Preparing a Low Vision Student to Use a Screen Reader

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.

  • Jimmy (energetic first grader) has been introduced to educational game apps and interactive ePub book apps. Apps for this age group are self-voicing and often have fun sounds and music. Jimmy, who thoroughly enjoy these apps, can continue to use these self-voicing apps to increase his auditory (listening) skills. The next step may be to introduce auditory books with live readers and/or choosing his favorite screen reader voice to read leisure books. Don’t forget that Alexa (and Google Play) can read stories aloud, including stories with comprehension questions! Be sure to increase Jimmy’s auditory reading rate and listening comprehension skills. Note: Jimmy does need to continue to learn to read print visually; for Jimmy, auditory books are supplemental to reading print. However, it would be detrimental in the long run to eliminate self-voicing/auditory books as Jimmy will need to access many auditory books when he is in high school and beyond. Jimmy’s auditory skills should continue to grow along with his visual reading skills. Introduce Jimmy to age-appropriate tech terms, layout of iPad screens, and earcons. Jimmy would also benefit from using a Bluetooth keyboard with his iPad – specifically to help him with writing skills such as sentence structure, punctuation, and various language arts concepts. (Jimmy should also have instruction and practice time to improve his printing; however, his physical issues with writing legibly should not hinder the progression of his other language arts skills.) As appropriate, he can be introduced to basic keyboard shortcuts as well as touch typing skills.
  • Tech savvy Evan is embracing listening skills after his mentor encouraged him to use VoiceOver on his phone, reading books on his phone and learning JAWS on his PC. Evan has a good mental map of each app and understands the tech terms. He should be evaluated on his listening comprehension, keyboard shortcut skills, and speed; then, formulate a plan as to what – if any – skills need to be specifically addressed. With a quick introductory lesson, Evan will be aware of and master earcons, etc. Evan should determine what device (and accessibility features) work best for each task and can begin working with mainstream classroom teachers in providing materials in the best format for each task.
  • Kay has embraced using VoiceOver to read books on her iPad. She has not yet learned VoiceOver commands (only the Read All and Pause commands). Kay has been slow to adopt technology (never successfully used a computer and is new to an iPad) and has a slow pace when learning tech skills. She may benefit from using Speak Screen feature to read text on her iOS devices as she is still learning VoiceOver. She does not touch type and is currently more comfortable using a few gestures. Careful instruction – introducing just enough tech to accomplish a specific, motivating goal – will help Kay embrace technology at her pace. Pairing an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard, then teach the BTK commands to read the book, may be a good place to start. Depending on what motivates her – including educational tasks that will significantly make schoolwork easier – should be approached first. Try working with her classroom teacher to share a digital assignment and read that assignment using VoiceOver. Teach the commands to navigate to and open that assignment. Use the BTK arrows to navigate to and open the assignment. Kay will benefit from tech lessons about listening to VoiceOver hints (and earcons), tech terms and spatial layout. Kay will require a lot of practice before she masters a tech skill or command. Increasing her auditory reading speed will increase her processing skills – including her ability to navigate quicker. Technology – once she fully embraces it – will be a game changer for Kay!

Collage of preparing a student with low vision to use a screen reader