By customizing the display of information, you can reduce the effort it takes for your learners to read the information in web pages, ebooks and other digital content. Your learners can then dedicate more of their mental resources to actually understanding the content.
The good news is that many of the features that previously required the purchase and installation of specialized software are now often included as standard options on the devices many of your learners already own. This makes the process of finding a good feature match for a learner that much easier (and less costly).
Customizing the Display of Information
A good place to start exploring the many options for customizing the display of information is the web browser your learners use to access information on the Web. Most browsers now include a reading view for removing distractions and customizing the appearance of a web page:
- In Apple's Safari browser the reading view is called Safari Reader. Activating Safari Reader will show you a less cluttered version of the page, without ads and site navigation that could be distracting to some readers. Safari Reader also provides some options for customizing the appearance of the page, such as changing the background and text color and resizing the text.
- In Microsoft's Edge browser, the reading view is called Immersive Reader. It includes a number of options for customizing the appearance of the information along a number of literacy supports.
- In Google Chrome, a number of extensions are available to adjust the display of information. One example is the Read and Write for Google extension, which has a Simplify feature with a number of display options.
E-reading apps provide even more options, including:
- Text resizing: This option will only be available for some formats, such as EPUB, that allow content to reflow. Formats such as PDF have the text size set by the author.
- Font selection: Choosing cleaner, sans-serif fonts can be helpful to some readers. Sans serif fonts do not have extra ornamentation at the end of their strokes, which makes them easier to read at smaller text sizes. Some e-readers also feature special fonts such as Open Dyslexic that are designed for learners with dyslexia, but research on the efficacy of these fonts is not conclusive yet.
- Themes: The default setting of a white background with dark text may not provide sufficient contrast for some readers who have low vision, but it may provide too much contrast for others who have reading difficulties. Changing the theme can help, with options such as a dark background with light text for those with low vision, and a sepia (warm tone) one for those who need less contrast. Some apps allow even more options, with color pickers that allow the reader to select specific colors.
- Flexible spacing: The default spacing may not be sufficient for some readers with dyslexia who experience crowding, where lines or characters that are too close to each other appear to run into each other. Adding some spacing can help. This can be line spacing, character spacing or even word spacing in some apps.
- Adjustable Margins: For some readers with peripheral vision issues, it may be helpful to increase the margins so that more of the content appears near the middle where their vision is stronger.
- Justification: Justified text has additional character and word spacing added so that the text falls flush with both margins. The additional space can be distracting to some readers, who may want to turn it off and read left-justified text only.
- Reading guides: Some e-readers have a special focused reading mode where only a few lines of the text are visible while the rest of the screen is masked out to remove distractions.
The Center for Inclusive Software for Learning (CISL) at CAST has done extensive research into digital learning supports as part of its development of Clusive, a flexible, adaptive, and customizable digital learning environment.
Using Read Aloud
A read aloud or text-to-speech feature can help a number of readers: those who struggle with decoding, those with visual impairments, and those who speak English as a second language. When word and sentence highlighting are available, it can also help learners focus their attention while reading. In the past, text-to-speech often required the installation of a separate program. Today, many devices used in schools include text-to-speech as a standard option:
- On the iPad, the Spoken Content features (found under Accessibility in the Settings app) provide two options for using text-to-speech: your learners can select some text to have it read aloud (Speak Selection) or they can have the entire contents of the screen read to them (Speak Screen). Your learners can turn on word and sentence highlighting, select from a number of voices and adjust the speaking rate. A feature similar to Speak Selection is available on the Mac, where it is activated with a simple keyboard shortcut once it is enabled in the System Preferences.
- On a Chromebook, Select-to-speak works in a similar way: learners can select some text to have it read aloud with their chosen text-to-speech voice. A number of extensions (add-ons for the Chrome web browser) are also available. For example, the Read and Write for Google extension has a trial period, but the text-to-speech feature remains free for learners even after the trial is over.
- Windows devices only include a screen reader called Narrator intended for learners with visual impairments, but text-to-speech is available within individual apps. For example, your learners can use the Immersive Reader built into the Microsoft Edge web browser and a number of Office applications to hear text read aloud.
- Smart speakers running the Alexa personal assistants support a number of commands for reading Kindle books with text-to-speech or Audible audiobooks with human narration. Similarly, devices running Google Home can read audiobooks purchased on the Google Play Books store. These devices will often recognize the voices built into augmentative and alternative (AAC) apps for those learners who use them to communicate.
Try it yourself
Ready to explore some of the above features that are built into your technology? Here are some things to try.
Remove distractions while you read
A lot of web pages include content that can get in the way of keeping you focused on your reading. Advertisements are a good example of this. Wouldn’t it be nice to clear a web page of everything except what you need to learn? You can! Try it.
- If you use Safari on your iPad or Mac: try Safari Reader
- If you use a Chromebook: try free extension such as Mercury Reader
- If you Microsoft Edge on Windows: try Immersive Reader
Customize how you view the information
Most of us look at a web page without thinking about our own preferences for how it might appear. Did you know you have options? Give them a try. Be sure to make note of what works well.
- If you use Safari on your iPad or Mac: try the display options built into Safari Reader
- If you use a Chromebook: try a free extension such as Deluminate or Visor in your Chrome browser
- If you use Microsoft Edge on Windows: try Immersive Reader
Hear the content read aloud
Did you know your device can become your own personal reader? And best of all, it is available anytime you need it and often works along with the other options you've already explored to provide a truly personalized reading experience just for you!
- If you use an iPad or Mac: try the Spoken Content features.
- If you use a Chromebook: try the Select-to-speak feature built into your device or install the trial for the Read and Write for Google extension.
- If you use Microsoft Edge on Windows: try the Immersive Reader.