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Getting Started on a Mac with VoiceOver: Teaching Students

Find the right Mac VoiceOver tutorial for you!

I often receive emails from TVIs (and students) who are new to MacOS and VoiceOver. Yes, learning a new system with a screen reader can be overwhelming! There are so many pieces to this puzzle, that just figuring out WHERE to start can be mind-boggling. So, let’s try to break things down into easily digested bite-size pieces!

Keep in mind that you – the TVI or educator – should be familiar with VoiceOver before introducing your student to VoiceOver. It’s ok to refer to cheat sheets for commands, but you do need to be comfortable with the activity before starting a lesson with the student. Work closely with the classroom teacher, technology teacher and/or assistive technology teacher to develop a plan which includes who is responsible for teaching VoiceOver specific skills. Ideally, the student will have been introduced to the VoiceOver skills before the classroom teacher applies the tech skills to complete classroom assignments. Example: Before the student can create a PowerPoint about jaguars, the student will need to know the commands to efficiently navigate the Mac, do an Internet research, and how to create a PowerPoint presentation. This includes numerous keyboard commands to open/close an app, copy and paste, edit, keyboard skills, etc.

Teachers: To get started or in case you get stuck as you are learning, the first thing YOU should learn is how to turn VoiceOver on/off.

How to Turn VoiceOver on/off on a Mac

* Depending on your chosen Settings, you can turn VoiceOver on/off with just the Command key and F5 key.

Step 1

Identify your student’s baseline knowledge.

What is your student’s background? What device(s) does your student know, what screen reader(s) is your student familiar with, and how tech savvy is he/she? If your student is a complete newbie to tech, you will need to start with the basics. If the student is familiar and comfortable with Bluetooth keyboard commands on an iPad, you may start by doing similar activities on the Mac with VoiceOver. If the student is familiar with JAWS or NVDA commands, you may start by teaching what is the same and if different, what is the equivalent Mac command.

It is always helpful to maintain a checklist of keyboard skills that the student has mastered or is working on. It is also helpful to know which commands may need to be introduced next.


Expectations are different when introducing a third grader to a computer than when introducing a high school student!

Introducing a tech savvy high school student who is confident on another device may simply require directing the student to a resource, such as the Quick Start VoiceOver Interactive Tutorial. Introducing a third grade student will probably require building computer terminology and skills as well as introducing the VoiceOver commands and step-by-step instruction for each activity. 

Step 2

Identify specific computer goals.

Start from the student’s tech experience and keep activities age appropriate. Ideally, your student has been introduced to tech at the same time as his/her peers; if the classmates have been using tablets since kindergarten to complete educational tasks, the BLV student should also have mastered using a tablet with a screen reader to complete educational tasks. In which case, the BLV student should be learning equivalent VoiceOver commands on the Mac to complete the same or similar activities that his/her classmates are doing, such as navigating the computer, reading, writing and editing, creating PowerPoints, etc. The computer goals would focus on the commands and steps to complete the same assignments as the student’s classmates. Does your student know the Mac VoiceOver commands to complete the same tasks? For young beginners, the computer goals might be to learn specific VoiceOver keyboard commands or the computer goals might be to complete specific tasks, such as creating PowerPoints. 

When starting with a beginner of any age, identify a simple task that the student will be successful with. The task might be to teach computer terminology before the student even touches the computer! (You cannot give instructions, like navigate to the Dock, if the student does not know what a Dock is!) Learning the screen layout is a foundational skill – and should not be skipped!

Keep in mind that for general education students, technology skills are typically taught until third grade. After third grade, students use technology to access the curriculum.

Balance is important – students are often motivated when they can accomplish a desired task. If the student loves listening to stories, then teach the commands to read and pause a short story on a topic that interests the student. Find an accessible game that the student enjoys. If the student is motivated by text messaging, then practice the commands to navigate to, open, read/send a text. As soon as possible, apply these commands to classroom activities that peers are mastering. As soon as the student learns the commands and sequence of commands in order to complete the activity, transition the skills so that the student can participate in class along with his/her peers – under the supervision of the classroom teacher.

See mainstream National Tech Standards and look at the goals! Here is an excellent list of tech standards broken down by grade level.

Step 3

Create tactile diagrams.

Students need to develop a mental map of the Mac’s screen layout and of various apps on the Mac. This mental map will help the student understand how to navigate to various areas, which in turn, helps the student understand the commands used when navigating the screen. What does a “popup menu” look like? Understanding that a popup menu appears on top of other things on the screen helps the student to understand how to navigate the popup menu and why the menu has to be closed before you have access to the rest of the screen. Often blind students can repeat definitions of tech terms and descriptions of the screen correctly, but that does not mean the student fully understands the concept!

Note: Check for gaps in your student’s tech knowledge! There are often gaps that are found and resolved when tactile graphics are used. Tactile graphics are also a beneficial when comparing the layout of a previous device (such as a tablet) to how things are arranged on the mac.

Step 4

Find resources.

You do not have to reinvent the wheel! Now that you have identified appropriate goals for your student, find resources that will help bring YOU up to speed on using a Mac with VoiceOver. (Remember, you have to learn the commands and steps before introducing the VoiceOver activity to your student! Most of the popular resources are written for adults. Be sure to use your “teacher skills” to modify the language and activities to best meet your student’s needs and abilities.

Mac and VoiceOver Terms

While terms often overlap from device to device, there are terms that might be unique to Mac or VoiceOver, such as Trackpad Commander or Finder. Learn more about these terms, options and settings, and basic related commands.

General list of AppleVis posts (many with video tutorials) on Mac and VoiceOver:

Apple’s Introduction to VoiceOver on the Mac:

Information about Mac’s built-in interactive VoiceOver tutorial: Quick Start.

For users with low vision:

Do you prefer YouTube videos? here are a couple favorites!

There are numerous videos on the Internet using VoiceOver with Mac, including short tutorials of various activities and/or applications. Want to learn something specific? Try doing an Internet search!

Are you looking for specific lessons to teach tech skills to young students? There are many mainstream tech lessons that can be used for students who are learning screen reader commands. Here is a fun blog Power Point lesson for early elementary students. Use this activity to teach the VoiceOver commands required for creating simple Power Points.

By Diane Brauner

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