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The Theories And Approaches In Helen Keller's Teaching

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For my case study project I choose the story of Helen Keller. Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in a small town called Tuscumbia, Alabama. The happy days of Helen's life did not last long-- when Helen was struck by 'acute congestion of the stomach and brain.' The doctor attending thought she would not live. But one morning, her fever broke. Her family was greatly relieved but unaware that their daughter would never see or hear again. She was stricken so young she does not remember the world before it went dark. Helen Keller turned out to be a bright and influential person that used her hardships and disability to inspire people. She was an educator along with an advocate for the deaf and blind.

Helen’s case is so significant for study because of what she overcame. She was not only left blind after her sudden illness but also deaf. She never let her weaknesses be stronger than her strengths. Over the process of hardwork and patience she learned to write, read, talk and do mathematics. No one thought it was even possible for her to be taught. How could a blind and deaf person learned? Throughout her book “The Story of My Life” you can see the transformation in her writing and speaking skills. Along with the people who helped her throughout her childhood. This case shows that the right teachers and the way you’re taught is very important. Helen received intervention at a very young age which helped. This early intervention was very important so that she didn’t fall too far behind nor lose her capability of being taught. This case is important because it shows the development of language and grammar in someone that is disabliled. That even if the development in slow the end result will be the same.

Helen’s case was extraordinary. Two very important senses were taken away from her at a very early age. She recalls her mother trying to soothe her tenderly; she remembers tossing and turning in agony, and a hot, dry, feeling behind her eyes. All of these memories, though, are fleeting, and she wonders often if they are unreal or constructed. After her illness, Helen grew used to the silence and darkness which enveloped her, and even forgot that things had been different. Despite the darkness in which Helen now found herself, she had caught glimpses of nature during her first nineteen months of life, and because she had seen fields, trees, and flowers even just briefly, she would not forget them. In the immediate aftermath of her illness, Helen communicated with signs and body language. Sometimes it made Helen angry that she could not understand anyone, and she had fits of temper. Her development through childhood was different from the normal. She never reached the milestone on time like language, reading, writing and just overall communication. She adapted to her surroundings and learned extremely fast and well. She had an awareness that other people were different from her, and did not use signs to communicate but rather talked with their mouths. When Helen achieved no results in verbal communication, she often became very angry, and would throw fits and tantrums. These tantrums showed the young age Helen was at. She was struggling not being able to communicate so she would resort to child like behaviors. As Helen grew older, her desire to express herself grew as well. The few signs she could make became inadequate, and as her despair grew, she became prone to more and more intense fits and tantrums. Helen was frustrated that she couldn't communicate. So she resorted to throwing fits, which is the same as little kids do because they don't have the vocabulary to communicate with their parents. Helen fell far behind in all development categories which concerned her parents. Her parents became “grieved and perplexed,” as they lived very far from any school for the blind or deaf, and did not think they’d be able to get a special tutor for Helen. Moreover, Helen’s parents wondered if she could even be taught. But a teacher, Miss Sullivan, had been found and she helped Helen become the person she was. As soon as Miss Sullivan arrived her lessons began along with her growth. The world of language was found when Miss Sullivan took her outside and let her feel water coming out of the spout, and then spelled w-a-t-e-r into her hand. This is when Helen first understood that the thing she was feeling was called 'water.' Helen began learning to spell words through imitation, though it awhile for her to understand that everything has a name, she picked it up quickly. Helen's education was so successful because Miss Sullivan made an effort to speak to her as she would to any hearing child. She would spell full sentences into her hand, teaching her how language works together. It took her extremely long, longer than most children, due to the fact it takes a hearing person to acquire full conversational abilities. Miss Sullivan acknowledged the challenges Helen faced being both deaf and blind. Since when Helen took part in a conversation; she neither can distinguish the tones of voice that give significance to certain words, nor watch the facial expressions of the speaking person for clues. After Helen learned the names of things and how to spell words, her next task was learning how to read. Miss Sullivan taught her this by giving her slips of cardboard, on which were raised letters. She got used to attaching these words to their objects, and arranging them into sentences that she would act out with the objects themselves. This evolved into an ability to read full books. Helen's education was all hands- on interaction through her senses like touch, taste, and scent. She learned very different from most children. Traditional children would be in a classroom memorizing and reciting facts. Helen's next goal in her education was learning to speak. As a little kid she was fascinated by noise and speech, even though she couldn't hear it. She would sit on her mother's lap and touch her fingers to her face and feel the motions of her lips when she spoke. She would make sounds as a child, they were not words but it was something. She would laugh and cry normally, and to exercise her vocal cords she would make vocalizations. No one believed that speaking was even possibility for her. Language and speech come from mimicking and repetition. Miss Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School began to teach Helen to speak. Miss Fuller would let her feel the position of her own lips and tongue when she spoke, then Helen would try to imitate. 'It is warm' is the first sentence she spoke. She will never forget the first sentence she said, no one ever would. Helen lastly became a brilliant writer. Over an extended period of time Helen’s writing and grammar flourished. She started with strung together sentences that didn’t make sense with no punctuation, to using adjectives and using her words to create vivid pictures. Helen’s life took off after college. Helen loved to write and used her passion to communicate with Americans and ultimately with thousands across the globe. She always championed the rights of the underdog and used her skills as a writer to speak truth to power. A pacifist, she protested U.S. involvement in World War I. A committed socialist, she took up the cause of workers' rights. She was also a tireless advocate for women's suffrage and an early member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Helen used her new found voice to change the world. The story of Helen Keller is one to remember.

