Teaching English as a New Language (Symposium paper)

Teaching English as a New Language to Visually Impaired and Blind ESL Students: Problems and Possibilities
Sylvie Kashdan and Robby Barnes, Kaizen: Program for New English Learners with Visual Limitations, Seattle
Cecilia Erin Walsh, St. James ESL Program, Seattle

MS Word .doc version (100 kb)


Teaching English to visually-impaired and blind immigrants and refugees involves complex challenges which can be most effectively met by combining and synthesizing knowledge from a broad range of fields. The following brief summary of each of our backgrounds will give you an idea of some of what we are drawing on.

Robby Barnes, BA, Modern Languages and Fine Arts, MA.Ed., English as a Second Language (E.S.L.), Teaching Certificate with E.S.L. Endorsement. Robby has been assisting new English learners since 1971, including teaching arts and crafts and academic tutoring in settlement houses in low-income neighborhoods where a high proportion of the children and young adults came from places where English is not spoken as the primary language. He has been tutoring and teaching adults and families in English as a second language (ESL) programs in the Seattle area since 1988, and taught ESL students in the public schools from 1993 to 1998. From 1997 to 1999 Robby worked as an independent professional ESL tutor for clients of the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind. He is presently with the Kaizen Program in Seattle, Washington.

Sylvie Kashdan, BA, Sociology/Psychology, including training in Group Dynamics, MA, Sociology and Social Philosophy, 200 hours of English as a Second Language Methods training workshops, certification to teach braille in the state of Washington. Sylvie has been assisting new English learners since 1969, including as a university instructor of working adults in basic and advanced sociology courses, and facilitating arts and crafts and current events classes for seniors in public housing where a high proportion of students were people from places where English is not the primary language. Sylvie has been tutoring in ESL programs in the Seattle area since 1988. Since 1997 Sylvie has worked as an independent professional E.S.L. tutor for clients of the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind. She is presently with the Kaizen Program.

In 1998, both Robby Barnes and Sylvie Kashdan participated in the formation of the Kaizen Program, a small non-profit organization in Seattle, Washington, specifically devoted to helping blind and visually-impaired immigrants and refugees who need to learn English. For more details, see Kashdan (2002, Summer).

Cecilia Erin Walsh, AAS, Early Childhood Education, BA, Creative Writing, MSW with a concentration in Multi-Ethnic Practice, over 20 years of work in early childhood care and education. In her Masters in social work, Cecilia concentrated on Multi-Ethnic Practice, which led her to working with immigrants and refugees. She is currently the Civic Action Project Coordinator at St. James ESL Program, in Seattle, Washington.

The St. James ESL Program (SJESL) is a mainstream program, which primarily serves fully-sighted immigrants and refugees. It is a non-sectarian community outreach service of St. James Cathedral. There are no requirements regarding religious affiliation for staff, volunteers or students. The Civic Action Project is devoted to adult ESL and literacy, serving immigrants and refugees with visual impairments. In 30 years of service, SJESL has been meeting the ESL needs of low income immigrants and refugees from all over the world, many of whom might otherwise be overlooked and under-served.

In 2000, Kaizen contacted the SJESL program director, Chris Koehler, as part of its survey of mainstream ESL programs, programs that serve visually-impaired and blind adults, and eye doctors in the Seattle area (Kaizen ESL Program, 2000). The purpose of the survey was to gain some idea of the number of immigrants and refugees with visual impairments in the Seattle area and how many were receiving assistance in learning English and literacy.

Kaizen’s survey coincided with a request for proposals from the Washington State Office of Adult Literacy, for English language instruction to increase civic and community involvement. Chris Koehler suggested a partnership between Kaizen and SJESL to create a civic action project specifically devoted to serving the needs of immigrants and refugees with visual impairments. Kaizen was to provide the expertise and resources for serving blind and visually-impaired students and for training blind and visually-impaired volunteers with the necessary literacy and other adaptive skills, while SJESL was to provide the necessary expertise and resources for program building and coordination. The Kaizen staff agreed, the proposal was written, submitted and accepted, and the Civic Action Project was initiated. From drafting the initial proposal, through hiring, and through the on-going process of development and implementation, the Civic Action Project’s Enhanced ESL for Immigrants and Refugees has been an interagency collaboration between the Kaizen Program and the SJESL Program.


