Differentiation strategies for the inclusion of students with severe visual impairment in MFL modules in Higher Education

Authors: Jenny Lewin-Jones and Joe Hodgson


It is now mandatory for Modern Foreign Language (MFL) teachers in Higher Education to make "reasonable adjustments" to allow full participation by students with disabilities. The Special Education and Disability Act (SENDA) 2001 required post-16 institutions to have implemented the Disability Discrimination Act Part IV (DDA) by September 2005. Implications of this legislation for MFL teaching on institution-wide language programmes in Higher Education are examined in this paper. A lecturer in MFL and a specialist teacher of the visually impaired (VI) explore practical teaching strategies for enabling the successful inclusion of students with severe visual impairment.

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Conference 2006

This paper was originally presented at our conference: Crossing frontiers: languages and the international dimension, 6-7 July 2006. Download print version: this paper is also available as a pdf (93Kb)


The Special Education and Disability Act (SENDA) 2001 required post-16 institutions to have implemented the Disability Discrimination Act Part IV (DDA) by September 2005. Higher Education institutions are now legally obliged to demonstrate "reasonable adjustments" to prevent disabled students from being disadvantaged (see Milligan 2002). This paper discusses the adjustments made to include students with severe visual impairment (VI) in Modern Foreign Language (MFL) modules at the University of Worcester (UW). At UW MFL modules are taught as free choice modules available to all undergraduates, from a range of main subject areas. This is a non-specialist institution-wide language programme.

Initially one VI student opted to take the German beginners module, and he was then followed in the next year by two further VI students, opting for German and Spanish. In total there have been five module occurrences where a VI student was participating, as 2 of the VI students each took 2 MFL modules. The number of sighted students taking each module was around twelve. Each module cohort involved on average 12 sighted students and one VI student.

The three VI students participating in this case study are registered blind and require a non sighted approach to the curriculum. Of the 3 students one was a nontactile learner, ie had little knowledge of Braille and preferred materials to be taped. The other two students were proficient at Grade 2 English Braille but had no knowledge of specialised MFL codes. All of the students in the study were supported by a Learning Support Worker (LSW) within the taught sessions.

This paper discusses four main issues concerning differentiation strategies: using and adapting materials, social integration of the VI student, using the LSW effectively, and assessment modifications.

Using and adapting materials

This paper focuses on adaptations that are carried out by the individual tutor of the MFL module, rather than the professional specialist adaptation of materials, for example having a map embossed. The key point to be made concerning the specialist adaptation of materials is that it can be very time-consuming and requires considerable prior notification. It is also important to point out that production of taped materials or tactile materials involves further adaptation. A map might require clutter removed before embossing, for example. It is not helpful to directly reproduce a town centre map simply by 'just embossing' it. Colour and different line thicknesses will be lost, for example. Specialised materials such as embossed diagrams have their place, but they do require time to produce and a level of expertise that is often not readily available.

In most institutions, specialist facilities are not easily available, and in our case study, there was not sufficient notice given about the participation by the VI student. The adaptation was left to the individual tutor and the tutor had to decide on an alternative means to present visual materials. The primary means was by giving a spoken commentary, for example, the LSW could briefly describe a photograph in English before the VI student participated in the German conversation.

A further point to address about using and adapting materials is how to use role play and how to make use of the LSW. When a communicative interactive approach is used, with a focus on student-student interaction, role plays are often set up using short cue cards. The role of the LSW here is not to engage in the role play themselves, but to act as an enabler, for example explaining quietly to the VI student what is written on a cue card, then standing back and leaving the VI student to engage in the role play with a partner.

Adapting materials also involves the need for the tutor to adapt the questions they ask. For example, it is meaningless to a VI student to ask a question such as "What did the man in the green shirt ask?" after watching a video, but the question can easily be rephrased to make it meaningful, such as "What did the man with the angry voice ask?". In this way, the tutor has to implement adaptation spontaneously and to gain an awareness of changing their approach. Small changes can be very significant. The question of using video will be considered in more detail later.

When using a whiteboard, OHP or smartboard, it is crucial for the writer to say what they are writing or to read what is on the board or screen. This verbal commentary is not only necessary for the VI student, but also helps the student with dyslexia, dysgraphia or anyone who finds it hard to break their concentration and switch focus between their notes and a board or screen.

