners need?

After the first few months, when computer instruction begins, students need a portable computer with adaptive software—they will need it for use in mainstream ELL classes to write so that they can receive feedback from their teachers. They need to be able to touch type and use a word processor for writing and editing documents in class.

The Importance of Immigrant and Refugee Status

Other immigrants are not eligible for SSI for five years. They are eligible for state or federally funded rehabilitation programs and for mainstream adult basic education and public housing. Whether they are eligible for healthcare depends upon the state.

I may be contacted at <smonthei@blindinc.org> if readers want to ask questions or get a resource list that I have developed.

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