English Instructional Strategies for Students who are Blind/Visually Impaired (Updated January 2023)

What does it mean for a student to be blind or visually impaired?
Virginia state guidelines explain that a "visual impairment including blindness" means an "impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness" (Virginia Department of Education, 2017). The U.S. definition of legal blindness is a visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better-seeing eye with best conventional correction (meaning with regular glasses or contact lenses) OR a visual field (the total area an individual can see without moving the eyes from side to side) of 20 degrees or less (also called tunnel vision) in the better-seeing eye (American Foundation for the Blind, 2020). Low vision is a condition caused by eye disease, in which visual acuity is 20/70 or poorer in the better seeing eye and cannot be corrected or improved with regular eyeglasses (Sheiman et al., 2007). Students with visual impairments are a mixed group, with some having mild visual impairments and others being totally blind. These students may have visual impairment as their only disability, while others may experience additional disabilities (VDOE, 2017).
Instructional Strategies for Educators
The Guidelines for Working with Students Who Are Visually Impaired or Blind in Virginia Public Schools manual provides clear guidance for how school teams can work collaboratively to support students with visual impairments during the school day. Students with blindness and visual impairments may need accommodations for accessing general curriculum assignments and it is CRITICAL that the classroom teacher work with the child’s family, physicians and vision teacher (TBVI) to understand the nature of the child’s visual impairment and ensure that proper techniques and strategies are used to maximize the student’s ability to access visual information and use compensatory strategies.
The following strategies and resources are provided to promote access to language arts content, based on Virginia’s SOLs, for students with visual impairments. Students with visual impairments will require on-going adaptations and accommodations in literacy to compensate for the reduced and/or distorted information available through visual input. Decisions regarding instructional strategies must be made based on accurate and comprehensive assessment of the child’s vision and involve all team members. The following strategies are offered to provide a starting point for thinking about possible adaptations.
Accessible Material Production
Assistive Technology
  • Consult with assistive technology specialists (ATS) to discuss possibilities of low to high-tech devices for increasing independence and participation.
  • Students with low vision may benefit from using handheld digital devices to increase reading speed (McLaughlin & Kamei-Hannan, 2018).
  • Provide students with resources for accessible digital reading options. Work with the Teacher of the Blind and Visually Impaired (TBVI) and/or digital rights manager (DRM) to secure appropriate account information for the student to access digital literacy materials.
  • Consult assistive technology specialists (ATS) regarding the use of computer software that can be used to assist with writing assignments and reading of text.
  • Provide directions and instructions using the student’s preferred and strongest mode of communication. Many students will benefit from a multi-sensory approach that includes spoken language and tactile information.
  • Have classmates and adults identify themselves as they answer or ask questions and participate in class discussion to allow the student to orient to the speaker.
  • Explicitly teach communication skills to young students that are learned incidentally by sighted students such as listening, gestures, and using real objects.
Distance Learning
  • Make sure the virtual learning programs, apps, software, hardware and materials are accessible to students with visual impairments by referencing the resources mentioned in the "accessible material production" section and through consultation with your district’s assistive technology specialist.
  • Consult with the vision teacher, school team, and student to ensure that the digital resources being used by the district are accessible to the student.
  • Recognize that online communication requires rapid turn taking in conversation that relies on visual cues not seen by those with visual impairments. Make sure students with visual impairments are provided the necessary supports during distance learning environments to have equal educational access (Oh & Lee, 2016).
Emergent Literacy
  • Allow young children the opportunity to engage in multiple activities involving sensory stimuli including books with diverse textures, “scratch-and-sniff” stickers, and floor surfaces with different textures to explore (Holbrook & Koenig, 2003).
  • When supporting emergent literacy, use real life objects to connect to the story, add textures, use interactive language and create tactile books based on the child’s own experiences
  • Encourage all reading efforts, including pretend reading and pretend writing. Consult with reading specialists to identify student’s stage of literacy and appropriate activities to move student to next level.
  • Proactively engage young students with visual impairments in understanding phonological awareness by connecting with the TBVI and family of the student (Hatton et al., 2010).
