Teaching Visually Impaired ESL Students

Teaching Visually Impaired ESL Students

Teaching Visually impaired ESL Students

Recently I was fortunate enough to have a go at teaching visually impaired ESL students. I say fortunate because I love having an opportunity to get outside my comfort zone. It helps adapt my teaching to fit the needs of the students. Going in, I was honestly nervous. However, I strongly felt it would be a great opportunity to do something new, to expand my own teaching experience. More importantly it was a chance to focus on needs I hadn’t really dealt with in the classroom before.

My class had six adult students ranging in age, english level, and level of visual impairment. The class was for a group of adult coworkers who needed job specific terms and phrases for international customers. Since they know their work and what they want to say much more than I do, they provided phrases and language to practice. We worked together on pronunciation and communication.

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!” would be silly. Just speak normally to expose students to the same language as everyone else.
  • Use names:

    This is just a good thing to do for everyone anyway. But when you have a big group for the first time, it’s understandable you aren’t going to remember everyone’s names right off. So make the extra effort, take the time to say everyone’s names again and again. It makes classroom management much easier.

  • Use rhythm:

    I found tapping out a drum beat matching the rhythm of a phrase helped everyone get the pronunciation more quickly. I do this with other students too but found this group instantly responded very positively to it.

  • Be tactile but polite:

  • Many visually impaired individuals are comfortable with a certain amount of physicality. If you are going to use hands to help teach concepts, (more detail below,) just be polite and let people know what your intentions are. Be clear about how you’re trying to help. Don’t just grab someone’s hand. Tell them you want to model something using hands and just politely ask. “Can/May I have your hand?”
  • Count words out on your fingers:

    Getting grammar patterns or word order can be tough for any student so using fingers to model the sentences or words can be a great way to “gesture” for an impaired student.ESL hand 2ESL Hand

  • Use hands to model sound: 

    Many sounds in English are more easily learned when students are aware of mouth position. Visually impaired students can hear the sounds being made but without the visual reference of the mouth position it can be much harder to reproduce the correct sound. This means learning can take more time. Using touch, like hand positions to model teeth and lip positions can be a big help. In my class I first described the position, then told students I would model it with their hands. I did this for one student and then had him help the others. This way we could more quickly model the sound for everyone. We were practicing the “th” sound in words like “this, that, those” and used one had pointed downward to model the top teeth with the other hand moving as the model of the tongue.

  • Mixed levels of visual impairment: 

    In my class we had a mix of students who were beginners with English and a couple that were pretty good. The people with higher level language skill were very helpful in communicating with the total beginners. But there was also a range of visual impairment from a person who was totally blind, to a woman who, at first, seemed to be fully sighted.Even if you have only one impaired person in a group of otherwise sighted students, just be aware of their needs and adapt. Remember to be very clear with giving your instructions and information sharing. Try to verbalize all your actions and don’t restrict your gestures but be aware of them.

  • Record the lesson:

    Make it a point to record all or some of the lesson for students to practice with later. Since note taking or visual references sighted students might benefit from are absent we need to rely much more on the audio. Having the whole lesson or better, the key dialogue or terms / phrases from the day in an audio file can be a big help.

And on that note, I would love to hear from you about what works for you or if you’ve had experience in this area. For instance, I haven’t had a lot of experience with them, but there are text-to-speech programs and apps that can be useful for many visually impaired people. If you know some good ones please leave a comment below or contact me directly. I’d love to know what works.

Is there anything I haven’t mentioned that I should try? Know some good resources like books, blogs or podcasts that could help out. Don’t be shy


Hi! I'm from Brooklyn New York and am currently living in the Tokyo area as a teacher at an amazing school in Kanagawa. I'm currently working on textbook designs plus for language acquisition and loving it!
Close Menu