Tactile Lessons from Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

In studying learning styles, I became intrigued by the example of Helen Keller. Born as a normal baby, young Helen lost her sight and hearing during a serious illness at the tender age of 19 months. Trapped in a now dark and silent world, Helen struggled to communicate her desires with her family, and they struggled just as much to communicate with her. By age 6, Helen was a wild child, practically undisciplined, and inevitably self-focused. Her desperate parents, grasping at every straw of hope as any of us would, made a series of contacts which finally brought Anne Sullivan to their home as a teacher for Helen. Anne had lost her own sight for a period of several years, but also had learned to communicate with another deaf and blind woman through the manual alphabet. Those who have seen the movie version of this story, The Miracle Worker, know basically how the rest of the story progresses. My interest led me a step further, to Helen’s biography, The Story of My Life, recently restored to its original 1903 content.

The recently released volume includes Helen’s story from several points of view: Helen’s own accounts, Anne Sullivan’s notes and letters, and further reports and insights from John Macy (Anne’s husband and partner in working with the adult Helen) and other close acquaintances. The result is a comprehensive look at communicating with and educating a student who does not respond well to visual or auditory stimuli. The methods used by Miss Sullivan confirmed my hypotheses: 1) some children do not respond adequately to simply seeing or hearing lesson material but can become enthusiastic about learning through other methods; 2) certain children may need constant tactile stimuli to “break through” into their worlds of thought; 3) as educators, we should set our expectations high enough that our students have a goal to reach for; and 4) language should not be “dumbed down” for children.

Teaching the Tactile Child

1. There is a world that can be discovered beyond the average student’s visual or auditory capabilities. Visually motivated students are a teacher’s dream: put the information in front of them, and they will learn. Auditory learners pick up information simply by hearing it — with certain things once is enough, but at other times, hearing something over and over will lock the information in their minds without their ever having seen the material in printed form.

Other students have tactile needs. They may find looking at a picture book mildly interesting, and listening to a story will barely hold their attention, but pop-up storybooks with interactive mechanisms and touch-and-feel books with textured surfaces will draw the tactile learner in a much deeper way. I was never as interested in the plot of my storybook about a misbehaving kitty as much as I loved that book for its large fuzzy pictures of the beautiful black cat. I remember being disappointed that not every picture of Miss Sniff was textured and fuzzy. I still own the book, and most of the fuzziness has worn off from decades of loving touches, but enough traces of the texture remain to intrigue any tactile child. The first time I encountered a pop-up book, I found myself transported to new heights of imagination and wonder. I remember carefully and delicately manipulating the pull-tabs and slide levers, studying the mechanics of how all of these things worked. If someone else could fold and glue paper in such a way as to transform two-dimensions into glorious three-dimensional marvels upon opening the book, then perhaps I could, too. The tactile qualities of these books held my attention much longer than mere words or pictures could have.

Helen Keller could not see anything, except for extremely bright lights, such as the sun’s rays reflecting off fresh snow. Helen could not hear any sounds at all. She did enjoy many physical activities (swimming, tandem-bicycling, and horseback riding) and probably had strong kinesthetic learning abilities, but those were also hindered by her blindness — it is difficult to run freely when you cannot see what you may trip over. Therefore, with her few remaining senses as her sole means for exploration, Helen became extremely adept at feeling textures, vibrations, and movements. After Helen had learned Morse code by having it tapped onto her hand, her teacher could communicate with Helen from across the room by tapping on the floor with her shoe. Helen identified flowers and other plants (and people) by their scents, but she could also describe the physical qualities in amazing detail. Those of us who function primarily with our visual and auditory senses tend to completely overlook the tactile characteristics of our everyday lives.

