Visual Impairments And Ell Students

Teaching children with exceptionalities takes careful thought and hard work. When a student has a combination of exceptionalities the job is made tougher. Learning with a visual impairment is difficult enough, but imagine if that is coupled with learning a second language. Taking a look at English Language Learners with visual impairments, I found some of the challenges in acquiring first and second languages.

The acquisition of a first language by children with visual impairments has been studied extensively (see, for example, Fraiburg, 1977; Garman, 1983; Mulford, 1983; Werth, 1983). This research was cogently summarized by Warren (1994) as follows:
1. Visual impairment does not seem to interfere with the development of basic interpersonal communicative skills.
2. The lack of vision can affect the social use of language, such as determining if one's conversational partner is attending to one, initiating conversation, determining the interest level of a person to whom one is talking and finding acceptable ways of interrupting.
3. The meaning of words for sighted children is richer and more elaborate than the meaning for children with visual impairments. Vision seems to allow children to generalize and broaden semantic associations.
4. The inability to determine what a pronoun refers to is a language delay specific to blind children.
5. It is difficult to separate the formation of language from the formation of basic cognitive concepts. Language is the medium of thought; positional, spatial, classification, association, and even body concepts emerge as a function of language.

Just as there has been extensive research on the relationship between language and visual impairment by researchers in the field of visual impairment, so, too, have there been numerous studies of the relationship between proficiency in the mother tongue and competence in a second language by researchers in the field of applied linguistics (Carson, Carrell, Silberstein, Kroll, & Kuehh, 1990; Cummins, 1981; Goldman & Trueba, 1987; Krashen, 1982). Ovando and Collier (1985, p. 65) stated that since the 1960s, studies have consistently demonstrated that proficiency in one's mother tongue exerts a "predominantly positive influence" on second language competence. They cited studies in which error analysis was used to determine that only 4-23 percent of grammatical errors in speakers of a second language were traceable to interference by a first language and that the majority of these errors were of syntax, rather than morphology.

The prolific work of Cummins (1981, 1984, 1989) has important bearings on how to devise effective ESL instruction for students with visual impairments. Cummins is credited with having advanced three notions that have had a far-reaching impact on bilingual education. The first notion is that there is a fundamental difference between basic communicative ability and the kind of language skills necessary to function in school. According to his model, cognitive-academic language proficiency (CALP)-the ability to use the language that most school tasks require-not basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS), predicts successful academic performance. Textbooks, tests, and teachers use language that is "cognitively demanding" and "context-reduced" (Cummins, 1981, pp. 25-30). The ability to communicate with others on personal or everyday topics does not necessarily or automatically translate into the skills necessary to thrive in school.

Cummins (1979, cited in Tempes, 1982) speculated that classroom placements might be inappropriate if they were made on the basis of cursory oral interviews. Students with limited English proficiency who can perform the basic social functions of language may mislead school personnel into assuming that they have much higher proficiency levels than their classroom teachers soon discover to be the case. Therefore, it is important for everyone on a student's instructional team to realize what any ESL teacher already knows: Whereas BICS can develop to age-appropriate levels within two years, CALP can take five to seven years to develop.

The second notion that emerged from Cummins's research is that activities that help one develop proficiency in one's stronger language automatically help one become proficient in the second language. This idea has been interpreted by many educators as a mandate for bilingual instruction. Cummins (1984) qualified his findings with the third notion-the "threshold" hypothesis: A minimum level of competence in the primary language is required before a student can reap the benefits of bilingual education.
The threshold hypothesis is an essential piece of ESL background information that vision teachers need to know: It is unlikely that older students' proficiency in English will exceed proficiency in their mother tongues. This concept correlates with one that is familiar to vision teachers-that a child will never function visually beyond his or her cognitive level. This is an important notion to remember when trying to establish language competencies for specific students.

Warren's (1994) assessment that differences in visually impaired and sighted children's patterns of acquiring a first language are outweighed by the similarities makes the findings of applied linguistic research conducted on sighted students relevant here. There is broad consensus in the literature on ESL and bilingual education that literacy skills transfer across languages, provided that a threshold competence in a first language has been achieved (Carson et al., 1990; Cummins, 1981; Ovando & Collier, 1985; Tempes, 1982). Reading ability has been documented to transfer more easily than writing ability, even if the language code (alphabet) is completely different. Nevertheless, writing ability and even a student's oral CALP have high interlingual correlations (Carson et al. 1990).

In an in-depth study of the relationship between reading and writing in a first and second language, Carson et al. (1990) concluded that weak second language readers were not able to distinguish between pronouns and their referents in the second language and that the weakest second language readers were unable to do so in their mother tongues as well. Similarly, Warren (1994) noted that this inability to distinguish pronouns and their referents in the mother tongue is one of the language deficiencies of blind children. This overlap suggests that is is particularly important for ESL teachers to ensure that visually impaired students have the ability to trace referents in a text.

Footnotes: Guinan, H. (1997). ESL for Students with Visual Impairments. In Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness. Retrieved July 28 2007, from

Contributed by Shakima Bates