Now we are going to teach you Lojban Hokey Pokey, an activity that demonstrates in a simplified way some of the methods we have found useful for teaching new English learners with visual limitations. In this activity we use a language that most people are unfamiliar with, along with demonstrations of physical activity—in a game similar to the child’s game of Simon Says—to simulate how students can learn when the new language and physical activity are combined in a comprehensible and enjoyable way.

For this activity we use Lojban (pronounced lozh-bahn), a constructed language first developed by James Cooke Brown in 1955. Information about this early work can be found in Brown (1960). Over the past 40 years Lojban has been developed by linguists and others, to provide a tool for observing the ways in which languages grow and affect human thinking and learning. Lojban allows the full expressive capability of a natural language, but has a simpler and more strictly logical structure (with no exceptions) than other languages. This allows its use as a test vehicle for scientists studying the relationships between language, thought, and culture. For further information, see the online document Lojban, The Logical Language, Introduction and Frequently Asked Questions (http://www.lojban.org/files/brochures/lojbroch.html). There is also an official web site of the Logical Language Group (http://www.lojban.org/cnino-index.htm) and an e-mail discussion list (lojban@yahoogroups.com).

Lojban is well-suited for demonstrating the problems and possibilities for teaching a new language because it is a relatively simple language when compared with natural living languages. It is easy to learn because there are no exceptions to its rules. Its grammar is based on the principles of formal logic. There are no variations or idioms. Lojban also has phonetically consistent spelling, and unambiguous resolution of sounds into words, with no exceptions. Therefore, the confusion and frustration experienced by new Lojban learners cannot be attributed to difficulty with the complicated structures or rules of any specific living language. They can be understood as common to all new language learning experiences. And, the actual comprehension that does occur in the context of the activity can be understood as the product of the interactive activity and context clues (not related to prior specific knowledge of the language), thereby demonstrating the value of combining the use of the new language with directed physical activity. Moreover, no one participant has any advantage over another in the learning process because of prior knowledge of the language.

We regularly use Lojban with similar demonstrations as part of our training workshops for volunteer tutors, to help them understand and empathize with the kinds of challenges and learning processes their students will be experiencing. We usually integrate it with reading braille or large print, but there is not enough time for that today. In her book Dancing with Words: Helping Students Love Language through Authentic Vocabulary Instruction (2001) Judith Rowe Michaels notes that movement is a language and that speech is, in part, gesture. This is true, for totally blind people as well as for those who can see gestures. With students learning English as a new language, working from this perspective is particularly helpful. We find that blind and visually-impaired students benefit from participating in games that combine words with activities because they enable students to learn by associating language with bodily experience. Research has also shown that when people enjoy what they are doing they learn much better than when they are stressed. Games are good teaching tools because, when facilitated properly, they can make the learning enjoyable and minimize stress.

Note that in this specific example of the game we are teaching some language for parts of the body: hands, feet; some directions: forward, back; some motions: shake, turn. All of these are vital for blind and visually-impaired students to learn as part of their background for learning good mobility skills. The symposium handout for this exercise is reproduced in Appendix I of this paper.


A. The challenge of assumptions and difficulties that mainstream programs have with respect to assisting handicapped students

1. Mainstream programs don’t prepare staff or volunteers to either have any ideas of the potential and actual abilities of immigrants and refugees with visual limitations, or to encourage such students to develop their potential and actual abilities in becoming literate and oriented to the new culture, something that even elderly people who have experienced sight loss due to aging can do successfully with encouragement and the appropriate assistance. Research findings clearly indicate that there is no decline in the ability to learn as people get older; see Schleppegrell (1987) and Weinstein-Shr (1993).

To address some of the assumptions and problems that mainstream organizations have working with blind and visually-impaired students, in 1998 Robby Barnes and Sylvie Kashdan wrote a paper and gave a presentation at a statewide English as a Second Language (ESL) conference (Barnes and Kashdan, 1998). During 2003, we of Kaizen, with consultation from SJESL staff, will be revising that paper to include more information about possibilities for dealing with those problems, including more information about blindness and literacy, preparing and obtaining materials in accessible formats and presented in ways that are the most understandable and the least confusing to students, etc.

