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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