Teaching deaf, hard of hearing and visually impaired students

As someone who spends a fair amount of time meeting and working with teachers in different contexts, I get asked all manner of questions and have become very aware of the limitations of my own knowledge. If anyone asks me my thoughts on teaching kids or young learners, I try to be open about the fact that I only have my experience in Asia twenty-plus years ago to go on; despite the fact I’ve taught plenty of fifteen-to-eighteen-year-olds over the years, I’ll freely admit I’ve never taught in the state system anywhere . . . and I have absolutely no experience whatsoever of teaching learners who are visually impaired or who have hearing difficulties. In fact, this seems like such a niche section of the ELT market that I rarely even see it discussed at conferences or in the mainstream English Language Teaching world in general.

Given this, you can imagine how excited I was to meet three teachers who not only specialise in this niche area, but who work in a school dedicated to such pursuits. During my recent trip to Russia, I gave a series of talks in St. Petersburg and was humbled to meet the remarkable teachers from the UBC Ltd. School based in the same city. To cast a bit more light on the work they do, and on the challenges and rewards of their work, I asked them to write about it in their own words, so here goes . . .


UBC is a school in St.Petersburg, Russia and we have been teaching English to people with disabilities for 5 years now. Starting with a small group of students who were eager to learn, today we provide year-long General English courses, and programs in Business and Professional English for more than 100 students per year both here and in Moscow. Our main goal is to give our students a prospect of better employment. That’s why we are exam-oriented and do our best to ensure our students pass the Cambridge English tests and thus launch their careers. Nine of our students have already passed their examinations successfully and more are on their way to it.

Teaching deaf and hard of hearing students

Vera, the teacher:

“We have adapted the traditional General English course for the special requirements of our students. Thus, we are using more visual materials to facilitate understanding of the language structures and we have replaced the listening tasks with lip-reading tasks. We develop students’ reading and writing skills and help those who wish to communicate orally to overcome speaking difficulties. This job requires not only a teaching professional, but also a qualified sign language interpreter who is acquainted with the particular features of deaf people’s language perception and their learning needs. I’m happy to have a brilliant interpreter – Oxana – who helps me in different ways to adapt the material and to communicate. Teaching the deaf made me eager to learn the sign language and this has a good effect on our English classes and mutual achievements.

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We can say that our lessons are motivating and comfortable and we are proud of our students’ success, their wish to travel, communicate and work. One of the graduates, Nikolay, recently passed the Cambridge English test with B1 level at the end of a year-long course and special exam preparation course. He is now working with us as a tutor. We are sure that this will motivate other students to follow his lead and we are going to enlarge our exam preparation programs.

I like my job because it’s challenging and inspiring. I can see the results of it. However, I wish we could have some coursebooks that are not so evidently based on listening tasks! It’s alright for adults, but with children and teenagers, I think, something different is needed.

Another aim – and our strong desire – is to help our students to develop new professional skills. Last September, we launched a program to train deaf and hard of hearing guides for the museums of St. Petersburg (namely, the Hermitage and the Russian Museum). Ten students are taking a year-long course in the history of arts and culture and learning how to lead an excursion for deaf people in sign language”.

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Teaching visually impaired students

Natalia, the teacher:

“Since last year, I’ve been teaching English classes for visually impaired people. In the summer, I taught business-oriented classes for both beginners and Pre-Intermediate students. Now I’m preparing one of these groups to take a PET exam. Most of them are highly motivated and are interested in using the language professionally for communicating with clients and colleagues. They have different professional backgrounds, for instance, programming and management.

Teaching materials are provided as PDFs or .doc files so that students can use special software which reads the texts out loud. Students with milder visual issues get printed copies with a larger font size. The exact size required is discussed with students individually. The people I’m working with now prefer sizes 16 and 18. In some cases, small texts are provided in braille, but providing materials in braille is a very labour-intensive task. This means that to get better results, it’s advisable for all students to have good computer skills.

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Scrupulous attention is paid to graphic elements of the text, such as capital letters, punctuation, and paragraph division.

Spelling tasks are frequently used to discuss some pronunciation and spelling issues. Various websites and online versions of dictionaries are recommended, so as to give the students a range of opportunities to get extra information. They are encouraged to use as many English-speaking websites as possible to do research for their jobs and hobbies.

Students may turn in the writing tasks by e-mail or discuss them orally.

If the point of a speaking task is to discuss a picture, students are told what’s depicted. If the task is to describe a photo, they help low vision students to describe it asking various questions. This approach allows to discuss different aspects of life and turn a monologue into a dialogue involving all the students. Speaking tasks surely are aimed at overcoming of fear to speak a foreign language, learning how to react spontaneously and have polite intonation.

We hope that our classes will help our students not only to enquire new knowledge, get pleasure of learning English, and develop their communicative abilities but to improve their professional skills and to become more confident in their careers.”

Do YOU work with similar students to those taught at ENGLISH WITHOUT BORDERS? If so, we’d love to hear more about your experiences.

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