You probably know about assistive technology (AT) tools that can help students with learning disabilities (LD) with reading, writing, math, listening, and organization. Perhaps you have purchased educational software for your child. However, you may not be aware of the extent to which the computer hardware and software you already own may include several features and functions that can improve your child’s academic performance. In this article, we will explore how electronic text can be adapted to assist students with LD. The use of standard technologies to enhance and support reading can benefit students as young as third graders, throughout their education, and into the working world. You and your child will want to experiment with the techniques described in this article to find those that help him most.

What is electronic text, and where can you find it?

Type the words “electronic text” into Google and you will find hundreds of collections of books, articles, and other text. Electronic (i.e., computer-displayed) text can be customized to support a student’s individual learning preferences and needs. Although we still live in a world of print on paper, the amount of electronic text is growing daily.

Customizing electronic text to meet a child’s needs

In this article, we will explore various ways to adapt electronic text to assist students with LD, using standard technologies. You may be surprised to learn how much you can do with software you already own!

First, you’ll need to locate appropriate electronic text. (See Resources for locating electronic text on the Internet). Next, you will want to review your options for customizing the material to meet your child’s needs.

The text on the computer screen can be copied and pasted into your word processor in a variety of ways, depending on the file you’re working with:

  • A plain text file can be downloaded and opened using a word processor.
  • A PDF file can be downloaded and opened using Acrobat Reader. Some PDF files allow text to be selected and pasted into a word processor.
  • An HTML file can be opened using any browser. Again, you may be able to select, copy, and paste the text into a word processor.
  • Less commonly, an electronic text document may have been formatted for specific software or devices , such as Microsoft Reader or a Palm device. These will only be useful if you have the software or device. (Note: Microsoft Reader software is free.)

Once you have accessed the electronic text using one of the methods described above, you can then modify the material to make it more accessible to your child. For example, text in a word processor can be changed in appearance, reorganized or supplemented, read aloud by the computer, or used to generate portable audio versions.

Changing the appearance of text

The key to changing the appearance of electronic text is to determine which modifications enhance readability for your child. Readability refers to a level of comfort and ease in recognizing letters and words that goes beyond mere legibility. Readability does not mean comprehension but (by reducing the decoding load), it can increase reading comprehension for some students.1

Font style and size

For a student who struggles with reading, you may want to experiment with different font (typeface) styles and sizes to find combinations that make reading electronic text easier for the child.

Research has revealed contradictory findings regarding the use of fonts for reading on the computer. One debate hinges on the use of font styles that contain serifs, which are the little horizontal lines at the tops and bottoms of characters or letters. (A “sans serif” font does not include serifs.) Some students find a serif font (such as Times Roman) easier to read on screen because the serifs provide additional visual clues and eliminate confusion. Other surveys show more people prefer a sans serif font for reading onscreen text.2 Your child may prefer serif on paper and non-serif on the screen and may also prefer reading one size font on paper and a different size font onscreen.

TIP: Lexia is a free sans serif font that includes a non-symmetrical b and d (i.e., the b does not look like a backwards d), and handwritten forms of a and g, which readers may recognize more easily.

Font color and background color

Font color or background color may be changed to enhance readability. Research indicates the preferred color combinations, both in print and on the web, vary by the individual. Hill & Scharff (1997) found that while the majority of a large audience of Internet users preferred reading black text on a white or gray background, or blue text on a white background, some users reported that white on blue, or red on white were clearest for them.

Your child may benefit from experimenting with different combinations.

Technology tips:

  • Microsoft Word has an option (under Preferences>General) for changing contrast between the text and background. It provides a dark blue background with white print. Once you’ve activated the blue background, you can select text and change the color. You might try the yellow or light yellow.
  • Several free word processors allow a variety of background colors. TexEdit Plus is a free Macintosh word processor that has excellent speech. Jarte is a free word processor for Windows.

Line spacing and page layout

Some students are able to read more easily with fewer words on the screen or page. Increasing the width of the margins and double spacing are two methods you can easily try. If you are going to print the text because your child prefers working from a hard copy, leaving a lot of room on one side for notes, diagrams, or drawings can be helpful.

As you and your child experiment with different combinations of font, size, color, and line spacing, remember that what reads best to you may not be what reads best for your child . Once you discover modifications that help your child, make note of them and remind your child to use them. If your child works on a computer at school, you’ll also want to share this information with his teachers.

Customizing text: reorganizing and editing

Electronic versions of text allow a parent or teacher to rearrange or add to the information presented, in order to reduce the child’s frustration and/or increase his comprehension of material. For example, an article on geology may be broken up into shorter paragraphs. After each paragraph, you might insert key questions about the facts, along with room for the student to type the answers. You might also insert a summary before the actual text, to give the child a “preview” of the text that follows. For a student who needs a reduced amount of text to read, you might eliminate less important material, such as details not essential to understanding the concepts presented.

TIP: Electronic sources of summaries and test questions can be found online, from sources such as SparkNotes.

Text to speech: the computer reads the text aloud

Software that converts text to speech may be helpful if your child is a struggling reader but an effective listener. According to a review of the research by the National Center for Innovative Technology3, when the computer reads, “a nonjudgmental learning environment is created, where a student can reread the same passage with a fluent model as frequently as needed.”

Having the computer read text aloud is a strategy that can be used in a number of ways. A student who struggles with decoding may increase comprehension as a result of an auditory pre-reading and/or post-reading. Some children may find specific words difficult and will only need to hear those words read aloud. Some programs highlight each word as it is read aloud, offering the reinforcement of reading and listening together.

