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Teaching English to Visually Impaired Learners

This page deals with teaching English to the visually impaired (VI). You will find a brief description of different types of VI learners as well as some challenges of and tips for teaching them. This page is written specifically for English language teachers, but may also be of interest to parents, students and administrators.
visual impairment (noun): a range of functional disabilities related to sight (from low vision to total blindness) that cannot be corrected with optical lenses; people with low vision may be referred to as visually impaired (VI), while those with no vision are often referred to as blind (or legally blind).

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.

For the purposes of this page, the term visually impaired refers to learners with severe vision loss and/or no vision.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Tips for Teaching VI Learners

Useful links

Written for EnglishClub by: Tara Benwell