2. Most mainstream programs assume that the best they can offer these new English learners is oral English learning. Most of the programs that are assisting handicapped and elderly people with citizenship haven’t thought much about literacy for the blind or visually impaired, even though there is no reason to assume that literacy is either impossible or irrelevant for them. Even in the vital area of citizen preparation, most programs do not provide the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) application form N-400, the INS’s basic list of 100 Typical Questions, or any other citizenship study materials in any accessible format, not even on cassette, in ways that don’t rely on referencing printed materials with extensive graphics. There are a few videos on citizenship available in other languages, but they rely on visuals a lot, and are therefore also not easily utilized by visually-impaired and blind and visually-impaired immigrants and refugees.

Currently, the Civic Action Project is attempting to educate the staff in mainstream community-based programs about the literacy capacities and needs of blind and visually-impaired people, and the most effective ways to assist them in learning and practicing reading and writing. Moreover, Kaizen is producing the citizenship application (Form N-400) and other citizenship materials in braille and large print, and putting them in the public libraries and other places where regular print versions of this material is generally available. The staff of Kaizen have also prepared a basic citizenship course in simplified English that does not depend on visuals for teaching and learning. Kaizen plans to inform mainstream programs more systematically about these efforts, and to encourage wider use of the adapted materials produced.

B. Challenges with tutor recruitment and training

In building the Civic Action Project, we need to recruit and train volunteer tutors with the most important competencies and knowledge for immigrants and refugees with visual limitations. But finding such qualified volunteers poses some real challenges.

1. Mainstream community-based ESL programs rely on fully-sighted fluent English-speaking volunteers and professionals who are both literate in regular print and familiar with the ways to navigate the mainstream culture. But, these fully-sighted people are generally not familiar with the equivalent competencies and resources required by blind and visually-impaired new-comers and, most volunteers and ESL professionals are neither interested in nor prepared to commit time and energy to becoming fully literate in accessible formats, or learning the other skills and information that are vital for adjusting to living as handicapped people in our society.

But, it has been our experience that when their teachers and tutors are not themselves natural and regular users of accessible formats, the students are often not motivated to learn or practice them themselves. Some will learn to use speech-accessible computers, if they can afford to purchase them or are provided them by state or private organizations. But, the vast majority will not work on braille literacy, or even large print literacy, because of embarrassment with being different and other social issues related to status and fitting in. And, when teachers and tutors are not familiar with the other skills and information that are vital for adjusting to living as handicapped people in our society, they are unable to effectively assist students in using the new language to learn about these important topics.

We are strongly committed to assisting new English learners with visual limitations to achieve a functional level of literacy because we know that it is vital for truly empowering them to participate in the sighted world, including in mainstream educational programs, where we want them to be able to successfully learn other subjects along with sighted peers. But, we at Kaizen have found that blind and visually-impaired immigrants and refugees will most effectively learn English literacy through braille and large print in contexts that encourage them to practice using these accessible formats. Moreover, they derive tremendous benefit from studying English with people who are naturally using these formats themselves on a regular basis, because this provides students with both real positive role models and authentic reasons for practicing reading and writing in accessible formats.

We feel that the most realistic and best way to find volunteers with the necessary competencies and knowledge is to recruit blind and visually-impaired people who are fluent in English, literate in accessible formats and possess the other necessary competencies and knowledge for participating in our culture. Therefore, as part of the Civic Action Project, we are actively seeking out such volunteers. For some more details on these issues see Barnes, Kashdan & Walsh (2002).

2. But, many blind and visually-impaired people have been hesitant to volunteer to become ESL tutors, either because they believe that they will not be welcomed as volunteers and that accommodations will not be made for their visual limitations, or because they had negative experiences when they tried to volunteer their services.

To counter these negative expectations, we have sought out the assistance of local consumer groups in helping to publicize our need for volunteers, and the fact that the intake and training are fully accessible, and that all blind and visually-impaired volunteers will be supported on an ongoing basis in the ways that they feel are most helpful for them. For some more details, see Barnes, Kashdan & Walsh (2002).

As part of our Bridging the Gap mini-grant project, we will be doing a series of informational presentations encouraging local volunteer community programs to actively recruit visually-impaired and blind volunteers and train them using fully accessible materials and methods. We are also offering to share materials and do training for other community-based programs, in order to make it more feasible for them to utilize the services of blind and visually-impaired volunteers.