Many of the adaptations made with the needs of the VI student in mind are actually beneficial to others in the student group. Because the VI student does not have the visual reinforcement, i.e. he or she cannot glance at the whiteboard to check a point, there is a need to provide that repetition in another way. The tutor has to pace the presentation differently and incorporate more deliberate repetition, which helps other students as well.
There is an issue of tutor anxiety which has to be openly addressed. It is important to acknowledge that some things may be impossible to adapt, or would take too much time for it to be feasible. For example, in the German module a selection of menus from cafes and restaurants was used for a vocabulary inference exercise. Rather than abandon the exercise altogether, the rest of the group did this whilst the VI student was given a different vocabulary task to complete.

In the MFL classroom a lot of non-verbal communication takes place between tutor and students. There are several ways of replacing the gestures and facial expressions. Using all the students' names more frequently was one strategy that worked well, and did not single out the VI student. Touch can also be used - for example, a quick tap on the arm can tell the VI student that it is his or her turn to respond to a question. It is important to discuss with the VI student privately at the start of the module if they are happy for the tutor to use touch.

Using video material with a VI student is often seen as the greatest challenge by tutors. Some commercially available video are audio described, and many VI students with access to digital media use this fairly commonly. If the video is not audio described, then the tutor or LSW can provide an audio description. This can be seen as "filling the gaps" between the dialogue on the video. For example, the LSW could say quietly to the VI student: "Two men are walking into an office; one of them is standing by the coffee machine", so that when the dialogue in German begins, the VI student has the clue that the dialogue may involve offering a colleague a coffee - the other students would have gained this information visually during the "gap", which to the VI student would have been a silent pause without the audio description.

Social integration

It is also important to look at the importance of integrating the VI student socially into the group. The key here is balance, or maintaining the same language learning experience for all students, adapting where possible but not overcompensating. At the start of each session, it is crucial to have some kind of whole group activity during which all the people in the room introduce themselves by name, so that the VI student knows who is in the room - this can be done as a revision activity of material covered in the previous week, which is useful for all students.

A personal example may help to explain what is meant by the tutor over-compensating for the needs of the VI student. When I first had a VI student in my German module, my reaction was to adapt everything, and make the rest of the students fit the needs of the VI student. For example, I left out some simulation or group role play activities that I felt were too challenging for the VI student. However, this is the opposite of inclusion - I ended up excluding all the students from a valuable activity.

Just as the tutor has anxieties about including a VI student, it is important to recognise that there can be anxiety on the part of the other students in the group. As the students taking the modules at UW come from a variety of different subjects, it was the case that none of the students had actually met the VI students before. There can be anxiety from the students about working with the VI student, or concerns that the tutor is paying too much attention to the VI student. It is helpful if in the first session, the tutor makes sure that pairs and groups are switched frequently, so that all students have the opportunity to work alongside the VI student.

The concern here has to be to avoid the isolation of the student. There may be a tendency towards over-reliance on the LSW, who can become a barbed wire or electric fence if they are always working with the student and preventing others from doing so. Simple changes like rearranging the seating plan can make a significant difference.

Using the Learning Support Worker effectively

The role of the LSW is to support the learner, not to take his or her place or act as a barrier to other people. The LSW is not a working participant in the actual content of the lesson/lecture, but is an enabler, performing such roles as offering video commentary, reading cue cards or written information.

The role of the LSW can be very different according to whether or not they speak the target language. Our first LSW did not speak German, and in the following semester, we specifically asked for an LSW who did speak German. If they do not speak the target language, then there is a danger that the notes they make for the VI student will be unclear, or they may quite simply get things wrong. The quality and quantity of the support was greater when the LSW did speak the language, as they were able to read out loud in the target language and could enable the VI student to carry out reading/writing activities, freeing the tutor to monitor and give one-to-one support to anyone in the group.

It has been suggested that the support is more effective if the LSW speaks the target language. This applies both in the teaching sessions and outside the sessions. The VI students have to be in charge of their own independent study outside the taught sessions, and the LSW can be useful in enabling this. If the LSW speaks the target language, then they can practise dialogues with the VI student and use material from the taught session for spontaneous practice, or focus on a particular topic, answering questions directly, which the other students may be answering through reading their course notes. However, the emphasis has to be on independence here, or else the VI student ends up having additional tuition that goes beyond what the other students can access.