2. Idle hands can mean a disengaged mind. A child who just cannot seem to sit still and stop fidgeting during lessons may suddenly relax and become an academic sponge if allowed to draw, play with blocks, or hold a favorite toy while listening. To insist that students sit still with empty hands and give undivided attention to every spoken word is to hinder some students’ learning processes. Some children just cannot do that and learn at the same time: their movement is a vital part of how they take in information. Have you ever known a child who was so attached to his blanket or his favorite stuffed toy that he could barely endure the separation required for the laundering process? That child is most likely a tactile learner. His attachment is not emotional as much as it is necessary for concentration. Visual students absorb information through their eyes, auditory students absorb information through their ears, and tactile students absorb information through their hands. Giving their fingers something to “focus” on will stimulate their eyes and ears into “learning mode,” allowing their brains to absorb information through the other senses as well.

Upon meeting the unruly 6-year-old Helen, Anne Sullivan commented that Helen’s hands were untaught and unsatisfied, destroying anything they contacted, simply because they knew no other way. Anne’s greatest accomplishment, therefore, was in teaching the hands, and through them, she taught the mind. When Helen’s hands had interesting stimuli, Helen learned. Obviously, Helen Keller’s hands were the only portal through which knowledge could be imparted to her, but those of us with tactile children can learn from her example: gain the attention of the student’s hands and fingers and reach his mind through them.

3. Do not focus on what your child knows, but focus on what you want your child to learn. The break-through in teaching abstract concepts to Helen Keller came as Helen was stringing beads. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, had started a pattern of beads for Helen to copy. When Helen’s attempts proved incorrect, Anne removed them and encouraged Helen to begin again. After several failed attempts, Helen paused to consider her mistakes, and Anne touched Helen’s forehead and then spelled the word t-h-i-n-k into Helen’s hand. Helen quickly grasped that words could relate to ideas and intangible concepts, opening a world to her far beyond the straightforward naming of physical objects. Miss Sullivan never assumed that Helen was unteachable; she saw only that Helen was inexperienced.

Educational scope-and-sequence listings have probably done as much harm as they have done good for some not-so-average children by convincing educators and parents alike that certain benchmarks should be reached at certain ages. We tend to rely on that information more than on our instincts and become unduly concerned when our students reach those goals either before or after the scheduled date. How silly. In the immortal words of my local meteorologist, “There is no such thing as normal; there is only average.” He was speaking of temperatures and weather patterns, but in educational terms, quicker learners and slower learners combine to create the scope-and-sequence averages.

Our tendency as parents is to fluctuate between only two reactions to our children’s accomplishments: “Not yet!” (meaning “you’re not old enough to do that yet”) and “Not yet?” (meaning “every other child has already done this”). As the educators for our children, we need to follow the lead of the child who wants to take on an ambitious project, though perhaps helping him to scale it back as needed in the beginning. The child who has already learned a lesson is ready to move on, and we must be careful not to bury the student with boredom who is eager for more. Too often we can bog the student down with what we feel is appropriate to his age (or grade level) and completely disregard what is appropriate for his abilities. Working with the child to set goals will give him something to reach for, something to stretch his current abilities and broaden them into his future talents, no matter which side of average he may be.

Setting goals that are too lofty can overwhelm the less gifted student, leaving him floundering at simple lessons that have become overshadowed by looking too far into the future. Careful attention to each student’s abilities and personality will tell you when to press on and when to linger a bit longer. Scope-and-sequence guidelines should be taken as just that: guidelines — a map for the journey, but not a day-by-day itinerary. Taking longer to learn a certain lesson does not mean that the child has learned less that the quicker student; in fact, they have both achieved the same goal (learning a particular lesson), just at different rates. The slower student may actually be absorbing more detailed information than the quicker child does. Helping your slower learner to break down his goals into doable steps will give him more occasions to celebrate and prevent discouragement along the way.

