Adapting the Learning Environment

For Participation of New English Learners with Visual Limitations
in Mainstream ESL and Adult Basic Education

MS Word version (78 kb)

(Utilizing materials provided by the American Foundation for the Blind training workshop Bridging the Gap: Best Practices for Instructing Adults Who are Visually Impaired and Have Low Literacy Skills)

With additions and modifications specific to the needs of
new English learners with visual limitations

by Robby Barnes and Sylvie Kashdan

The majority of learners entering adult basic education classes have some usable vision. A person with low vision has difficulty seeing, even with prescribed corrective lenses. But a person with low vision can enhance his or her ability to accomplish visual tasks with the use of compensatory visual strategies, low vision and other devices, and environmental modifications.

The extent to which a person uses available vision to perform tasks varies from individual to individual, and cannot necessarily be predicted by clinical measures. It is the responsibility of both adult education professionals and rehabilitation professionals to provide opportunities for the adult who is visually impaired to maximize her functional vision, thereby improving the adult’s ability to function in an adult education setting.

We are well aware that adults who are visually impaired represent a relatively small percentage of the total number of adults seeking ESOL instruction. However, even though such students may be a minority, when adult education professionals learn how to compensate for the impact of vision loss by adapting the learning environment, they are also developing their capacity for creative problem-solving, one of the foundations of effective teaching. Moreover, given the fact that people in impoverished countries experience health problems leading to visual impairments significantly more often than those living in wealthy industrialized countries, ESOL teachers should expect to have at least a few adult students with visual impairments in classes from time to time. You should also remember that the modifications made for a learner with vision loss will often benefit other learners without vision loss.

Adult learners with visual limitations need to be respected and treated as mature individuals. They should be in charge of deciding on the process of environmental and tool modification to best fit their specific needs for maximal function. They are the ones who are most familiar with their own specific level of visual functioning, and best equipped to describe what works best for them and to determine when and if new solutions will work appropriately.

Acuity, Field of View, and Contrast

Vision loss impacts visual performance, which then may impact an individual’s ability to perform a variety of tasks.

It can be helpful if an educator can ascertain the general outlines of a learner’s level of vision loss, so he or she can prepare to discuss specific challenges and help find specific solutions.

Here are the aspects of vision that need to be taken into account:

a. Acuity: the ability to see sharply and clearly; when acuity is reduced the ability to read is impaired. Acuity is noted as a fraction, and refers to the sharpness or resolution of vision. If 20/20 is normal acuity, 20/100 indicates greater impairment. If the bottom number is larger, then the learner will have greater difficulty reading print and identifying objects accurately. Poor acuity can occur in one eye, or both eyes. A learner may have normal acuity in one eye and poor acuity in the other. Consider asking the learner to clarify what she or he can and cannot see.

b. Field of View: the area within the environment that can be seen; if peripheral, or side, vision is lost, the result is a “tunnel vision” effect that primarily impacts mobility; if central vision is lost the result is an inability to see detail, and the ability to read is affected. The field of view is the amount of area that a person can see. A normal field of view is one where a person, when looking at one place, can also see objects in their peripheral vision, to approximately 120-160 degrees around the center point of fixation. A decreased field of view would be noted as 20 degrees, for example. The lower the number, the greater the impairment. A decreased field of view could cause a person to “miss” objects that they are viewing, and would indicate a need to move the eyes more to move the field of vision around to see more objects. A person can have normal acuity and severely decreased field of view. This would still indicate a need for environmental modification to help with learning. A limited field of view may result in a higher risk for falls or bumping into objects. Keep objects out of pathways as much as possible. Consider asking the learner to clarify what she or he can and cannot see.

c. Contrast: the ability to discern objects in the foreground from background; without the ability to discriminate objects, tool manipulation, picture identification, and writing may be affected. When a person has difficulty seeing objects or pictures or print that has low contrast, she may not be able to identify any of these when their colors are very much like their background. Consider asking the learner to clarify what she or he can and cannot see.

Here are some questions to help clarify what a learner can or cannot see:

* Print Size: What size print is the most “comfortable” for the learner when completing a variety of literacy tasks, i.e. working distance to page or computer screen, endurance, need for visual aids?