C. Challenges with student recruitment

We know from census figures that more than a million people a year currently immigrate to the United States. There are now 30 million foreign born people living in this country. More than 10 percent of the current U.S. population was born in other countries. More than 146,800 foreign immigrants came to Washington State between 1990 and 1999. Currently, about one of every 10 Washington residents is foreign-born. An average of 10,000 to 12,000 persons per year move from other countries into the Seattle metropolitan area. For source material, see Cat Le & Olsen (2001); Radio Station KUOW, Seattle (2001); U.S. Department of the Census (2000); National Immigration Forum (2000, 2002).

We know from reports of medical and social service professionals, and anecdotal reports of acquaintances, that there are blind and visually-impaired people among the new-comers. See (Kaizen ESL Program, 2000). But, currently, no one really knows how many of these immigrants and refugees are blind or visually impaired, because most are isolated from the general population of both fully-sighted and blind and visually-impaired fluent English speakers.

Blind and Visually-impaired immigrants and refugees with little or no English proficiency are often difficult to find, and they often are not informed about what specialized help may be available for them. For some more details on these issues see Barnes, Kashdan & Walsh (2002). One reason is that most immigrants and refugees with visual impairments do not seek out the services of rehabilitation agencies for the blind. This is especially true of women because their families often do not want them to work outside their homes. Older immigrants and refugees who have no interest in paid employment often see little value in contacting such agencies. And seniors who do seek help usually find they are not eligible for most rehabilitation services, and will only receive minimal (if any) assistance in gaining adaptive skills. This often discourages them from seeking out any specialized assistance in learning English. They may, in addition, believe that they are too old to learn a new language and the ways of a new culture. and, many working-age new-comers believe that there is no help of any sort available for them because when they have requested the services of rehabilitation agencies they have found that the staff in these agencies are not prepared to assist them if they aren’t proficient in oral English.

Some have sought assistance from mainstream community-based ESL programs or community colleges, where they have been primarily offered oral learning, assistance not equal or equivalent to that offered to their fully-sighted peers. Some of our students have reported feeling humiliated and discouraged by such blatant inequality.

But, many new-comers with visual limitations find it quite difficult to even think of participating in programs designed to meet the needs of the broadest section of immigrants and refugees, or the general population because they have few of the independent living skills they need here, and very limited ideas of how to adapt to opportunities in the community. Even those who have been resourceful enough to develop strategies and independent living skills appropriate for survival and independent living in their countries of origin, cannot usually easily transfer the strategies, skills or experience to the new context.

Most of the elderly and women are unlikely to seek out ESL or literacy education services, because they often do not believe that they can benefit from them, or they feel uncomfortable exposing themselves to the expected scorn and discrimination of fully sighted new English learners from their countries of origin or elsewhere. Many women are discouraged by their especially low status and low expectations. See Boylan (1991).

Moreover, during the past two decades, many of the refugees and immigrants to the United States have been people of color. Here they are viewed as “minorities.” Most of these people did not experience the discrimination concomitant with being minorities in their countries of origin. They are therefore frequently emotionally unprepared to understand and cope with the racial and other discrimination they may face in this country. The experience has been profoundly depressing for many, especially the elderly, and particularly for handicapped people, who already were carrying stigmas of low status. See Kaizen ESL Program (2001), Boylan (1991), Weinstein-Shr (1993).

To begin to address these challenges, during 2000 and 2001 Kaizen undertook a survey to gain a reasonable approximation of the numbers of immigrants and refugees in the Seattle area with visual limitations. We surveyed three groups: ophthalmologists and optometrists, organizations that specialize in serving blind and visually-impaired people, and organizations that specialize in providing ESL education. The results showed that during the previous year the 20 responding ophthalmologists and optometrists had provided services to 656 immigrants or refugees who have significant vision impairments which are not simply correctable by the use of standard optical lenses (the working definition of legal blindness). Of these patients, 577 requested the assistance of interpreters, indicating some difficulties or lack of confidence in using English. And the responding ophthalmologists and optometrists and their staff felt that at least 500 demonstrated definite difficulty communicating in English. The responding organizations which specialize in serving blind and visually-impaired people and those which specialize in providing ESL education had provided services to 33 immigrants or refugees who have significant vision impairments during the previous year. However, only 10 of these clients were receiving services related to ESL or literacy education. This means that two-thirds of these people were not receiving any such services. See Kaizen ESL Program (2001).

