English and Special Needs Education

Recently, I had the privilege of being allowed to teach phonics to some of my students at my special needs school. I can’t express how elated I am now.

One of my students has started reading some of his very first words. ALL BY HIMSELF. Not perfect, but OH GOD does it feel like a miracle.

I also use phonics as a way of oral therapy. Some of my students can’t really speak much, so using phonics is a great way to introduced new sounds to them even if they may be incapable of producing some of the sounds I teach.

Teaching phonics has been so enlightening. I now know how difficult it is to create sounds. I don’t take it for granted anymore and had to go allll the way back to the start and relearn the phonics for myself so that I could teach the material in Japanese.

And then, there are the confusing sounds that I’d long taken for granted. E makes a kind of “eh” sound but at the end of Snake you dont say Snak”eh”. It’s silent. Or the “OO” sound. Moon and book. So different.

How do I teach it to students who study English long after getting used to Japanese which has very standard pronunciations?

I’m coming to terms with all this while teaching at sepcial needs while questioning all I ever learnt as a child. The more I teach, the more I’m in awe of children.

So, at this point, the teachers and I have come up with a phonics dvd. Hardly professional, but better than Katakana English anyday. Honestly, I wish I were more qualified for this… so I try to do research on my end. We’ve called it “Phonics for Life” and it’s meant to have 7 parts to it…with each level teaching a different set of phonics. In between though, we create some “Let’s Read” episodes where I piece together the phonics they’ve learnt, to create words. This way, we feel, the students will start seeing that they have the ability to read more things once they start using phonics!

Slooow and steady.
The risk, at this point, is my desire to teach as much as possible to these students who don’t get much time with me. It’s a risk because, if rushed, students tend to forget the sounds they learnt earlier. So, often times, I have to slow myself down to make sure the basics aren’t forgotten.

All this is increadibly scary. We’re making these 1-take videos filled with my improvisations.  In one “episode” I dropped my pointer and did a little hum to myself. Apparently, this set off a huge outburst of laughter in one of my students who wouldn’t stop trying to imitate it for a LONG time. He asked me about it, the next time he saw me.

“What was THAT all about???” he asked me.
“What was WHAT all about???” I asked, confused.
“That hum thing you did when you dropped the pointer!” he said, accusingly.
“Oh, that! That was all improvised! I mean, come on, give me a break!” I replied to my dissatisfied client.

Sometimes, I try to make-up some funny explanations for the pronunciations. For example, NG. I’ve gone done the unspeakable by introducing toilet humor into pronunciation work with Elementry students. NG, I’ve explained, is the sound one makes when they’re constipated and want to take a dump. Not sure I wanna know how they’ll react after watching it. Apparently, though, some of my students enjoy repeating what I teach them throughout the hallways for an entire week. ._. sorry…it just HAD to be done.

Soon after staging the charity play last year, one of the JTEs at my school approched me and suggested that we could try doing them with some of the Junior High students. The first play we did was fairly simple. The students (2 of them) requested me to write about arm-wrestling and I created a 3 or 4 page drama. Rehearsing it though, took a long time.

Taking things for granted has become a bit of a running theme in my life, these days.

Saying a line should be a quick 5 second job, right?
One of my students battles extreme tiredness in class and has speech difficulties (A-kun) while the other can’t talk verbally and doesn’t have full control of her hands (B-san). Both are also wheelchair users.

So, everything that might take 2 minutes in a professional rehearsal space takes an entire lesson here.

How we tackle this is taking things step by step.
First, we explain the story to the students, line by line.
Then we record my voice and B-san practices selecting the lines on cue.
With A-kun, we practice and try to film him before he sleeps.
Finally, I take the video clips and try to piece them together as nicely as possible. TRY.

With the high school devision, we began a new ‘business’ English plan. I was talking to my JTE one day and was asking him about possibly teaching English that was more practical for them. Most will go on to work in factories, convenience stores or small shops.

He seemed to be really interested in this idea, so we embarked on our project to teach students shop/customer service lingo.

Is it a more stressfull lesson for students? Yes.

Is it also more practical? Most definitely.

I see them push themselves a lot more now and in return my JTE and I try to take the lessons slow.

We show them practical usage of what we teach by doing mock-up shop playacting. The JTE and I are customers and the students take on the role of shop staff.

We’re currently in the process of teaching them how to identify ingredients or what a  product is made of. It’s incredibly satisfying.

Special Needs is not easy. My energy levels shift throughout the day…some Tuesdays are a million times better (or worse) than other Tuesdays. Teaching here however has been most educational and eye-opening and I count myself extremely lucky.


தமிழ், என் தாய்மொழி.

