How I Teach - Develop a feel for grammar

How a tactile game for teaching a blind student worked for all

So much of how we teach grammar is visual. It's not something you tend to be aware of until someone points it out. Or until you have a visually impaired student in your class.

There are many ways of introducing a grammar point in a lesson. Typically, you start with a text and follow a guided discovery technique, or elicit a particular form by presenting or drawing a picture and asking questions. One way or the other, you end up with a model sentence written on the board. Next, you explain the meaning by asking concept-checking questions and explore stress and pronunciation, all the while referring to the sentence on the board.

So what do you do when a student can't see these visual prompts? I was forced to address this question when a blind student joined my class, and I found the following methods helpful.

Taking a set of wooden blocks of different shapes, I link parts of a sentence to particular shapes and put them in a line. Then I let my student feel each part. I also add in other shapes. So, for past simple tense, we need to differentiate the regular and irregular verbs. A cube represents a verb, and to make it regular a toy called Mr Ed is put next to the cube. So, for example, "start" becomes "started" because Mr Ed has joined the verb. When it comes to irregular forms, a round ring is placed around the cube, signalling that the verb "get" has changed its form and become "got", for example. Once the structure is designed, the student says the sentence and touches the appropriate shape when pronouncing each word.

Your student can also find their own way of labelling sentence parts: anything that will help them to remember. Another method is to present a structure and ask the student to create sentences that correspond to it. Or do it the other way round: say a sentence and then ask the student to build the structure.

A great way of ensuring that visually impaired students are included is to get all the children in the class playing games in pairs. One creates and recites a sentence, and the other builds it with the blocks as fast as possible.

Some teachers, as well as learners, perceive grammar as boring, unnecessary and hard to teach and learn. But this tactile approach makes the English tenses as memorable as possible. It is amazing how much better students engage with and remember grammar when they learn it in this way. The approach also encourages teamwork, introduces an element of competition and allows children to have fun and use their imagination.

It is fantastic to see a technique that has worked so well for my blind student become a model that all children can use. So often it is people with disabilities who have to adapt to a more mainstream methodology; turning this on its head can have a real impact on disabled students' confidence.

Joanna Davidson is curriculum leader in the English for speakers of other languages department at Salford City College, England


1 Digital assistance

This short video explores how technology can help people who are visually impaired to overcome everyday challenges.


2 Reasoned rhythms

In this video, a teacher shares her tips and ideas for multi-sensory approaches in the classroom, including lessons based around rhythms and music.


3 Making sense

This handy literacy mat lists a range of adjectives that children can use when exploring their senses.

bit.lySense Making

4 Inclusion information

A concise guide to facilitate the inclusion of visually impaired students in all aspects of school life.


5 Feel for it

Encourage students to think about smell, touch, sight, hearing and taste with this structured lesson plan and "feely bag" activity.


6 Team trial

In this lesson, students work in pairs or small groups to investigate the senses by completing a series of short tasks and presenting their findings to the class.


7 Pleasing planning

Prepare to teach a topic on senses with these extensive planning documents and worksheets.

bit.lyPleasing Planning

8 Can't touch this

In this activity from the Children's Museum of Houston in the US, students work in pairs and use their sense of touch to "see" a hidden object and create a model of it.


9 Beat the clock

See if your class can work together to beat the clock and sequence the answers correctly in this word-loop activity based on the eye and the senses.


10 Calling cards

A set of cards listing vocabulary associated with the five senses, which can be used to support writing in the classroom.


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