Helen speaks

Words: 901-1000

Skills: Main / Central Idea

Grades: 5th 6th 7th 8th

Topics: History

Genres: Biography / Autobiography

Lexile Range: 1060L - 1290L

Lexile Measure: 1110L

CCSS: History/Social Studies and Reading: Informational Text

Themes:

Helen Speaks


by Helen Keller from The Story of My Life

Chapter XIII passage: Helen Keller, born 1880, was a famous author, lecturer, and activist. She became blind and deaf after an illness when she was a toddler. At that time, young Helen had just begun to learn to talk. The loss of her sight and hearing impacted her ability to speak. In this passage from her 1903 autobiography, Helen describes her efforts to learn to talk. Students will read the passage and respond to questions on figurative language, the details of the story, and the main idea.

Reading Comprehension Passage

Helen Speaks

by Helen Keller from The Story of My Life
Helen Keller was born in 1880. She was a healthy and happy child until she became seriously ill before her second birthday. While she did get well, she lost both her hearing and her sight after the illness. Opportunities for those with a disability were few in the 19th century. Helen’s parents, however, found a teacher for her. Her teacher, Miss Sullivan, worked with Helen so that she learned to sign words with her hands. When she was 8 years old, Helen went to the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston. The school was known as the place where Laura Bridgman, who was also blind and deaf, began her studies in 1837. While Helen could understand words spelled out by finger letters, she could not speak. Her illness had happened just as she was learning to talk.

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It was in the spring of 1890 that I learned to speak. The impulse to utter audible sounds had always been strong within me. I used to make noises, keeping one hand on my throat while the other hand felt the movements of my lips. I was pleased with anything that made a noise and liked to feel the cat purr and the dog bark. I also liked to keep my hand on a singer's throat, or on a piano when it was being played. Before I lost my sight and hearing, I was fast learning to talk, but after my illness it was found that I had ceased to speak because I could not hear. I used to sit in my mother's lap all day long and keep my hands on her face because it amused me to feel the motions of her lips; and I moved my lips, too, although I had forgotten what talking was. My friends say that I laughed and cried naturally, and for awhile I made many sounds and word-elements, not because they were a means of communication, but because the need of exercising my vocal organs was imperative. There was, however, one word the meaning of which I still remembered, WATER. I pronounced it "wa-wa." Even this became less and less intelligible until the time when Miss Sullivan began to teach me. I stopped using it only after I had learned to spell the word on my fingers.

I had known for a long time that the people about me used a method of communication different from mine; and even before I knew that a deaf child could be taught to speak, I was conscious of dissatisfaction with the means of communication I already possessed. One who is entirely dependent upon the manual alphabet has always a sense of restraint, of narrowness. This feeling began to agitate me with a vexing, forward-reaching sense of a lack that should be filled. My thoughts would often rise and beat up like birds against the wind, and I persisted in using my lips and voice. Friends tried to discourage this tendency, fearing lest it would lead to disappointment. But I persisted, and an accident soon occurred which resulted in the breaking down of this great barrier—I heard the story of Ragnhild Kaata.

In 1890 Mrs. Lamson, who had been one of Laura Bridgman's teachers, and who had just returned from a visit to Norway and Sweden, came to see me, and told me of Ragnhild Kaata, a deaf and blind girl in Norway who had actually been taught to speak. Mrs. Lamson had scarcely finished telling me about this girl's success before I was on fire with eagerness. I resolved that I, too, would learn to speak. I would not rest satisfied until my teacher took me, for advice and assistance, to Miss Sarah Fuller, principal of the Horace Mann School. This lovely, sweet-natured lady offered to teach me herself, and we began the twenty-sixth of March, 1890.

Miss Fuller's method was this: she passed my hand lightly over her face, and let me feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made a sound. I was eager to imitate every motion and in an hour had learned six elements of speech: M, P, A, S, T, I. Miss Fuller gave me eleven lessons in all. I shall never forget the surprise and delight I felt when I uttered my first connected sentence, "It is warm." True, they were broken and stammering syllables; but they were human speech. My soul, conscious of new strength, came out of bondage, and was reaching through those broken symbols of speech to all knowledge and all faith.

No deaf child who has earnestly tried to speak the words which he has never heard—to come out of the prison of silence, where no tone of love, no song of bird, no strain of music ever pierces the stillness—can forget the thrill of surprise, the joy of discovery which came over him when he uttered his first word. Only such a one can appreciate the eagerness with which I talked to my toys, to stones, trees, birds and dumb animals, or the delight I felt when at my call Mildred ran to me or my dogs obeyed my commands. It is an unspeakable boon to me to be able to speak in winged words that need no interpretation. As I talked, happy thoughts fluttered up out of my words that might perhaps have struggled in vain to escape my fingers.

But it must not be supposed that I could really talk in this short time. I had learned only the elements of speech. Miss Fuller and Miss Sullivan could understand me, but most people would not have understood one word in a hundred. Nor is it true that, after I had learned these elements, I did the rest of the work myself. But for Miss Sullivan's genius, untiring perseverance and devotion, I could not have progressed as far as I have toward natural speech.

Passage Only

Reading Comprehension Questions

1. Why did Helen stop speaking right after her illness?



2. Explain what Helen means when she says, “One who is entirely dependent upon the manual alphabet has always a sense of restraint, of narrowness.”



3. What was the first sentence Helen spoke?



4. Explain the metaphor “prison of silence.”