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Teaching an English Learner Who Is Deafblind

Tips to get started teaching braille to a student who does not speak English and has never had formal education

Heba, a young woman, wearing sun glasses and sitting in a chair

I was recently asked to add a challenging student to my caseload. What started out as one of the most difficult teaching situations of my career, turned out to be one of the most fun and rewarding I have ever had.  While every student has unique needs and abilities, my hope is that some of my experience may be valuable to others who find themselves in a similar situation teaching English Language Learners (ELL) [or English Learner (EL)] who have a combined vision and hearing loss.



Heba was a 13-year-old girl, who arrived in the United States from Syria, with no prior educational experience.  She did not speak or understand English, and had no vision.  In addition, Heba had a moderate to severe hearing loss that, although suspected, had never been diagnosed and she had never used amplification.  Even though I had been a TVI for many years, I had no formal training or experience in addressing the needs of an English Language Learner who was deafblind and a braille reader.
While Heba had no English language skills and had never been exposed to braille, it quickly became apparent that she was a very bright and capable girl, who had been taught to be independent at home and knew how to do many things for herself.

Getting Started

Heba’s case manager acted as interpreter for her initial evaluation, as Heba spoke only Arabic.  She was placed on a “Newcomers” campus with other students who had recently arrived in the United States.  The intent of this program, which currently serves immigrant students from 57 countries, is to get the students into English speaking general education classes as quickly as possible.
Heba was placed in 7th grade and was fully included with other English Language Learners.  She rotated through all subjects (Math, Science, Social Studies) and I worked with her individually on braille and English.  After a 6-month wait, she received bilateral hearing aids. Heba had an individual paraeducator for the school year, who spoke English and Spanish, but no Arabic.  One of the administrators on the campus spoke Arabic, and which was a great resource whenever we needed help clarifying concepts.
Initially I provided a lot of in-service training with the campus teachers and administrators, beginning with “VI 101”.  We talked the impact of a combined vision and hearing loss, braille, the use of a cane, the importance of preferential seating, and other specific recommendations.

Activities to Develop English Language and Braille Skills

Since Heba did not know English, and had never been exposed to braille, we began with basic braille-readiness activities, while also working on developing English language concepts in a practical context.  My style is to teach by doing and having fun at the same time and I found that having Heba actively moving around helped her to be engaged, while also reinforcing skills and concepts.

1.  Fine motor activities to develop finger strength and finger isolation

We began with finger play activities, just as would be done with a young child.  We worked on other fine motor activities, such as stringing beads to make necklaces or bracelets and used those activities to practice English.

2.  Body Parts and Basic Concepts

While Heba was very independent at home, we worked on identifying body parts and basic concepts in English.  She understood matching and was able to sort socks, etc. We worked a lot on directional/positional concepts such as left/right/top/bottom, middle which also helped her pre-braille reading skills.

3.  Phonics and Braille

I introduced the alphabet along with the braille letter, and used real objects to represent each letter.  For example, with “A is for Apple”, we had real apples that she examined, smelled and tasted.  We would then sing a little song about it, as she really enjoyed music, e.g. “A is for Apple, a, a, a apple”.  We moved on to “B is for Banana”, and so on. After I felt she understood the alphabet and letter sounds and was beginning to understand the meaning of letters, I introduced the braillewriter and she began writing the letters of the alphabet as she practiced the sounds. I did not teach the dot formation, but rather just introduced the letter as a whole without saying “C is dots 1,4.”  

4.  Tactile Books and Braille Tracking

We made tactile books with ring binders, beginning with shapes, big/little, etc. As she developed her tactile discrimination skills, we moved on to basic braille worksheets, where she tracked a line of braille, looked for the letter that was different, found a break in the line, etc.  She marked her answer with a push pin or scribbling.

a book with braille and print type with instructions to find the lettersdirections for using Heba's book

    Find the letter ca grid with print and braille letters placed throughout with instructions at the top             

Experience Stories

As she began to familarize herself with the braille alphabet and simple English words, we began to write braille experience stories.  For example, one day we went outside, took off our shoes and walked barefoot through the grass.  Heba enjoyed talking about what we did, while I wrote basic sentences in braille. She “scribbled” her stories on the braillewriter until she became able to write complete sentences. She took her work home and was very excited about “reading” her stories to her family.

