ArticlesJuly 2020

Accessibility Essentials in Online Language Teaching

By Caitlin Cornell, Assistant Director, the Center for Language Teaching Advancement & Ph.D. student in Second Language Studies at Michigan State University

Caitlin Cornell

In response to the uncertainty resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions of higher education are contemplating going fully online with their courses in the fall of 2020. Even if your institution isn’t one of them, you are likely seeing an increased push for online course development. In this piece, I will outline some quick tips related to accessibility for disabled* students in online learning environments in higher education. (Whether or not K-12 schools will reopen–and what that will look like–is a different question entirely, but K-12 instructors who are considering some online instruction for the fall can also benefit from the suggestions I outline here). Many of the suggestions here are relevant to online learning in general, but I also inject commentary and examples specific to online language learning.

*A note about language: my disabled friends and colleagues as well as disabled activists on Twitter have encouraged me to move toward “identity-first” language choices when describing folks who identify as having a disability. An alternative choice is “person-first” language (i.e., “students with disabilities”). Within the disabled community, this is a very political, personal, and individual choice; not everyone chooses the same terminology to describe themselves. Whenever possible, I defer to individuals’ choices on the matter, not unlike honoring individuals’ pronouns (e.g., I use the pronouns she/her/hers).

None of us would disagree that accessibility is important and something all educators should be striving for. Where accessibility becomes a bit tricky: often, educators (especially those who are not on the disability spectrum themselves) don’t know what accessibility should look like, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the pressure to aim for perfection. Ideally, we would like all content and interactions to be totally accessible all of the time. In reality, nothing is ever “done” in accessibility: even if you make your course accessible for your current student group, you will inevitably face changes down the road because students are unique and each one has a  different set of unique concerns. Compounding the complexity, it’s not uncommon for educators to feel they don’t have the time or the resources or support to achieve that mythical accessibility perfection. It’s ok to start with the basics and take steps toward greater accessibility to signal to your students your willingness to grow and improve for their success.

One framework that can help you cover a lot of (but not all) bases all at once is Universal Design for Learning (UDL). I think of UDL as a proactive approach to accessibility. Instead of just waiting for accommodation requests to come through after a course has already been designed and rolled out, UDL encourages educators to anticipate the greatest diversity of needs and challenges from the very start. For example, if you think in advance about how a disabled learner who uses screen reader technology will interact with your syllabus, you might think to add heading styles to make the document more navigable. By making some early decisions in which you consider the needs of the widest audience possible, you might be able to (a) make the content friendlier to everyone (everyone likes the easy navigation of heading styles, not just screen reader users), but also (b) cut down on some retroactive accommodation requests in the long term because some of your course elements are already more accessible. An important note about UDL: it is not a silver bullet, one-size-fits-all solution. It’s very likely that in using UDL principles, you will generally cut down on accommodations requests over time because you are preventatively eliminating some barriers, but you should not expect to eliminate all retroactive work to make your course as accessible as possible. This work is never done. UDL is simply a very useful tool among many steps we can take in order to improve accessibility for disabled students.

Reevaluating our Learning Outcomes

First, we need to talk about learning outcomes. The earlier in your design process you can infuse some purposeful thinking about accessibility concerns, the better and the easier for you to address the rest of my suggestions to follow in this article. Is there any flexibility inherent in those outcomes that you can capitalize on? When you examine your outcomes (maybe they’re ones you’re stuck with that someone else created for you), is there anything that stands out as possibly challenging for disabled language learners? Are your learning outcomes measurable in a way that is fair for disabled students?

Accessible Content

Second, I would like to explore some measures that will increase the overall accessibility of the content you provide to students. It’s important to ask yourself how students are accessing your course content. In second language acquisition, we talk a lot about “input” and what it takes for students to be able to process it. It’s vital to provide multimodal access to input and content wherever possible. The most salient example for the importance of multiple modes is addressing the concerns of language learners with physical disabilities who are blind or Deaf or hard-of-hearing: any visuals you use should also be described aurally and all videos should be accompanied by captions or subtitles. This is certainly reason enough to ensure multimodal access, but additionally these augments can be good for other students as well. Many students of various learning preferences report that captions and subtitles are helpful, and adjusting font sizes, styles, and contrast can very quickly improve readability for a variety of vision concerns, including such everyday scenarios as too much glare on a screen on a sunny day. It’s also important to limit the amount of content learners have to process at a given time (the same goes for input). Keeping things bite-sized is helpful for most students, but especially crucial for learners who are not able to process via more than one mode at a time (or at all, e.g., blind students may rely on aural or tactile processing) or those with processing disorders or whose working memory is easily taxed. Offering students explicit strategies, like checklists, can also cast a wide net to address an array of unique student challenges.  

Accessible Participation and Interaction with Course Concepts

Third, I would like to outline things you can do in your task and activity design in order to make interaction with course concepts more accessible to a wider range of students. There are great tools that can facilitate both synchronous and asynchronous interaction online. But, it’s important to remember that how you design tasks, activities, and interactions within those tools is arguably more important than choosing which tool to use. Remember that, as long as you’re addressing your learning outcomes, you probably have a lot of freedom in how you design a task or activity. A colleague of mine once gave an example of the happy evolution of his discussion boards in D2L (Desire 2 Learn learning management system). Originally, his discussion questions were based on cognitively oriented outcomes like “remember” and “explain” on Bloom’s taxonomy (e.g., “Summarize the second language theories from the last module we read”). After the prompts were reworked to be more affectively oriented and application-based (e.g., “If you had $100, which language learning app would you buy for your mother and why?”), he saw a significant uptick in student engagement, and students reported higher impact from the discussion threads as contributing to their learning in the course. An early design decision, like choosing an orientation for discussion prompts, can shape the way students interact with a given tool, even within the tool’s perceived parameters of functionality: how the discussion boards were being used made all the difference.

