Moving Toward Accessible Language Teaching

Contributors: Caitlin CornellDr. Dustin De FeliceAdam GacsDr. Kathryn McEwenRobert RandezKate Sonka, and Dr. Anne Violin-Wigent

Note: This resource was last updated on 3/2/22. We will not be making further edits or adding technological updates to this particular resource page.

It can be helpful to reframe our thinking around classroom norms in order to redesign learning environments to maximize accessibility and inclusivity for disabled learners/learners with disabilities. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you embark on or continue your journey toward increasing inclusivity and access in your language learning spaces.

  • Be a human first. We’re all coming from different backgrounds and bring different experiences to the classroom, so listening to our learners and responding with compassion will always be a great place to start.
  • Understand the process. Accessibility is an ongoing endeavor and we’re never really done with it, so building habits into your course planning process is key.
  • Seek out resources. You are not alone in this work, so remember to connect to resources and people doing this work in your department, unit, or across the university.
  • Be consistent. For you and your learners, consistency in scheduling, course structure, and expectations helps ensure that everyone knows what is expected of them.
  • Be flexible. Needs of learners (and faculty) evolve over time. Approaching accessibility with a healthy dose of flexibility will help mitigate feeling overwhelmed when you’re presented with new accommodation requests.
  • Examine learning outcomes and goals. Consider how course learning outcomes and goals could be modified to make learning more inclusive even if it looks different than what you had initially intended.
  • Build new habits. Rather than try to tackle everything at one time, consider how to break the work into smaller pieces and make accessibility changes in smaller steps. Over time, it will become a seamless part of course creation.

Read more below for additional information.

Be a human first.

When in doubt, listen and respond to learner concerns with compassion. Beyond reevaluating our practices regarding concrete accessibility measures in course design, learning about trauma-informed pedagogy and culturally responsive teaching can be incredibly helpful as well.

Understand the process.

Accessibility is a way of thinking, and rooted in social justice. Ideally, when we reevaluate our design practices related to accessibility, we shift from “I have to do X, Y, Z” to “How can I foster an inclusive classroom community? How do I signal to learners that I see them? How can I facilitate equity, especially for historically and currently marginalized learners, even from within inequitable institutions?” Working towards accessibility is a process and never truly done. Making improvements a bit at a time makes change more manageable. The goal isn’t to be perfect; the goal is better and continue growing. Similarly, accessibility is ongoing and iterative. A course does not become “accessible” one day; it’s an ongoing revision process that should be responsive to specific learner needs and learning contexts.

Seek out resources.

Accessibility isn’t a checklist, but checklists can help. A checklist of accessibility basics (e.g., web accessibility, like WCAG) can take some of the guesswork out of where to start and help to make accessible practices just a part of teaching. Reading research can also help to answer reflective questions” do I default to “what I’ve always done” instead of what might be (more) effective or responsive pedagogically? Whenever possible, seek out models. How do other people do this? Having examples to work from is a very salient way to learn about strategies, approaches, and current conversations. In the same vein, take advantage of the expertise on campus: a lot of innovative work is being done. At MSU, there are conversations about accessible learning and teaching happening in various units and programs: Academic Technology in the College of Arts and Letters, the College of Education, The Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology, MSU Libraries, the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, etc.

Be consistent

Consistent organization (including instructions and deadlines) is important for many students, but this is an especially crucial component for students with processing disorders, for example. 

Some learners find it helpful to have a routine to settle into social environments. This can be as simple as letting learners sit in the same seat in face-to-face classes. Communicate with your learners or observe their pre-instruction routine to make sure they can get settled.

Check-in regularly 

Periodically check in on your learners to see how they are adjusting to your course. Learners (whether disabled or not) tend to “shy away” from social contact and might not come to you with their concerns, and this feeling of vulnerability is often compounded when a learner has a disability. Extending yourself could give them the opportunity to share with you what help they might need. Be very careful not to require or compel learners to disclose anything they don’t want to share.

Avoid ambiguity

Learners often rely on detailed instructions to get them through tasks as they are often unable to adjust “on the fly”. They may also be more hesitant to ask for clarification when they are unsure of what is asked of them. When giving instruction, double check for clarity or anything that could be interpreted another way.

Avoid sensory overload

Autistic learners, for example, tend to focus on one thing and ignore everything else in the environment. It’s helpful to avoid unnecessary visuals, animations, etc. in your slides to minimize the chance of learners distributing their focus. Also, when using video in class be mindful of sudden flashes of light or noise which could cause learners sensory overload.