HAPPY NEW YEAR and a HUGE BACKLOG of articles.
September-Jan tends to get particularly busy and between work, travel and falling sick (FOR A MONTH!) I couldn’t update much over here. : (  This article was supposed to go up in November…but things happened. So yea.

So around mid-November, I taught Tamil at a JTE/ALT teaching workshop called TSDS. This happens ever year and all ALTs 2nd year and above are expected to conduct workshops. Personally, I wanted to teach about using theatre in the classroom, cuz that’s my comfort zone. I studied it, I know it, I do it at work…safe, fun and clean.

BUUT, that didn’t go as planned and being the only Tamil ALT around here, I was tasked with teaching what I’d be calling my Mother Tongue all my life. I was told that it would be a great opportunity for people here to experience something new.

When I was told to teach Tamil , I was not too happy about it. In fact, I was petrified, sceptical, annoyed, nervous and all the negative emotions bundled in one. What was I supposed to say? What would they want to know? I had a very self defensive stance…and I was actually trying to shy away from teaching it. I was certain that I was going to become one of those rare showcase creatures.

Didn’t help that I haven’t been ACTIVELY using Tamil for a while.

There are very few brown people here in Toyama and even back home I’m a part of the tiny 9% Indian population…and an even tinier 3% (active)Tamil speaking poplulation. So I’m not a foreigner to some ignorant comments. Do you speak Hindu? How do you say that in Indian? I’ve heard them all. Ignorance has been such a huge part of my life, you could say I’ve started EXPECTING ignorance.

And…don’t even get me started on the number of times people giggle or gawk when I speak Tamil and tell me it must be super difficult and that it sounds impossible. It grates on me a little…Cuz I’m not asking you to speak Tamil right? A little respect, can? Also, there are people out there who speak this “INTAPUTERE” language (some people legit think this is a Tamil word. It is not.) just fine. :/

But then, about a month before the workshop, I got an idea.
One of those Jinius ideas I pride myself on….
I came out from behind my defensive fortress (read: pulled head out of ass) after some of my friends told me how much they were looking forward to the workshop.

I decided to confront the stereotypes head on, and give all my participants a full sensory experience.

So I split my workshop into 3 sections.

Part 1 would address my identity. Singaporean. Indian. Asian (Yes, I’m Asian too). Hindu Family. Tamil-speaker. Maybe a part of me was terrified especially when faced with so many identities to contend with. HOW to explain?

Part 2 would address the language and give people a super brief look into the Tamil language.

Part 3 would be a mini sensory exploration/exhibition. I brought Saris, Spices, Books, Sweets…etc.

And…I was blown away. First we explored stereotypes. Some legitimate…some not so. It was fun. Me giving people the permission to expose whatever stereotypes they had made it easier for me to confront them head on. My one week trip back home (more on that later) let me take a ton of photos and I felt like I was able to give people a tiny peek into my culture. Not the naan, curry, elephant, bollywood culture, but MINE.

Then came the language part. I was just waiting for a giggle to escape…but nothing. Everyone was seriously looking at me. I’d given out a worksheet with the Tamil letters and everyone was looking at it. So I began with a “looks tough right?” and as expected there was a nervous murmer. But, then the more I explained…”Did you know the Japanese pronounciation and the Tamil pronunciation…is actually very similar! As is the grammar!”…”P + A = PA!”…the more people got into it. Eventually, there was an entire class of ALTs and JTEs (people from so many cultures and backgrounds) trying to do their own self-introductions. I had people raising their hands asking if they had gotten their names right, people asking if they’d written the Tamil letter correctly.

I did as much language teaching as I could in about 20minutes.
Of course no one was a Tamil expert by the end of it…but I was satisfied.

Finally finally, came the sensory exhibition section. I gave everyone sweets and snacks by my mom (bless her soul and thank God for my Singapore trip). People crowded around my mini exhibit, smelling and chatting…and the most wonderful part were the questions.

One teacher had waited years to ask someone if Tamil and Japanese were indeed related. He showed me the Japanese word 学ぶ (Manabu, to learn) and the Tamil word மாணவர் (Maanavar, student), asking “Can you tell me if Tamil and Japanese are linked? I read this book so many years ago and have been waiting to ask someone this question!” Of course, both of us didn’t have the answer… I’d read about the similarites and have had similar wonderings…but never expected someone in Toyama to ask me that question.

Another gentleman wrote Hindi on the whiteboard and asked “This isn’t Tamil, but I saw this at the Indian restaurant and memorised it to show you. Can you read it?”

There were also questions about Rangoli and spices and so many more questions other than, “how do you say that in Indian?”

I came out of my own lecture, enlightened. Yes, there’s racism, yes, there’s ignorance. But, perhaps this just indicates the lack of frank head-on education. Education really does teach more than 1+1, afterall.