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ESL for Students with Visual Impairments |
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|TITLE:||ESL for Students with Visual Impairments|
|SOURCE:||Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness 91 555-63 N/D '97|
This article reviews the literature on teaching English as a second language (ESL) to, and research on the acquisition of first and second languages by, both sighted and visually impaired students. Although braille should be taught to students in their first language, the author offers suggestions for teaching students in a second language when instruction in a first language is not possible. She concludes that closer cooperation between vision teachers and ESL teachers is essential for children with limited proficiency in English and visual impairments to become fully literate and communicatively competent.
A review of the literature on teaching English as a second language (ESL) to people with visual impairments reveals a dearth of material in the fields of vision education and applied linguistics. The literature on applied linguistics and language acquisition has failed to perceive that visually impaired students (those who are blind or have low vision) have distinct needs from other ESL students. However, the literature on visual impairments includes few articles on specific educational programs (Frantz & Wexler, 1994) or rehabilitation programs that have been modified to include a functional English component (Snyder & Kesselman, 1972; Weiss, 1980) and a few articles on second language instruction in schools for blind children in developing countries (Nikolic, 1987; Wu, 1994).
This article brings together disparate theories and methods in two disciplines, teaching ESL and educating students who are blind or have low vision (hereafter called visually impaired). Beginning with an examination of the instructional approaches used in ESL programs, the article demonstrates that despite current theories on literacy and language learning, it is still common practice to rely heavily, or even exclusively, on aural-oral input when teaching ESL to students with visual impairments. The research literature on which each discipline's instructional methods are based is reviewed to recommend more suitable modifications to standard ESL practices for students who are visually impaired.
REVIEWS OF PROGRAMS
One conclusion that can be drawn from a critical review of the five programs described in the literature on teaching ESL to students with visual impairments is that there appears to be little interface or cross-training among ESL and braille teachers. For example, Frantz and Wexler (1994) described a program administered by a qualified ESL teacher who did not know braille or, one can assume, the unique educational needs of blind students (see Corn, Hatlen, Huebner, Ryan, & Siller, 1996, for a discussion of these needs). Furthermore, three of the five programs taught by professional ESL teachers tended to neglect or delay the literacy component of a well-rounded language curriculum (Frantz & Wexler, 1994; Nikolic, 1987; Wu, 1994). In the two other programs, English instruction seemed to be provided by vision or rehabilitation specialists who were probably not trained ESL teachers (Snyder & Kesselman, 1972; Weiss, 1980). Only Weiss, a rehabilitation teacher, described a program that recognized the interrelatedness of the four language skills--reading, writing, speaking, and listening. In four out of the five programs reviewed, instruction proceeded on the mistaken assumption that students must master oral skills before reading and writing can be introduced. One wonders if the lack of knowledge of braille, not current ESL practice, was the guiding force behind this misplaced emphasis on aural-oral skills.
Weiss's (1980) program should be commended for reversing the now-discredited audiolingual practice of delaying reading and writing until oral fluency has developed. At a rehabilitation center in Arkansas, Weiss reported that foreign blind adults with English deficits are taught to decode braille at the word level after they have gone through an intensive reading readiness program that emphasizes the two-handed reading technique, maintaining a horizontal line, tracking, and tactile efficiency. Students emerge from the rehabilitation program ready to enter an ESL program. Although it is not necessary for braille instruction to precede formal ESL instruction, the concurrent approach does have a sound basis in the current theories of language acquisition.
In the programs just cited, a student with both a visual impairment and limited English proficiency often receives ESL instruction from a professional who lacks one or another of the essential subset of skills necessary to create a person literate in a second language. The ESL teacher probably does not know braille well, if at all, and it is likely that he or she is not familiar with the environmental, curricular, or instructional adaptations propounded by teachers of students who are visually impaired. Similarly, the teacher of visually impaired students (hereafter called the vision teacher) in the United States may be unfamiliar with the distinctions between acquiring a first and second language.
ESL BASICS FOR VISION TEACHERS
The difference between the process of acquiring one's mother tongue as a child and of acquiring another language after concepts have already been formed is as great as the difference between teaching children and teaching adults. The younger the child, the less need for structured ESL intervention; as Chomsky (1965) has posited, young children are innately equipped to acquire language codes. Although older students may not be able to gain access to the same "language-acquisition device" that Chomsky hypothesized for young children, they have the advantage of being able to use a cognitive network of concepts, schemata, memory, and acquired knowledge to foster their learning that a five year old has not developed.
