Oct 27, 2016

Volunteer Teaching Techniques

One of the most effective ways La Esperanza Granada volunteers are able to help is to focus attention on children who have fallen behind their peers. This blog aims to shine a spotlight on some of the best techniques our volunteers are currently using with these children.

Sensory approaches to learning numbers
Naomi and Margarita are both experienced professionals in their home countries. Naomi is a primary teacher in the UK who specialises in children with learning difficulties, whilst Margarita has many years experience of working with children with severe difficulties in the USA. They are part of our team of volunteers in Pablo Antonio Cuadra school, alongside volunteers Paula and Embla, and ayudantes Teodora and Ofelia.  

Both Naomi and Margarita agree that one of the major differences with their home countries is the lack of provision for children with learning difficulties in Nicaragua. They get no special services or additional resources, and there is often an expectation that they are not going to progress. 

Volunteers have an opportunity to change this expectation, by spending time with the children and structuring short, manageable tasks which are targeted at each child’s level. Although the progress they make in each session may be small, the sense that they are doing something worthwhile and are able to successfully complete tasks can be empowering. Naomi:

“Feeling like they are getting somewhere makes a huge difference. I start every tutorial by reminding them of their successes the day before, which builds a sense of progress and makes them much more willing to focus and try again. Keeping up this positive reinforcement with praise throughout the session also helps keeps them engaged.”

Using textured letters to learn the alphabet
Another helpful approach is the use of tactile resources. These come in many forms, including large, colourful, textured letters and numbers, plasticine, picture cards and more. 

“Sensory learning uses a combination of visual, auditory and tactile stimuli to engage multiple areas of the brain, making it much easier to recall information later. Using tactile objects also helps make kids feel more engaged and in control of their own learning. 

For example, I’ve been working with a number of kids who have struggled to learn their alphabet. Tracing their fingers over a large, textured letter shape then re-making it out of pipe cleaners or plasticine can really help fix the shape in their minds.”

This approach is also important in maths, where sometimes children (and not just those in Nicaragua) learn the forms without really understanding how they relate to reality. This can lead, for example, to children memorizing that 5 + 4 = 9, but not being able to work out problems in real-life scenarios. Sensory learning builds this link to reality in from the start.

“We also play simple games with the kids, which highlight how all numbers are related. For example, I sometimes ask a child to order number cards from one to twenty, then I remove one of the teens. Figuring out which number is missing requires them to think about that number in relation to the others around it, and they often deduce the missing number rather than remembering it.”

When children have more severe difficulties, a more tailored approach is required. A good example is a young boy who has difficulty speaking and is unable to engage much with the other children or his classes at the school. Margarita:

“One of the first things I noticed was that he wouldn’t make eye contact with me, or look at my face. This is often the case with children with speech difficulties, who haven’t learned to watch faces and to copy the shapes people make with their mouths when speaking. Persuading him to watch me speak was one of my first aims.”

Learning to sort shapes
With this boy, much of their focus has been on helping him develop skills children ordinarily learn much earlier, such as the motor skills to hold a pencil, and how to complete basic tasks like sorting blocks by colour or shape. 

As with other children, creating a sense of expectation and rewarding good behaviour has been key:

“It was especially important to make it clear that nothing is going to come for free – he both can and should earn the things he wants. This starts very small, like not allowing him to play with the blocks until he´s made eye contact with me, or looked up at my face. But it builds into an expectation that he tries in every session, and if he does, he gets a reward. This is really important in motivating him to practice more difficult things, like repeating words and learning to count.”

Being read to at the end of a session is the most popular reward by far. For both Naomi and Margarita though, reading books to children shouldn’t just be considered a treat, but an essential part of their learning.

Reading to the kids

“Being read to engages children on lots of different levels – it improves their vocabulary, helps link written and spoken words, introduces new ideas and activates their imagination.


We always try to read slowly and follow the words with a finger, so they can see how the sounds correspond to written words. Asking them questions about the story afterwards invites them to reflect and think about it too.

The kids love this, and it’s one of the easiest things we can do as volunteers. But it is also an incredibly powerful learning tool.”

The techniques highlighted here require additional time and resources that can be limited in Nicaraguan schools. By being this additional resource and focusing attention where it is most needed, our volunteers are making a real difference.

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