Photo of 7-year old tapping an animal in the Very Hungry Caterpillar: First Words app and text

VoiceOver Teaching Strategies: Spatial Concepts Activity

How to introduce a new app to a student and to build foundation spatial and directional concepts.

In a previous VoiceOver teaching strategies post, we learned how to observe and analyze a preschool student who was being introduced to basic VoiceOver gestures. (See VoiceOver Teaching Strategies for Preschool TVIs post.) In this post, we will look at teaching strategies that encourage students to become independent and confident tech users – specifically strategies for introducing a new app to a beginner user and how to incorporate spatial concepts into the app lesson.

Keep in mind that there are two separate types of goals when teaching apps: tech goals and app content. With young students, these goals may overlap. Each app for young students/beginner tech users can be used to teach multiple goals and each goal can be expanded, depending on your student’s current needs. In the activity below, the main tech goals are to teach the digital literacy concepts of the spatial layout and independent tech skills. Listening skills could also be a secondary goal. The spatial layout skill could be expanded to mental mapping in future lessons with this app. The main app content goal is to reinforce spatial terms, right, left, top, bottom, middle. A secondary goal may be to begin organizing items on the page into categories (farm animals, jungle animals, etc.).

Introducing a New App to a Beginner Tech User

Choosing an App

First, choose an app that is appropriate for your student. There are so many fun apps available, that often we want to jump right into those apps, even when our student is not ready for them. Don’t get caught up in the “shiny new toy” syndrome, where you are so excited about the fun new app, that you overlook whether this “shiny new app” is currently appropriate for your student. If your student is not independently interacting with the app – meaning you have to provide physical assistance – stop and think if the app is appropriate. Remember, the goal is to create independent and efficient tech users. Observe and analyze what your student is doing or not doing.

Note: There are times when initially learning to create the desired gesture that the student may need physical assistance. There are also times when initially being introduced to a new app or concept that the student may need a quick physical prompt. That’s fine! However, if your student continues to need assistance, carefully observe why and adjust your teaching strategies and/or the app being used. Many new tech users – especially young tech users – are not willing to interact independently or have learned to be reliant on physical prompts. If that is the case, find or go back to a very simple app that the student can/will do independently. For very young students, try the Explore level apps that do not require a specific gesture, such as Baby Musical Hands, Cause and Effect Sound Box (or Light Box), Baby Balloons and Bubbles. The next level of apps will be the simple tap – “Basic Cause and Effect” apps, such as Peak-a-Boo Barn and simple interactive book apps.

Once a student is able to physically create the necessary gesture(s) and is able to interact independently with a basic apps, then the student is ready for “Intentional Cause and Effect”, meaning that the student is intentionally tapping (or using additional gestures) in specific places for specific results. In this post, we will be using an Intentional Cause and Effect app, The Very Hungry Caterpillar – First Words app. There are other apps that can be used that require intentional tapping.

This post focuses on teaching strategies and how to teach spatial concepts on an iPad to a young blind student using an age-appropriate self-voicing book app. Note: This activity is designed for a student who knows how to and is comfortable with intentionally tap the screen (cause and effect app) and is familiar with spatial terms.


The ABC’s of iOS: VoiceOver Manual for Toddlers and Beyond! has an iOS Skills Checklist to help identify the student’s current level. The checklist is organized by chapters in the manual and has specific apps and skills listed in each chapter.

Introducing an App to a Beginner Tech User

When introducing an app, keep in mind that the goal is always to use strategies that increase independence. If you physically assist the student, the student will rely on YOU. Not only does this method teach students to be dependent, but it also encourages students to tune out and not be actively engaged. Quite often, a young student with visual impairments feel like he/she does not have any control, causing him/her to resist the hand-over-hand or hand-under-hand assistance. . . and that can lead to behavior issues.

How can you set your student up for success?

In recent courses based on the ABC’s of iOS: A VoiceOver Manual for Toddlers and Beyond!, edcators and family members have been learning how to introduce VoiceOver to their young students. The students are the shining stars of the course, and behind every student is an awesome teacher. (Note: “teacher” refers to the TVI, AT Specialist, parent, etc.) In the video below, At specialist, Emmajean is introducing 7 year old Maya to Very Hungry Caterpillar and Friends: First Words app. This is an interactive, 3D story book app by Story Toys. Emmajean does an amazing job of setting Maya up for success as she introduces this app!

