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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 3; September 04

Short Article

One Year's Experience teaching a Girl with Down's Syndrome

Virginio Gracci
Venice, Italy

When I entered the classroom at the beginning of the new school year I noticed that a girl with Down's Syndrome was sitting among the other students. They were all girls in their last year at Secondary School.

When I meet a group of new students on their first day back at school I usually carry out the routine formalities such as calling the roll, signing the class-register, etc. Then, to break the ice and make the students feel a bit more at ease, I usually introduce myself, I tell them something about my life, my teaching experience, my warm affection for the English language and its culture. I only speak briefly about the things we are supposed to do in English together, and the goals they have to reach by the end of the year to pass their state school leaving examinations. I generally go on speaking for a long time before asking the students to introduce themselves. In fact, on the first day back at school with a new teacher they all are a bit shy and reluctant to say anything, partly because they are afraid of making mistakes in a language that isn't their native one. During normal lessons I hardly ever sit at my desk since I prefer walking between the rows of desks where the pupils are sitting or gathered in groups, to monitor what they are doing, to answer to their questions, to help them with clues, key-words, etc. But on the first day I stay in my chair and go on talking and talking till the bell rings.

On that morning I did all these things as usual. In front of me I had 15 girls, all attentive to what I was saying, all with no hint of a faint smile on their lips, all too serious for my taste, with the exception of the one with Down's Syndrome who gazed at me with bright eyes and a smiling face. She was a nice chubby girl, well groomed, a little shorter than the others, and a little fatter, too. Her eyes were green, a bit almond-shaped. When the bell rang I stood up, I gathered my things and went out with a "see you next time". The girl with Down's Syndrome followed me and when we were in the corridor she asked me in Italian if she could tell me something. "Of course", I answered. "Teacher", she said in a tearful voice, "I can't speak English. I don't know much of the language". "You don't have to worry. You will learn", I replied hurriedly. I asked her to bring the English materials she had used over the previous years and show them to me.

She came to our second lesson with a case full of folders and exercise books, which she showed me with care and some interest. She had written quite a lot of English. She had filled up pages and pages with words, pictures, dialogues, passages, stories, poems, songs, which she had copied down very neatly from books, cards, newspapers ads, etc. But to my surprise she could remember hardly anything of all the English she had on those sheets. She wasn't even able to say what her name was or where she came from in English. When I asked her questions in English she looked upset and nervous, and anxiously repeated that English was very hard for her, that it was a foreign language, that she didn't like foreigners. In Italian the word "foreigner" can be a bit disturbing if it is pronounced with a particular stress. "So you don't like me, either!", I said.

"Are you a foreigner?", she asked me inquisitively. "Yes, I am. I speak a foreign language, so I am a foreigner", I answered. Obviously, I was telling a lie, but as children's psychiatrist Marcel Rufo writes in his book (Oedipe toi-meme, Paris, Editions Anne Carrière, 2000), lies can sometimes be useful if they contribute towards correcting warped images of reality or give some practical sense to such images.. She looked a bit surprised by my unexpected claim. She wavered for a moment, but then she started talking to me again, and went with me to the class where I had to go for the next lesson.

As I left the school building that day I kept wondering what I could do with this girl. It was the first time I had had a student with Down's Syndrome in one of my classes. That evening I looked for books in my personal library. I couldn't find much, apart from some down-to-earth information on the general area of Down's Syndrome. I looked for help in resource books that deal with mixed ability learners to prepare some teaching materials for the following days (Luke Prodromou's Mixed Ability Classes, London, MacMillan, 1992, appeared to be a real panacea for this situation.) I also leafed through a book I had in my library about how the human brain works, which I found of some help. Then I turned to Howard Gardner's essay on multiple intelligences (Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligence, New York, Bsic Book, 1983), on which I used to rely when I needed to find possible explanations of and solutions to learning difficulties. On this occasion, too, I was struck by this basic truth: if everyone has their own learning talents and styles (as Howard Gardner says), then people with Down's Syndrome have to have theirs. There was no reason to think they don't. So their approaches to learning have to be analysable in terms of the "intelligences" discussed in this essential work. Consequently, their cognitive process would mainly depend on the adaptability of the learning material to their needs and working pace. In other words, teachers and educators have to rely on the strengths of their students with Down's Syndrome (as would happen with any other individual) if they want them to acquire new knowledge and tackle the world around them.

Over the next week I had meetings with the psychologists and other experts who had been working with the girl since she was at primary school. But no one was of any help as to how I should teach her English. They presented test results, data on her intelligence quotient and other observations relating to educational psychology which weren't easy for me to understand. They insisted on her very limited academic skills and verbal communication abilities (which, honestly, I hadn't noticed: it was only that she spoke a bit more slowly than other girls). Finally, they emphasized her great sensitivity and told me that I shouldn't expect too much from her because of her poor memory. None of this was of any help. What I wanted were practical suggestions to apply to my daily lessons with the girl, not diagnoses. Whatever happened, I certainly wasn't going to make the poor girl copy down page after page of something that made very little sense to her.

Luckily one day something happened that kick-started my brain into action. When the break time bell rang, instead of going to the school bar for coffee I stayed sitting on my chair and tidying some papers I had to use with another class. Nearly all the students (including the girl with Down's Syndrome) stayed in class, too, talking together or revising for the next lessons. To my great surprise I heard the girl talking with her classmates in both perfect Italian and perfect Venetian dialect (which is quite different from the Italian language). By listening to her a bit more attentively I realised that she was able to speak both of them perfectly and without any interference. "She already knows two languages!" I said to myself. "Why hasn't she learnt any English then?" I wondered.

