ELT Best Practices: Special Needs Students in the Developing World

Saima Haq is founder and principal of the Special Children’s Educational Institute in Karachi, Pakistan. Her best practices stem from her goal to create a safe, supportive place for special needs students to learn, grow and contribute to the community through education and the English language.

Sherry Blok (SB): Tell us how you became involved in teaching special needs students.

Saima Haq (SH): I was fortunate enough to travel back and forth from the United States to Pakistan during my formative years. What I noticed in the West was that regardless of your disability, you could still engage in a quality life. In the West, people with disabilities do things that “normal” people do. However, in countries like Pakistan, India, or Saudi Arabia, there is a correlation between poverty and disability. The smallest disability is the source of not being able to live a normal life. If you are missing a leg or limb, people become marginalized. In Karachi, polio victims move around in carts and are of a begging culture. Of course, they could still be from lower income brackets, but because of their disabilities, they have become poverty stricken. Seeing the disparity between the two worlds made me want to do something.

SB: You have been an advocate for students with special needs in Pakistan, and your mission is not only to provide support and training to these students and their families, but also to bring special needs to light. I’ve read that you dislike use of the term ”special needs.”


Saima Haq

SH: I think we need people with special needs in our lives because we learn from them. When we talk about children with special needs, it is like we are superior to them, when they are superior to us. The word “needs” is a word that means needy—it bothers me. Need implies you can’t survive without something. Why do we have to put labels on them? In society, we should be more open to differences and avoid our desires to label everything.

SB: Tell us about your learners.

SH: My population consists of intellectually challenged students, below the mental age of 7, ranging in age from 3 and a half to almost 35 years old.

SB: How does English language teaching “fit” into the curriculum of students with special needs?

SH: Most of these kids, no matter where they live in the world, still watch cartoons on Nickelodeon or other networks. These things are universal. At my school, we treat English as a universal language. Most instruction and technology is in English. We utilize basic Montessori material. The prereading and prewriting materials are predominately in English. We start with teaching the foundations of concrete before more abstract learning. If they are not able to retain information and follow along, how are they going to go into academic learning? We use technology, for number recognition, for teaching parts of the body, to reinforce reading and writing in English. Technology avoids marginalization and empowers learners to participate in a larger context and interact online.

SB: In your opinion, what are some of the challenges/issues for teachers in this field?

SH: Teachers often lack confidence to speak to learners in English and want to revert to their L1 to communicate with students, but these teachers need to be encouraged. Working with this type of learner requires simple and repeated instructions.

In the West, the teacher-student ratio is 13-1 compared to 25-1 in developing countries. As a result, the teacher teaches to the top of the class. Another problem is the lack of teacher training. It is not because teachers don’t want it or that they are not committed to their own learning, but in Pakistan, there is a focus on memorization and having the right answer. Therefore, teachers may lack the skills to work with children with special needs. Teaching this type of learner requires problem-solving abilities, flexibility to figure out the best way to do something. I always tell my teachers to let the child teach them how to teach the child. A child will respond when he or she is taught in a way that he or she learns. New teachers often want to jump in and start working with the students. The first thing I say is that it is too early for you to teach. Teachers need to build trust and practice patience. It may take a week or sometimes longer for a child to respond.

SB: What type of activities do you do to empower your learners? How does learning English tie into empowerment?

SH: Let me give you a recent example. On Earth day, we introduced our students to universal recycling symbols using English. They used recycled juice boxes to create pencil cases. Teachers gave instructions in English and reinforced them in Urdu. Through this activity, they learned to care about their planet as global citizens, and it empowered them through the use of the English language.

SB: What are your best practices?


Parental Involvement

I see a lot of parents in third-world countries that don’t get it. It is not that the kid isn’t getting the information, it is that parents are not getting the kids. It’s vital to get the parents on board to help the educator help their child. Open communication with the parents is necessary to build trust with parents. If that is not going to happen, teachers are just banging their heads against a brick wall.

Student-Centered Learning

Make the mode of instruction simple, precise, and repeat. Teachers need to make the child feel safe in a new environment by coming down to the child’s level. Find a way to your teaching to the child—it is not about why, but about how. Why is the child not responding? Why is the child not learning? If the child is not responding, what are the reasons? Teachers need to be flexible and modify their teaching styles and seek resources to help.

SB: Can you provide any tips to language educators who may have some special needs students in their classroom, but lack support and training?

SH: Teachers have to remember when they come across a child who has a difficulty learning or who is not responding, that they should separate the child from themselves. It is not about your ability as a teacher, it is about the child. In most developing countries, people are worried about their jobs, and insecurity is there. If a child does not respond, teachers’ own insecurities come out. Feel confident, and if you have a student who is not learning, don’t be afraid, it is not your fault. A lot of learning is tactile, and if a child is tactilely engaged, he or she is also cognitively engaged. Not all cognitive learning is reading and writing.

SB: Saima, you are also a poet. Can you share one of your poems with TESOL readers from your experience with your learners?

They call me “Special”
but aren’t we all?
Most kids can run
but I stumble and fall.
My mother cries
oh so many tears,
but my tiniest step
will make her cheer.
I know I’m not like the others,
I can tell,
but the love that I get
can fill a well
I’m cared for and cherished
by people who choose
to love me for who I am.
So how can I lose?

Check out Saima’s short video on the Cuddle Project, which includes activities to sensitize students to special needs.

Interested in sharing your best practices? Contact me at sherryblok@videotron.ca

About Sherry Blok

Sherry Blok
Sherry Blok is the assistant director of programs at the Centre for Continuing Education, Concordia University. Montreal, Canada. She holds a master’s degree in second language education from McGill University and has more than 20 years of experience as an ESL lecturer in the intensive English program at Concordia University. She received the TESOL Teacher of the Year Award in 2015 and has presented nationally and internationally on topics related to English for academic purposes, global citizenship education, assessment, and teacher feedback.
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