The Civic Action Project is providing informational brochures to local social service agencies, including providers of rehabilitation services to blind and visually-impaired adults, medical providers, and mainstream ESL programs. We are asking their staffs to inform potential students, and friends and relatives of immigrants and refugees with visual impairments of the service we are offering.

In addition, SJESL has a part-time staff of multi-lingual Student Liaisons who have translated outreach materials from the Civic Action Project into their native tongues. Many of them have also spoken to individuals and groups in the ethnic communities they are a part of about the help the Project offers to blind and visually-impaired people who want to learn English. Translation has been done also by The Red Cross Language Bank.

D. Challenges with student intake and assessment

Currently, mainstream community-based ESL programs in Washington State use standardized intake tools which utilize many pictures and other graphics to make initial assessments of new students. The use of such tests is related to the requirements of Washington State for standard rankings of students entering basic education programs which receive state funding. But, these tests are not truly appropriate for assessing the skills of students with visual impairments. Because these tests cannot easily be completed by such students, when they have enrolled in community-based programs, they have simply been rated as “0,” and the staff has therefore had very low expectations for these visually impaired students. A few of the community colleges have used their standard intake tests simply enlarged on copy machines or translated into braille by non-braille readers using the automatic default settings of braille translation programs. This has resulted in large print and braille texts that have been arduous and even confusing to read. The failure to provide accessible and appropriate intake assessment has been part of the pattern of not serving these students in ways that relate to their needs, or in ways that make it possible for them to participate on an equal basis with the other ESL students.

As part of the Civic Action Project, we are adapting the basic assessment tools used by the SJESL Program and many other ESL programs in Washington State. This includes providing three-dimensional objects, changing some of the questions to eliminate visually-oriented content and irrelevant or inappropriate skills and context, increasing the time allowed, and providing accessible formats for students with visual limitations. These adapted intake tests are intended to give the program coordinator a way of ranking the oral and literacy abilities of visually-impaired and blind ESL students, using the same rankings as for fully-sighted students. They are not intended to be diagnostic tools or to determine specific content that students need. We are also preparing working manuals for each test for fully-sighted exam administrators, and a Comprehensive Guide explaining the reasons for the specific adaptations made in all of the tests. For some more details see Barnes, Kashdan & Walsh (2002).

These adapted tests in accessible formats, the working manuals and the Comprehensive Guide are being used by the Civic Action Project in student intake, and will be shared with other programs that use the same tests. We hope that the availability of these adapted tests will encourage other community programs to think about providing expanded and more appropriate ESL services to truly help blind and visually-impaired immigrants and refugees who want to develop their English proficiency.

E. Challenges in serving students

A large number of fully-sighted adults with low literacy choose not to participate in available adult basic education and literacy programs; and a large number of immigrants and refugees choose to not attend ESL programs. Recent research shows that the primary reason given for non-participation is the perception that these programs do not serve their specific needs for learning those things which are relevant to their real lives. Even though there are no definitive statistics on the attendance of adult immigrants and refugees who have visual impairments in available adult basic education and literacy programs, the results of the Kaizen survey and anecdotal evidence from throughout the country point toward their having an even lower rate of participation in community-based and community college ESL programs than fully-sighted adults. This is understandable, because such programs do not address the very special needs and concerns they have. See Imel (1996), Sticht (1997, 1998, September, 1999, July), Sticht, McDonald, & Erickson (1998, January).

In order to best serve our students, we utilize methods and lessons that are specifically relevant to the needs and concerns of adults who are blind or visually-impaired and learning a new language. This includes methods and lessons that approach literacy as a source of necessary information, a skill for valued work, and a tool for important communication, rather than simply decoding and reading and writing exercises. Paul Lindsay (2000) notes in Teaching English Worldwide: A New Practical Guide to Teaching English, that teachers who want to promote their students’ independence need to focus less on explaining various aspects of the language being learned and more on organizing learning activities that enable students to learn how to take control of their own learning. While explanations are sometimes necessary and appropriate, learners need to be actively involved in using the language in situations where they can experience learning from the ways others express themselves and the ways others respond to them. With these goals in mind, we use a variety of techniques and materials that help students to learn actively and become independent learners.

