Learning VoiceOver: Problem-Solving Activity

Before you can teach your student to use an iPad running VoiceOver, YOU - the teacher - need to learn the basics. For many TVIs, just thinking about using a screen reader is intimidating! When the VoiceOver speech is too fast, it sounds like a little alien has taken over your iPad. And then, the iPad reacts in an unexpected way and you are done - just DONE! 

Take a deep breath and let's figure out this screen reader thing together!

First Step: Find Resources/Curriculum

First, start simple. Here is a basic Getting Started with VoiceOver on the iPad post. If you are a tech savvy educator who is already confident with screen reader skills (such as JAWS or NVDA), this post may be all you need to get up and running. For the rest of us who need step-by-step introduction to VoiceOver, follow a systematic VoiceOver curriculum. If you are going to teach students about the iPad, follow a curriculum geared for students. It simply makes sense for you to learn the same way that you are going to teach your student! Teaching students technology is different than teaching adults. With students, you should be teaching concepts as well as tech skills. With it's touch screen interface, the iPad is often the first device that a student will learn. Students - especially students who have not used a screen reader previously - need the step-by-step introduction. 


  • The Curriculum Section of Paths to Technology includes these free iPad manuals: Introduction to iPad Accessibility (VoiceOver and low vision features), Bluetooth Keyboard Command with VoiceOver, and Refreshable Braille Display with the iPad. (Note: These manuals are geared for TVIs to use when teaching students and uses educational content/activities appropriate that mirror what students may see in the classroom. These manuals have not been updated in a few years, but the concepts, activities, commands are still viable.)
  • The ABC's of iOS: VoiceOver Manual for Toddlers and Beyond! is geared for TVIs and parents to use with students 3 - 8 years old. Many TVIs find this manual also useful for students with additional disabilities who are functioning on this level.
  • Paths to Technology has a plethora of posts that include app reviews, gestures, activities, video tutorial, etc. to teach or reinforce specific digital literacy skills and individual tech skills.

Second Step: Problem-Solve

You do not have to be an expert in all things VoiceOver to teach skills to your students. However, you do have to know how to problem-solve!

Anytime you are learning technology, there will be times that the device/iPad does not respond the way you anticipated. You have to be able to problem-solve. Was it user error (gesture not made correctly, wrong command used, etc?) Was it a bug in the application? Was that piece of the application not accessible? Did the user understand the concept or correctly understand what the correct response is? When something unexpected happens, take a breath then try again, paying careful attention to your gesture/command and the iPad's response. Be a "tech detective" and figure out what happened and why!

In a current 6 session Perkins eLearning course based on the ABC's of iOS: A VoiceOver Manual for Toddlers and Beyond curriculum, participating TVIs have been learning VoiceOver skills themselves and are applying these skills to their students. As part of the course, Natalie (TVI) recorded herself as she tried out the VoiceOver gestures used to navigate the screen. I love the way Natalie walks through making a gesture, noting what happens, has little "ah ha" moments, and problem-solves when the iPad did not react the way she anticipated. She calmly worked through some things that did not go as expected and she tried gestures again to see if it really did work. 

When watching the video below, pay particular attention to the unusual things. What happened? Why did this happen? What should you do differently? Can YOU problem-solve? 

Note: At the beginning of the video, Natalie is dragging her finger around the Home screen. VoiceOver is on, but she is listening to the Earcons and has turned Speech off. (Earcons are the sound hints that VoiceOver provides. Example: the click, click, click sound as Natalie drags across the various app icons. Turn the Speech on/off with three-finger double tap gesture. This makes VoiceOver quiet, but you can still hear the earcons.)

Problem-Solving Questions

Watch the video and answer the questions below. Note: The questions are in the same order as the video. You can watch the video and pause to think through each question before moving on to the next question. The answers are in the next section - but do not cheat! Try to problem-solve on your own and see if you are a good tech detective!

  • What was the first thing that Natalie discovered?
  • What did Natalie discover about her split tap gesture when on the Settings page?

Natalie used the Home button to go back to the Home screen. She then used the three-finger swipe (hear the earcon?) to scroll to the next Home screen page. She scrolled through several Home pages and back.

  • Natalie then used a two-finger swipe up (Read All Command). What was the unexpected iPad reaction? What was the expected reaction? Why did this happen? How was it resolved?
  • What is the command to turn Speech On? What gesture did Natalie try first?
  • On the Home screen, Natalie tried the split tap again. Why was she surprised that it worked? Why did it work? When did it NOT work?
  • In the Settings app, Natalie tried unsuccessfully to split tap on the iTunes U button. Why did the iPad not react the way she expected it to?