While watching the video below, pay attention to Emmajean’s wonderful teaching strategies. Look for examples of the 8 strategies (listed above) that Emmajean uses and how Maya responds to these strategies!


Analyzing Emmajean’s Teaching Strategies

First, I absolutely love Emmajean’s teaching style! She set Maya up for success – and independence – from the start by modeling the app: touching the animals and verbalizing what and where she were tapping. PERFECT! Maya knew what to expect, how to interact with the app, where to tap, and could do so with maximum independence from the ‘get go’. It was super motivating for Maya, as she wanted to interact with the app after listening to Emmajean touching the screen. Maya was engaged and actively listening before her finger even touched the screen! Emmajean captured Maya’s attention with the app calling out animal names. Emmajean quickly gave just enough information to get Maya started without telling her absolutely everything about the page, such as animals making noise.

After quickly modeling the expected app interaction, Emmajean encouraged Maya to touch, and when she did, she was given verbal directions about where she was and where another animal is located. Maya was not given any physical assistance, giving her the opportunity to be independent from the very beginning. Maya did a great job of listening and following both her teacher’s instructions and to the app.

Emmajean used this app to introduce spatial concepts – a foundational digital literacy concept!

Emmajean asked a question, “Which animal do you like best?” Maya was given time to answer and when she did not, Emmajean modeled by saying which animal she liked (and tapped on it). Maya then responded with her favorite animal. Emmajean repeated this type of question on another page, providing Maya the opportunity to think through the question and apply what she learned from the first question – without prompting!

Maya was given choices, such as, “Do you want to turn the page or stay on the same page longer?” This gave Maya the opportunity to have some control of the activity; with many students, this choice might eliminate potential behavior issues, if the student wanted to explore the page more but was made to go on. The student has some options; the student will continue to work on the goals of the activity – it really does not matter if the student uses the current page or on the next page to accomplish the goals.

After turning the page, Maya did not actively listen/comprehend the “story” that was automatically read aloud. Emmajean did a super job of first asking a general question, “Where are we now?”, then she gave example, “We were at the farm.” When Maya did respond (as she probably had not listened to the story), Emmajean verbalized as she went back to the previous page and encouraged Maya to listen to the story again. This is a great strategy of setting a student up for success! Now, as the page opened and the story automatically was read aloud, Maya carefully listened and answered that she was in the jungle. I bet that when following pages opened and the story continued, Maya was primed and ready to listen!

These teaching strategies are very subtle but make a huge a difference!

Spatial Concepts

Let’s not forget about the ‘content goal’ of this activity! What’s the big deal about spatial concepts? In the video, Maya demonstrated that she knows the directional terms. While this app activity is good for practicing these directional terms, it is not a new concept for Maya. The main goal is to apply this knowledge of directional terms to technology. The next step (not taught in this first lesson) will be to expand this spatial knowledge into developing a strong mental map of items on the screen. Example: On the jungle page, do you remember where Maya’s favorite animal – the crocodile – is located? Can you remember where three animals are located on the page? All the animals? Will you remember the animal locations next week?

The POWER of a touch screen device is that when you physically touch the screen, you know exactly where you are! If you touch at the bottom right corner, you can feel the physical edges of the iPad to confirm that you are in the bottom right. Why is this important? With many apps, the button to move to the next screen is in the bottom right corner. Knowing the typical placement of common buttons and understanding spatial concepts will help students become comfortable and efficient with tech. Think about YOUR spatial knowledge of your Home screen on your personal smart phone or tablet, do you know where your email icon is located? Text message icon? What app icon is in the top left (first position) of your device? You do not have to look for it, you simply know and you have reached to open your most used apps so many times that you have developed the muscle memory to find the apps without thinking about it. If so, you have built a foundation for a mental map of where these icons are located. Students who are visually impaired need to build strong mental maps in order to be efficient tech users!

Are you using these teaching strategies to set your student up for success?



Attached File(s)
By Diane Brauner

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Mother’s Day Activity: Presentation Tech Activity with Self-Advocacy Skills

3 year old boy with 3-fingers touching the top section on an iPad.

Spatial Tech Standards 1: Directional Terms

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‘Twas the Night Before Christmas: Teaching Comprehension