We ourselves use, and train tutors to use, the Equipped for the Future framework, which was developed by the National Institute for Literacy. See Stein (1995). In order to develop real functional literacy we go beyond simply teaching individual skills, such as decoding, separated from meaningful content, to a strong emphasis on enabling students to have access to information and orient themselves in the world, to give voice to their ideas and opinions and to have the confidence that their voice will be heard and taken into account, to solve problems and make decisions on their own, acting independently as individuals, family members, community members, and paid or unpaid workers, for their own good, the good of their families, and their communities. For more information, see National Center for ESL Literacy Education (1998). For adapted versions of the EFF visuals, providing a verbal description of the concepts represented in the graphical schema, see Kaizen ESL Program (2002) training handout, Equipped For The Future: The Concept And The Interrelationships. Equipped For The Future: 4 purposes and 4 roles.

Kaizen also continually adapts materials relevant to adult learners with visual limitations into accessible formats, so that they can have interesting and significant reading materials that inspire them to engage in literacy activities.

We seek out and apply current research findings and best pedagogical practices, and particularly focus on those that offer the most possibilities for students with visual impairments. For example, we have familiarized ourselves with the work of researchers in cognitive studies, the science of learning, such as Howard Gardner, who have explored the multi-sensory aspects of learning about the world. Gardner has developed and elaborated the concept of multiple intelligences based on extensive research findings related to his work as professor of education at Harvard University, and as a developmental psychologist. He has found overwhelming evidence for the importance of a variety of senses in all learning, including language learning. The evidence shows that we all learn through multiple senses, even though we often are only aware of utilizing one or two of our senses in specific situations, and even though we sometimes prefer to emphasize the value of only one or two senses in specific learning contexts. See Gardner (1993, 1994, Winter).

Based on research, Gardner has defined 8 or 9 human intelligences (linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist, possibly an existential intelligence, with more being anticipated). We all have multiple intelligences, which we utilize at different times in different ways to accomplish different goals. Although we may rely more on some of our senses and intelligences at some times in some situations, none of us can really be classified as always learning primarily through any one sense, intelligence or style because we are all constantly in the process of learning new ways to comprehend the world and accomplish our goals. Gardner notes that even learning a new language involves more than linguistic intelligence; we can only learn a new language through a variety of intelligences focused on meaning and communication. Moreover, many researchers have found that when learners explore concepts or topics through a variety of senses, using their multiple intelligences, they are much more likely to be interested in and to remember what they have learned, and to be able to use it in flexible and innovative ways in new situations. This is particularly true for adult learners. See Viens & Kallenbach (2001, 2002, May).

Understanding the importance of multi-sensory and multiple intelligence learning processes is vital to helping learners with visual limitations, both to improve their opportunities for learning and for being considered as at least potentially fully competent to become expert in our society. As Gardner (2001) so eloquently puts it, in order to facilitate effective learning, “We must help students to find meaning in daily life, to feel connected to other individuals and to their community—past, present, and future; and to feel responsible for the consequences of their actions. We must help them to achieve the state of flow—the balance between skills and challenges—which motivates individuals to return to a pursuit time and again.” An understanding of this is particularly vital for those of us who are committed to enabling blind and visually-impaired students to develop real functional literacy.

We of Kaizen have also found the writings of Thomas M. Holtgraves, a social psychologist at Ball State University, of great value in our work. Holtgraves draws upon recent research in anthropology, social psychology, linguistics, pragmatics, philosophy, socio-linguistics, artificial intelligence, and cognitive psychology to delineate the reasons why language cannot be understood as simply a symbolic, abstract system, but must be understood as a behavior that is affected by other people and a means for influencing the behavior of others. See Holtgraves (2002). Other researchers have also found that students learn new languages best when their teachers replace isolated skill exercises and drills with actual real-world social interactions involving interesting activities with both people and objects. See Kroeker & Henrichs (1993), Peyton & Staton (1996), Weaver (1994), Cambourne (2001, December), Lewis (1997).