Three theories that Helen exhibited were the interactionist/social learning theory, Piaget's stages of cognitive development and Piaget’s Adaptation. Vygotski’s theory of interactionist/social learning theory suggests that language is a biological process along with an environmental process. This theory says that language is an innate idea and you’re born with the ability to learn language but also constructed by your environment and the language you hear around you. Piaget’s stages of cognitive development consists of 4 stages: sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, formal operation. The theory deals with the nature of knowledge itself and how humans gradually come to acquire, construct, and use it. The last theory is Piaget’s theory of adaptation. Adaptation involves the child's changing to meet situational demands. Adaptation involves two sub‐processes: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the application of previous concepts to new concepts. Accommodation is the altering of previous concepts in the face of new information.

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Vygotski’s theory of interactionist/social learning is children strongly desire to communicate with the adults around them and that desire motivates them to learn language. It argues that social interaction precedes development; consciousness and cognition are the end product of socialization and social behavior. Helen was taught to communicate but biologically she has a desire and knowledge to learn language. Miss Sullivan taught Helen the basics of language like what word describes the object but Helen was able to grasp the idea and turn it into a sentence and an idea. With Miss Sullivans help Helen would have never known language but without Helen biological intuition of language she would have never been able to be taught since she couldn't hear nor see language. Language is in the sensitive period of development. This is a period of time when a child easily absorbs information in a specific way. The skill can still be learned after the period but less effectively. It was important for Helen to learn language right away since after a certain age it would become hard for her to learn.

Piaget’s stages of cognitive development is a model of how the mind processes new information encountered. Piaget believed that children take an active role in the learning process, acting much like little scientists as they perform experiments, make observations, and learn about the world. As kids interact with the world around them, they continually add new knowledge, build upon existing knowledge, and adapt previously held ideas to accommodate new information. Since Helen was delayed in her cognitive development it’s hard to place Helen in a certain stage at a time. Piaget’s theory suggests that the child moves through them in order but Helen didn’t follow this nor did she follow the age in which the theory shows up. For example, she shows some of the sensorimotor stage because she is touching and smelling the world. Since she can't hear or see she doesn't completely move out of this stage at the age of 2. Another stage is the formal operational stage. She is beginning to learn abstract ideas like the idea of love and the process of thinking, along with moral reasoning. She shows the concrete operational stage when she spontaneously classifies information/objects. Helen doesn’t follow this stages, instead has a little bit from all of them.

Piaget’s theory of adaptation is split into two subprocesses: assimilation, accommodation. Adaptation is the ability to adjust to new information and experiences. Learning is just adapting to your constantly changing environment. In assimilation, people take in information from the outside world and convert it to fit in with their existing ideas and concepts. In accommodation, people also accommodate new information by changing their mental representations to fit the new information. Through Helen’s life she always had to learn to adapt to her changing environment. She wasn;t born deaf and blind but she had to adapt. She had to adapt to a new way of learning, new teachers, new ideas and new lessons. Helen’s life changed everyday because she learned something new everyday. Helen always relied on her sense of touch to learn new things. She used Piaget's theory of adaptation through assimilation and accommodation. Accommodation was used when she used her new knowledge that nature can be harsh and changed her overall thought of nature, 'under softest touch hides treacherous claws.' Assimilation was used when Helen learned the word water. She then realized that everything has a name and that words can be strung together.


The case of Helen Keller was very different from other cases such as Genie. Helen flourished in all intelligence capabilities. Nothing held Helen back and she was given every possible resource to succeed. It was mind blowing reading about her learning to read, write, speak and do math. Along with how she was taught to do each task. She was a brilliant person. It was also nice to see the support she had long the way. Miss Sullivan was just amazing and so perfect for teaching Helen. It was mostly intriguing to see the development of Helen's writing abilities. You would never know a blind and deaf person wrote those letters in Part 2 of the book. It just showed me how brilliant and knowledgeable she was. Her English was perfect and her writing was of a high caliber. The transformation for the beginning letters were a 360. Through patience and determination from Helen and all her teachers she learned to successfully right and use proper grammar. Knowing that she used to not understand sentences or the meaning of words make her writing even more amazing. She is an inspiration to all, to never give up. I learned from this case that nothing is impossible and if you have the determination to succeed, you will.


  1. Lally, M., & Valentine-French, S. (2017). Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective. Retrieved from
  2. Keller, H. (1996). The Story of my life. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
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