Be flexible 

We hear this often, but flexibility can be more nuanced than we first think. Being flexible goes beyond accepting late assignments in times of need. Offering elements of choice in your course design (e.g., providing more than one way to complete an assignment) can provide differentiated instruction. 

Evolve with your learners

Talk and grow with your learners. What works for them? What doesn’t? What changes would be beneficial? 

Examine your learning outcomes and goals 

Backwards Design

When you engage in course design, starting with the goals (known as “backwards design”) makes it much easier to focus on what’s really essential to learning in the course. 

Drawing upon (but not relying upon) Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

UDL can be an inspiring resource to help you break down the why, what, and how of learning and really helps instructors explore new approaches and new possibilities to address those components equitably. 

Striking a balance

Sometimes, making elements of a language course more accessible creates some tension with established learning outcomes. For example, some language instructors are hesitant about adding transcripts to audio or video clips that are designed as listening assessments, because the skill focus shifts to reading instead of listening, and therefore does not address a listening-specific learning outcomes for the course. We encourage you to revisit your learning outcomes with fairness in mind, and ask yourself important questions as you rethink your outcomes and goals. It’s important to be reasonable and understand that sometimes increasing accessibility (e.g., providing audio and visual formats for everything, like captioning videos and including AltText for images) might alter your original intentions for the activity, but that’s sometimes ok.

Similarly, language instructors are always on the lookout for ways to create more spontaneous speaking practice for foreign language learners. However, considering that learners with psychological disabilities are the largest group of disabled learners officially registered with the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities on MSU’s campus, it’s worth rethinking impromptu speaking activities. If you plan on requiring learners to participate in speaking-oriented activities, it is compassionate practice to notify your learners in advance to mitigate additional anxiety. 

Consider your context

What does the conversation about accessibility and inclusivity look like in language(s)/culture(s) being taught? For example, in German, how is gender-neutral language being used? What about non-binary pronouns? Where can we reflect what’s happening in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, other German-speaking communities around issues of inclusive, equity, and accessibility?

Build new habits

Building new habits can help you cut down on your effort over time. There are some fairly easy-to-implement habits you can get into right away, and there are some technology tools and applications to help you. Here are our suggestions to get started:

Examine the accessibility features of the tools you ask learners to use. 

  • Locate accessibility (and also privacy) statements for all technologies or external tools used consistently in class and list them in the syllabus/course intro module. In this way, one of this site’s contributors discovered that Padlet is not accessible enough but they are working on it. 
  • If there are accessibility shortcomings and the assignments that rely on those technologies are essential and graded, alternative assignments or alternative tools would need to be identified. 

Learning Management System (LMS)

  • When creating new content on your learning management system (e.g., at MSU Desire2Learn or D2L) using the HTML editor, there is an accessibility checker icon in the lower right corner of the HTML editor that checks some things, e.g, colour contrast, AltText, etc.
  • If like MSU your institution uses D2L, explore and look at the Blackboard Ally report for your courses (starting Fall 2020 in D2L at MSU). Alert learners to alternative formats available though Blackboard Ally for certain topics on D2L. (Note:  if the translation option is enabled, this could cause complications in language courses).

Documents and Presentations

  • Run your documents through accessibility checkers (built-in  Microsoft Word for example). Build your syllabus (and other pages) in your LMS (D2L at MSU) as an HTML page with a template that will ensure accessible content.
  • If using Microsoft PowerPoint or Microsoft Word, the newest versions offer automatic AltText generation (that is, the language to describe images is generated automatically). It’s important to either turn off auto-generation of AltText or double check the AltText with regards to what the image entails.
  • If presenting to a live audience, both PowerPoint and Google Slides have live captions options. PowerPoint can translate live speech into different languages. Microsoft Teams and Zoom Live Auto Transcription have Engllish language a caption features. Live captions and subtitles in multiple languages is available for “Microsoft Teams live events” that (an extension of Teams for large online event streams, not available for regular Teams channel meetings). The Zoom feature functions as a full running transcript that can be referred to as the meeting progresses. In Zoom, you also have the option to assign someone to write captions live unlike the machine-generated options mentioned above. More information on Zoom Closed captioning options can be found here.


  • Locate target language videos with professional captions if possible, or check provided auto-generated captions for accuracy. If the captions are not at least 90% accurate, provide a transcript or captions yourself.
  • Use a streaming host (e.g., at MSU: Mediaspace) to host videos you create and utilize the recently much improved machine captions in different languages but you still need to proofread them and correct them (it’s quicker than it used to be). 
  • Provide audio and visual/written format for all your content. This means you should caption/subtitle videos, include AltText on images, include transcript of audio recordings, etc.