This wholistic communicative perspective is particularly relevant and even crucial for enabling visually-impaired and blind adult students to learn the new language, and especially for helping them develop authentic functional literacy in accessible formats. They need to learn English literacy through braille and large print in contexts that interest and encourage them to practice using these accessible formats. It is not enough to teach them the braille code or the print alphabet and punctuation using large print. We need to focus on meaningful and relevant reading and writing. Fluency in spoken English doesn’t necessarily lead to literacy, unless there is a real focus on it along with oral language development.

We also specifically focus on evaluating and addressing students’ individual needs. First we get to know each student, her or his educational background, strengths, and concerns. This is accomplished through interviews and needs assessments. Each one needs assistance specifically tailored to fit individual needs.

But, our students also have some things in common that must be taken into account. Many have experienced stereotyping from their families, friends and strangers. And most of them need help in developing independent learning, while adapting to the mainstream environment. It is important for these students to have individual tutoring to help them become proficient in the adaptive skills they need before throwing them into mainstream contexts where they must deal with many other challenges even with proficiency in these skills. And, it has become clear to us that such students derive tremendous benefit from studying English with people who are naturally using accessible formats themselves on a regular basis, because this provides students with both real positive role models and authentic reasons for practicing reading and writing in accessible formats. They need to develop a sense of the importance of independent reading and writing, and have a context where reading and writing in accessible formats seems both necessary and desirable, not proof of their inadequacies related to lack of vision, and not an exercise in frustration and embarrassment.

We have also found that students will be better equipped to succeed in mainstream environments if they are first given the tools to enable them to assume responsibility for their own future learning. They need to evaluate how they can get the most out of the mainstream, not how to make accommodations that are comfortable and convenient for sighted peers and teachers. We want to help new English learners with visual limitations to participate in the sighted world, including in mainstream educational institutions. But, only when they have developed some functional literacy will they be able to utilize accessible formats to successfully learn other subjects along with sighted peers.

F. Challenges with tutor intake

SJESL provides all prospective tutors with an introductory packet, including a Volunteer Information Form, description of volunteer opportunities, travel directions, and a newsletter. They are then interviewed and asked to sign, in person, a form agreeing to a background check, which must be satisfactorily completed before they are enrolled in the program. But the written material related to the intake and background process were not available in accessible formats.

To deal with this challenge, Kaizen has prepared and provided all intake material in braille, enhanced and large print for potential volunteers who need these. We are also providing written travel instructions for getting to the SJESL office, including braille and large print bus directions, to serve the same purpose as the map given to fully-sighted prospective volunteer tutors. For some more details related to this topic see Barnes, Kashdan & Walsh (2002).

SJESL staff are also trained in protocols for welcoming and assisting blind and visually-impaired prospective volunteer tutors.

G. Challenges in matching tutors with students

When matching tutors and students we consider what adaptive skills tutors have and which ones students need, student goals, the locations of students’ and tutors’ homes, and transportation. For some descriptive examples related to this topic see Barnes, Kashdan & Walsh (2002).

It is essential that students are provided with the best tutor to help them meet their learning goals. So it is necessary to understand well the unique skills, needs, and ESL learning goals of each student, as well as the skills and interests of the volunteer tutors.

Therefore, during the intake and assessment process, we find out as much as possible about each student’s unique skills, needs and learning goals, including educational and work backgrounds, vision history and plans for the future. Likewise, during the volunteer tutor interview process, we learn about the skills and interests of tutors: Do they use braille? How well? If they have some vision, how much? What adaptive technology do they use, with what level of competency? Are they able to tutor writing? Math? Before a tutor is assigned to a student, we consider which of the available tutors has the most competencies needed by the student.

It is also essential that tutoring take place in a setting which provides the appropriate context for achieving the student’s learning goals, the appropriate atmosphere for promoting learning, as well as the necessary reading and writing tools.

To address this need, during the intake process, we ask students to express a preference for where they want to be tutored. We encourage students to choose their homes or the tutors homes for the majority of sessions because we try to have tutoring in real life settings where there are many of the objects necessary for exploring and demonstrating ideas and activities that the students need to learn about in English.

Because tutors rely on public transportation and some are working full time, it is important that the time and energy spent getting to the tutoring session is manageable. So, when students choose to have tutoring in their homes, we try to assist tutors with their transportation needs. If it is practical for them to use the public bus system, we help them learn the routes. SJESL has also been recruiting volunteer drivers to assist with transportation and discussing the use of taxi vouchers paid for by the Program when using the bus is not a viable option.