  • Use repeated readings to build fluency and comfort level.
  • Learn basic strategies for tracking and reading braille with support from the vision teacher to support emergent reading skills.
General Literacy
  • Consult Teacher of the Blind/Visually Impaired for print, auditory, and electronic text reading strategies that consider the students reading preferences.
  • Consult TBVI for implications for literacy instruction for students with cortical visual impairments and how to best adapt materials across phases.
  • Begin literacy activities by drawing on the concrete experiences of the learner. Start with vocabulary that is relevant to the student and provide supplemental experiences to help the child comprehend the meanings of new words.
  • While various reading approaches may be effective, students with visual impairments will need systematic instruction to effectively learn to recognize words, comprehend text, and use effective written language.
  • Consult the TBVI and other team members about strategies for teaching Braille, when appropriate. Keep in mind the need for direct instruction, practice activities, consistency in instructors and expectations. See links in the resources section below for additional Braille information.
  • Comprehension is strengthened by teaching the student specific strategies for increasing understanding. Students should be taught to ask who, what, where, and why questions to check their understanding of text material.
  • Utilize ongoing progress monitoring of reading skills and apply evidence-based instructional practices when teaching reading (Kamei-Hannan et al., 2012).
  • Provide opportunities to practice reading, including repeated reading, for overall fluency and comprehension development (Savaiano & Hatton, 2013).
Instructional Delivery
  • Review possible accommodations for a student with a visual impairment for ideas of how to better include students in the classroom. Make sure you consult with the Teacher of the Blind and Visually Impaired (TBVI) on the specific IEP accommodations for the student in your class.
  • Provide access to visuals presented at an appropriate distance and in the child’s visual field and allow plenty of time for descriptions and exploration of materials and activities.
  • Visuals used should have clear, sharp images with high contrast (Cox & Dykes, 2001).
  • Provide information to the student to indicate that a new task is beginning, the expectations for the lesson, and prepare the student for transitions to new activities. Consistency across routines will facilitate learning.
  • Allow opportunities for repetition and practice of previously introduced material.
  • Use mutual exploration and modeling strategies (hand-under-hand and hand-over-hand) as appropriate to encourage exploration of materials and activities. Team members need to be aware of tactile sensitivity issues.
  • Consider close proximity to the activity and teacher during instruction. Positioning of the student and the materials must be based on understanding the child’s acuity and any field loss concerns. For example, a child who has a field loss on the left side will need materials presented on the right side. Accurate information about the child’s vision and how that loss affects access to information are critical.
  • Provide instruction at an appropriate pace, frequently checking for understanding and reteaching concepts as necessary.
  • Provide appropriate wait time for the student to respond to instruction or directions.
  • What is Specially Designed Instruction for Students with Visual Impairments?
  • Understand the basic components of the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) and consult with the TBVI to determine how these areas of instruction can be embedded into the core curriculum through collaboration of the school team.
Learning Environment
  • Consider environmental adaptations such as lighting conditions, contrast between materials, and the use of tactile cues in the room to promote independence and mobility.
  • Provide for an ergonomic work station that allows for a proper viewing position to avoid back and neck strain (Reading Strategies for Students with Visual Impairments, 2010).
  • Collaborate with the TBVI and orientation and mobility specialist to establish an accessible learning environment that meets the student’s individual needs.
Written Language
  • Avoid making assumptions about the writing ability of students with visual impairments and challenge their writing skills in the same way you would challenge their sighted peers (Savaiano & Herbert, 2019).
  • Consider an adapted work space and adapted writing materials that allows for proper ergonomics (e.g. positioning and seating) through consult with the TBVI (Writing Strategies for Students with Visual Impairments, 2010).
  • Written language should be taught systematically across all content areas and draw on the real-life experiences of the student.
  • Consider assistive technologies for writing such as adaptive writing tools, adaptive paper, and specialized word processor software, through consultation with the assistive technology specialist (ATS) and Teacher of the Blind and Visually Impaired
Links and Resources

American Foundation for the Blind (n.d.). Low Vision and Legal Blindness Terms and Descriptions. Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://www.afb.org/blindness-and-low-vision/eye-conditions/low-vision-and-legal-blindness-terms-and-descriptions.

