Groping in the Dark

Submitted by Gladys Focho, EFL teacher, faculty officer, Faculty of Science, University of Bamenda, Cameroon

The new school year had just begun and this was my first class with this lower six class (junior high school). As the lesson progressed, my excitement waned when I heard the noise of what sounded like a typing machine. In trying to find out, the following conversation ensued.

“Who is making that noise?” I asked.

“It is Tonlieu, Madam,” came the steady reply.

“Who is Tonlieu and what is he doing?” I walked around, trying to locate Tonlieu amongst eighty students. “He is typing the Braille because he cannot see, Madam.”

“What is the word for someone who cannot see?," I asked. Anyway think about that; we’ll discuss it later.”

That was the teacher in me, trying to be correct despite the circumstances, but a student shouted the right answer from the back of the class. Many things were running through my head; no one ever told me there would be a blind student in my class, and I was never taught how to teach the blind during my teacher training program. In any case I tried to draw Tonlieu into a conversation and make him feel comfortable, but he refused to utter a word. I devised other impromptu means to keep him engaged during the lesson.

After class, I tried to find out what specific problems he had. He confessed (speaking in French) that he had never made an oral sentence in English, not even in class. The teachers would just ignore him for the whole year because of his unresponsive attitude. Besides, he said, he was discouraged because he had never passed in an English test, no matter how hard he tried to "memorize."

I decided to make Tonlieu a case study. I was groping in the dark, grappling with different methods to address the special needs of this student and he was also groping in the dark, looking for motivation to learn this foreign language. And so the journey began, with Tonlieu agreeing to cooperate, having been convinced of the importance of English worldwide

 I encouraged him to participate in class activities, especially speaking.  He was expected to read one easy reader or any printed material every two weeks and to watch programs in English on TV or listen to the radio. These had to be accompanied by written or oral commentaries. To give Tonlieu a feeling of success, I would give him "motivational tests." His grades improved gradually; he was more confident and participated fully in class.

Once, there was a class project on dramatizing excerpts from Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech, and Tonlieu did a wonderful presentation. One day during break time, I found Tonlieu laughing with a group of friends. I asked why they were so happy and Tonlieu said, "It is good to be always happy, Madam." Indeed, Tonlieu and I were the two happiest people for his successful journey from being mute when it comes to speaking English to becoming the president of the English Club!