Summary of Presentation for WCB Statewide Conference, October 2002
Some, but not all of what we are going to say is in the October 2002 issue of the Braille Forum, in an article that Sylvie wrote, titled: “Teaching English to Immigrants and Refugees Who Are Blind and Visually Impaired: How Do You Do It?” Here we want to fill that in a little.
Robby Barnes, B.A. Modern Languages and fine arts, M.A.Ed. in English as a Second Language (E.S.L.), Teaching Certificate, and E.S.L. Endorsement
Robby Barnes has been assisting new English learners since 1971, including teaching arts and crafts and academic tutoring in settlement houses in low-income neighborhoods in New York City. In all of these positions a high proportion of the children, teenagers and young adults he taught came from places where English is not spoken as the primary language. He has been tutoring and teaching adults and families in English as a second language programs in the Seattle area since 1988, and taught E.S.L. students in the public schools from 1993 to 1998. He was a volunteer tutor mentor for the St. James E.S.L. Program in 1995. From 1997 to 1999 Robby worked as an independent professional E.S.L. tutor for clients of the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind. From 1998 on he has been a professional instructor of blind and visually-impaired new English learners with the Kaizen Program. In April 2002, Robby attended and completed the training in the American Foundation for the Blind workshop, on the impact of low literacy skills on the quality of life of adults who are visually impaired. The workshop was titled: Bridging the Gap: Best Practices for Instruction of Adults Who are Blind or Visually Impaired and Have Low Literacy Skills. One of the purposes was to form partnerships between rehabilitation professionals and literacy service providers with the expectation that cross training will alleviate some of the difficulties associated with instruction. Another purpose was to improve the literacy skills of adults who are visually impaired by helping trainers to improve the skills of other literacy instructors. The workshop was part of a series which trained 100 trainers to change the way literacy instruction is delivered to adults who are visually impaired and have low literacy skills. They are now both certified literacy trainers with a specialization in training teachers who have visually-impaired students, as well as presenting issues to a variety of other groups, including the general public.
Sylvie Kashdan, B.A. Sociology/Psychology, including training in Group Dynamics and Group Leadership, M.A. Sociology and Social Philosophy, 200 hours of English as a Second Language Methods training workshops, certification to teach braille in the state of Washington
Sylvie Kashdan has been assisting new English learners since 1969, including as an instructor of working adults in basic and advanced sociology courses in the Evening Division of Brooklyn College, a part of the City University of New York, as an assistant to the head of the Arts and Crafts Department of the recreation program at the New York Lighthouse for The Blind, and as a facilitator of arts and crafts and current events classes in senior citizens’ centers in public housing projects in New York City. In all of these positions, a high proportion of her students were people from places where English is not the primary language. Sylvie has been tutoring and teaching E.S.L. for adults and families in programs and private groups in the Seattle area since 1988. She was a volunteer tutor mentor for the St. James E.S.L. Program in 1995. since 1997 Sylvie has worked as an independent professional E.S.L. tutor for clients of the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind. From 1998 on she has been a professional instructor of blind and visually-impaired new English learners with the Kaizen Program.
In April 2002, Sylvie attended and completed the training in the American Foundation for the Blind workshop, on the impact of low literacy skills on the quality of life of adults who are visually impaired. The workshop was titled: Bridging the Gap: Best Practices for Instruction of Adults Who are Blind or Visually Impaired and Have Low Literacy Skills. One of the purposes was to form partnerships between rehabilitation professionals and literacy service providers with the expectation that cross training will alleviate some of the difficulties associated with instruction. Another purpose was to improve the literacy skills of adults who are visually impaired by helping trainers to improve the skills of other literacy instructors. The workshop was part of a series which trained 100 trainers to change the way literacy instruction is delivered to adults who are visually impaired and have low literacy skills. They are now both certified literacy trainers with a specialization in training teachers who have visually-impaired students, as well as presenting issues to a variety of other groups, including the general public.
