Learning With Teddy

Posted by editor 08/10/2013 2 Comments 4935 views


How an English-language learning programme for children with special needs is breaking down barriers in Norway and beyond. By Jenny McBain. //

The basis of discrimination is often presented as fact; a state of affairs of which social pioneers like Julie Monsen are all too aware.  Julie is a special needs teacher from England who works in the Norwegian city of Stavanger.  In the year 2000, when she first conceived the idea of a teaching programme to give Norwegian children with learning difficulties the opportunity to learn English, she was met with closed minds.

Julie says, “Many professionals, including speech therapists, were very against this idea.  They did not see why children with special needs should learn a foreign language when they could hardly speak their own.”

Undeterred, Julie set about developing a character called Teddy who would help engage pupils of all abilities in the learning of English. Then, in 2008 she was introduced to designer and publisher, Nina Skauge who immediately grasped the significance of Julie’s mission.

Nina says, “It is important for a child with learning disabilities to do cool things and to know things; to master things in an arena which is cool and is worth something.  English is like that.  Listening to pop music and watching films in English is a large part of our culture.”

Nina speaks from personal experience.  Her son Bendik, who is now in his twenties, has Down syndrome and his school days were not entirely positive.  Nina says, “It is so nice for a child to come home with a new book to show their parents.  My son was never given any books at school, just photocopied pages which were often in black and white and very dull.”

A lack of appropriate teaching materials for pupils who need to make slow progression in their learning is widely recognised as problematic. So, Nina and Julie forged a partnership with a view to addressing the problem and filling that yawning gap. Julie founded Teddy Enterprises and Nina became Teddy’s publisher.  A new approach to special needs materials was adopted and content suitable for slower learners was created in a way that it would also appeal to other children.

In time the Norwegian Directorate for Education and Learning came onboard with some development funding. An enormous amount of effort and many hours were invested in developing the Teddy Language learning programme aimed at children between the ages of 3 and 16 who have special needs. And social inclusion is one of the guiding principles behind the project. So lessons are structured in such a way that mainstream children in kindergarten can derive benefit from them too.

Nina says, “The teddy programme is for groups of children of all abilities to do together.  We did not want one-on-one lessons delivered by a special teacher in a special room with special things.”

The Teddy starter pack contains a teddy puppet and a bright yellow and red bag into which multi-coloured cards, each with a different topic and key vocabulary, are put.  Children take it in turns to pick a card and influence the direction of the lesson.  There is also a CD with simple, catchy rhyming songs, performed by professional musicians. Teaching guides outlining how to implement the lessons are also included.

Over the last three years, more than 1000 children have been learning English with Teddy and the results are very encouraging. Expert evaluation on the part of specialist teachers and educationalists shows the approach works. Nina says, “I think what surprised us is was that kids love it because it is based on fun, humour and play.  And in multicultural groups it has an impact on the children’s awareness and interest in each others culture and language. There is also a positive effect on their abilities to speak their own mother tongue.”

Of course, children with learning difficulties who grow up in bilingual communities have long been achieving parity in more than one language.  But the Teddy programme is creating a new educational paradigm; one which focuses on development possibilities rather than weaknesses and limitations.

So what is next for Teddy?  Julie believes passionately in the power of stories and communication to break down barriers and would welcome the chance to speak with   BBC producers about the possibility of creating a television series.  She would also like to oversee an international outreach development programme.   She says, “By using Teddy in the every day lives of children, we can develop a good foundation for understanding different traditions and other ways of life.”





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