The Internet TESL Journal

Adapting the L2 Classroom for Age-related Vision Impairments

Jessica A. Thonn
University of Florence (Florence, Italy)
We as teachers need to be aware of the effects of aging on our pupils' vision, modifying our instruction and instructional materials to accommodate decline.


The older learner may be having a substantially different learning experience compared to the younger student. Whether the student is 40, 50, or 75, what aspects of the external world the student's body and brain are perceiving will impact what it is that the student processes of your lesson, and most likely it is not what the 19-year-old student is perceiving.

Our body changes as we get older. Some of these changes start around 40, some around 50, and many more start cascading around us as we reach our seventh decade. None of these, however, are inevitable or definite; some will happen to us, and some may not.Our older student may present any combination of these, or may not have any of them. We simply need to bear them in mind.

The Impact of Vision Decline

The L2 classroom depends significantly on vision: from teacher's notes written on the board, to handouts, from video scenes to textbooks, from computer screens to pictures. Our perception of all of this is necessarily impacted by the aging of our eyes. We all know that most people become more and more nearsighted as the lens hardens; most people, including your older students, will become aware of that and probably buy some corrective eyewear. However, bear in mind that people often put off buying a new pair of prescription glasses until their vision clearly disrupts their everyday life; so you might find yourself with students within that limbo of needing new glasses, yet not so impaired by their vision as to buy them yet. In addition, the older eye's harder lens makes it more sluggish in adapting to looking from near to far objects. Obviously, in the classroom, this means that it will physically take the older student longer to process what's written on the blackboard after he looks up from his book. Any delay hence caused is biological, not cognitive or linguistic.

Other parts of the eye age as well, impacting older students' ability to perceive visual stimuli in the classroom. Let's look at this scenario:

"Okay class. At the bottom of page 36 I want you to connect the phrases in the green boxes to the correct words in the blue boxes." The majority of the students goes right to the task and is done in 3-5 minutes. As you are waiting, you watch as your older students look over (or under) their glasses at the bottom of the page, scan it a bit, try to adjust their own distance from the book, look over to the student on their right for a while, look at their book again for a while, adjust the inclination of the book a bit, stare at it, then look over to the student on their left ('cheating at their age!" you think indignantly), before breaking the rules of what's supposed to be individual work by whispering to the student on their right, thereby interrupting that student's work and maybe distracting the 'good' students from the task at hand. How dare they! And it was an easy task too -- just match the word to its definition.

What an awful student, right! Nope, wrong. Good student, bad eyes. Age-related accumulation of yellow-filtering pigment in the lens causes us to become less sensitive to the blue part of the color spectrum, so it's hard to distinguish blue from green. This is especially true of pastels, like the ones used in most textbooks. Also, this characteristic will appear earlier in diabetics or in people with glaucoma as their cones (photoreceptors on our retina) are affected by these now-common diseases.

Vision Changes: Let Your Learner's Movements Reveal Their Problems

Observe your older students. They will let you know by their movements what they're trying to correct for. Just as they might lean toward the source of sound to hear better, they'll be physically moving to adjust for vision impairments. Looking over or under their glasses, or moving the object of their vision further away, might indicate problems with their current glasses, or certainly with bringing an object into focus. However, other, perhaps subtler actions will give us clues to additional types of sight loss, most of which the older students in the above scenario so kindly and clearly demonstrated for us.

Remember how the older students seemed to stare for such a long time at their neighbour's page -- seemingly taking in everything their neighbour had done up till then, probably making you angrier and angrier? They're probably actually getting the same amount of information that their younger counterparts are getting in just a glance, since the older eye takes longer to adjust for changes in distance. Yes, the older learner may be copying, as their less-obvious younger classmates may be doing in their much briefer -- and less conspicuous -- eyeful, or they may just be looking to see how the student is doing the exercise, comparing/contrasting others' actions to their own. Perfectly natural learner procedures, just that the older students' 'unnatural' length of time on the task makes us suspicious, or cause other negative emotions (frustration, anger, resentment, etc) inside us.

Let's go back to observing our older students' actions. Are they adjusting the inclination of their textbooks, like the student in our scenario? Perhaps they are trying to accommodate for too much glare. Older eyes need 50 to 70 percent more light than younger eyes when glare is present, as the lens becomes more opaque as we age (Williams, 1995). If the light (sunlight or artificial) is shining right on their book, on the board, or in their eyes as they interact with others in the classroom, suggest that the learner move to a seat where there is less glare.

