How to make resources more accessible for struggling readers

Ed Tech

Ed Tech | Monday, March 28, 2016

How to make resources more accessible for struggling readers

Creating digital resources for students is important, but we must make sure they're accessible to all students. Here are some tips. (Public domain image via

Creating digital resources for students is important, but we must make sure they’re accessible to all students. Here are some tips. (Public domain image via

I’m a huge fan of creating custom resources for student learning. We, as teachers, know exactly what our students need much better than a textbook company hundreds or thousands of miles away.

For me, that often came in the form of Google Docs with information my students were responsible for and a website for pointing students toward other online resources that already existed.

There’s a population of students that I’ve not given enough thought to as I created those resources — students with visual impairments and struggling readers.

Digital resources give students access to material from anywhere — a Chromebook at school, a laptop at home, a tablet or smartphone on the go. But not all material is easy to digest for all students.

June Behrmann, a longtime special needs teacher who now writes about accessible educational resources, recently directed me to a discussion about this important topic. Assistive technology enthusiasts were discussing what makes a digital resource accessible — or inaccessible — to students.

If we want to embrace all that technology can offer our students, we have to make sure our resources are accessible to all of them.

Here are some ways teachers can do that (from the discussion in the blog post linked above):

1. Avoid “locked PDFs” — If students only have access to a text via PDF files that won’t allow for zooming and other features, that resource might not be worth anything to them.

2. Adjustable font size — Students with visual impairments might struggle to read small text. Any resource with adjustable font size is more accessible.

3. Dictionary integration — When students have access to definitions for difficult words, they’re less likely to dismiss the reading all together. Many digital tools (including the Kindle reading app) offer this.

4. Text to speech — Some tools natively offer this feature for students, but not all. Text-to-speech tools (like the 10 listed in this blog post) can help students connect with a text despite reading difficulties.

5. Image descriptions — If you’re using an image, giving a description of what’s in it can help some readers.

Unnamed image (68)6. Video captions — As flipped learning has taken off, so has the use of instructional videos for students to watch on their own. Videos are more accessible to some students if they have captions. YouTube will automatically provide a transcript of videos (see image at right), although the exact translation of verbal to visual can be hit and miss.

7. Color contrast — When background colors and text colors are too much alike, they can be hard for some students to read. Being aware of colors you choose in any instructional material can help.

Fixing our digital resources to help students may not be the perfect solution (although it is a definite step in the right direction). Helping them become independent learners and advocates for accessible resources may be the best end game.

Sharon Plante, a specialist in learning disabilities from Connecticut, made these points in an #atchat (assistive technology) Twitter chat:

Key to create independent learners who know how to use #Edtech to access any materials or to self-advocate for accessible material

We need to empower the learner with the tools to make text accessible today where’s in old days where Edu had to do it

[reminder]What issues do you see that make resources online inaccessible to some students? What are some tools that can help?[/reminder]

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  • […] How to Make Resources Available for Struggling Readers – some really good suggestions to think about when planning and selecting digital resources for students. […]

  • Gillian Fuqua says:

    I have been recently doing a lot of work with this. Online sources often have many possible sources of distraction in them. I have found that cutting and pasting into Google Slides is hugely helpful. For struggling readers, I will put one paragraph per slide. I share via Classroom so that they can underline, highlight, make notes, whatever the task demands. I also find that with Slides I can pull out the key paragraphs and then those most struggling readers don’t have to sort through distracting information.

  • nora trentacoste says:

    Thanks so much for bringing this important topic forward. I have a lot of vigorous discussions about accessibility with my clients. Somehow, those discussions don’t always happen as a part of the normal workflow in the district. I am heartened to see that some districts are looking for input on accessibility and formatting of digital materials as part of the adoption process, but this is still new for a lot of folks.

    Here’s another resource that might be helpful for thinking about formatting. While it doesn’t include Google Docs, my clients haven’t experienced the same issues around access with those when they have the right tools.

    You’d be hard pressed to find a more current resource on accessibility issues than the team at the California State University system’s Accessible Technology Initiative:

    So glad you’re bringing this discussion into the Google-sphere!

  • Cindy says:

    I use an audio recorder to record my assessments. Those who understand better by listening can use earbuds to listen to the test and rewind as needed. Those students didn’t have to leave the room to take the test.

  • […] How to make resources more accessible for struggling readers #edchat @jmattmiller… […]

  • Laura Garmire says:

    Thanks for blogging about the importance of content being accessible for all students. A great simple infographic about Web Accessibility is

  • Dr. Riina says:

    I use and teach students to use rewordify, a free online tool that lowers reading levels for any section of text you cut and paste into it. We focus on using it to check understanding after reading for most kids and as a modification for emerging language learners and some with specific reading related learning delays. I also make sure to teach the power of control F. It forces students to identify key words and their synonyms while making the amounting text less overwheming. Patience and paying attention to student needs make the biggest difference.

  • Sandi Mahl says:

    For all of Matt’s Readers in Indiana, the place to go for more free help on making your curriculum accessible to all students is PATINS. PATINS is already funded so our help is free to all Pre – 12 public school educators. There are 5 coordinators located around the state to help! We provide free training, and a free lending library as well as many other Assistive Technology (AT) and Accessible Educational Materials (AEM) resources. Feel free to contact me to get started! Thanks Matt for addressing this issue!

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