Incorporating movement to reinforce English language skills

Incorporating movement into lessons helped to reinforce concepts and vocabulary, while also proving to be very motivating.  We sat outside and did yoga, which was a great opportunity to talk about body parts, positional concepts, action words, etc. She sat in my car and learned about the parts of the car, opening and closing the door, turning the steering wheel, honking the horn. We took a ball and practiced rolling, throwing, bouncing, all of which were fun, as well as an effective way to teach vocabulary and work on gross motor skills and turn taking. I would bounce a basketball and spell words (one bounce for each letter) then she had to bounce it, catch it and do the same thing. She loved it!

Heba, a young woman, sitting in a car with her hands on the steering wheel

Word Families

Heba, a young woman with glasses on her forehead, types on a brailler.

I introduced simple CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) word families, such as pat, cat, sat, hat.  We acted out the words together, and the use of movement helped her to retain the English vocabulary. We would have a “word throw down” and I would have several simple words (later more complex words) and would “throw” them down on the table very fast and have her try to read the word and say it before I or the para or a peer could say it. 

Focus on spelling before introducing contractions

I wanted to be sure that Heba understood basic concepts in English and was able to spell the word before introducing braille contractions. For example, I wanted to be sure that she knew what the word “father” meant and that she could spell it in English before I introduced the contractions in the word. 

Using words in a sentence

As her vocabulary grew, I presented Heba with a list of her new words and asked her to use them in sentences.  This was a good way to be sure that she understood the meaning, while also working on spelling and writing skills. She loved writing wild made up stories about her para going to jail and laughing at how silly her stories were. When she was angry or frustrated her stories focused on her returning to Syria where she would find a “nice” teacher to teach her braille! 

Finding mistakes

As with most students, Heba loved looking for mistakes in my braille.  I intentionally made mistakes, so that she could work on her proofreading skills.  This also helped her to overcome her fear of making a mistake, as she began to understand that this was something that happens to everyone.

Understanding the world around her

Heba, a young woman with a ponytail, reading

While Heba made quick progress with English and braille skills, her social skills and broader experience of the world lagged behind. For example, she was very curious about where the other blind children were, and whether or not other people could see.  She didn’t understand that there was a world out there with rules and expectations. By chance, there was a Syrian man who was totally blind who prepared some of her braille materials.  As her reading skills increased, he was a helpful mentor to her. 

Expanded Core Curriculum — Supporting relationships with peers

Heba’s lack of English skills, combined with a different cultural background and her deafblindness, all made it difficult for Heba to make friends initially. While her paraeducator was encouraged to step back and allow her to be as independent as possible, making friends on her own was a challenge. The cafeteria was a nightmare with the noise and chaos you would expect, and the fact that much of the food was new to her made the whole situation especially hard. We began to invite a group of girls to be part of a peer group on Friday afternoons. We started with simple activities that helped all of them practice their English, and, as they became more comfortable with each other, we organized a banana split party. This was a great way to reinforce literacy skills, while also supporting peer relationships. Heba wrote out invitations and delivered them, which gave her a chance to work on English grammar, punctuation, and spelling. She created a shopping list and wrote it out, which reinforced her writing skills, as well as planning and problem solving. It was lots of fun and many people came to the event!



After a year of intensive English and braille skills, Heba made excellent progress and is now fully integrated into her school at grade level.  Her family has moved to another state, but she often calls me just to chat.  She loves her new VI teacher, Ms. D, who is working with her on contractions and has introduced the slate and stylus. Her family is pleased with how well she is doing and she seems to be on track for a successful continuation of her school career.
Collage of teaching an ELL who is deafblind
The Love Bugs cover with the title and textured hearts.

Love Bugs Book

tick-tack-toe game made of felt.

Fun End of the School Year Activities

Plant in a small container with a large adapted visual on top in red for ease of viewing. A water sprayer is next to it.

Sensory Gardens for Students with Visual and Multiple Impairments: Cultivating Inclusive Learning Environments