How technology expands access to text

Dr. Natalie Saaris
May 15, 2017

Here at Actively Learn, we want to help teachers get all their students to read for depth. However, it’s important to recognize that some students experience unique difficulties in accessing the text, and that making sense of the text is a prerequisite for getting to higher-order analysis.

Luckily, digital text offers several features that can make the reading experience much more manageable for these students. Let’s look at a few common reading challenges and how Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can help break down the barriers to access.

1. Dyslexia

What it is: 

While most people might associate dyslexia with a tendency to switch letters or words, dyslexia is a more general inability to break down words into phonemes. What this means is that dyslexic readers cannot translate the words on the page into basic units of sound. This is a lifelong, neurobiological inability to make meaning from text.

The dyslexic settings broaden access to text for dyslexic readers
This is what a text looks like using the dyslexic settings in Actively Learn. The margin sizes, font, line spacing, and color make reading the text easier for dyslexic readers.

How common it is: 

Dyslexia affects up to 15 percent of all Americans. The number for struggling readers can be as high as 70-80%.

How technology can help: 

Recently, researchers have discovered a connection between dyslexia and oculomotor dynamics. Changing the visual presentation of text to shorten the lines or add more space between letters and lines can significantly improve the ability of dyslexic readers to decode the text. E-readers have been found to be especially effective in making text more accessible to dyslexic readers, both because they enable the manipulation of visual settings and because the scroll function may help to modulate visual attention.  

Because dyslexic readers may have much better comprehension when the text is being read aloud, enabling a text-to-speech feature or embedding an audio recording of a text along with the written word could provide an alternate path to accessing the text.

2. English Language Learning

What it is: 

English language students are unable to communicate effectively in English. However, ELL is not synonymous with foreign-born; over 80% of ELL students are born in the US.

How common it is: 

Roughly 10% of public school students are English language learners and ¾ of American classrooms have at least one English language learner.

How technology can help: 

Giving students access to translation features allows them to look up words while they read. While this may seem equivalent to looking up words in a foreign-language dictionary, it is not: every additional step in the lookup process presents a new tax on a student's working memory, which is trying to hold onto the meaning of a sentence as it simultaneously seeks to define an unfamiliar word.

To further reduce the cognitive load of students who are reading in a foreign language, it might be helpful to embed visual supports such as videos and images in the text. Research has shown that pairing images with word definitions can improve comprehension for English language learners.  

Technology can also enable English language learners to participate in class discussions: when students discuss ideas in writing, as they do in digital discussion boards, English language learners are given more time to articulate their thoughts. They are also able to see how proficient English learners express their ideas in an authentic setting.


What it is: 

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder makes it difficult to pay attention, which is especially challenging given the level of focus necessary to decode words and process meaning from a text.

How common it is: 

Approximately 11% of children have been diagnosed with ADHD.

How technology can help: 

Increasing the interactivity of text can help students with ADHD stay on task. For example, encouraging students to annotate digital text can increase their engagement and focus. Students who paraphrase text in the margins hold themselves accountable for their comprehension and increase their likelihood of retaining what they've read.

Chunking the material with embedded questions is another feature that can help ADHD students digest their reading. When students are forced to stop and answer a question while they read, they avoid the common pitfall of getting distracted mid-text and failing to process what they read. They are also less intimidated by a large volume of text when it is presented in more manageable bits.

Finally, because organization can be a challenge for students with ADHD, having all their notes and assignments in one place is another advantage offered by digital text. Storing, searching, and organizing their classroom material becomes much easier when it's on one device as opposed to a hodgepodge of papers.


The features listed here should not be exclusively available for students with diagnosed reading impairments or students who are classified as English language learners. As with many elements of universal design, accessibility tools are intended to be used by whomever needs them. Encourage your students to change the visual display of their digital reader to see if another configuration might aid their comprehension, even if they don’t have dyslexia. Engage all students who are reluctant to participate in class discussion by letting them articulate their ideas in a written forum prior to speaking in class. Use embedded questions to chunk the text for everyone, as monitoring comprehension is an effective reading strategy for everyone.

Contrary to the belief that reading on a screen makes students worse comprehenders, some students benefit tremendously from the adaptive features of digital text. Switching to a well-designed digital reading platform enables students of diverse learning backgrounds to access text in a whole new way, leading to learning and engagement that would otherwise be impossible.


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