The first language is acquired "whole," but a second language--acquired after the biological expiration date of the language-acquisition device (roughly between ages 12 and 14)--can be mastered through a combination of conscious and unconscious strategies. It would be a simplification to say that the conscious strategies constitute "learning" and the unconscious strategies constitute "acquisition," but for the purposes of this article, this explanation is sufficient (see Krashen, 1982, for a detailed discussion). Vision teachers who are familiar with the development of the eye will not find the concept of a developmental curve difficult to assimilate, but in ESL circles there are still two camps--diehard proponents of structured "learning" and equally diehard adherents of functional "acquisition-like" approaches (Ovando & Collier, 1985).
Contrary to public opinion, studies of the relationship between age and rate of learning a second language have shown that older students handle academic language tasks (reading, acquiring vocabulary, and writing expository prose) in a second language (Tempes, 1982) faster than do younger students. What is significant for vision teachers to remember is that research supports the notion that younger students who can acquire language naturally should be exposed to experience-rich, task-based activities that focus on meaning, rather than form. The explicit correction of errors is discouraged; repeating and modeling the appropriate responses have been demonstrated to mirror more accurately the natural interactions of children while acquiring language at home and in the community (Ovando & Collier, 1985). For older students, an appropriate balance between form and content should be maintained.
ROLE OF VISION IN ACQUIRING A FIRST LANGUAGE
The acquisition of a first language by children with visual impairments has been studied extensively (see, for example, Fraiburg, 1977; Garman, 1983; Mulford, 1983; Werth, 1983). This research was cogently summarized by Warren (1994) as follows:
1. Visual impairment does not seem to interfere with the development of basic interpersonal communicative skills.
2. The lack of vision can affect the social use of language, such as determining if one's conversational partner is attending to one, initiating conversation, determining the interest level of a person to whom one is talking and finding acceptable ways of interrupting.
3. The meaning of words for sighted children is richer and more elaborate than the meaning for children with visual impairments. Vision seems to allow children to generalize and broaden semantic associations.
4. The inability to determine what a pronoun refers to is a language delay specific to blind children.
5. It is difficult to separate the formation of language from the formation of basic cognitive concepts. Language is the medium of thought; positional, spatial, classification, association, and even body concepts emerge as a function of language.
FIRST VERSUS SECOND LANGUAGE INTERFACE
Just as there has been extensive research on the relationship between language and visual impairment by researchers in the field of visual impairment, so, too, have there been numerous studies of the relationship between proficiency in the mother tongue and competence in a second language by researchers in the field of applied linguistics (Carson, Carrell, Silberstein, Kroll, & Kuehh, 1990; Cummins, 1981; Goldman & Trueba, 1987; Krashen, 1982). Ovando and Collier (1985, p. 65) stated that since the 1960s, studies have consistently demonstrated that proficiency in one's mother tongue exerts a "predominantly positive influence" on second language competence. They cited studies in which error analysis was used to determine that only 4-23 percent of grammatical errors in speakers of a second language were traceable to interference by a first language and that the majority of these errors were of syntax, rather than morphology.
The prolific work of Cummins (1981, 1984, 1989) has important bearings on how to devise effective ESL instruction for students with visual impairments. Cummins is credited with having advanced three notions that have had a far-reaching impact on bilingual education. The first notion is that there is a fundamental difference between basic communicative ability and the kind of language skills necessary to function in school. According to his model, cognitive-academic language proficiency (CALP)--the ability to use the language that most school tasks require--not basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS), predicts successful academic performance. Textbooks, tests, and teachers use language that is "cognitively demanding" and "context-reduced" (Cummins, 1981, pp. 25-30). The ability to communicate with others on personal or everyday topics does not necessarily or automatically translate into the skills necessary to thrive in school.
Cummins (1979, cited in Tempes, 1982) speculated that classroom placements might be inappropriate if they were made on the basis of cursory oral interviews. Students with limited English proficiency who can perform the basic social functions of language may mislead school personnel into assuming that they have much higher proficiency levels than their classroom teachers soon discover to be the case. Therefore, it is important for everyone on a student's instructional team to realize what any ESL teacher already knows: Whereas BICS can develop to age-appropriate levels within two years, CALP can take five to seven years to develop.