* What is the smallest size print that the learner can see?

* Is the learner able to read back what she writes?

* Object Size: How large does an object have to be for a learner to be able to recognize it accurately, consistently (not only periodically) correctly?

* What are the smallest objects that the learner can see accurately?

* Are there certain objects that are very difficult for the learner to see?

* Does the learner find it best to sit near the front of a class, near the teacher, in the back of the class, far from the teacher, etc.?

* Does the learner have difficulty with distance vision?

* Is the learner able to read print from the blackboard comfortably? (With visual aids?)

* Does the learner have difficulty with close vision?

* What field of view limitations does the learner have?

* How big of an area can the learner see? Does she sometimes miss objects because they disappear?

If the learner has a loss in her functional field of view but retains some visual acuity, she may be able to see more objects at a distance than close up. In such a case she may prefer to sit far away from the board or objects or activities to be viewed. Allow the student to choose her preferred position in class, and methods of adapting activities to her field loss.

If the learner has a loss in her functional field of view, it may be helpful to know where the functional part of her visual field is, so as to take that into account when presenting materials to her, when organizing materials on desks, when gesturing, or when positioning oneself for instruction.

* Lighting: What level of illumination is necessary for a learner to be able to reach her optimal visual function?

* Are there certain times of day when it is harder for the learner to see objects correctly?

* Does glare keep the learner from seeing objects correctly?

* What kind of lighting helps the learner see objects easier?

* Can the learner see colors?

* Some people who can recognize different colors still find that they recognize certain colors faster, and some colors more quickly when they are in front of a background of different specific color.

* Contrast: How well can a learner correctly identify an object when its color is very much like its background?

* What type or color of background help make objects easier to see?

* What color objects are easier to see?

* Endurance: How long can a person maintain optimal visual performance?

* How long can the learner read print before experiencing eyestrain? (Examples: 15 minutes; one hour; unlimited)

* Does the learner get tired during or after watching television or an athletic event?

* Does the learner need to take breaks sometimes to rest her eyes? When does that happen, and after how long of an activity?

* In the past, when the learner had to learn something new on the job, or at home, was there anything particularly challenging about that experience? Was there anything specifically helpful related to vision? What did the learner like about that experience?

* Does the learner use any special visual aids or adaptive learning devices? (Examples: magnifiers, CCTV, writing guides, talking calculators, bold line paper, electronic note takers, computer with voice or font enlargement? etc.)

Functional Implications of Vision Loss

* Difficulty finding objects visually

* Difficulty identifying objects visually

* Difficulty seeing object edges, and discriminating foreground/background differences

* Missing objects when reaching for them

* Disappearing objects in visual field (the area of vision)

* Tripping, falling, or bumping into objects when walking or moving about room

* Difficulty reading print because of size, contrast, or other reasons

* Reduced reading rate

* Reduced reading endurance

* Difficulty seeing handwriting

* Difficulty seeing writing on board, or difficulty seeing writing on projector screen

* Difficulty seeing characters or numbers in books/media

* Inconsistency in seeing objects over time (fluctuating vision)

Some Suggested solutions

Giving Verbal Direction

It is very important that educators be able to give concrete, sequential verbal direction to learners. There are two referential systems in which to frame directions:

* Egocentric

Egocentric Frame of Reference, in relation to the student’s body. Example: you might say, “The book is to your left.” Or, “turn left, walk until you see the big red door on your right, then turn right into the hallway.”

* Exocentric

Exocentric Frame of Reference, in relation to the world or outside, in relation to objects not related to the learner’s body. For example: you might say, “The hallway is by the bathroom.” Or, “Walk north until you see the red door, then turn and walk east, until you reach the water fountain.”

The best method of giving verbal directions depends on the learners’ orientation to the environment. If learners are oriented to their environment, then a combination of the two reference systems could be beneficial. If learners are not oriented to their environment, then the exocentric reference system will not be a functional way to give directions.

Not all verbal directions are related to finding objects. We also give verbal directions to describe how to complete a task or process.