One way to have a computer read text is to use speech features within a program you may already own, such as Inspiration®, Kidspiration®, AppleWorks®, StoryBook Weaver Deluxe®, and KidPix Deluxe®. You can use these programs to highlight and read aloud electronic text.

Books you download may be formatted for the free Microsoft Reader software for the PC, which maintains the look of the original book (page numbers and graphics), and offers book-marking and other helpful features.

Technology tip

Within a standard word processing program, you can use a free speech utility that will read aloud any highlighted text when you press a key combination.

  • For the Macintosh 10.3 and above, the utility is included (System Preferences>Speech>Spoken Interface). Macintosh provides a range of fun voices, but many people find “Victoria” and “Bruce” are the most natural sounding.
  • For Microsoft Windows, NaturalReader is one of several free speech utilities available.

Adobe Reader (version 7 and above) has a command to read aloud an entire page that you select within a PDF. If you find the story or article your child needs to read in PDF format, you may find that the text can be highlighted, copied, and pasted into a word processor where it can be used more flexibly. In a “protected” PDF, you won’t be able to change anything, but some versions of Adobe Reader will read the full page.

Technology tip

In Adobe Reader, the Read Out Loud command is found under the View menu, along with Pause and Stop commands.

If speech seems to help your child, you can also purchase specific assistive technology tools such as text-to-speech software as described in Speech Synthesizers/Screen Readers.

How students can interact with electronic text

Students who are adept at using a computer mouse or touchpad can manipulate electronic text – to their advantage – in a number of ways.

Working with electronic text for studying and writing

  • Your child can use a color-coding system to highlight important names, dates, and events in a history article, by changing the color of the text. This can substitute for taking notes by hand for children with dysgraphia (difficulty with handwriting).
  • Students can easily search electronic text, making it easier to retrieve a particular fact or to find all mentions of a character, event, or date.
  • In Microsoft Word, students can use the electronic highlighter to mark important passages. Older students might want to know that they can search by highlights, allowing them to compile information after reading a passage.
  • Cutting and pasting essential information into a blank document allows students to move things around, organize the information, and begin to incorporate it into their written work.

Technology tip

In Microsoft Word, search by highlights using the Find command under the Edit menu. Expand the Find window so that you can find by Format, which allows you to select Highlight.

Looking up word definitions

If your child is using Microsoft Word, he can highlight unknown words and select Dictionary under the Tools menu. This will bring up the definition, as well as synonyms. The built-in speech on the Macintosh mentioned earlier will read the definition, if you highlight all or part of it.

Technology tip

  • For Windows, WordWeb can be installed so that it looks up highlighted words from within other applications, such as Microsoft Word, or a web browser.
  • Windows users might prefer a free talking dictionary available from NaturalReader.

Converting electronic text to portable audio files

There’s one more option for electronic text. Listening to text on the iPod or portable MP3 player is the access method of choice for many college students with LD because it’s portable and “invisible.” A student usually listens to a computerized voice read the text while following along with the hard copy.

Technology tip:

If you make MP3 files for a child who is too young to do so himself (or who might benefit from your input), you can “super charge” the text by first typing in short questions after every paragraph or section that prompt your child to consider what he’s just heard. Stopping to summarize is a highly effective strategy that will increase comprehension and retention of what he’s read.4

Getting started — and looking to the future

This article describes just some of the strategies for using electronic text to enhance learning. Your child can benefit from knowing how to adapt text to his particular needs, but he may need your support and guidance to explore the various alternatives. Be sure to encourage your child to become proactive in making his own adaptations and telling teachers what works for him. Technology offers so many options that it’s the rare person who remembers all the great features of even a single piece of software. Learning to use standard technology effectively will increase your child’s independence and his ability to achieve in school and in life. © 2008 GreatSchools Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally created by Schwab Learning, formerly a program of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation


  • Footnotes
  • 1. LaBerge, D., & Samuels, S.J. (1974). Toward a Theory of Automatic Information Processing in Reading. Cognitive Psychology, 6.
  • 2. Fasser, M., Boeke, J., et al (2005).
  • 3. Silver-Pacuilla, H., Ruedel, K., et al (2004)
  • 4. Marzano, R. J., Marzano, J. S., et al (2001)
  • Bibliography
  • Cavanaugh, T. The Digital Reader: Using E-books in K-12 Education, ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education), 2006.
  • Fasser, M., Boeke, J., Haffeman, M., The Influence of Font Type on Information Recall, North American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 7(2).
  • Horton, W.K. Designing and Writing Online Documentation. New York: Wiley, 1990.
  • Kanfer R. & Ackerman, P.L. Motivation and cognitive abilities: An integration of developmental, differential, and cognitive perspectives. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 74.
  • Marzano, R. J., Marzano, J. S., Classroom Instruction that Works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2001.
  • Hill, A. & Scharff, L.F.V., (1997) Readability Of Websites With Various Foreground/Background Color Combinations, Font Types And Word Styles.
  • LaBerge, D., & Samuels, S.J. Toward a theory of automatic information processing in reading. Cognitive Psychology, 6, 293-323.
  • Silver-Pacuilla, H., Ruedel, K., A Review of Technology-Based Approaches for Reading Instruction: Tools for Researchers and Vendors, The National Center for Technology Innovation, p. 9.
  • Tinker, M. Legibility of Print. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1969.

Updated February 2010

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