Vision of Math: How Might We Improve our Practice for Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired?

Area(s) of Focus: math
Division(s): Primary
Level(s): Grade 1

An investigation into how me might change our teaching practice in math to include students who are blind or have limited vision.

What does math look like with students who are blind or have limited vision? We investigated how we might change our instruction of mathematics to support students in Grade 1 with vision exceptionalities. We want all students in the class to have access to context-rich math with real and relevant problems. Our team (a teacher, learning resource teacher, educational assistant and vision itinerant teacher) investigated what math will “look” like for our target students and for the teachers facilitating and assessing. By incorporating the use of an iPad, Apple TV and manipulatives, we created, implemented and assessed units of math that are accessible to all. We explored the use of technology for pedagogical documentation as a tool that is necessary for some, but good for all.

Team Members

  • Cathy Griffin

    Bluewater District School Board

  • Bronwen Lee

    Bluewater District School Board

  • Deb Olesen

    Bluewater District School Board

  • Laurie Linseman

    Bluewater District School Board

Team Photo

Laurie Linseman, Cathy Griffin and Deb Olesen (Bronwen Lee absent)

Professional Learning Goals

  • Developed unit plans that are inclusive for all including students who are blind or have limited vision
  • Put into action accommodations that are necessary for students who are blind or have limited vision
  • Achieved a triangulation of assessment (product, conversation and observation) using the iPad as a tool for pedagogical documentation
  • Changed our practice to be more inclusive of students who are blind or have limited vision
  • Developed a better system for sharing the knowledge learned from our vision itinerant teacher and ministry consultants within the current teaching team, with the next year’s teacher and within the school (the teachers to come)

Activities and Resources

  • Reading of vision reports from vision itinerant teacher and ministry consultants
  • Consultation and pre-planning with Bluewater vision itinerant teacher
  • Practice learning to use iPad apps as tools for pedagogical documentation
  • Observation of lessons presented by vision itinerant teacher
  • Reflection moderation of documentation and student work and planning of next steps

Unexpected Challenges

Changes to Learning Goals: Flexibility is a key attribute when involved in an inquiry. If we had known at the start what we now know, we would have been more precise with our learning goals. A critical outcome of our project, which we have retrospectively added as a learning goal, was the development of a model or system for planning and transition from grade to grade. We are a small rural school and, as a staff, have not had students with significant visual impairments before our current students arrived. Receiving the funding for this project allowed us time to meet with our vision itinerant teacher as a group – current teacher, educational assistant, learning resource teacher and next year’s teacher. The time was sufficient to allow us to look at the math and reflect on what and how knowledge was being communicated and how this could be improved to have a positive impact on current practice and the practice of the teachers in the years to come. In the end, the subtitle of our project might have been, “How to Use the Services of our Vision Itinerant Teacher and Ministry Consultants to the max!”

Changes to the Scope of the Project: We had changes to the scope of our project due to an additional source of funding – always a good situation! Because the classroom teacher, Bronwen Lee, was able to take part in a separate math inquiry, we left the following parts of our original plan to the second inquiry:

  • Professional reading about the developmental continuum of math concepts
  • Examination of conceptual understandings
  • Unit planning

This left us able to focus on the strategies and accommodations needed to teach these concepts to students with visual impairments.

Timing Changes: As always, snow days and other scheduling issues interfered with our long-range planning. We are left with some release time to continue with the project past the date this report was due. We plan to use the remaining time for transition and pre-planning for next year, as well as sharing the results of our inquiry with other staff.

Enhancing Student Learning and Development

With appropriate accommodations, we see engagement of students with vision exceptionalities in the learning of math within the regular classroom setting as well as when withdrawn from class. At the beginning of the project, we felt as though our goal was to integrate students as much as possible within the classroom. However, withdrawal to a quiet, distraction free space is very important for both students who are blind and students with a significant limited vision. For a student who is blind, a reduction in the ambient noise can increase concentration and reduce frustration. For a student with limited vision, visual fatigue is an issue. A change in lighting, a de-cluttering of the environment and a chance to focus on aural input can increase concentration and reduce frustration. In addition, for both students, pre-teaching concepts is essential.

Part of our focus with both students was to build self-advocacy skills. We started by explicitly teaching the students to use tools and strategies and made sure to include them in the evaluation of the success of these strategies. We could then prompt them to give us ideas of what might help their learning at different points. For example, in preparing a SmartBoard version of Number Talks (by Sherry Parrish), the student with limited vision was consulted on how big the visuals should be, which colours would be most visible and where to sit to access the visuals best.


Transition Grade to Grade: In preparation for the transition from kindergarten to Grade 1, we accessed transition funding so that Bronwen joined team meetings, observed in the kindergarten classroom and visited a student with limited vision in another school to observe classroom setup for a student above kindergarten and to observe Laurie at work with the student using braille. We realized, however, that there was going to be a steep learning curve for the year.  Part of the goal with the funding was to make sure our learning was shared with the next year’s teacher. Discussions within our school-based team and with family allowed us to choose a teacher for next year to join the team partway through the year.