The second notion that emerged from Cummins's research is that activities that help one develop proficiency in one's stronger language automatically help one become proficient in the second language. This idea has been interpreted by many educators as a mandate for bilingual instruction. Cummins (1984) qualified his findings with the third notion--the "threshold" hypothesis: A minimum level of competence in the primary language is required before a student can reap the benefits of bilingual education.
The threshold hypothesis is an essential piece of ESL background information that vision teachers need to know: It is unlikely that older students' proficiency in English will exceed proficiency in their mother tongues. This concept correlates with one that is familiar to vision teachers--that a child will never function visually beyond his or her cognitive level. This is an important notion to remember when trying to establish language competencies for specific students.
Warren's (1994) assessment that differences in visually impaired and sighted children's patterns of acquiring a first language are outweighed by the similarities makes the findings of applied linguistic research conducted on sighted students relevant here. There is broad consensus in the literature on ESL and bilingual education that literacy skills transfer across languages, provided that a threshold competence in a first language has been achieved (Carson et al., 1990; Cummins, 1981; Ovando & Collier, 1985; Tempes, 1982). Reading ability has been documented to transfer more easily than writing ability, even if the language code (alphabet) is completely different. Nevertheless, writing ability and even a student's oral CALP have high interlingual correlations (Carson et al. 1990).
In an in-depth study of the relationship between reading and writing in a first and second language, Carson et al. (1990) concluded that weak second language readers were not able to distinguish between pronouns and their referents in the second language and that the weakest second language readers were unable to do so in their mother tongues as well. Similarly, Warren (1994) noted that this inability to distinguish pronouns and their referents in the mother tongue is one of the language deficiencies of blind children. This overlap suggests that is is particularly important for ESL teachers to ensure that visually impaired students have the ability to trace referents in a text.
FOSTERING BRAILLE LITERACY IN ESL STUDENTS
The research on the transfer of literacy skills between first and second languages has significant implications for the development of braille literacy in ESL students. If one accepts Warren's (1994) conclusion that the ways in which blind and sighted children acquire their first languages are more alike than different, then one could expect that visually impaired students' proficiency in a second language will conform to the developmental patterns of sighted students, too. This insight, when juxtaposed with Cummins's (1989) bilingual special education model, indicates that a student can learn braille most efficiently in his or her primary language. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that braille should be taught in the language in which a student functions most proficiently. For the majority of students, this language will be the mother tongue, not English. Braille is especially suited to instruction in a first language because its basic phonic structure translates across most language codes. That is, even in languages like Arabic and Japanese, braille characters assume phonic functions (Huebner, 1986). Thus, proficiency in braille is transferrable into English. It cannot be stated too strongly that when possible, instruction in the braille code, reading methods, and speed building should occur in a student's mother tongue.
Speakers of languages that have no form of contracted braille will not be able to transfer braille concepts from their mother tongues. In these cases, it is necessary to teach braille in English. Other students who need to be taught braille in English (the second language) are those who have experienced a progressive vision loss and need to make the transition from print to braille and those who come from cultures with a predominantly oral tradition and hence whose exposure to braille has been limited. Finally, for students whose mother tongues are sufficiently rare that is is not possible to find qualified braille instructors who are fluent in them, instruction in English is the only option.
A PROPOSED ESL METHOD FOR TEACHING VISUALLY IMPAIRED STUDENTS
A commonly cited model for teaching ESL is Krashen's (1982) input hypothesis. According to this model, for a student to learn a second language, the teacher must provide "meaningful linguistic input." Determining what constitutes meaningful linguistic input for each student involves assessing a student's current level of comprehension and performance (i). Instruction then procedes at the i + 1 level, at which a significant majority of the language input that the student receives is intelligible, and only a few target pieces of input constitute unfamiliar lexis or structure. This is the model to which most ESL teachers ascribe and upon which ESL textbooks are based.
