By Elsa O'Brien

03 March 2023 - 16:00

Children's hands raised in class.
'Find the right balance between not overwhelming your students with teacher talking and making sure your voice is there to guide them.' ©

British Council

Teaching visually impaired students online can be challenging for even the most experienced teachers. We asked British Council teacher, Elsa O'Brien, to share what she has learned while teaching a new class.

Some months ago, I was offered a new online English class of visually impaired students. It seemed like the perfect fit for me, because, as well as being a teacher, I am one of the Special Educational Needs Coordinators at the British Council. 

I was lucky to have the best handover I could wish for from the previous teachers, who were always supportive. Despite this, I must admit my initial excitement was mixed with a little apprehension. I have always seen myself as a very creative teacher and now, for the first time, I was afraid of improvising and not following the materials to the letter.

As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would put it, I was trapped by The danger of a single story. I had very broad and scant information about what visually impairment meant. And, for this reason, instead of having lots of questions about it, I seemed to be unable to picture what a class would be like.

Thankfully, ‘when one teaches, two learn’ (Robert A. Heinlein). The learning curve was a steep and exciting one. In every lesson, I learned things about my students’ lives, their difficulties and strengths and about their goals and how I could help them get there.

Teaching visually impaired students online is probably as convenient as it can be challenging, both for the teacher and the learner. These are the key things I’ve learned to bear in mind when teaching visually impaired students online:

Visually impairment can mean a lot of different things

I was quite surprised to find out that only one of my students was actually blind. The rest had a vast array of visual impairments with their own specificities. Some students might have an impairment in one eye, some might have reduced vision in both, other students have monochromacy and you might even come across students whose visual impairment might overlap with another kind of impairment such as auditory. 

Depending on the origin of the visual impairment, some students’ working memory or attention span could also be affected. Having this kind of information is vital to be able to help students reach their full potential.

Talk to your students - they are the best source of information

Unlike other specific learning needs, visually impaired students can be quite used to talking about their needs. They are probably very aware of what these are and very able to explain how you can help them. 

As being visually impaired can mean many different things, the support students can benefit from is varied. Knowing whether your students use text-to-voice screen readers, a zooming software, Braille or can read ‘touchable ink’, can really help when it comes to setting up activities and working out how much time you should allocate to each stage. 

Avoid visual resources 

Although it might seem like the most obvious tip, nowadays our resources are highly visual to facilitate language acquisition, and we’re so used to working in a certain way that it’s difficult to change our mindset.

When using resources that have been created for sighted students, think about the adaptations you’ll need to make. Will you have to use translation instead of description? Can you replace a speechless video with a more eloquent one? 

Be a narrator

You’ll have to find the right balance between not overwhelming your students with teacher talking and making sure your voice is there to guide them. You will need to let your students know of things that you’re doing that they can’t see, such as looking for a file to share, or creating breakout rooms. But more importantly you will have to explicitly welcome students in, even if they’re late, provide information of who else is in class, who has their hand up and whether they need to wait for their turn, and who they’ll be paired with in breakout rooms. 

I think this is one of the most difficult things to get used to doing as sighted people heavily but inadvertently rely on visual cues to understand the world.

You might have to adapt your time expectations 

This will largely depend on your students' age and on their level of mastery using a computer, but you must remember that students who use screen-reading software to navigate will need extra time to transition between tasks.

Time is especially important when doing a listening activity. If the students are only using digital materials, they will most likely access them with a screen-reading programme. This means they will need time to listen to the questions before the actual listening activity starts. 

During the activity, students won't be able to check the questions as they listen, so it’s important to break down the task to reduce the amount of information they need to remember at one time.

Although we should never do this, it’s particularly important to make sure that the teacher doesn’t speak while students are screen reading a question, as they won’t be able to listen to both things at the same time. 

Using online game websites 

A popular online game website like Bamboozle is easy to use with visually impaired students, as long as the teacher reads the questions out loud. Don’t forget to click ‘share sound’ if on Zoom. Sound effects add to the excitement!

Kahoot claims to be highly accessible for students with different types of visual impairment. However, if you really want to use a new website in class, think about its implications, give it a try and ask your students for feedback before planning a long activity around it.

And have fun

An extra piece of advice, as with any class, is to have fun! Going back to tip number two, involve your students in the learning process, find out about their interests, and choose together what types of activities and games they’d like to include in the lessons.

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