by Gene Segarra Navera
A semester with a visually impaired learner and another with a student who admits to having difficulty with writing served as an eye-opener for me as a teacher of rhetoric and composition. These eye-opening moments involved adjusting levels of visuality in my instruction and learning materials. It is an adjustment that required seeing through the lens of the learner, that is, by enacting empathy.
It takes empathy to be able to glean through the perspective of learners who are differently abled or whose learning style is somehow different from what one would normally expect in a critical writing module. Empathy requires understanding the learning constraints of the students who need special assistance but not necessarily special attention. An understanding of the constraints would mean adjusting materials to make them more inclusive and sensitive to various students’ needs and learning styles (Riding & Rayner, 1998; Thomas & McKay, 2010).
This reflection is based on my personal classroom observations, email exchanges, and informal interactions with the learners before and after class time. I will first discuss the case of my visually impaired student, Charice (not her real name), and then I will proceed to talk about the case of Shirley (also not her real name), who had expressed her difficulty in using the English language in written expression. I will then synthesize insights from both cases and surface lessons that may be useful for pedagogical practice and further scholarship in teaching and learning.
The case of Charice: Verbalizing for the visually challenged
In the case of the visually impaired learner, I had to meet her prior to the start of the semester to be cognizant of her learning needs. Charice was very open about what is necessary for her to get by in the course. She did not have a lot of demands. Her only requests were (1) to have the slides sent to her before lecture so that she would be familiar with what was to be projected on screen during class, and (2) for the comments on her papers to be put in brackets so that she is able to distinguish her prose from teacher or peer feedback. Charice uses the software JAWS to be able to translate readable text on the computer into speech and sound which she listens to attentively.
The accommodation of Charice in the university and her well-placed confidence in surviving the academic demands of higher education are indication that the university is working towards a more inclusive educational environment where differently abled learners are able to keep up with the rest of the student population. That Charice is emphatic about not being given special treatment is a testament not only to her tenacity and sense of independence but also to her confidence that the university is fair and judicious.
Throughout the course, I had to constantly check myself that such special treatment did not occur in the classroom. I had to explain to the rest of the members of the class when Charice was not around that she is differently abled (which is not very obvious when you see her for the first time) and that we had to make adjustments when necessary. I did that because I did not want Charice to experience unnecessary attention throughout our class sessions. I wanted her to blend in the class as much as possible.
Having had visual-centric materials in previous semesters, I had to make adjustments and turn them into more aural-oral materials that appealed not just to Charice but to everyone in the classroom. I had to be descriptive in my mini-lectures and tried as much as possible to be precise in my use of language. Charice was particularly adept in using language as manifested in her writing. Because of her different learning style, she was perhaps more conscious about producing accurate and clearly written expression.
In summary, the emphasis on verbalization over visualization entailed two processes: (1) an engagement with the learner to find out her specific needs, and (2) a readjustment of existing visual-centric materials to address those needs and the needs of the rest of the members of the class. The engagement with the learner involved communicating with the learner with special needs before the start of the semester as well as constantly checking what her specific needs were in various stages of the semester. The readjustment of existing materials involved verbalization of what was visually presented and a conscious effort in giving explicit and clear instructions.
The case of Shirley: Visualizing for the verbally challenged
While I had to reduce the visuality of my materials for the first semester in order to accommodate the needs of Charice, my visually impaired student, I had to make use of visualizing techniques in order to help Shirley deal with her difficulty in language, particularly in writing her essays for the module, in the second semester of the same academic year. For Shirley, writing essays was a huge challenge that to enable her to understand abstract concepts and schemas of writing required a level of visuality that concretizes the abstract and makes the schemas literally visible in order for them to make sense for the learner.