From the information I had got either from the girl or from her family, I knew she had been doing English lessons of some kind at least for seven or eight years. So why wasn't she able to say anything in English? I couldn't believe it was because she had formed negative ideas about English as the language spoken by "foreigners". Not long after I had met her for the first time I had also found out that she liked listening to songs in English and was acquainted with a lot of foreign pop singers or groups (she was even able to sing parts of songs in English). Moreover, if it was a question of very low intelligence quotient or poor memory as the psychologists and experts thought, she wouldn't have mastered either the Venetian language or Italian. It was clear that she had learnt her second language without copying anything, but only by hearing it spoken either in the family or among friends. In other words, she had been given what experts would call "proper models of communication to follow" and "opportunities to interact with people". If I wanted her to begin learning English I had to follow the same natural method that had brought her to speak the Venetian dialect perfectly. With regard to "the good English models to interact with", in order to acquire the vocabulary of the language and increase it little by little as it had happened with the Venetian language, I thought that the girl had only to look around in the class to find them, in her classmates, in the teacher, in the class assistant and in all the activities we carried out based on authentic situations (pieces of language from recorded cassettes, videos, television programmes, etc.).

In Italy students with disabilities are usually included in regular school classes, even though they are not always bound to learn all the things that the others have to, or even sit for state examinations. Whether they have to follow the regular educational curriculum or not (or only part of it) will obviously depend on the sort and the severity of their disability. At all events, they are quite rightly full members of the class in every respect. Quite often a helper is assigned to the class to assist the teacher in working through the syllabus, so that the latter has enough time to devote to the students in need of more help and attention. In my case, I was lucky because for some months I had with me a young teacher of English who was patient and collaborative, and helped me coordinate new teaching ideas and evaluate their feasibility with each of the students. In the case of the girl with Down's Syndrome, she contributed a great deal by helping her to become more autonomous and to meet the ordinary demands of the daily routine in class.

From the following lesson onwards I involved the girl in all activities that we did in the class by adapting most of curricular materials to her particular needs, as I used to do with classes without special needs students, since it seemed "natural" to have mixed ability students even in the last year at school. The problem of mixed abilities in the same room seems absolutely natural, and it is the idea of teaching a unitary lesson that seems odd" ("Strategies for a Mixed Abiliy Group" - Practical English Teaching, Vol. 7/1). I always tried to speak to her in English and so did her classmates and the assistant. I never asked her to write anything (unless she wanted to), least of all to read texts, which were often too complicated for her. I always spoke to her slowly, using short sentences with easy basic words, leaving out the inessential ones. I articulated all sentences clearly so that the expressiveness of the face and body in general might play their proper role in conveying the message.

Pretty soon I realized that she was mainly a visual learner so I enriched all learning activities with pictures, images, videos, visual displays from computers, etc. (her ability to use the computer was of great help in this), even though she was asked to do mainly oral tasks. She was an attentive viewer and no single important detail from an illustration or screen frame (including the background details) escaped her, and by showing the others her meticulous powers of observation, she built up her self-esteem. We used to work a lot in groups so that each student could play their own role within the same task and work at their own level and pace. I always placed her in the group I chose to work with. Most students wanted her to work in their group, first because they all liked her so much and were very proud of her progress; secondly, because her share in group tasks quite often included more clues and key-points than her classmates', so that she represented a real source of information for the class, the one to confer with when her classmates needed to check their work, to clear up doubts, to solve their problems faster, etc. Obviously, she was glad to be the centre of attention and to be able to help her classmates to achieve their tasks.

Little by little she started to take part in all the activities, at first only by listening to conversations and observing how things happened, then intervening in monosyllables. Finally she even by volunteered to role-play some parts of a text or to write instructions on the blackboard or to read some paragraphs from a text (which had been unthinkable only a few months before). When I read the class passages from books or newspapers, especially when they had to do with news or information that she already knew from other sources, she was able to predict, in her own way, the subsequent logical consequences or conclusions by answering multiple choice questions or even by completing sentences that indicated comprehension. Obviously, she needed to be guided to achieve all this successfully. However, her best way of learning was undoubtedly through practical demonstrations and real examples, such as by roleplaying real situations or interviewing people with practical goals in mind.

Working with this girl over a whole school year I realised that what she knew in terms of general knowledge was far more than what she was able to express, that her learning ability was more receptive than productive; that her cognitive level couldn't be measured by her ability to use the language (in fact her auditory skills were weaker than her visual ones). To measure her cognitive ability you needed to take into account the signs and clues from her behaviour, her way of dealing with things, her way of interacting with the people round her. In fact, her comprehension was nearly total, in some cases probably even more complete than her classmates' because her attention was more regular (nothing could distract her when she was listening to or doing something involving). But she really needed more time to carry out a task adequately or to find the right answer to a question. Her need for more time was strictly in proportion to the level of practicality of the matter she was asked to deal with. It was easier and quicker for her to process and retrieve the language that had to do with her daily life. It was more complicated and slower with concepts that were too far away from her personal experience.

It is beyond doubt that during the school year we spent together she didn't live off her classmates, but was as active as they were and gave her share to the mutual learning process, doing her best to maximise her potential.

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