As you’ve probably noticed, reading on a screen is hard! It strains the eyes – and research suggests that it reduces comprehension and concentration.

Some screen reading is inevitable, but there are steps you can take to make it less taxing for your students. Here’s how:

  • Don’t ask students to multitask when they’re looking at something on-screen. In particular, don’t expect that they’ll be able to take notes while doing so. In addition to using “present screen” to share notes or slides, make sure you send students a copy that they can review later, too. 
  • Post notes in a format that can be printed on paper if students prefer. 
  • Make sure course notes and handouts are compatible with screen readers. (PDF is a great format for this, as long as your PDFs are accessible. (There’s some general information on making class materials accessible here; if you have a specific PDF you want to check for accessibility, you can do that here.)
  • Design your notes, slides, and handouts to be read on screens. Read on for more…

Designing Screen-Friendly Web Pages and Documents

Fonts

Use a font that is designed for screens. Georgia and Verdana are two commonly-available ones that you can access from both Windows and Mac computers. They are also “web-safe fonts” – i.e. they will be rendered the same on more than 99% of browsers. 

Choose sans-serif fonts for most text. In general, even well-designed serif fonts (fonts like Times New Roman or Cambria, which have decorative features) are less good for screen-reading than sans-serif fonts, so save serif fonts for headers and use sans-serif fonts for body text. Sans-serif fonts like Verdana are also more legible for users with dyslexia.

It’s especially important to use screen-friendly fonts in all the materials for hybrid and virtual classes, since students participating remotely will read even “class handouts” on a screen.

Another way to use fonts to promote better screen-reading is to limit the overall number of fonts you use. Keep it to one or two, max. Otherwise, your Canvas pages and documents will look really “busy” and your students will have trouble following them.

Choose high-contrast font colors in relation to your background (black on white or white on black, preferably). This is also essential for accessibility (e.g., people with colorblindness or low vision).

Formatting

There is a whole science of “eye-tracking” studies, which follow people’s eye movements as they read on screens. The results of these studies are often presented as “heat maps” that show the places people’s eyes focused on the screen the most. 

Some of the most important takeaways from eye-tracking studies are:

  • Our eyes are drawn strongly to images and to content associated with images.
  • We read screens in an “F” pattern, reading most of the way across the initial line or two of text and then making shorter and shorter passes across the screen as our eyes move down the page. 

You don’t have to be a graphic designer to design Canvas pages, presentations, and virtual “handouts” to work in harmony with your students’ natural screen-reading patterns. Here are some good ways to do it:

  • Keep your sentences, bullet points, and paragraphs short (shorter than you would in a document intended to be read on paper).
  • Use headings, subheadings, and bulleted lists, which have a tendency to partially reset the “F” pattern. Headings and subheadings are also essential for screen-reader navigation, so they are important accessibility features as well.
  • Use (but don’t over-use) bold type to highlight important points – many people skim documents on-screen and this will help them “get the gist”, at least. Bold is more accessible than italic.
  • Use images and/or thumbnail videos, particularly next to text you want to be sure your students read. Include alt-text for your images for students using screen-readers or cases where the image fails to open, and make sure videos are captioned.
  • For slide presentations, minimize text per slide and use bullet points when possible.
  • For PDFs, use wider margins than you would on a paper document (people’s eyes have a shorter sweep across screens than on paper).

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