Offering process directions:

* Provide organized information in a logical sequence: When offering direction or information to the learner with vision loss, it is paramount that the information be organized or structured logically. So much information given to people with vision loss has to be processed without the benefit of body language, environmental cues, and visual memory.

Consider this typical comment: “John, if you go over to that table, grab some of the paper over there and your workbook, then I’ll help you work on the exercises.” Consider this revised comment: “John, go to the materials table behind you. Pick up five or six blank sheets of paper that are on the left front corner of the table. Locate your workbook in the stack of workbooks on the right side of the table. Return to your seat, and I will help you with your exercises.” In the second example, the process is offered in a sequence. Concrete information is given about objects and their location.

* Speak at an appropriate volume and pace: a person may need to hear information at a slower pace, in order to process it accurately. It is appropriate to ask a person if you should slow down your speech, in order to assist their learning of new information. Speak in a normal tone of voice. Do not raise your voice or whisper.

Offering Physical Assistance

There may be times when it is appropriate to offer physical assistance to a learner with vision loss. This may be needed to guide a person through a complex environment, or to offer them orientation to objects.

a. When offering physical assistance, first ask people if they would like help.

b. If the person wants assistance, gently contact the person’s arm or hand with your arm or the back of your hand to indicate where your body is in reference to his or her body.

c. Do not grab the person’s hands or extremities and pull them.

d. When a sighted person assists a visually impaired person in traveling, the sighted guide technique is used. The person who is visually impaired grasps the guide’s arm just above the elbow, keeping the thumb to the outside and the four fingers to the inside of the guide’s arm. The guide keeps his or her arm tucked close to the body, and the person walks alongside a half-step behind the guide.

e. If learners need to be shown an object near them, it is appropriate to ask them to place their hand on top of yours, and then place your hand on the object first. This allows for choice and a feeling of security.

The Physical Environment

Adapting the physical environment to help promote learning requires that instructors keep the challenges listed above in mind.

Here are some ways to adapt the physical environment to compensate for the impact of vision loss:

* Consistent placement of objects in the environment: It is very important, for safety and orientation, to maintain consistent placement of objects in the environment. Objects should be maintained in consistent positions. This includes furniture, fixtures, and tools. This increases safety and efficiency for the learner with vision loss.

* All classroom materials, tools and equipment need to have designated locations. After use all items need to be returned to the designated locations. This can enable the adult who is visually impaired to find items faster and with minimal stress, and thereby use class time most efficiently.

* Increase lighting: add higher wattage bulbs to fixtures where possible; move desks, chairs etc., to better lit areas; add desk lamps such as gooseneck lamps with solid bases or table-top lamps for the learners’ tables or desks.

* If added lighting causes decreased functional vision, this is usually due to uncontrolled glare, where the learner can’t control the fixture’s position. Ensure lamps are adjustable to avoid glare.

* The ideal position for lighting is directed at the task, the reading or handwriting material, perhaps over the shoulder, never into the face.

* Label or tag both movable and fixed objects: add contrasting paper, tape, or other material to either movable or immovable objects so a learner can identify them more rapidly.

* Increase contrast: place an object on a contrasting background so it can be seen and identified more rapidly.

* Decrease confusing visual patterns: remove patterned backgrounds where possible, so the object can be identified quickly, and accurately. Bulletin boards and white boards should contain concrete, organized information, without confusing backgrounds.

* Ensure type is the opposite color, shade and saturation of its background

These modifications can be applied to all the objects (movable and stationary) listed below:

Pathways: Generally, pathways need to be clear of all objects, including objects at feet or head height that a person could contact.

If lighting is increased, then a learner can more quickly see differences of foreground and background and make safer mobility decisions.

Carpets and rugs: edges of rugs can cause trips and falls. Unsafe rugs should be removed.

Do not apply tape to rug edges to secure them. This adds to the visual confusion, and the tape can come up, and cause additional fall risk.

Stairs: Increase the lighting levels in areas where there are stairs. Label the stair treads with contrasting colors and/or contrasting underfoot texture if possible, and orient the learner to the space.

Doorways: Increase the lighting where there are doorways. Ensure that learners know what direction doors open. Add a bright contrasting piece of paper to the door, so it can be visually identified quicker. Ensure there are no objects in the doorway that could be tripped on or bumped.