Natalie's video:

Problem-Solving Answers

Answers to the questions above.

  1. What was the first thing Natalie discovered? When on the Setting pages, Natalie dragged her finger down the visual list of on the left-hand side of the screen. You can not drag past what is visually seen on the physical screen. However, when she was on the last item seen on the screen, she could swipe right and the screen automatically scrolled down; visually, the next section in the list was shown. She could then drag or swipe through the new items displayed on the screen. Another option to navigate down the list to the "next screen below" would be to use a three-finger swipe up.
  2. What did Natalie discover about the split tap gesture on the Settings page? Natalie tired to do a split tap gesture on the Touch button. She dragged to the button, lifted her finger, brought her finger back down and then tapped with a second finger. The correct way to do the split tap gesture is to drag and hold using your index finger, then tapping with a second finger. You can not drag and lift the dragging finger.
  3. On the Home screen, Natalie used a two-finger swipe up (Read All Command) What was the unexpected iPad reaction? The VoiceOver focus flew through the app icons - we heard multiple fast clicks. What was the expected reaction? Slowly move through the app icons. Why? With Speech Off, VoiceOver did not reach each app name; therefore, all you heard was multiple fast clicks. Natalie problem-solved by turning Speech back on; now the two-finger swipe up works as expected by moving at a slower speed as VoiceOver read each app title aloud. Note: Natalie tried two-finger swipe up several times with the same reaction. She also tried two-finger swipe down several times (same reaction), and she tried starting from a different location on iPad (moving VoiceOver focus to the middle of the screen, then two-finger swipe up). 
  4. What is the command to turn Speech On? What gesture did Natalie try first? As she was problem-solving the Read All command, Natalie decided to try turning Speech on to see if that resolved the issue. Natalie tried two-finger double tap several times, then tried three-finger double tap. The gesture for turning Speech on/off is three-finger double tap. Note: With Speech on, Natalie tried two-finger swipe up (Read from the beginning) and two-finger swipe down (Read from current location) several times. Now, the iPad reacted in the way she anticipated by slowing reading through the app titles.
  5. On the Home screen, Natalie tried the split tap again. Why was she surprised that it worked? Why did it work? Natalie dragged her finger to an app, raised her finger, put it down on the same app, then dropped a second tap. The app opened and she was surprised. My guess is that it did work, because she did initially drag to that icon before raising her finger. (I would not have anticipated that it would work, and I would teach my student to "drag and hold", not drag, lift, drop, hold and then tap with the second finger.) The correct way for split tap to consistently work is to drag and hold, the tap with the second finger. Natalie's modified split tap did NOT work when she tapped on an icon first (she did not drag to it), then dropped and held her finger on the icon and finally tapped with a second finger.
  6. In the Settings app, Natalie tried unsuccessfully to split tap on the iTunes U button. Why did the iPad not react the way she expected it to? First, try dragging to the button and then split tap. (At one point, Natalie tried to tap, touch and hold with the second finger tapping. She did not initially drag to the button.) But, the real reason the iPad did not "open" the iTunes U button, is that she had already opened the button - the right side of the screen was already on the iTunes U page! Once a button is opened from the list on the left side of Settings, selecting the same button again does not do anything. This time, the "issue" was that Natalie did not realize that she had already opened the iTunes U page.

One of the important take-aways from this video is that Natalie was curious about how the iPad reacted to various VoiceOver gestures. Throughout the video, she explored, practiced her gestures multiple times, tried new things to see what happened, went back to the Home screen and tried again, tried a different gesture when the first did not work as expected, etc. She had many "ah-ha" moments and remained calm and curious. She did not become frustrated! These are the characterstics that we - the teachers - need to have and should be modeling for our students! Our students are little mini-me's and will mirror our attitude!

Additional Activity

Can your student problem-solve? Use Natalie's video and problem-solve together. Does your student have a problem? Mirror your student's problem or video tape your student to show him/her what is happening. (Video taping allows you to review the issue multiple times, which can be helpful. Video taping also offers proof - in case your student denies that is what he/she did!) Encourage your student to listen carefully to the earcons to understand what is happening on the screen. If you do not want to video tape, you can mirror the problem and have your student problem-solve. You can also come up with several problems (that he/she may or may not have experienced yet) and ask your student to be a Tech Detective!