While students at schools for the deaf or blind struggled with learning even basic reading and writing techniques, Anne Sullivan insisted on teaching Helen Keller at home, feeling it was a more natural environment for learning and exploring. Anne abandoned scheduled lessons and simply led Helen on daily adventures through normal life, believing that “lessons” might limit the range of knowledge Helen could absorb. Her hunch proved correct, as Helen excelled far beyond what anyone dreamed possible and far beyond any progress made by previous deaf-blind students. Helen rapidly made up for lost time by learning to “read” lips with her fingers, learning to speak audibly, learning to read five different versions of Braille and raised print, and learning to write with pencil and paper, as well as with a typewriter and a Braille-writer. Helen learned to read and speak in English, French, and German — all before she entered a private high school to prepare for college. Helen had set attending college as her own goal while still a young girl just beginning to learn and accomplished her graduation from Radcliffe College under a schedule considered normal for hearing and sighted students. I think there is a tremendous lesson for all of us in this example, whether we are homeschooling or not. We should set our goals high enough to stretch our current abilities and see what those abilities can become in the future.

4. Language is the key to all learning. Anne Sullivan communicated with Helen Keller in complete sentences, even before young Helen understood all of the words in those sentences. Believing that language would be the magic that could bring Helen out of her prison of deafness and blindness, Anne strived for communication with Helen in as normal a fashion as possible. Once Helen had grasped the basic fundamentals of the manual alphabet and understood the words spelled into her hand, Anne began reading books to Helen, spelling word after word, sentence after sentence, and page after page into the eager hand of her knowledge-thirsty pupil. The resulting success was phenomenal: Helen’s dramatic progress astounded everyone as she quickly and easily surpassed the milestones of other deaf-blind students before her.

Miss Sullivan read book after book to Helen, whose mind soaked up the intricacies of language at an amazing rate. Having learned very little of spoken language before losing her hearing as a toddler and losing even that much in the years of silence that followed, Helen’s 7-year-old mind was virtually a blank page. However, she learned the grammar and sentence structure necessary for intelligent communication through the language of the books that were read to her. Later, as her writings were published in a children’s magazine, Helen’s command of language was so comprehensive that many skeptics viciously accused her and her dedicated teacher of fraud.

Time spent reading aloud to your children will never be time wasted. Their minds can comprehend the language far sooner than their eyes can read the words for themselves. Continue to read aloud to your students as they grow older, and enjoy a variety of books: poetry, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses; mysteries and adventure stories, such as Treasure Island; and histories, such as The Little House series, as well as such childhood standards as Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh. The beautifully rhythmic language of older books will prove far more desirable to modern tales, even if you have to stop to define a word or phrase now and then. Discussing how some words have changed meanings over time will become a fascinating supplemental lesson. Your student’s vocabulary will be increased through read-aloud time, as well as through conversation. Whenever we encountered a word of vague meaning, we grabbed the dictionary. It seldom cost us our concentration on the book’s plot and always increased our knowledge. I often used words that my students were not familiar with, but in defining a word for them, rather than not using it, the words were quickly added to their ever-increasing vocabularies.

The tactile learner will be better able to absorb read-aloud stories if his hands are allowed to keep busy. Drawing, coloring, painting, modeling with clay, building with blocks or construction sets, stringing beads, or assembling puzzles are all activities that can be quietly performed while also listening to a book being read aloud. Too many of us have been conditioned to think that a student can only pay attention as long as constant eye contact is maintained. While that technique may be necessary in a classroom with dozens of students and may be somewhat true for the more easily distracted students, it rarely applies to most auditory or tactile learners.

Exploring the world through textures and movements adds another dimension for visual and auditory learners, but it may also be the key that opens the door of learning for the tactile student. If you are not sure if your student is a tactile learner, try some of these methods and see if they make a difference. Instead of nagging a child to “put that down” or “keep your hands in your lap,” working with his constantly active hands will allow his fingers to lead his brain in the search for knowledge. Remember that the tactile learner absorbs information through his fingertips, and we should strive to give those fingers plenty of “reading material.”

For more tips on teaching a tactile learner, see Topical Index: Learning Styles.


  1. I don’t usually reply to posts but I’ sure will in this case. Wow a big thumbs up for this one


  1. […] homeschooling article has interesting perspectives on different learning styles and what we can learn from Helen […]

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