For students with limited proficiency in English who are adventitiously blind or in transition between reading media, the difficulty of learning to read braille is compounded by the unfamiliar linguistic milieu (English) in which it is taught. The braille teacher should use i - 1 materials and texts so that instruction is truly focused on braille, not language. Materials that are adapted from basal readers in children's first languages are not suitable, nor is material aimed at mentally retarded adults, two approaches to simplifying language that laypersons often attempt. ESL teachers have the training to provide vision teachers with linguistically appropriate texts that are below students' current levels of comprehension; indeed, this kind of collaboration between the vision teachers and ESL teachers should be a fundamental component of a comprehensive program for teaching a second language to visually impaired students.
If a braille teacher does not have access to a consulting ESL instructor to locate materials at the i - 1 level, a variant of the language experience approach, outlined by Holbrook and Koenig (1992), can be used. That is, texts that students have written or related orally in English can be transcribed as reading passages. Such student-generated prose may be lightly edited for grammar and spelling, but must remain recognizable as the students' own work. Since students obviously cannot express themselves above their current linguistic levels, the resulting reading passages should contain no purely linguistic barriers to comprehension.
EFFECTS OF INSTRUCTIONAL APPROACHES
The observations presented in this section are based on the author's experience teaching ESL to 134 visually impaired students from 33 countries since 1991. These impressions are supported by classroom observations, language assessment records, and interviews with students.
One generalization that can be made from this experience base is that the educational systems of some countries produce more literate graduates than do others. For example, students from such such countries as Bulgaria, Greece, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey frequently know Grade 1 English braille, but may not have been introduced to Grade 2 contractions. Their lack of knowledge of Grade 2 contractions severely limits their ability to read in a country in which most instructional material is available only in contracted braille. However, their knowledge of Grade 1 braille has a positive effect on their writing conventional print.
If a student has attended a school for the blind in a non-English-speaking country, it is extremely helpful for the ESL teacher to know the language-acquisition approach used in that country. The grammar-translation approach used in many countries in Eastern Europe, the republics of the former Soviet Union, and East Asia, as well as Japan, produces students with excellent braille literacy skills and the ability to extract meaning from written text, but an impaired ability to communicate orally. In other areas of the world such as the Philippines and some countries in Africa, in which audiolingual methods are used, students may be able to communicate orally, but their ability to read and write is so low that it is akin to functional illiteracy.
Students who were educated in regular schools with sighted peers in their countries of origin may be able to communicate well orally and to write in print (on a typewriter or word processor) at grade level. Indeed, in ESL terms, these students may be "communicatively competent," but their ability to write in their literacy medium--braille--could still be severely underdeveloped. The important point to note is that expressive braille literacy is not, strictly speaking, an ESL objective. ESL instructors can teach students to communicate according to print conventions with a wider, sighted readership. Vision teachers have the equally important task of enabling students to communicate with themselves.
In the author's experience, four countries--the Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, and The Netherlands--consistently produce graduates whose English skills reflect the optimal balance of proficiency in oral and written skills. In these countries, the following factors promote the development of well-rounded linguistic competence:
1. the expectation that visually impaired students will go on to further education or vocational training and the provision of opportunities to do so
2. the ready availability of instructional materials in braille or large print
3. the limited reliance on "listening first," or primarily oral, means of assessment and evaluation
4. the reliance on translation as a means of acquiring vocabulary, but not as an instructional method
5. access to appropriate braille-print conversion technology
6. English teachers who are able to read braille in schools for the blind or braille teachers who have learned ESL in regular education classes.
Yet another place needs to be set at the table of the instructional support team--one for the ESL teacher. The communicative methods of instruction that are preferred today are most effective if teachers are trained in both the education of visually impaired students and ESL. Failing that dual training, coordination between the vision teachers and the ESL teachers must be built into the teaching schedule. This cooperation is critical for visually impaired students to acquire expressive written language skills. The ability to decode braille characters (at least at the word level) and a knowledge of keyboarding are prerequisites for effective ESL instruction.
ESL teachers who are assigned students with visual impairments need to be empowered to produce and customize their own teaching materials in braille or large print. To do so requires some technological support and training, an investment in time that will pay off in more flexible, individualized instruction. Research is necessary to confirm the assumption that sighted and visually impaired students have similar patterns of acquiring a second language. There is also a great need for an ESL curriculum that coordinates the language objectives of each unit with the systematic introduction of appropriate Grade 2 contractions.
Holly Guinan, M.A., vision consultant, North Country Education Foundation, 300 Gorham Hill Road, Gorham, NH 03581; E-mail: .
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