Cole-Hamilton and Vale (2000) have explored the issue of VI students being able to access resources needed for coursework, suggesting that library resources were often not accessible. The question now arises as to the accessibility of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs). WebCT, for example, does not respond well to speech. If the student cannot access coursework via the VLE, then there is a need for further support via the LSW or other students taking the module.

Methods for recording and monitoring student progress have to be agreed with the VI student and their LSW at the start of the module. In our case studies the VI students worked orally together with their LSW on formative tasks, and the LSW recorded the students' answers for the tutor to monitor. For the tutor, the experience was the same as marking the written work by other students, except that verbal feedback was needed as well. There is a temptation for the LSW to over-intervene and correct errors, for example, in homework tasks, and the tutor needs to be clear from the start to the LSW that they have to see how the VI student is progressing. Tutor feedback was written on the work, and the LSW then had to allocate some time to act on this feedback. The tutor also gave verbal feedback directly to the VI student at the same time.
Assessment: modifications

We are required under the DDA (1995) Part 4 to make reasonable adjustment to enable disabled students full access to courses in HE. That does not mean physical access in terms of putting in a ramp or a lift, but rather means access to the curriculum. The Act does, quite correctly, expect academic standards to be maintained. (see the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) website (www.drc.gov.uk). The site has a range of cases either before the courts or pending relating to this issue.)

We are expected to examine how we can make modifications to what we do to accommodate students with disabilities. Above all everything we do must be open and transparent. If a visually impaired student undertakes examinations say, orally, an independent invigilator is always present and writes a short report.

The student's learning preferences have to be reviewed and understood before any modifications are made to the assessment pattern. In our case studies, the VI students had to be assessed orally. They undertook the same listening tests as the rest of the group, but in a different room, with the tutor reading out the questions and the LSW transcribing their answers, supervised by the tutor. It was important for the LSW to understand that they had to write down the student's wrong answers! The speaking test was identical to that sat by the other students. The reading and writing tests were combined in a further oral test. This was conducted by the module tutor, recorded on tape, and with an independent observer present from a different department. The tutor made sure that the content was the same as the reading and writing test sat by the other students. Lewin-Jones & Hodgson (2004) give a more detailed discussion of the modifications to the assessment.


To conclude, it would be wrong to deny that there is bound to be a certain level of anxiety for the tutor faced with including a VI student in an MFL module. However, this anxiety can be acknowledged and accepted, and the tutor can focus on achieving a balance.

Secondly, the issue of quality is crucial. Including a VI student and making necessary adaptations does not mean that academic standards are being diluted. It can have the opposite effect, as the tutor has to consider the fundamental question of whether the forms of assessment are actually addressing the intended learning outcomes, or whether there is another perhaps more effective way.

VI is a low incidence disability (for statistical data on students with VI in HE, see Richardson and Roy, 2002). Over the last 40 years, the total number of children registered blind/partially sighted has remained static - around 5000 (Source RNIB), with a slight increase now because of the large number of premature babies surviving with Vis. With this low incidence comes a relatively high cost, not just based upon equipment but also services. However, disability should not just be synonymous with cost and expense - quite often the smallest adjustment can bring about the greatest change.

What this study has helped us realise is that the adjustments made not only benefit those students with a visual impairment but have a 'knock on' effect for others, with benefits for all students. Developing differentiation strategies for including students with severe VI has led to our tutors reflecting on their teaching styles, which has been both challenging and stimulating.


Cole-Hamilton, I & Vale, D. (2000) "Shaping the Future - The Experiences of Blind and Partially Sighted Children and Young People in the UK" London: RNIB

Department for Education and Science (DfES) (2001a) The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act London: HMSO

DfES (2001b) The Special Educational Needs Code of Practice Nottingham: DfES

Disability Rights Commission (2006) "DRC legal cases"
accessed 21st June 2006 www.drc.gov.uk

Lewin-Jones, J. and Hodgson, J. (2004) "Differentiation strategies relating to the inclusion of a student with severe visual impairment in higher education (modern foreign languages)" British Journal of Visual Impairment 22/1:32-36

Milligan, J. (2002) "DDA Part IV - Implications for visually impaired students", Visability, Winter 2002

Richardson,J. & Roy, A. (2002) "The representation and attainment of students with a visual impairment in higher education", British Journal of Visual Impairment 20/1