A student with special needs… in MY class?!

An interactive presentation by Claire Thomas Özel and Celal Sezer at the 1998 METU ELT Convention:

Abstract: “What will I do? He won’t be able to learn anything. It’ll affect the class”

This workshop will address a taboo subject: the student with special needs, the one who cannot learn in a standard way, and requires the teacher to take a different approach….

Participants should leave this workshop more positive and confident about the prospect of having such a student in their class. My philosophy is that problems are solved together, between the student and the teacher, and with the entire class. First, we will look at initial feelings and expectations of all involved, then focus on the student in question. Next, both classroom tasks and interactions will be considered, in order to generate solutions to the difficulties identified, and a list of practical tips for the emergency! .


Claire Thomas / Özel: Born in Britain, I grew up in France; wanting to be an astronomer, I became a geneticist tben retrained as a primary teacher.  Having given my first English lessons at 15, I became a professional five years ago, before moving to Turkey. I’ve been at ODTÜ Hazırlık for two years. Other interests include ecology, voluntary work ( with the blind, and young offenders) and bilingual children’s books…..

Celal Sezer: 3rd year student of International Relations, METU, active member of the Friendship and Solidarity Student Club.


A student with special needs in an EFL class.

As a student sitting in a class where you knew you were not successful, how did you feel – knowing the others could follow what the teacher was saying, but that you seemed to get little meaning from what was being presented? Feelings may range from nonchalent detatchment, to loss of confidence or even anger. In any case, the line of communication is broken – you are no longer part of the group: excluded.

Some people, for medical reasons or all too often in Turkey as a result of accidents, are permanently excluded from full participation in life as most of us know it. But they develop strategies to deal with difficulties; and some do manage to overcome them and integrate to a great degree.

The domain of teachers being the classroom, how can we facilitate the integration of such students into the EFL learning environment? As EFL teachers, we are trained in the teaching of English to non native speakers; that is, we are trained to teach the average standard ordinary normal student. While EFL courses may consider issues of class management and aspects of behaviour relating to student personality, no EFL course (that I know of) prepares teachers for students with special learning needs. However, integrated education is now policy – not only in Britain and the USA, but for the Ministry of Education in Turkey.

In Turkey, the estimated number of people with special needs ranges from 2 to 10% of the population; no hard data is available. It is however evident that in higher education nowhere near even the lower percentage is reached. Lack of opportunity, discrimination and negative attitudes have held back all but the brightest, the most determined and the most successful. But when these students arrive at university and attend the English Language Preparatory School, they often struggle, and I suspect a higher than average failure and drop out rate; though, again, no data is available.

What is happening in our classrooms to account for this lack of success? Are the students to blame? Or should we take some of it? Could we be better prepared and approach the situation more effectively? Such students who have found Haz?rl?k to have been their toughest hurdle at university identify two main sources of difficulty: a)”My teacher didn’t know how to teach someone with my conditon”, and b)”My teacher ignored me”. And another frequent comment is “I didn’t want to be a burden, so I didn’t say anything”. All of these are perfectly human responses to an unexpected non-standard situation. A teacher who is not prepared may either admit their inability to adequately deal with the student’s needs. Or they may just blank out the problem, leaving the student to their own devices and up against all odds. In both cases, the student is given little incentive to overcome their relunctance to identify their differences from the other students.

As a case study, the workshop will address the situation of what are probably the most excluded students: those with visual impairment. A third year student from the Department of International Relations, who has been totally blind since birth, will be amonst us to share experiences . Lack of sight deprives people of visual cues, body language (but tone of voice often provides a lot of information), gestures, as well as images and written texts. Getting around becomes a major issue. In a new environment, this can be particularly tiring; and those who do not learn to use a cane are dependent on the good will of friends to take them to where they need to be. In Turkey, there is a near total absence of Brailled material, and suitable technology is scarce. But perhaps one of the most undermining aspects is lack of knowledge and understanding from the general public, which constantly expose you to negative comments and expctations.

However, just as there is no such person as a typical Turk, there is no typical blind person. While on the one hand there are the physical, technical and practical aspects of dealing with lack of sight, on the other there are the psychological consequences of living without sight nor equal opportunities. By the time a student reaches university, such emotions and responses have been compounded over years of usually negative experiences. We are all born with different personalities, and when faced with a major disability are liable to respond in a variety of ways, from denial, passivity, shyness and embarrassment, to determination to overcome, high levels of motivation and confidence in what can be achieved. This complex psychological make-up is likely to be quite daunting in a classroom situation: the teacher cannot anticipate reactions as easily as those of Mr Average Student. However, the issue of how a teacher deals with complex psychological interactions is beyond the scope of this workshop.

Coming to the practicalities in the classroom, class dynamics are of prime importance; while no student should become marginalised, neither should any one student be allowed to dominate: the teacher may need to persuade a timid student to participate, and dissuade an over-demanding student from monopolising attention. The aim is to integrate the student in a balanced way, not putting them on a pedestal. Pitying, trying to protect, and doing things for someone because you feel sorry for them does no good at all in the long term. For these students in particular, to learn skills for independent learning is essential. They need to develop strategies to be able to fend for themselves; and we can empower them.

In terms of skills and activities, it may initially seem that many are beyond bounds for someone without sight. In reality, as blind people rely to a much greater degree on hearing, their listening skills are usually well developed, and they can therefore tune into correct pronunciation with a greater degree of accuracy than sighted students. Memory is another function which is more effectively used by the visually impaired; hence facility with vocabulary learning. Writing depends on the recording methods used. If only Braille is used, the teacher will not be able to check work. But most blind students can type; the only problem then is spelling, as Braille texts use contractions (abbreviations) which, not giving the full spelling, leave the learner guessing… Reading is a major hurdle, due to the absence of Brailled material. In Turkey, students are therfore used to having texts read to them – which, in a foreign language, can lead to difficulties. In the METU library, there is now a machine which can “read” any English text placed on its scanner; the classroom situation is not too obvious yet.