Furniture/Fixtures: Generally, furniture and/or fixtures should be out of the pathway. Any furniture object should be easily identifiable, and ideally stay in place, so that once the location is learned, the learner doesn’t have to adjust her internal map. Furniture can be used creatively to create pathways. Sharp edges on pieces need to be noticed and moved so that the learner doesn’t contact them.

Carts roll, so be aware that their dynamic quality can confuse a learner with vision loss. Try to create a place for the cart, where it is put when not in use. Again, increase the lighting where possible, label pieces with contrasting paper or other material so that they can be identified faster.

Make a rule that chairs get pushed under tables when not used or returned to their designated place. All furniture should have a designated place to which it is always returned.

It is very important that all tools have a fixed, organized location so they can be consistently located and identified accurately. Some of these items may also need to be labeled.

* Use organizer trays for objects so learners can find them quickly and then return them once a task is completed.

* Orient the learner to their locations early on, and ensure that they can accurately locate these materials from various points in the classroom.

* Blinds or shades should be made available to control glare from windows

* Provide yellow acetate sheets to place over papers so the learner can experiment with color and glare reduction.

* If the learner is hunching forward or drastically pulling back, a reading stand might help improve her endurance and posture.

* Some learners with low vision can experience improved endurance and posture with adjustable desk chairs.

* Some learners with low vision benefit from using bold-lined paper.

* Many learners with low vision benefit from using black felt-tipped pens and markers for writing.

Adaptations for Study Activities

Those who have limited vision must learn complex cognitive processing and some increases in physical activity beyond that required of learners with standard vision in order to engage in some tasks. Many people will have to position their heads or their eyes in non-standard ways in order to view objects or print. This type of adaptation can tax the learners’ physical and cognitive systems more rapidly than the head and eye positions available to learners with standard vision. Educators should be aware of the increased effort that is required for learners with low vision. The following adaptations are suggested in situations where learners exhibit fatigue or vision changes during learning activities:

* Take frequent breaks or allow learners to take breaks when needed.

* Encourage learners to look away from near objects to far objects to encourage the visual system to rest.

* If available, allow the learner to sit in chairs of varying heights and shapes. Differences in height and support may help relax the neck and shoulders.

* Create the learner’s materials on a computer, making the font and background in the desired size, color and contrast.

* Use a white board with good lighting, and position the learner at her optimal viewing distance from the board.

* Position a reading stand at the learner’s optimal viewing distance to maintain good posture, and decrease fatigue.

* Present all objects to the learner against contrasting backgrounds (light object on dark, dark object on light).

* When possible, use opposite contrast on papers or learning materials, such as black print on white paper. Black bold-lined paper provides good contrast for handwriting activities.

* Allow the user to use background materials, such as place mats, trays, contact paper, and shelf liners in a variety of colors and saturations.

* Use objects and create role plays with objects rather than using pictures whenever possible.

Immigrants and refugees with visual impairments are not the only students who can greatly benefit from implementation of these recommendations. Many researchers and ESOL educators have found that adult ESL Learners with and without visual impairments may face Special challenges in learning a new language if they never learned to read and write in any language, if they have had no formal education, or only limited formal education (i.e. less than seven years), if they have had disrupted education due to war or other political crises, if they are elderly, or if they are suffering severe effects of political torture and trauma.

Such students especially need instruction that is concrete, multi-sensory, and involve both social and physical interactions in ways that alleviate anxieties, promote self-confidence and enable them to have successful learning experiences.

For these students, graphics and written work sheets, instead of reinforcing language and aiding comprehension, can be confusing and become barriers to learning. Even simple line drawings may not be very understandable to students who do not have the requisite cultural frames and life experiences. Interacting with other people and utilizing real objects, on the other hand, can provide immediate and meaningful contexts for learning.

See, for example: Adult ESL Learners with Special Needs: Learning from the Australian Perspective
June 1998, ERIC Q & A, National Center for ESL Literacy Education (NCLE)
by Susan Chou Allender, Adult Multicultural Education Services (AMES), Victoria, Australia

Kaizen Program
for New English Learners with Visual Limitations
email: kaizen ( at )