Bardin, J., & Lewis, S. (2006). Academic engagement of students with visual impairments in general education language arts classrooms [ProQuest Dissertations Publishing].

Bowes, D., et. al (2008). Writing Strategies for Students with Visual Impairments: A Classroom Teacher’s Guide. SET-BC (Special Education Technology British Columbia), a provincial resource program of the BC Ministry of Education.

Burton, M., et. al (2008). Reading Strategies for Students with Visual Impairments: A Classroom Teacher’s Guide. SET-BC (Special Education Technology British Columbia), a provincial resource program of the BC Ministry of Education.

Cmar, J. L. (2019). Effective Self-Determination Practices for Students with Disabilities: Implications for Students with Visual Impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 113(2), 114–128.

Cox, P. R., & Dykes, M. K. (2001). Effective Classroom Adaptations for Students with Visual Impairments. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 33(6), 68–74.

Hatton, D., Erickson, K., & Lee, D. (2010). Phonological awareness of young children with visual impairments. (CEU Article)(Report). Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 104(12), 743–752.

Holbrook, C. M., & Kamei-Hannan, C. (2003). Foundations of Education: Volume II: Instructional Strategies for Teaching Children and Youths with Visual Impairments (2nd ed.). American Printing House for the Blind.

Kamei-Hannan, C., Holbrook, M., & Ricci, L. (2012). Applying a Response-to-Intervention Model to Literacy Instruction for Students Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 106(2), 69–80.

Mclaughlin, R., & Kamei-Hannan, C. (2018). Paper or Digital Text: Which Reading Medium is Best for Students with Visual Impairments? Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 112(4), 337–350.

Oh, Y., Lee, S., McGreal, R., & Conrad, D. (2015). The Effects of Online Interactions on the Relationship Between Learning-Related Anxiety and Intention to Persist Among E-Learning Students with Visual Impairment. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(6), 89–107.

Parlakian, R. (2012). Inclusion in Infant/Toddler Child Development Settings: More Than Just Including. YC Young Children, 67(4), 66–71.

Sacks, S.Z. (1998). Educating students who have visual impairments with other disabilities: An overview. In S. Sacks, & R.K. Silberman (Eds.), Educating students who have visual impairments with other disabilities (pp. 3-38). Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.

Savaiano, M., & Hatton, D. (2013). Using Repeated Reading to Improve Reading Speed and Comprehension in Students with Visual Impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (Online), 107(2).

Savaiano, M., & Hebert, M. (2019). A Cross-Sectional Examination of the Writing of Students with Visual Impairments. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (Online), 113(3), 260–273.

Scheiman, M., Scheiman, M. & Whittaker, S. (2007). Low Vision Rehabilitation: A Practical Guide for Occupational Therapists. United Kingdom: SLACK Incorporated.

Silberman, R.K., Bruce, S.M., & Nelson, C. (2004). Children with sensory impairments. In F.P. Orelove, D. Sobsey, & R.,K. Silberman (Eds.), Educating children with multiple disabilities: A collaborative approach (pp.425-525). Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.

Virginia Department of Education, Division of Special Education and Student Services (2017). 2017 Guidelines for Working with Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired in Virginia Public Schools [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://www.doe.virginia.gov/programs-services/special-education/specific-disabilities/sensory-disabilities/visual-impairment-including-blindness

This information is available thanks fo the efforts of Megan Smith, Teacher of the Blind/Visually Impaired, PhD Student, George Mason University, July 2020.