Adapting Maths for Blind Students
After qualifying as a primary teacher and spending some time working for various supply agencies, in 2017 I joined a college to work as part of their additional learning support team, working with students with additional needs. A large part of my role has been to support students – some who have very complex needs – through their GCSE English and maths sessions and to help them strive towards gaining some independence. This blog outlines some challenges, successes and experiences had with supporting a student through GCSE maths who is registered as blind and has English as an additional language.
My main student this year came into college with a different level of needs than the college had previously been able to cater for. The student is registered blind, having zero vision, and has spent the vast majority of their upbringing in a different country. When they started college, the student was guided everywhere they went and would have assistance with a lot of tasks to be able to meet their needs but no support to enable them to strive for independence. We were advised that there were some tasks that children that are blind in our country learn from as young as 4 years old, yet our student had few of these skills.
One of the greatest challenges for the student studying GCSE Maths was, and still is, that the exam papers have a number of ‘diagram’ questions. Anything that a sighted person would use as a visual representation – such as a graph, chart, shape, measuring line on a cylinder to name a few – requires the student to have a level of skill with navigating an adapted version with their hands. This means that to be able to practice and develop these skills, tactile diagrams need to be produced and a lot of time devoted to their use. For maths sessions throughout the year, the use of these diagrams could be split into two groups: pre-prepared or incidental.
Pre-prepared diagrams can be the most effective as they can be produced to a higher quality, matching the resources used in the maths sessions. These could include written activities the students will be completing, powerpoint/presentation slides or even pre-prepared examples of what will be used on a whiteboard. The pre-prepared resources can be made to a higher quality to resemble the diagrams likely to be encountered in an exam through the use of a swell fuser.
A swell fuser looks and works in a similar way to a laminator. Diagrams can be printed directly onto specialised paper, which is then fed through the machine, causing the ink to ‘bubble up’. This allows the student to be able to feel the lines of the diagram. There is also a specialised pen that can be used to draw directly onto the paper with similar results.
One of the drawbacks to relying on pre-prepared resources can be the time that they take to produce, especially if a lesson goes in a different direction and these resources are not used. A lot of the resources I have used this year I have produced myself or heavily adapted resources for sighted learners. A 6-page booklet of tasks for learning about geometry can be several hours of adapting and producing the resources needed.
Even with the most perfectly produced resources to hand, there are still many times during lessons that a concept may need to be expanded upon further. With a sighted learner, this could be done in many different ways that are easily accessed such as illustrations on a whiteboard, a video to highlight a particular method or example questions to name just a few. With a student who is blind, other strategies need to be used to ensure that they have the same opportunities for incidental learning. With every maths session I always ensured we had a ‘maths pack’ of additional resources we could draw upon. These include (but are certainly not limited to): a pin board with pins and elastic bands, tactile equipment such as a protractor, compass and ruler, Wikki Stix, bumpons and spur wheels. I also had several blank grids and charts that could be easily adapted if needed.
By having a readily available pack of resources, any teaching opportunities that come up during a session that are not planned for can sometimes be made accessible for a student who is blind. For example, spur wheels can be used to manually emboss some paper, allowing the lines of a shape to be read by the student. Wikki Stix or elastic bands can outline the different angles of a shape and bumpons can be stuck on to indicate an angle or a point of reference that you want to focus on.
Skills and Exams
One of the biggest decisions that had to be made when supporting this student was whether we wanted to focus on the practical skills that the student would need to access various diagrams in maths, or whether to focus on the mathematical knowledge needed to pass (achieve grade 4) the GCSE exam. As the student had significant gaps in some of their skills, we decided that the best course of action would be to focus on developing these skills, perhaps at the cost of fewer hours dedicated to mathematical knowledge and understanding. What surprised me was the amount of concentration involved for the student to access simple diagrams such as basic 2D shapes and to be able to identify their properties. For a sighted person, when they are presented with a diagram that has various quadrilaterals and triangles on it, they can immediately see a lot of the information needed to identify these shapes. How many sides? What about the length of those sides? Does the shape have parallel sides and/or right angles?
With a student that cannot rely on their vision for this information, they have to feel the diagram and work in a very systematic way. Is their page oriented correctly? Does it matter about the orientation? Where are the diagrams situated on the page? When counting the sides of a shape, do they have a point of reference to make sure they don’t count the same side twice? These are just a few examples of how a relatively straightforward task for a sighted person takes a lot longer and becomes a lot more complicated when a student has to rely on their sense of touch and memory.
After spending a lot of time working on these skills over the past year, we’ve noticed a huge difference in the student. A lot of our time has been working on their independence so they do not have to rely on others to complete every task, resulting in an incredible increase in confidence. Focusing on the skills needed rather than the knowledge and understanding has led to the student applying these skills in other areas, being more systematic in their approach to their work and flourishing in their vocational course. Yes, they may not gain the maths grade they perhaps would have done with more intense maths support but they are now in a position where the practical skills needed are nowhere near as much of a barrier as they were this time last year.
Have you had any experiences with adapting maths for students who are blind? What other resources/strategies did you use? Is the decision to focus on practical skills instead of knowledge and understanding always the right decision to make?