Teaching Visually Impaired ESL Students

A little while back, I had the opportunity to teach a group of visually impaired ESL students. The group was comprised of six adult coworkers ranging in age, english level, and level of visual impairment. They had requested a class to practice job-specific terms and phrases for their international customers. As such, some of the stronger English speakers created a list of words and phrases to practice and requested that I help them expand the list, check the phrases for naturalness and accuracy, and give them feedback on pronunciation. 

If I’m perfectly honest, it turned out to be a fairly easy class to teach and not very different from many regular group classes with similar requests. However, since I hadn’t received any training in teaching visually impaired students beforehand, I decided to do some digging to make sure I was as prepared. 

Here's what I discovered.

Don’t Use Weird English

When the group was leaving, we were saying goodbye and the ubiquitous, “See you soon!” slipped out. At the time, I sort of kicked myself for it, unnecessarily. “See you” is a perfectly normal, high-frequency expression everyone uses. Changing your language to something weird like “Hear you soon!” doesn’t help anyone. It’s equally unhelpful to tie yourself in knots trying to use “safe” phrases you wouldn’t otherwise use. Just speak normally and let your students experience the same language you use with everyone else.


Use Names 

This is another bit of common sense since you’re probably going to use your students’ names anyway, right? In a class of visually impaired students, it helps to use students’ names more often so you can clearly indicate who you are calling on. 


Use Rhythm  

In my regular classes, I sometimes tap out a beat for a phrase. This class instantly took to this technique so we used it a great deal. It wasn’t exactly a jam session but it was definitely fun. 


Be Politely Tactile  

Word order is easy for any language learner to get mixed up. So, in regular classes, I often use what I call ESL hands to indicate word order, either using one word per finger or distinct word groups. (Kids especially love this.) 


ESL Hand

Many visually impaired individuals are comfortable with a certain level of physicality. Using hands to indicate word order is a great technique if used appropriately. Just be polite and let people know what your intentions are and get permission for what you plan to do. Don’t just grab someone’s hand unexpectedly. 

Is it just me, or is most of this just common sense? 

Use Hands to Model Sound 

Many sounds in English are more easily learned when we know the correct mouth positions. Not being able to see the difference in lip position between B and V sounds, for example, makes it a bit harder to pick up certain sounds and words. Using hands to model things like tongue or teeth positions can be a big help. In my class, I first described the position for making a TH sound, then told students I would model it with their hands. One student got it right away and was able to help the others which saved a lot of time. 


Record the Lesson

Make it a point to record all or some of the lesson for students to practice later. The audio takes the place of your regular class notes. It might actually be nice to have a bank of recordings on certain high-frequency topics to share with all your students anyway. 


Be Aware of  Levels of Visual Impairment

In my class, we had a range of visual impairment from one person who was completely blind to a woman who was nearly fully sighted. Even if you only have one student with a visual impairment, be aware of their abilities and be willing to adapt. Be very clear with your instructions and and information sharing. It helps to verbalize your actions but don’t feel you need to avoid using gestures. 


Have you taught visually impaired students? 

If so, share your techniques in the comments below. It would be great to know how other teachers have handled this kind of teaching challenge. 


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