H. Challenges within the St. James ESL mainstream program

SJESL primarily serves fully-sighted students, through the efforts of fully-sighted volunteers. All of the materials, resources, procedures and events are developed and/or provided upon an assumption that participants will be able to see materials and engage in procedures without adaptation. For all staff at SJESL, working with people with visual limitations is a somewhat new experience.

For the Civic Action Project, Kaizen has provided training and ongoing consultation for SJESL project coordinators on conducting intake and assessment of students with visual impairments. Cecilia Erin Walsh has, in turn, shared information and project development, and has initiated discussion and in-house training with colleagues on issues related to serving people with visual impairments.

SJESL produces a quarterly newsletter and provides a small resource center. But, neither the newsletter nor materials in the resource center are fully accessible to people with visual limitations.

To address this problem, the Civic Action Project is prepared to fund the adaptation of all standard materials used within the program. While intake, assessment and interview materials have been adapted, we still need to arrange for the regular production of SJESL’s quarterly newsletter in accessible formats. Upon tutor, student, or SJESL staff request, Kaizen adapts some materials not otherwise readily usable, and regularly provides tutors with articles and teaching tips and strategies in appropriately accessible formats. Copies of all materials in all accessible formats are provided to the SJESL resource center.

Another challenge arises because all new SJESL volunteers and staff are supposed to receive Professional Ethics Training, providing instruction and guidance on the personal and professional behaviors expected of volunteers and staff, in the interest of those served. The training consists of a video, a print brochure highlighting protocols for reporting suspected abuse, and a print viewer’s guide. But, no print materials have so far been produced in accessible formats, and the video lacks any descriptive narrative. For some descriptive examples related to this topic see Barnes, Kashdan & Walsh (2002).

The Civic Action Project has requested from the Human Resources Department that print materials be provided in large and enhanced print, and braille. Viewing the video together, Kaizen and SJESL staff identified moments that would be more accessible if descriptive narrative were added, and have asked that this be done in the new version of the video, currently in production. We have offered our assistance in making these improvements.

Another area requiring adaptation came to our attention when the SJESL program staff decided to encourage visually impaired students to attend the social and instructional events which are provided for all students and tutors. We realized that invitations and announcements to these have been provided only in regular size print or electronic format, not accessible to many visually-impaired and blind students. To promote inclusion, invitations and announcements are now provided in accessible formats, depending on individual needs.

We welcome questions and requests for our literature, by e-mail, phone or regular mail.

Contact Information

Sylvie Kashdan and Robby Barnes

Kaizen Program for New English Learners with Visual Limitations

e-mail: kaizen (at ) quixotes.org


Lojban Hokey Pokey

mo’i crane zunle xance

Put your left hand forward.

mo’i trixe zunle xance

Put your left hand back.

mo’i crane pritu xance

Put your right hand forward.

mo’i trixe pritu xance

Put your right hand back.

mo’i crane zunle jamfu

Put your left foot forward.

mo’i trixe zunle jamfu

Put your left foot back.

mo’i crane pritu jamfu

Put your right foot forward.

mo’i trixe pritu jamfu

Put your right foot back.

ko desku desku desku

Shake, shake, shake.

ko carna ko carna ko carna

And turn yourself around.


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Kashdan, Sylvie, Barnes, Robby & Walsh, Cecilia Erin (2002). Teaching English as a New Language to Visually Impaired and Blind ESL Students: Problems and Possibilities. Paper presented at A Celebration of Solutions. National Symposium on Literacy for Adults with Visual Disabilities, Atlanta, Georgia, September 20, 2002.

Symposium URL: http://elearn.afb.org/section.aspx?FolderID=3&SectionID=44&TopicID=108&SubTopicID=32&DocumentID=1933

NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Readers are free to post, forward or reproduce this material for nonprofit research and educational uses, if it is clearly identified as the work of the Kaizen staff: Robby Barnes and Sylvie Kashdan, and any collaborators, and if the citations noted are used. All other rights reserved.

Kaizen Program
for New English Learners with Visual Limitations
email: kaizen ( at ) quixotes.org
web: https://www.quixotes.org/kaizen//