Teaching English to Visually Impaired Learners
What is Visual Impairment?
Visual impairment refers to the inability or limited ability to see. Some visually impaired people have low or limited vision while others have no light perception and are considered totally blind. People may be born blind or may develop vision loss from disease, aging, or injuries. When blindness is combined with the inability to hear, it is known as deaf-blindness.
Visually impaired people have difficulty or an inability to read everything from gestures to pictures to text. Some people may be unable to read anything at all, while others may have difficulty reading close up or far away. (Someone who is near sighted has difficulty focusing on objects in the distance, while those who are far sighted have difficulty focusing on things that are close up.) Many daily functions are challenging for those who suffer visual impairment.
Some visually impaired students are educated in a specialized setting with other blind learners or with other learners who have different difficulties or disabilities. Some VI students are integrated into classrooms with sighted students. Teachers may or may not be specially trained to teach visually impaired learners. Many teachers do their own research and gather their own tools and supplies in order to help VI learners.
Challenges of Teaching English to the Visually Impaired
Having a student with special needs in the classroom is both challenging and rewarding for teachers (and other students in the classroom). Knowing what to expect can be helpful, though many teachers learn a bit each day and become specialists through experience. Here are a few challenges that teachers may face with a VI student.
- student may have low self-esteem
- student may have low motivation
- student may feel that literacy is impossible
- teacher and/or student may not be familiar with accessible formats, such as Braille
- student may feel disconnected from peers
- student is unable to read gestures and body language
- teacher may have to modify own materials
- teacher or helpers may overcompensate (e.g., inadvertently giving answers away by placing stress on the correct or incorrect word)
Classroom Tasks to Avoid or Adapt for VI Learners
Visually impaired learners appreciate when teachers and peers treat them as equals in the classroom. Some of the activities teachers usually use in an ELL classroom, however, will need to be modified for a student with visual limitations. Teachers may find that the best thing to do is skip over a task or assign it to sighted students for homework. Here are a few tasks teachers should avoid during class time when visually impaired students are present.
- spot the differences
- describe one’s surroundings
- match the vocabulary to the definition
- comment on the chart or diagram
- comment on or play with flashcards (unless large size for visually impaired)
- complete picture-based exercises
- fill in the blanks
- unscramble the words
Useful Communication Skills to Teach VI Learners
In some classrooms, visually impaired learners are also immigrants or refugees. Their reason for learning an additional language is to survive in an English-speaking country. Teachers should focus on survival skills that are needed most, including the following.
- responding to instructions
- giving instructions
- filling out forms orally
- answering medical and administrative questions
- developing independent living skills
- talking to bus and taxi drivers
- responding to accidents and emergencies
- asking for help
Tools and Aids for VI Learners
Depending on one’s teaching budget, there are many tools and aids that can be beneficial for VI students. These students may have some of their own mobility aids, including a cane, an electronic device, or even a dog. Here are some tools and devices that teachers may want to consider having available for VI language learners.
- screen readers
- touch screens with voice
- Braille devices
- MP3 players
- large print books
- magnified screens
- real objects
- large wall charts
- video galleries
- magnifying glasses
- table lamps
Tips for Teaching VI Learners
- check in on them regularly to see if they need help, but only provide help they request
- assign a mobility helper if needed
- speak directly to the VI student, not an assistant
- minimize background noise
- eliminate physical objects in aisles and doorways and reduce overall clutter
- highlight all main points of a lesson orally
- identify name of student who is speaking
- share videos ahead of time so that VI learners can preview
- provide a larger work space or table to accommodate laptop or other tools
- discuss how students wants to receive feedback and assessment (electronically or verbally)
- use a designated seating plan and encourage other students to get to know VI student