Golden Rules / Best Practices

Fourth, let’s talk about some other golden rules that are important to forefront in our teaching in online learning spaces. These concepts are “best practices” for online teaching generally, but they can really make or break an online learning experience for disabled language learners especially. These “best practices” are perhaps even more important to strive for during a global pandemic which produces stress and uncertainty for students who present incredible diversity and unique needs. 


Specialists in online learning will tell you how important it is to be consistent with organization, formatting, directions, and deadlines. The concept of consistency is imperative for students with processing disorders, who may find reading, listening, or navigating to online materials less fatiguing if there is an overarching organization guiding them. Many disabled learners find being able to rely on consistent deadlines (e.g., assignments are always due on Fridays) less taxing on their working memory, which may already be overburdened. 


It’s important to be flexible, not only specifically related to accessibility, but also because online work is more work for students and instructors alike and can be a significant adjustment even under normal (non-pandemic) educational circumstances. It is not hard to imagine that learners with psychological disabilities could be having a particularly tough time adjusting.

On a macro level, you can build in flexibility explicitly via your design choices. One way to offer structural flexibility is to choose asynchronous delivery for your course or at least some of its components. On Twitter, Disabled activists and online pedagogy scholars alike are calling for asynchronous design because it maximizes flexibility for everyone. For example, think of the student during the transition to remote learning during the second half of the spring 2020 semester who was sharing electronic resources and hardware with a whole family of siblings, etc., each with their own schooling-at-home regimen to schedule around. Think of the instructor who was trying teaching from home with little children underfoot. Think about the unexpected Internet outages, and students with jobs deemed “essential” during this pandemic. Think of the Deaf or hard-of-hearing student who finds it difficult to read lips via virtual meetings. We language educators may balk at the idea of fully asynchronous language courses because we feel that the spontaneous contact, real-time language exposure, and interactive practice language learners get from face-to-face courses (that we understand to be crucial in oral language development in particular) will be irreplicable in–especially asynchronous–online environments, and thus we will be doing our language students a huge disservice. This may be true in the most ideal of language teaching situations, but as Chris Long, the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University recently penned in a letter to the campus community, “it would be unjust to expect business as usual.” For better or worse, a global pandemic is an opportunity to rethink some of our long-held conceptions about what language learning should look like. There was another piece in this July issue of FLTMAG that weighed the costs and benefits of synchronous v. asynchronous design choices (not specific to accessibility) that you might find helpful as you make decisions for your own course.

Offering students choices and alternatives is another way to infuse some overt structural flexibility into your course. Those of you who engage in differentiated instruction in your face-to-face courses may already have experience with some of the following suggestions. Giving students alternative options in terms of the media they use to access or complete tasks or activities can significantly reduce frustration levels, make participation more equitable (e.g., the student who does not have a computer can use their phone instead), and very likely boost interest, motivation, and engagement in the task. I work hard to channel the “multiple means” mantra of Universal Design for Learning: I try to give students a choice in how they demonstrate to me their understanding of learning outcomes. I recently taught a seminar course in which I implemented a system of alternative assessment. In this course, students were required to submit critical responses to weekly readings. The responses needed to address all the criteria outlined on the assignment rubric, but what the critical response looked like was up to students completely. In lieu of a traditional written essay-type response, some students opted to record interviews with their families as they discussed topics from our readings or produce art pieces centered around the themes of the readings. The creativity of their work astounded me, and I felt a high level of student engagement. I recognize that for certain assessments this approach may not be feasible. It could be that there are three sections of German 101 that all have the same summative exam at the end of the course that has been well-vetted by the department in terms of reliability and validity, and there is no wiggle room for instructors to alter that on an individual basis. In that case, there might be other areas of the course where students could employ some autonomous choice. 

On a micro level, offer flexibility on an individual basis whenever possible. Everyone needs to be given a little grace during this uncertain and emotionally taxing time. Specifically, disabled students may have less support and more chaos to contend with during COVID-19 (for example, they may have much less contact with their disability resource centers right now).

Return to Your Learning Outcomes

When in doubt, return to your learning outcomes. Is it true that you need to do things as you have always done them in order for students to achieve success in the outcomes? For example, if your course features a listening proficiency learning outcome, you might ask yourself whether it is valid to assess a hard-of-hearing student’s achievement of that listening outcome via an  assessment featuring an audio-only listening sample. In order to address the fairness of that assessment scenario, you might consider (depending on how the student reports engaging in communication in their home language) offering a video clip which would allow for lip-reading and other nonverbal cues that the student might rely on in their life outside of their foreign language study.

Finally, give yourself time to make habits of some of these suggestions, particularly the ones that seem simpler for you to wrap your head around. Adopting some of these things from the get-go can relatively quickly make some meaningful changes to your teaching practice. Revisit your learning outcomes and best practices to find room for flexibility and “multiple means.” You can add in more later, since the work is never done. 

Accessibility basics for content

Click on each category to see more details.


(Many of these suggestions are also highlighted in this handy checklist compiled by Michigan State University’s Web Accessibility team)

One thought on “Accessibility Essentials in Online Language Teaching

  • Thank you so much for this very helpful article! I especially appreciate the ideas on alternative assessments.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *