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Reading Instruction: Best Practices and Realities in Canada's Largest School District

Carol Farrenkopf

Print edition page number(s) 200-203

Everyone has a role to play in teaching children who are visually impaired to read. "Everyone" includes the classroom teacher, the teacher of students who are visually impaired, educational assistants or paraeducators, certified orientation and mobility (O&M) specialists, and family members. Formal literacy instruction typically takes place during the school day, but parents and other family members may provide informal instruction within the home and community. The key, I believe, is to expose children who are visually impaired to a rich variety of literacy experiences at every opportunity, whether in or out of school. Intensity of instruction and duration of instruction needs to be commensurate with students' needs.

As the coordinator of the large Vision Program in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which supports over 400 children who are visually impaired, my perspective on reading instruction is influenced by both best practices and "reality." To support the needs of these students, there are 18 qualified teachers of visually impaired students, 4 certified O&M specialists, a certified braille transcriber, and a braille librarian on staff. There are also several educational assistants who provide additional supports to students in the program. In Ontario, "the first consideration regarding placement for an 'exceptional pupil' [is] placement in a regular class with appropriate supports, when such placement meets the student's needs and is in accordance with parents' wishes" (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005, p. 2).

Best practices

Two studies have shaped my perspective on best practices and literacy instruction. Koenig and Holbrook (2000) and Corn and Koenig (2002) attempted to achieve a consensus among 40 experts in the field of visual impairment on how literacy instruction needs to be delivered to students who read braille and students with low vision. Four factors were considered in both studies: consistency of service (daily contact, moderate contact of 1 to 3 visits per week, low contact of semimonthly or monthly visits, or periodic contact of occasional visits throughout the year); total time per day (1 to 2 hours per session, a half-hour to 1 hour per session, or less than a half-hour per session); time span (infancy through grade 12); and duration of service (throughout one school year, throughout one quarter or semester, or concentrated in one to several intensive days of service). The results indicated that the experts agreed that literacy instruction should vary in "consistency and intensity, depending on the skill area being addressed" (Koenig & Holbrook, 2000, p. 693). For example, children who are just beginning to learn braille should have daily, intensive instruction for several years. Similarly, students with low vision should have "high-quality direct instruction in literacy skills" (Corn & Koenig, 2002, p. 320) rather than mere consultative support.

Students who are blind or who have low vision deserve high-quality literacy instruction not only from their classroom teachers, but also from qualified teachers of visually impaired students and other significant individuals in their lives. When teaching a young child to read braille, the teacher of visually impaired students is not simply teaching a code--he or she is teaching reading at the same time. Literacy instruction cannot be separated from braille instruction; the two are intertwined. For the student with low vision who is just learning to read, learning how to integrate visual skills into literacy experiences is critical. Students with low vision also require direct instruction to learn how to use appropriate low vision devices (for example, monoculars or magnifiers) and high-tech devices (for example, closed-circuit televisions or computers with screen enlargement or speech output software) in order to access the school curriculum as independently as possible (D'Andrea & Farrenkopf, 2000).

Given the unique, disability-specific needs of learners who read braille or enlarged print, it is unrealistic to expect the regular classroom teacher to teach literacy skills without the assistance of a teacher of students with visual impairments. In addition, it is also unrealistic to expect that the teacher of students with visual impairments should be able to take on the entire literacy program for a young braille learner without the assistance of the regular classroom teacher. Families must also contribute to the process at home by reinforcing what is learned at school and by exposing their children to new and varied experiences within the community. We need to work together to develop the best possible literacy program for the student. Mutual respect of each other's skills is essential--none of us can provide a quality literacy program in isolation.


I believe in the practices I have described, but the reality of working in the largest school district in Canada can be harsh. In my day-to-day work I need to balance students' needs with budget constraints, overcome a shortage of qualified teachers of students with visual impairments, cope with union issues, and account for the amount of time needed for teachers to travel from school to school in heavy traffic.

I am fortunate to have a sufficient number of qualified teachers of visually impaired students and certified O&M specialists in the Vision Program to meet the needs of the current number of students in the program. There are 26 students of different ages and ability levels who are using braille in one form or another (that is, contracted braille, uncontracted braille, pre-braille, print and braille, or functional braille [Wormsley, 2004]). A specific number of direct instruction hours is assigned to each student (close to 50% of the student's time in school is spent with the teacher of visually impaired students, excluding O&M service and braille transcription hours). A teacher of visually impaired students has a maximum of 25 hours of direct instruction per week (including preparation time) under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the school district and the teachers' federation. About 25% of the Vision Program's total student population is made up of students with low vision who may or may not need direct instruction; approximately 70% of the students have multiple disabilities and receive services through the "role release" model, whereby teachers of students who are visually impaired teach the classroom teacher how to promote the vision skills of students throughout the day (Smith & Levack, 1999).

At the beginning of the school year, the most appropriate level and intensity of support for each student is determined by me and my staff members, initially through a case load analysis and then by applying common sense. Keeping in mind that each teacher of students with visual impairments cannot be assigned more than 25 hours of direct teaching time with students, the caseloads of teachers are reasonable. Caseloads (as much as possible) are kept in one general area of the city for each teacher, thereby reducing the amount of time he or she needs to spend in traffic. Usually, midway through the school year, the caseloads of teachers of visually impaired students are close to full. This is not typically a problem unless a new high-needs student (a student who reads braille and functions at grade level, for example) enters the school district and appropriate teacher support must be arranged. This is when reality becomes harsh--it is impossible to request an increase in the allocation for teachers of visually impaired students mid-year. Even if the increase is granted, it is highly unlikely that a qualified teacher could be found to fill the new position. Caseloads are then juggled and perhaps two teachers will share the new student if those teachers each have unused teaching hours.

Another reality that affects best practices is finding replacement teachers of visually impaired students. Maternity leaves, illness, and injury can result in extended absence of these teachers from work throughout the school year. Since there are no "substitute" teachers of visually impaired students, finding a short-term replacement is extremely difficult. Once again, when a replacement cannot be found, teachers' caseloads are juggled temporarily so that students continue to receive support. This change in teachers disrupts the students' school lives, but it is unavoidable.

Budget constraints have, by far, the greatest impact on best practices. If there is little or no money to buy new teaching materials or supplies, the quality of the program being delivered is negatively affected. If there is a sudden increase in the number of students who read braille in the school district and there is no money to hire new teachers, a global reduction in service to all of the students in the program occurs so the new students can be "absorbed." As the number of direct instruction hours to students decreases, so too does the quality of programming. Teachers of students with visual impairments will not be able to spend as much time with students in their classrooms developing literacy skills and other essential skills.

It is hard enough for teachers of students with visual impairments to find the time to teach all of the unique skills that students who are visually impaired must learn. But, when faced with budgetary constraints and personnel issues, we sometimes have to make do with what we have. Part of my role as the coordinator of the Vision Program is to advocate for more resources in general (because it is the right thing to do), as well as to continue to find creative ways to meet students' literacy needs while keeping best practices in mind and dealing with the day-to-day reality of working within a larger system.


Corn, A. L., & Koenig, A. J. (2002). Literacy for students with low vision: A framework for delivering instruction. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 97, 305-321.

D'Andrea, F. M., & Farrenkopf, C. (Eds.). (2000). Looking to learn: Promoting literacy for students with low vision. New York: AFB Press.

Koenig, A. J., & Holbrook, M. C. (2000). Ensuring high-quality instruction for students in braille literacy programs. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 94, 677-694.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2005). Education for all: The report of the expert panel on literacy and numeracy instruction for students with special education needs, kindergarten to grade 6. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Education.

Smith, M., & Levack, N. (1999). Teaching students with visual and multiple impairments: A resource guide (2nd ed.). Austin, TX: Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Wormsley, D. P. (2004). Braille literacy: A functional approach. New York: AFB Press.

Carol Farrenkopf, Ed.D., coordinator, Vision Program, Toronto District School Board, 38 Orfus Road, Room 158, Toronto, Ontario, M6A 1L6, Canada; e-mail: <>.

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