The Special Needs Issue – Naomi

Keeping the Lines of Communication Open  – ELT and the Special Needs LearnerNaomi Epstein

Looking at the title of this post, a reader may be tempted to wonder who is presumptuous enough to lump all the widely different kinds of “special needs learners” into one post. Surely there is a world of difference between the one learner in your class who can’t hear well, the one who can’t see well, the one who is dyslectic and the learner who can’t sit still for more than a few minutes.

Well, I am.

Because there is one thing that all these learners have in common. They need to have an open line of communication to you, the teacher, outside of the lesson. While adult learners may be able to tell the teacher, in front of the whole class, something like: “You spoke with your back to the class and I couldn’t hear you, please repeat that”, most children avoid drawing attention to themselves like they avoid the plague. Children, particularly those between the ages of 9-15 are much more concerned with what they believe their peers think of them than with ensuring they are getting the accommodations the need. They will nod emphatically to indicate that they have understood even when they haven’t, just to avoid any special attention from the teacher.

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Therefore, the teacher and the learner need to find a way to communicate regularly in a manner which will not embarrass the child. The options are many, ranging from face-to-face (the student stops by during the teacher’s weekly yard duty) to weekly phone calls, emails or video chats. Not only will these short exchanges allow the teacher to ensure that the child understood technical information (such as which material must be reviewed for the exam) but will give the child and the teacher an opportunity to work out “secret signals”.

Consider these two examples:

When a teacher switches back and forth frequently between English and the mother tongue, a child with a hearing loss may have a difficult time following. It takes such a learner more time to register that there has been a switch and then an adjustment of lip-reading skills focused on needs to be made. Some teachers and learners agree on a tiny hand signal the teacher makes when switching languages.  No one but the student notices it.

Sometimes a teacher may not notice that her black marker (for the whiteboard) is beginning to fade away. Or perhaps the teacher may not pay attention that she/he has written on the board with letters that are smaller than the size needed.  The student with a visual impairment may pretend to suddenly have a cough, which alerts the teacher to the fact that the board must be examined.

In many cases, the children themselves are the best source of knowledge as to how to help them function in class. But they won’t say a word in class. The teacher needs the opportunity to listen to the student, outside of the classroom.

Staying healthy and motivated – Naomi Epstein

Finding Motivation in Unexpected PlacesNaomi Epstein

As a veteran teacher, I can unequivocally say that finding a peer group of like-minded teachers, for both inspiration and support, is vital for retaining ones emotional health and desire to go into the classroom day after day. Whether this group of teachers is found in your school, in face to face regional conferences or online does not matter. The fact that you are able to discuss new strategies, argue over their benefits, share the successes and get support for the disappointments is really what counts.

That being said, motivation can also be found in the most unlikely places. As unlikely as taking up a hobby totally unrelated to teaching English.

Take bird-watching, for example.

Hardly seems relevant to teaching English, does it? Sounds like something most students wouldn’t be interested in.

Let’s take a closer look.

First, there is the emotional factor. Spending time outdoors, in nature, away from the classroom, the computer (and housework!) can be both relaxing and invigorating. Seeing a  flock of about 6000 Kites (birds of prey) circling overhead as they prepare for their nightly roost or discovering a long eared owl perched on a branch, so cleverly camouflaged that you would never have seen it on your own, can be awe inspiring. After such outings, a teacher may often find that her/his own “feathers” do not get easily ruffled in class when things don’t go exactly as planned. The enormity and complexity of nature can put things in perspective.

Secondly, nature and mankind are closely linked. There are geo-political issues (the fall of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War caused birds to change their migrating routes!) and there are cultural issues which can lead to very interesting discussions. Cranes are very significant birds to the Japanese. Owls are a blessing to farmers in some places (natural rodent killers) while looked upon in fear and dismay in other places. And those are just a few examples!

Basically, finding a hobby, any hobby, that “recharges your batteries” and expands your own horizons can help you remain a healthy and motivated teacher.

Encouraging student collaboration – Naomi Epstein

Naomi EpsteinStudent Collaboration – Smoothing the Way for the Struggling Learner

Remember the child in sports lessons, who was always left for last when choosing teams? The one nobody wanted on their team because that child was clumsy and slow? We can all imagine what such a child feels.

Thankfully, sports lessons are only an hour or two a week. But the students who are slow readers and struggling learners have a much harder time of it. They are the ones nobody wants to pair with or be with during group work. Their learning difficulties stay with them all week! A student who feels rejected will not be able to focus on the task at hand and may be a source of disturbance to the other students.

Using a few simple strategies, the teacher can help such students become a sought-after member of any group activity.

1) Give that student a “hint-sheet” or “help-sheet” for the activity given to the group. When the members of the group have a question or need reassurance that they are doing the right thing, they must consult with the student. The help sheet can include a glossary, points that must be included in the task or hints as to where to look for the answer.

2) When playing a game in groups that student plays the role of the teacher. In a board game in which the students progress after answering questions, the struggling learner poses the questions and has the answers written on the back of the question-cards. Reading the answers to the questions serves as an important review for the student while bolstering his/her self confidence.

3) The student who needs to get up every 10 minutes can be named the “roving reporter”, the one who reports to the teacher on the progress of the members of the group or the one who goes up to the board to mark off the tasks the group has already completed.

A bit of planning in advance can go a long way to helping smooth the way for student collaboration!