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Preparing a Low Vision Student to Use a Screen Reader

This is part two of the Screen Reader for Low Vision Students series.

This is the second post in the screen reader for low vision series. The first post, Screen Reader for Low Vision Students? Includes common indicators that a student may benefit from using a screen reader and includes three student case studies that will also be used in this post. This second post will focus on mainstream skills that help prepare a low vision student to use a screen reader.

Mainstream Skills

The skills listed below are foundational skills for every student. We will apply these mainstream skills to our three case study students from the first post (Kay, Evan and Jimmy) with the intent of developing these skills to support the transition to using a screen reader for desired tasks. Remember, every student should have a variety of robust tools in his tool box!

Build listening skills

All students need to develop good listening skills, after all, every student must be able to listen to and comprehend information as the teacher lectures! Listening skills can start with self-voicing apps/books, built-in Read Aloud features, books available in auditory form, etc. Some apps offer a Read Aloud button (text is recorded, and student activates the button to hear the text) and most devices offer a built-in accessibility feature that will read text. Below are a couple examples of the built-in accessibility feature:

Educators should specifically teach listening skills – such as clues to identify important pieces of information – whether it is listening to a speaker standing at the front of the room or listening to text on a device. Students should also be taught to listen to “earcons” as well. (“iCons” are symbols that have meaning, such as the gear image for Settings. “Earcons” are auditory symbols that convey meaning, such as the “ping” sound when a new email comes in or the “whoosh” sound when an email is sent.) There are mainstream earcons as well as screen reader earcons. Students should learn to listen for and understand these simple sounds. For more information go to, iCons and Earcons: Critical But Often Overlooked Tech Skills.

Build Mental Maps/Spatial Relationships

It is critical to understand the general layout of specific apps on your devices. Where is the Tool Bar on your tablet or smart phone or the Ribbon on your computer? Think about the Mail app on your smart phone – emails come in on one long column. However, on a tablet, the screen is broken into two chunks (1/3rd on the left has the column of incoming emails; 2/3rds on the right has the opened email content). Knowing where things are located is crucial information in order to navigate to the desired area when relying on a screen reader. Students with low vision should be encouraged to pay attention to spatial relationships and should build a mental map of the layout of each screen. These mental maps will help significantly when navigating with a screen reader!

Build Organizational Concepts

Understand the terms used (Tool Bar, Dock, Ribbon, Menu, Folder, etc.) and how things are typically organized. For example: A young student might not understand the term “folder” as it relates to his iPad. To help explain the concept, create a folder in Google Docs or Pages and place several of the student’s reading or writing assignments in that folder. Then, compare a physical folder with several of the same documents in print (or hard copy braille). Ask the student to open the folder and pull out a specific document. Students need to build an understanding (and mental map) of what a “menu” is, what it looks like, why it is used, and how to navigate it, including how to exit a menu. With a deeper understanding of tech terms, students will quickly learn how to navigate in, around and out of these areas on their device.

Build Keyboard Shortcut Commands

Most people use basic keyboard shortcut commands such as copy and paste; however, there are a huge number of keyboard shortcut commands that are often under-utilized. These shortcut commands eliminate steps and make the user more efficient. Example: If I want to print a document that is open on my Mac, I can use my mouse to go to the tool bar/ribbon and select File, then navigate down the menu to the print option and select Print. Or, with the document open I can simply use the keyboard shortcut, Command + P.

Students who become screen reader users will utilize these keyboard shortcut commands and more, as a screen reader relies on keyboard shortcuts rather than using the mouse to navigate and control the device. Screen readers use these same keyboard shortcut commands. Students should become familiar with as many keyboard shortcut commands as possible! Keyboard shortcut commands will significantly improve efficiency for students with low vision who are NOT using a screen reader – and using these shortcut commands often reduces issues related to eye fatigue!

Keyboard Shortcut Resources


Whenever possible, students should actively and intentionally increase the speed in which they listen. Choose book apps that provide listening speed options. Listeners using built-in read aloud features, such as Speak Screen, can increase the speech rate. However, recorded human speech used in Read Aloud buttons or Self-Voicing apps typically do not have options to increase the speech rate.

Teach your students to intentionally increase their overall speed when using tech – typing speed, locating apps and buttons, and keyboard commands.


Case Studies

Note: Please review the three case studies in the Screen Reader for Low Vision Students? post. Then, help formulate the next steps to prepare these three students to become screen reader users.

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