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Pictures can say so much

When profoundly deaf Rebecca joined Michael Newton's class of seven=year-olds, he had to rethink his methods, he tells Caroline Linfitt.

Before I met Rebecca, I had no experience of working with deaf people. Although special needs had featured in my training, I never envisaged that a year into teaching I would have a deaf child in my class.

But I was intrigued by the challenge - my inability to communicate in my previous encounters with deaf people had left me feeling inadequate and embarrassed. To have a deaf pupil was the chance to change that.

Before Rebecca and her support worker Jane started in my class, I tried to lay some foundations and attempted to make a light-hearted contact with her.

I was definitely feeling my way as the class of seven-year-olds at Grimsargh primary, near Preston, was a new age group for me. I was anxious about what to expect of a profoundly deaf child and whether she would get left behind, particularly as I had no outside speech therapy support for six months. However, repeating instructions and information in different ways soon became second nature and paid dividends for the whole class.

Jane worked only mornings and I was left "flying solo" in the afternoons. I felt totally ill-equipped, but slowly Rebecca and I became more confident and our communication improved. I altered the timetable so we had fewer English-based subjects when Jane was not there. I remember early on saying to Rebecca that I would help her if she would help me. At first, it was completely one-sided, with Rebecca teaching me a constant barrage of signs. But, as time went on, I began to use the signs to teach her.

Rebecca obviously learns in a different way from hearing children. With Ruth, everything comes visually. You need to rely on her previous experience and try to remember what pictures are in her mind. These can then be used almost like building blocks to add knowledge. For example, Rebecca knows what rain is but, to learn "drizzle" or "fog", she needs a visual image for comparison. For the hearing child, the new picture can be built up through words and explanation. For Rebecca this process of visual analogy is central to successful learning.

The language I used in class was not simpler but ather more "colourful". It is about altering the way you work. Any new vocabulary would be constantly followed up by Jane, who not only translated when necessary, but ensured that Rebecca understood at each stage of a lesson.

Without the use of signs, I believe Rebecca would have struggled and her vocabulary would have been far more limited. However, over-reliance on a support worker can alienate a deaf child from the group. It is vital that a deaf child is a full and equal member of a mainstream class rather than a bolted-on afterthought.

By focusing on her presence within the group, Rebecca can grow in esteem and join discussions, readily offering her opinions and answering questions.

One advantage of having Rebecca in class is that children become more aware of their use of language when communicating with her. They realise the need to cut the waffle and get to the point. It is a great experience which I am sure will make them better people.

Rebecca quite understandably wants to be like hearing children. Once we visited an outward bound centre where there was a group of deaf people signing to one another. Rebecca was thrilled. All the people who sign to her are hearing so she is not very aware of deaf people's use of sign to socialise. Most recently, Rebecca had a cochlea implant and it is a worry that those around her may not see her as being as "deaf" as before. But the implant is not a quick fix. After initially seeming to make progress with it and responding to sounds around her, a specialist teacher noticed that it had not been working at all!

Rebecca works hard for her achievements and wants to fit in: my argument is that she already does fit in quite well. Having Rebecca in the class has been like a tonic. She made good progress and achieved key stage 1 results comparable with any other child of her age.

As I gained so much from this experience, I may now go into deaf teaching. It has been a great challenge: exciting and always interesting. Rebecca gave me the opportunity to encounter something new.

My advice to teachers faced with similar situations is not to hesitate. Recognise the opportunity and enjoy the experience because, as teachers, we all want to make a bit of difference.

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