Less Apparent Difficulties

The Need for More Time to Adjust to Alterations in the Amount of Light

Another subtle change that occurs in aging is the reduced elasticity of the iris and the pupil: they become more rigid, and the pupil gets smaller. Think of the shock as you go from a dark room into the sunlight, as your pupils shrink in response to that bright, shining light. Now think of going from a bright sunny day into a dark building; your eyes need a bit of time to adjust as your pupils grow to catch all available light. If your pupil is smaller it's not going to be able to take advantage of all the light in those dim conditions, so it's going to need more light than a younger eye to distinguish the same objects. That's the way the older pupil's pupil is; it's now living in a constant state of dimmer conditions, hence it needs more light. Also, as the older pupil is less elastic, it is slower to adapt to changes in light level. Consequently, it's going to need more time to adjust to alterations in the amount of light present in the classroom. Take a minute to reflect on both the quantity of light in the classroom and whether, at the times when that light amount changes (turning lights or videos on/off), you are requiring the students to process important visual information.

The Need for Greater Contrast

Yet another important point for the classroom is the older student's need for greater contrast, as less light reaches the retina. Older pupils need the darks to be darker, and to make sure that the contrast between two colors is marked, rather than subtle. Hence, you might need to avoid peach and grey, favoring instead a more visible, high-contrast combination such as red vs green, or blue vs. yellow. If contrast is an issue for your learners, the blues, reds, yellows, and greens should be deep, dark/bright colors (high contrast), and not pastels. As your student may not even realize that they are not picking up the colors, you may need to be anticipate this, marking in your handouts/book those few pages where lower-contrast distinction might be a problem. For textbooks and written materials, you'll need to make sure you have the highest contrast: dark black letters (not grey, yellow, or any light-colored lettering) against a white (but not glossy!) background. Colored paper is ok, as long as the lettering is high contrast -- in fact you may want to make the words a bit bigger than normal to increase contrast. Keep all of these criteria in mind, too, when assigning web sites to older adults.

Ability to Make Out Contours Diminishes When There Is a High Density of Lines

From age 30 on we become less and less sensitive to high-frequency images (basically, highly-detailed, close-together objects). This means that our ability to make out contours diminishes when there is a high density of lines, making forms blurry – unless supplemental lighting (but not glare!) is provided (Sekuler and Blake, 2002). Don't feel frustrated if your older students are not responding as you would expect to photographs, or if they are taking longer than all the others looking at them; in fact, either you'll need to provide more lighting or these simply may not be appropriate didactic materials for those students. Also, letters/words should not be too tightly spaced.

Ability to Discriminate Detail in Moving Objects Decreases

In the language classroom we're usually not just looking at static images, but also dynamic, moving objects on the video or computer screen. Unfortunately, our ability to discriminate detail in moving objects decreases much more rapidly than for stationary images. Also, older adults with good vision have been found to be only half as good at judging direction as younger people (Sekuler and Blake, 2002). So, when using computers or videos, make sure your questions directed towards older learners are more linguistically-oriented, rather than based on the picture. You may not want to ask your older students for careful descriptions of the image itself, as it may be a task their eyes simply cannot perform in your classroom's circumstances

Not Everything Changes

One last note about vision. There are many aspects of sight that are not affected by age: the perception of movement (that is, judging if stationary or moving), the perceived size of objects, an object's orientation, the perception of depth (unless the object's shadow is not perceived well due to low contrast or motion), the coordination between the two eyes, or reading facial expressions (which actually has its own parts of the cortex and amygdala). Keep these in mind, too, when asking students to respond to visual stimuli in their environment.

Benchmarks in vision decline
Source: Sekuler and Blake, 2002.

Sharpen Their Senses

Curiously, both anticipating and imagining a stimulus to a sense will increase the metabolic activity in the related portion of the brain. The students will be able to recreate sounds, images, tastes and body sensations within their own heads (not smell though, although trying to remember smells does trigger an emotional response), which they may not be able to perceive externally quite as sharply anymore. So, when a particular sense, in this case vision, is critical to your activity, announce that you will be working with it. Furthermore, encourage your students to 'see' the image a while in their head, in addition to simply seeing it with their eyes. By drawing your students' attention to the sense, by allowing them to mull over visual input with their eyes closed, you are helping them to "sharpen their senses".

What Needs to be Changed

In summary, if we want to truly accommodate the visual impairments that accompany aging, we need to go far beyond mere nearsightedness, which is usually fixed by glasses.

Think about all the visual stimuli you provide your students, whether static or dynamic: pictures, words, on paper, on the board, on computer or tv screens.
Perhaps you'll need to bring in special equipment: videos that offer higher contrast and are shielded from glare, supplemental lighting for each seat, or shades to block glare from windows/lights/doors.

Above all, though, think about the questions you are asking your older students based on visual stimuli: are you asking them questions that their language knowledge could answer but that their eyes cannot?


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XI, No. 4, April 2005