The appended list of suggestions (Table 1) gives some practical ideas from the time I had a totally blind student in my class; this list was prepared for subsequent teachers of the same student, and in many ways needs to be broadened to address other personality types. Modifications are also needed for partially sighted students, who much of the time fall between two stools. Such adaptations will not be discussed here, being too specialised for this presentation.

A final point on practicalities: exams! How would you like to take exams without being able to look at the question sheet, this being read to you by a succession of readers: people you have never met before, each of which you have to spend time with on developing a working relationship, and whose voice – and importantly in foreign language learning: accent – may not be easy to understand, especially if they have a cold! This issue is nothing we as teachers have any say on. Simply to say that as long as twenty years ago, blind students at Bo?aziçi University (in Istanbul) took all tests – not only MidTerms and Proficiency – working independently with taped material and typewriters.

Where do we start addressing the issue? Here, now, and with what we have. Bearing in mind the ideal of maximum integration, we take a first step forward: How can I improve the integration of this student into my class, within this system. We are talking of students in a state institution without vast amounts of resources in the first place (especially when it comes to buying and keeping up to date with technology), in a culture which traditionally has not empowered people with different needs. Even if methodology had been developed elsewhere, only some of it would be applicable to our situation. And a word of warning: any change must be made carefully, and with full consultation involving all parties. Suddenly bringing in a new exam process – to give more independence to the student – could be yet another hurdle for an unprepared student, used to the ‘safety’ of having a reader and not trained in alternative exam strategies. Another point in question: ideally, I would suggest “letting the student guide you on how to teach them, as most will have lived with the condition for many years; they have had to develop many strategies. They are responsible for helping you learn to teach them”; however, some of our students are not yet ready to take this on, not having been given the foundations of self-confidence and ability to express themselves. While we aim to maximise the effectiveness of all learners in a class, building up confidence and encouraging participation, perhaps a little more sensitivity – NOT PITY – is required in such cases. A positive attitude and a little interest can go a long way…

Though this paper has mainly dealt with visual impairment, a similar approach could be used in cases of hearing impairment, or other disabilities. I propose that a support network be set up. One function would be to establish a bank of relevant information, from a wide variety of sources. Another purpose would be to provide support for teachers who suddenly find themselves in confronted with this issue; isolation is an unnecessary complication to an already challenging situation. I would appreciate any suggestions and comments from colleages on ways they have dealt with similar situations, relating to any category of special need. I can be contacted by e-mail at “clair@rorqual.cc.metu.edu.tr”, or snail mail: C.Özel, ODTÜ,YDYO, 06531 Ankara, Turkey.

I would like to thank Professor Füsun Akkök for discussion and support. No literature on Special Needs in EFL teaching having been found, the following are two publications that address attitudes to exceptionality in Turkey.

Nuray Karancı (1996) Farklılıkla yaşamak. Türk Psikologlar Derneği.

Füsun Akkök (1997) Bayan Perşemberler. METU Press.




Table 1

If you have a blind student in your class…

-1-Don’t worry! Let the student guide you.

-2-You now have a genuine communicative situation in your classroom: encourage other students to describe visual material, pictures, the book…

-3-Blind students use hearing and memory better than sighted people; thus they will be able to pronounce English sounds better, and remember new words faster, etc. .

-4-As hearing is the principal sense used to know what is going on, background noise is distracting and tiring. In pair and group work, this doesn’t matter as attention is focussed on the immediate surroundings; but in whole class work, traffic noise through open windows, chatting in the corridor (open door), the hum of the stereo (power ON, but not playing) and students whispering and giggling in their corners become the equivalent of working in a foggy room.

-5-Pair the blind student with a friend who can read texts; but perhaps not always the same person, as no one must lose out. As a pair, they may need slightly different instructions from the rest of the class.

-6-Some blind students use Braille writing (kabartma yaz?). This has two limitations: there are only about 30 charaters to a line, and the embossed paper is very bulky. A miniature dictionary becomes quite an unwieldy volume. Braille texts are also not as quickly read; and scanning is not possible.

-7-Spell out important words for Braille note-taking. Do not give non-essential information unless requested (due to bulk). Often the student will ask for words to be spelt.

-8-High-light patterns and structures orally; get the student to note key examples.

-9-As the book cannot be used for reviewing, more repetition and revision is needed.

-10-The student will probably want to record some parts, e.g. sentences from exercises, texts not on the cassette (which they should be encouraged to listen to at home), or things you’ve written on the board.

-11-If possible, use physical feelable examples (shapes, objects). While talking to the others- who can see the item – give it to the blind student to be felt and identified. This can work well for the rest of the class;

e.g. for “It could / may / might be…” with objects in a cloth bag or box.

-12-If you draw on the board, get other to describe what they can understand from your artwork!

-13-Turn mime games into descriptive ones. In this way, one class once continued in pitch dark for 15 minutes when the electricity was cut one winter evening…

-14-If other students are working happily, you can work with the blind student to fill in on the activity, and maybe complement for those that cannot be done. But do remain aware of the class; this is not a private lesson. Breaks can also be used for the little extra bits needed.

-15-Non-turkish speaking teachers may encounter more confusion,especially with beginners; a few words in Turkish can quickly sort out a point. English instructions, if misunderstood, can hinder an entire activity.

-16-Living without sight, negociating the hectic chaos of Ankara streets are extra reasons for being tired. Sometimes, the student may just want to listen to what is happening.

-17-Some activities, e.g. ‘listen and tick’ are difficult to adapt.