July 2022
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WHY IS THAT STUDENT NOT ON TASK? MATERIALS DESIGN MATTERS!

Alexandra Burke, University of Shiga Prefecture, Hikone City, Japan

Until you experience it for yourself, you will never understand the difference that a font or background color could make to your ability to learn. Some of our most challenging students go through this, but are we part of their barrier? A barrier that we, and even they, do not realize is there? It is easy to assume motivation is at play, because if other students can do the work, why do these students only do parts of it?

I am a teacher, but also one of the small number of people with dyslexia, who are affected by how information is presented. In teaching, I noticed that colored paper or highlighters made students work faster, neater, or even spontaneously write for the first time without external motivation. The color was student specific.

When people went online, I raised awareness, through presentations, of the importance of the font size and background color used in teaching and learning materials. Although I was advocating for these changes for the purpose of inclusion, I immediately got private messages from teachers saying “I find a different font or a different background much easier or faster to read, too. Does this mean I am dyslexic?” The short answer is probably no, but it did create a landmark shift in the practice of those teachers.

They shifted from white pages and serifed fonts, to dark or off-white backgrounds, switched to larger, universal design fonts, and replaced italics and underlining with bold fonts. Many of them commented on how these changes reduced the stress on their own eyes, sometimes reducing headaches. But more importantly, they found students responded better and faster. The switch to online teaching incidentally gave us the ability to customize the appearance of learning materials at the individual level for the first time and put everyone in the front row.

Depending on your browser, you may be able to try this yourself, by clicking on the URL bar you are viewing this from. Look for Reader View (which is an icon of a page with text and may have 2 capital ‘A’s next to it). Reader View will offer you options to change the font, and the background color. If you use Microsoft Word, you can customize your page via the design tab > page background > select color. On Google Docs, the steps are File > Page Setup > Page Color > choose a color and set default.

Photo caption: Reader View

Microsoft's Immersive Reader, which is embedded free into Flip on all hand-held devices (and available by subscription on desktops), allows full customization of appearance, can demonstrate syllable breaks, has read aloud options, and provides a contextual picture or text dictionary. Flip also transcribes voice to text. It is liberating for students with dyslexia or other visual challenges who often spend decades thinking they are stupid or lazy. Your students do not have the positional power to change your materials. But you can be the change by offering, modeling, and affirming choices that support reading for all learners.


Alexandra Burke has taught (and been a parent) at all levels of the Japanese public school system and currently teaches at university. She has won three Michelle Steele Best of JALT Awards (Japan Association for Language Teaching) on the topic of inclusive teaching methods and is the Publications Chair of the JALT Accessibility in Language Learning Special Interest Group. She loves listening to audiobooks while gardening, technology, and how the camera lens brings the lives of family and friends around the world together.
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