Reading for Meaning
In addition to the information provided in Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) and Designing Instruction, this section provides an introduction to some additional considerations when designing instruction that includes students who are using already using AIM in order to read for meaning. Reading for meaning occurs across the curriculum, as printed text is the primary method for gaining instructional information in many classrooms.
The questions stated in the introduction (and stated as headings below) can help guide the design of instruction when incorporating AIM into lessons.
What is the instructional goal?
Reading printed text in order to glean meaning is a common method of achieving many types of instructional goals in all subject areas (e.g., understanding causes of the civil war, understanding how to solve quadratic equations, understanding the scientific method, etc.) beginning in approximately fourth grade.
What tasks will students need to perform in order to achieve the instructional goal? Will requiring these tasks present barriers for some students?
Printed text requires the student to—
- Handle the text and turn the pages
- See the text
- Decode the text
- Comprehend the information being presented (have sufficient understanding of the language, vocabulary being used, etc.)
- Remember what is being read long enough to make meaning from it
- Incorporate what has been read into what is already known.
If a student is using a specialized format, consider what sensory modalities are being used to access the content (e.g., vision, auditory, touch) and whether they will conflict with other tasks that may be required. For example, if a student is using braille, he or she will not be able to do other things with his or her hands. Although this may seem obvious, it is an important consideration for instructional design so that planning is done in advance to reduce barriers that prevent the student from performing the same tasks or reaching the same instructional goals as other students.
What materials are students using to achieve the instructional goal? If the materials include print, what barriers does the print present?
Reading for meaning can become difficult or impossible for some students if printed text is the primary mode of information delivery (see below). In many traditional classrooms, across subject areas, teachers often use printed text as one of the primary means for delivering information. If this is the case, specialized formats are available for students who qualify for copyright exemption. (Note that students for whom printed text is a barrier who do not qualify for copyright exemption will need to be provided with other options.) Keep in mind that achieving most instructional goals does not necessarily require the use of printed text, if the same information can be delivered in another way (e.g. images, audio clips, video, or specialized formats).
Will some students be using specialized formats of those materials? If so, which formats (braille, large print, audio, or digital text)? Will reading fluency be impacted by the use of specialized formats?
Reading for meaning in any subject area involves decoding and comprehending printed text. Studies have shown that in most students, reading fluency is highly correlated with reading comprehension. In order to read fluently, a person must take in information in chunks or swaths and make meaning from it. By taking in chunks or swaths of text at once, meaning making is much richer as it incorporates not only the meaning of individual words, but also meaning from context. It is important to consider whether the presentation of AIM is provided in a way that inhibits reading fluency.
For example, if a student is reading on a screen and must enlarge the text's font so that it is only possible to see a few words at a time, it is likely to impact his or her ability to read fluently and, hence, comprehend the text effectively. In another example, if digital text does not include features to aid navigation, fluency will be impacted as the reading is interrupted as the screen reader encounters each textual item on the page (e.g., links, navigation, etc.). In such an instance, it would be beneficial to consider making changes in the presentation of the format so that the student’s comprehension will not be impacted.
How fluent is the student in using the specialized format?
Using a specialized format provides access for students who cannot read printed text, but it also requires another level of fluency: fluency in using the specialized format and fluency in using its rendering tool. Similar to reading fluency, fluency using a particular format will allow a student to take chunks of information at a time and make meaning from it. Fluency in a particular format is likely to improve comprehension of content. Therefore, a student must develop a level of fluency not only with the format, but also with the tool being used to render the format. Educators should keep this in mind before assuming that a student comprehends the content. In order to develop format fluency, the student must learn how to use and become accustomed to the specialized format.
Will students using AIM need other supports and strategies to participate actively? What sensory modality is the student using to gain access to the content being presented? Will the use of the modality conflict with any other tasks required to reach the instructional goal?
Text: In the case of braille and audio, students are making meaning through tactile or auditory modalities. In the case of large print, students will be making meaning using visual information. Digital text provides students access through auditory and/or visual modalities. In all cases, these formats lend themselves to helping students make meaning by interpreting chunks of information. This may be reinforced by selecting appropriate phrase, paragraph, or sentence highlighting for audio-supported reading, for example.
Visual Graphics: Many textbooks include a variety of visuals (images, maps, diagrams, charts) that enhance or are vital to understanding information in the text. In some accessible formats, these visuals must be represented in an alternative way such as tactilely or with spoken language (alternative text tags and long descriptions). All alternative representations are not created equal. When designing instruction, it will be important to determine whether the alternative representations are adequate in order for the student to gain the information conveyed by the graphic with consideration for the intended purpose.
For example, tactile representations of a bar graph would need to include sufficient differences between parts to enable a person using it to differentiate easily among those parts. In addition, complicated charts and graphs that are represented with long descriptions will require the person using them to understand and process the language and vocabulary used in the descriptions. If an alternative representation does not represent this information in a way that can be readily understood, a student’s comprehension of the material may be impacted; so it is critical that supports for visual representations are well-designed and implemented.
How will using AIM impact cognitive load?
Cognitive load theory maintains that working memory capacity is limited, so that if a task creates too much working memory load, learning will be hindered (de Jong, 2010). Research in the area of cognitive load suggests that when a student is expected to visually read and listen to text being read, comprehension is enhanced. The fixed representation of the text helps the reader hold information in working memory longer than if it were presented only auditorily.