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TEFL to Blind & Visually Impaired Students

How To Teach English, Technology & TEFL, The ICAL TEFL Blog

This article looks at a few ideas you should bear in mind if you have blind or visually impaired students in your TEFL class.

Over the years we at ICAL TEFL have had a number of blind and visually impaired teacher trainees taking our course and we have worked with them in preparing material and instruction based on their individual needs. We have also had sighted teacher trainees who were preparing to teach blind or visually impaired students and have again worked with them in instructing them on the best way to approach this.

The following notes come from our experience in this field and especially from one of our personal tutors who is visually impaired himself and teaches blind and visually impaired students in Europe.

Essential Information

With every single student you teach, regardless of their circumstances, you should run a Needs Analysis. This will tell you their level of English, the reason they are studying English, and a little about their interests and so on.

These combined needs analyses will help you work out the syllabus for the class and allow you to create stimulating and useful lesson plans.

However, alongside the usual needs analysis you give to everyone, if you have a blind or visually impaired student in your class, you will also need to get some additional information from them.

Firstly you need to know specifically what their vision is like and the level of impairment. This is essential so you can tailor your teaching methods to the student (more on this below).

Although there are technical scales, for teaching we can put visually impaired TEFL students in one of several broad (and often overlapping) categories:

  • totally blind – unable to see at all
  • able to see vague shapes but unable to read large print or see pictures in a book
  • able to read large print books and see only clearly defined pictures
  • able to read normal sized print books close up but unable to read the board or see any great distance

Next you should find out when your student became blind:

  • a student who became blind in their teenage years will retain some visual memory; for example they may well know what different colors look like and so on, they will have seen a great deal and will be able to replicate much in their mind’s eye
  • a student who has been blind since birth or a very early age will not have these same visual memories; colors, for example, will mean little to them

All these factors will affect how you teach.

Braille & Technology

Next you will need to find out whether the student is able to read Braille or not.

The unfortunate situation is that there is very little TEFL material available in Braille. However there are relatively low cost Braille printers available (starting from a couple of hundred dollars) which will convert and print regular Word documents into Braille documents. You or your school might consider this option if you want to make your teaching material and handouts available to your blind students.

In addition, your students may well have a Braille display attached to their computer although these are more expensive, costing up to several thousand dollars. Almost certainly they will have a text-to-speech engine on their computer.

The bottom line is that you need to know what is available so you can use it.

On this note, if at all possible try to have a go with those technologies yourself. It is not essential that you as a TEFL teacher can read Braille, but it would certainly do you no harm to try and learn something about it, if only to be able to understand how different it is to read in Braille over print. Likewise use the text-to-speech engine on your computer to get a feel of how your material is translated into speech electronically. (There is one already installed with Windows called Narrator.)

More Tips and Ideas

Below are a selection of tips and ideas which will help teaching blind or visually impaired students in your TEFL class. Not all will apply but you should at least consider them in terms of the student(s) you will be teaching.

teaching scenario

First off, talk to the student and find out what teaching would make them most comfortable. Some will prefer one-to-one classes, others will prefer to be part of your regular class with sighted students.

use their sight to the fullest

You should always use the ability they have to the fullest.

This means that if they are able to read normal print books but not see the board, by all means make sure they only have normal print books and not large print (and are sitting at the front of the class, of course). Or if they can only read large print then make sure they have large print and don’t try to get them to use Braille instead.

Having said this, however, make sure you don’t push your ideas onto a reluctant student. If the student prefers Braille to large print, let them use it.

preparation beforehand

With blind students or those who have severe impairment, it is often best to get them to prepare the lesson beforehand.

Give them the material you will be using in class so they can go over it in their own time and take as long as they need to read and understand it. Here’s where they will use their own text-to-speech or Braille reader or screen reader; if this is the case then allowing them to have material electronically will be an advantage and you can email it or send it through Dropbox‏‎, etc.

You might also want to consider using readers. This is simply where you record the material and let the student listen to it. This is pretty easy to do (most smartphones have this capability) and like the electronic documents, you can upload the various mp3 files into Dropbox so the student can access them any time.

On this note, when recording make sure you speak clearly and slowly, see How to Speak to English Language Students for more on this.

The reason for all this is so the student has plenty of time to prepare the lesson. It takes longer to read by Braille or text-to-speech so allowing the student to do it in their own time will mean you make the most of your face-to-face time together.

braille in class

If your students use Braille in the lesson itself you need to remember that it takes longer to read than print and is less easy to skip around i.e. in a print book you can tell students to look at a picture and then come back to the text, Braille tends to run in a very linear fashion so it’s not so easy to jump around like this. When you prepare a lesson, remember this.

exam classes

If you are teaching an exam class, make sure you contact the examination authorities plenty of time beforehand to get copies of previous exams in Braille (or other format as needed). Make yourself familiar with how the exam will be run (timings for example) and as you would with any other class, run mock exams under these conditions so the student(s) can get used to the system.

In the Classroom

A few tips for teaching during the lesson:

  • Remember to be continually vocal. This means that, for example, while you are writing on the board say what you are writing. Any visually impaired student will find it useful and helpful, and many of the sighted students will also find it helpful as well!
  • Involve the student with the rest of the class. This is rarely (if ever) an issue; when putting students into groups include everyone equally and don’t single a visually impaired student out for special treatment.
  • Make sure everyone speaks so that the visually impaired student gets to know the whole class. For example, at the beginning of the lesson hold registration and call out names. You can then extend this so instead of answering just, yes, the student has to say yes and give their favorite singer or the football team they support or the actor they are in love with! This allows a blind student to understand where other students are and where they are sitting around the room.
  • Whenever possible use realia‏‎. Instead of showing a flashcard of a car, use a model car which the visually impaired student can touch and feel.
  • Make your explanations and the lesson in general as tactile as you can. Suppose you are teaching a particular verb form‏‎ and want to use a timeline to illustrate it. Well in this class you can create a model of a timeline (from felt, string, etc) so students can actually feel it and picture it in their mind’s eye.

Finally, do not patronize your students. They may be blind but they are perfectly capable in other spheres so make small adjustments where needed, but don’t treat them as though they are not capable of learning or doing anything else for that matter! There’s no need to censor words like see, watch and look! Often teachers might feel it’s inappropriate to use these words but visually impaired students can see perfectly well in other ways! If you sound uncomfortable or self-censoring the visually impaired student may well feel awkward, so carry on as usual.

Useful Links

Blindness no barrier in English language classroom when needs are shared – an article on a visually impaired student and political activist from the UK Guardian newspaper.

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  1. José Conde

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