On September 20, 2002, Robby and Sylvie, along with Cecilia Erin Walsh of St. James English As A Second Language Program (a mainstream ESL program), gave a presentation at the American Foundation For The Blind National Symposium on Literacy for Adults with Visual Disabilities, titled: “Visually Impaired and Blind E.S.L. Students: Problems and Possibilities”. The Objectives of the presentation were to enable participants to understand problems visually-impaired E.S.L. students face in programs for sighted learners, and in programs for visually-impaired proficient English speakers; and offer some methods to help them develop English oral communication and literacy; as well as some ways of making community-based E.S.L. programs more accessible to immigrants and refugees with visual limitations.
How we began teaching ESL
When Robby and I moved to Seattle, Washington in the 1980s, we found that many people from other countries also lived in the Seattle-King County metropolitan area, and there was a great need for teachers of English as a second language. So, we both decided to develop our skills in that area of teaching. In 1988, we both began new careers teaching English as a second language (ESL).
Problems Faced By Immigrants And Refugees With Visual Limitations
In 1997 first Robby, and then both of us were hired as independent professional ESL tutors for some clients of the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind. We were initially called in by Doug Hildie, an insightful and dedicated vocational rehabilitation counselor in Seattle.
Since the early 1990s about 10,000 new immigrants and refugees have been coming to the Seattle-King County metropolitan area every year. Currently, one in four households in Seattle-King County speak a language other than English in their home.
Doug Hildie worked for the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind for 20 years. By the late 1990s he was concerned about the increasing numbers of visually-impaired and blind clients who were arriving in the United States from a variety of countries where English was not the primary language. Some of his new clients spoke a little English, but none of them could read, write, or speak English well enough to communicate effectively with others. Doug felt that it was important to directly work on eliminating the language barrier, which was making it quite difficult for most of them to acquire the adaptive skills needed to function independently and successfully in the myriad activities of daily life.
So, Doug started sending these clients to local community colleges to learn English. But, it became more and more evident to him that many of these visually-impaired and blind students were not being served adequately by the English classes available for fully-sighted immigrants and refugees. The instructional and other staff in the community college programs designed to help fully-sighted immigrants and refugees had little or no familiarity with the possibilities for, or abilities and needs of people with visual limitations. They were not prepared to help visually-impaired and blind students in appropriate or effective ways. They were teaching students in large groups, with little attention to any specialized needs. The textbooks and methods they relied on were full of lessons centered around pictures, print materials, and other vision-based learning experiences. The individual tutors who were available to help struggling students with their class work didn’t have a clue of how to assist visually-impaired and blind people beyond teaching them some basic oral communication skills. Although Doug tried providing extensive support, including sending a braille teacher to assist in the classes and work with the staff, it wasn’t enough to accommodate the needs of the low-vision and blind students.
They were still faced with many challenges that would have been annoyances if they had been proficient English speakers, but were actually counter-productive for learning the new language. They were constantly confused by the references to visual cues of all sorts, disorientated by poorly produced materials in braille, and embarrassed by their inability to easily read and write the in-class drills along with the sighted students. But, because of the large size of the classes, and the heavy workloads of the teachers, there was very little possibility for teachers to develop curriculum and procedures that would be accessible, and make it possible for the visually-impaired and blind students to participate on an equal basis with the other ESL students.
At the same time, helping these clients to learn all of the adaptive skills they needed posed some real problems precisely because they weren’t proficient even in oral English. Instruction in adaptive skills is heavily reliant on participants’ familiarity with spoken English, which makes it quite accessible to people with visual limitations who are proficient English users. But, people who are not proficient in English often find it quite difficult to learn new skills at the same time as struggling with unfamiliar language. Providing native language interpreters proved to be generally unsatisfactory, both because the interpreters were unfamiliar with what was being taught and so often confused the students as much as they helped them, and because the amount of interpreter services required was costly.