After the first meeting, Shirley immediately informed an administrative staff in her residential college that she would like to withdraw from my module and transfer to another one. She informed the staff member that after listening to my orientation lecture, she realized that she could not meet the level of language skills required for my module (Oratory and the Public Mind) as she admitted to have difficulty using language for both writing and speech. Thinking that the problem would not be addressed by transferring to another module (which would require pretty much the same level of language skills), the staff member informed me through an email about the case of Shirley. I had to explain to Shirley what the language requirement in the course meant, how it should mean to her as a learner, and why she should not be intimidated by such requirement of the module.
Shirley is an intelligent young woman who actually graduated from one of the better pre-university institutions in Singapore. She is on scholarship and is conscious about meeting the expectations of the scholarship granting institution. She admits to having difficulty in language particularly in speaking and writing (English is a second language to her) and sees herself as better in math and science. This set of information was only revealed to me by Shirley over time—through a couple of interactions via email, short interactions before and after classes, and conferencing, a process which allowed me to get to know the student more.
It was particularly during conferencing that I was able to generate ways on how I could better enable Shirley to understand the abstractions discussed in class and the schemas of writing that she had to adopt in order to produce the written assignments for the module. The conferencing for the third assignment—a one-on-one session on the student’s plan for the expository essay—afforded me the opportunity ask Shirley questions, draw insights from Shirley herself, and literally illustrate the possible trajectory for the student’s essay. Not only did it allow me to help Shirley articulate her expository point, it also offered me the possibility of having the student validate my understanding of what she was trying to do. This was particularly important because such validation from the student was crucial to the generation of appropriate intervention. Specifically, I had to illustrate a possible writing schema that suited the Shirley’s plan for her exposition.
In photos: Levels of visuality in instruction: (1) Visualization of analytical schema during conferencing for a comparative essay, (2) a mind map–more elaborate visualization schema to suggest analytical possibilities for the final paper, (3) a verbally heavy slide that is presented to the class including a visually impaired student.
Levels of visuality: Making the combination of visual and verbal work
What this experience over the past year has taught me is that in designing, developing, and performing instructional materials in the classroom, the teacher should always seriously consider how students’ needs would be better met by the materials’ level of visuality. How the visual is combined with the verbal and other resources will depend largely on the needs, styles and expectations of the learner. There are circumstances that require higher visuality because such would best address students’ difficulty in grasping the abstract and conceptual; however, equally important are other factors and circumstances that require little to non-visuality and that instead encourage the use of verbal strategies in order to deal with the learner’s physical constraints, difficulties or different learning style. Little to non-visuality in instructional materials is expected in situations involving visually impaired students. As the university diversifies in terms of student population and develops into a more inclusive institution, levels of visuality remain an important consideration for teachers and instruction material developers. I would hasten to add that visuality must be complemented by or work in conjunction with other techniques that appeal to several senses. The level of visuality must be complemented by verbal, aural-oral, and other sense-activating resources that enhance learning.
Related to the level of visuality is the level of explicitness in instruction (including the level of abstraction in class discussions). In both Charice and Shirley’s cases, I had to be explicit in my instruction in order for these learners to grasp concepts and schemas presented in class. For Charice, I had to be explicit in my verbal instructions, in my oral presentation, and in my comments to her assignments. This explicitness in verbal communication is coupled with a reduction in the level of visuality. In the case of Shirley, explicitness in instruction was realized through a visualization of schemas for writing and for developing ideas. Making the instruction verbally explicit or explicitly visual addresses the learner’s feelings of inadequacy. It drives the teacher to come up with possibilities for useful intervention.
Cognizance of what visuality can do and cannot do must be coupled with a critical awareness of learners’ needs, concerns and issues. What makes this navigation from levels of visuality and explicitness possible is empathy. It is a disposition, a habit of mind, a spirit that compels us to constantly recognize the humanity of the other—our learners—as they struggle, meander through, and master our courses.
 JAWS stands for Job Access with Speech
Riding, R. J., & Rayner, S. (1998). Cognitive styles and learning strategies: understanding style differences in learning and behavior. London: D. Fulton Publishers.
Thomas, P. R. & McKay, J. B. (2010). Cognitive styles and instructional design in university learning. Learning and Individual Differences, 20: 197–202.