Building Capacity for Peer-to-Peer Interactions: An interesting side effect of the work on our teaching practice and time spent with many educators in the same room observing and co-teaching with Laurie Linseman, the vision itinerant teacher, has been the increase in awareness and understanding of the peers in the classroom.

Building Capacity Within the School: Periodic sharing of results at staff meetings.

 Sharing Beyond: Our report and findings will be shared with the special education department at the board office to see if there is a venue for sharing what we have learned.

Project Evaluation

Limited Vision ≠ Blindness: The accommodations and strategies for teaching students who are blind are very different from those needed for students with a visual impairment. The needs of a student who is blind are sometimes more obvious and easier to support when the student has an EA and dedicated time with a specialist teacher. A student who is visually impaired makes excellent use of residual vision may appear to be just like their classmates, but has a great need for accommodations to be able to access the curriculum without suffering from overwhelming visual fatigue.

One of the ways we determined Bronwen’s success at learning to accommodate for the student with low vision in her class was by inviting Laurie in to observe her teach! Laurie was able to list a multitude of ways Bronwen was successfully accommodating for the student in her class. Accommodations for students with a visual impairment include, but are not limited to:

  • breaks and/or changes in activity to diminish visual fatigue (e.g., auditory resources)
  • concrete, hands-on materials (e.g., when shown to the whole class, this individual should have their own set to examine up close)
  • dark-lined paper
  • high contrast, large print material
  • individual large print copy of material presented at a distance (e.g., math problem)
  • preview/review text to be read to the class
  • reduction in visual clutter
  • chunk activities or include breaks to reduce visual fatigue

Conceptual Understanding of Math for Students who are Blind: Our understanding of the ways math needs to be taught to a student who is blind changed as well. Some things just have to be taught differently to students without sight. With the current focus on making math visible, we struggled with what this meant for a student with no vision. For example, a student who is blind cannot quickly scan a collection of objects and subitize, or instantly recognize how many there are without counting. There is no substitute for a student without vision except in the way braille is scanned by the fingers for instant pattern recognition. However, in this case, actually counting the dots is not encouraged. So the use of a 10-frame by a student who is blind is different.  It can be used as a tool to teach the systematic exploration of number – one row at a time, one peg or counter at a time. As with reading braille, the student is taught to use two hands. One hand is the anchor marking the top left-hand corner of the 10-frame. The right hand scans right to “read” or count the numbers.  When the row is finished, the anchor hand moves down to the next row, the right hand joins it and begins to scan the next row. Systematic exploration of the environment was a recurring theme in our learning!

Other Strategies are not to be Dropped: Teachers were relieved to watch Laurie teach the whole class and realize that strategies designed to meet the needs of the rest of the class are still very important. This may sound obvious, but when you are trying very hard to be inclusive of a student who is blind, you do question your practice and whether you are including too many visuals. It was reassuring to watch Laurie teach a lesson very much the way we would while adding accommodations  to meet the needs of our target students. She was explicit about the need for students who are blind or have limited vision to be exposed to situations in which others are accessing visuals they cannot. They need to be taught and given support to develop strategies or tools for coping with this reality.

Facilitating Knowledge Sharing: The biggest successes of our project for Cathy (the learning resource teacher) were (a) learning how to better maximize the use of our vision itinerant teacher (Laurie) and (b) using the project funding to encourage the transfer of the team learning to the next year’s teacher.

By being able to spend more time reading and planning with Laurie, we were able to:

  • read and re-read deeply the vision specialist reports
  • watch Laurie teach
  • invite Laurie in to demonstrate, co-teach and observe us teaching
  • meet and plan as a team
  • read the reports again and question our understanding of the accommodations and strategies, “I am trying this, is that what is meant by ____?”
  • learn the importance of communicating about upcoming units with Laurie

The last two points were a direct result of the amount of time we were granted due to the project. We had time to spend building relationships and digging deeper. For example, although we knew from the outset that Laurie needed time to pre-teach concepts and explicitly teach our student who is blind how to use manipulatives she would be using in the unit, being able to watch her do this allowed us to more fully understand and value this process.

As classroom teachers, educational assistant and learning resource teacher, our thinking changed from simple acknowledgement of the need for advanced notice to a curiosity about the upcoming unit and what accommodations and tools would be employed, a desire to check in to see what Laurie was doing and a consideration of how the other students in the class might benefit from the strategies introduced. This attitudinal change cannot be underrated. Some of our remaining release time will be used to help next year’s teacher consolidate a long-range math plan and collect assessment samples to have ready for the upcoming year to allow Laurie the opportunity to “plan with the end in mind.”

Technology: The technology we purchased was used to document student learning, to allow our target students to communicate their learning and to document our progress in changing our practice (e.g., photos of students at work with accommodations in place). The full use of the Apple TV remains a next step. There was so much to learn about accommodations and the math itself that there was not time to delve as deeply into our use of technology.

Resources Used

Making Math Meaningful to Canadian Students, K-8 by Marian Small
ISBN 10: 0176503501 ISBN 13: 9780176503505
Publisher: Nelson College Indigenous, 2012

Resources Created

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