It became clear to Doug that new English learners with visual limitations have needs which are greater than and in some respects different from both the needs of proficient English speakers who are visually impaired or blind and those of fully-sighted new English learners. He was finding that simply adding together training, educational offerings and services designed for proficient-English speaking visually-impaired people and those designed for fully-sighted new English learners may not adequately meet their needs.
However, Doug was not satisfied with the common practice of simply letting these clients stay home or channeling them into unskilled manual jobs and hoping that they would learn English on their own in time. He wanted to do something more that would help to improve their chances for personal fulfillment and success in the job market. So, Doug called Robby and me in to provide individualized ESL tutoring for a number of his immigrant and refugee clients.
Teaching English To Immigrants And Refugees With Visual Limitations
Even before either of us began specializing in teaching visually-impaired and blind students, we always felt it was vital to adapt our teaching to students’ needs, by choosing suitable materials and techniques. And, we have always felt that students’ learning is improved when they are offered opportunities to learn through multiple senses, not just sight, and not just hearing either. And as visually-impaired people, we have the advantage over sighted teachers in being more consciously aware of the myriad of non-visual cues the world is full of. Moreover, we have always utilized wholistic communicative language teaching. The communicative approach recognizes that teaching a new language is not merely a matter of transmitting a long list of new words or phrases, but the more complex process of teaching how to use and understand a language in a new culture. This involves teachers demonstrating in clear and easy ways the contexts in which words, phrases and sentences in the new language are used. Since all people learn through multiple senses, not just through sight, this always needs to be done in a variety of ways, including using environmental sounds, mimic sounds, songs that can be listened to and sung together, gestures, such as clapping, shaking hands, stamping feet, etc. objects that can be touched, moved around, put on, made with clay or paper, smelled, cooked, eaten, and so on. Since the meaning of words, phrases and sentences all depend on the settings and situations in which they occur, teachers need to utilize either real life settings or simulate, as best their classroom facilities allow, settings such as a home, store, park, and the like. And students need to practice interacting in English in various situations in those settings.
The most significant research over the last 30 years has shown that students learn new languages best when their teachers replace isolated skill exercises and drills with actual real-world social interactions involving interesting activities with both people and objects. It is also important for students to learn speaking and listening, and reading and writing at the same time and in an integrated way, both to reinforce the language learning process through a variety of channels, and to foster authentic functional literacy in the new language.
This wholistic communicative perspective is particularly relevant and even crucial for enabling visually-impaired and blind adult students to learn the new language, and especially for developing authentic functional literacy in accessible formats.
They need to learn English literacy through braille, large print and speech-accessible computers in contexts that encourage them to practice using these accessible formats. It has become clear to us that new English learners who are visually-impaired and blind derive tremendous benefit from studying English with people who are naturally using these formats themselves on a regular basis, because this provides them with both real positive role models and authentic reasons for practicing reading and writing in accessible formats. We want to help visually-impaired and blind immigrants and refugees to participate in the sighted world, including in mainstream educational institutions. But, only when they have developed some functional literacy will they be able to utilize accessible formats to successfully learn other subjects along with sighted peers.
In 1998, Doug Hildie suggested that we form a small non-profit organization specifically devoted to helping blind and visually-impaired immigrants and refugees who need to learn English.
The name of our organization is Kaizen: Program for New English Learners with Visual Limitations. Kaizen means continuous improvement in Japanese. To find out more about Kaizen, and to make a much-appreciated contribution, contact us, Sylvie Kashdan or Robby Barnes at email@example.com
The Civic Action Project
In April 2001 we were invited to develop a joint program with the St. James ESL Program for helping immigrants and refugees with visual impairments through providing them with St. James English as a Second Language (SJESL) and Kaizen: Program for new English Learners with Visual Limitations, are providing enhanced ESL services to immigrants and refugees with visual impairments. We train blind and visually-impaired volunteers and provide enhanced and specialized services, using intake and assessment materials, and curriculum and tutoring strategies developed by Kaizen.
You can find informational handouts in braille and large print about Kaizen and The Civic Acgtion Project on the table….