Exploring the Life & Learning of Helen Keller: Part III

Read Part I on Helen Keller’s background here and Part II on Annie Sullivan’s background here.

Helen & Annie

On Annie’s arrival at Helen’s house, Annie placed a big rag doll in Helen’s arms and immediately began spelling into Helen’s hand, just like a mother talks to their newborn child. In her book, Helen writes, “I was interested in this finger play and immediately tried to imitate it. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed. I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way. My teacher was with me for many weeks before I understood that everything has a name.” 

Experience aids memory. 

But the confusion of the words between “mug” and “water” gave Annie the breakthrough she needed. Helen needed the experience of feeling running water on her hands to connect the words being spelled into her hand with the object. It was here that Helen’s learning intensified. She understood the connections between the spelling in her hand and the real world objects. 

From this story, I take away: Use real-world experiences to connect oral language and written language. These experiences change how our students see literacy. 

Helen writes: “Children hear acquired language without any particular effort; the world that falls from others’ lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process.” 

Helen has just described learning-disabled, dyslexic children!

Helen gives a description of learning about the word “think.”  Helen’s task was to string different size beads together in symmetrical groups such as two large beads followed by three small ones. Helen made an obvious mistake. At this time, Annie touched Helen’s forehead and spelled the word “think.” Helen immediately knew the word was the name of the process going on in her head! 

Again, using experiences to learn abstract words for students who struggle with language makes the process much easier.  

When “learning to read” students must make the connection between oral and written language.

Annie’s teaching went from oral language to the written language. After Helen could spell a few words, Annie gave Helen cardboard slips with Braille words. Helen made the connections quickly and easily—it’s a step my students must also make. 

Annie made sentence strips for Helen, strips such as “The doll is on the bed.” Here Helen could carry out the idea of the sentence with the object. One day, Helen placed the words “pinafore” on her dress in the wardrobe and arranged the words “Pinafore is in the wardrobe.” 

Helen describes such learning as a “game.” 

I use this same technique for my students! Comprehending prepositions is a part of child development, tested in preschools. My students lag behind in language development, thus the need to teach such words in a way my student can comprehend and recall with ease. 

Annie turned lessons into a game. When learning is a game, it becomes easy, even for those who struggle. 

Annie achieved success with Helen by building the foundations of both oral and written language. 

I unknowingly used many of Annie’s techniques in assisting my students. By studying Annie Sullivan’s teaching examples we can assist those students who struggle to become skilled readers.  

Photo: Irish Times