Themes in Science & Technology Education, 8(1), 63-79, 2015
Learners with Dyslexia: Exploring their experiences with
different online reading affordances
Chwen Jen Chen1, Melissa Wei Yin Keong 1, Chee Siong Teh1, & Kee Man Chuah2
email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Faculty of Cognitive Sciences and Human Development, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Malaysia
2 Centre for Language Studies, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Malaysia
Abstract. To date, empirically derived guidelines for designing accessible online learning
environments for learners with dyslexia are still scarce. This study aims to explore the
learning experience of learners with dyslexia when reading passages using different
online reading affordances to derive some guidelines for dyslexia-friendly online text.
The study employed a multiple-case qualitative approach and key themes were
interpreted based on these learners’ perceived learning, engagement and satisfaction.
The study concludes that the use of screen reader for online reading should be optional,
adequate control of screen reader should be provided and screen reader is more
beneficial when online text is written in a language that the learner is not proficient.
Results from this study also provide empirical support of the appropriateness of some
existing web accessibility guidelines.
Keywords: Dyslexia, online learning environments, screen reader
Dyslexia is derived from Greek words of ‘DYS’ that means difficulty and ‘LEXIA’, which
means words. It is a language-based learning disability in which individuals experience
difficulty in phonological processing (Shaywitz et al., 2004; Snowling, 2009). Dyslexia can
hinder a person's ability to perform language-related tasks such as word recognition or
reading, writing, spelling, reading comprehension, and sometimes speaking (Washburn,
Binks‐Cantrell, & Joshi, 2014). However, dyslexia is not linked to low intelligence (Catts,
1996). It is also known not to be specific to English language only (Brunswick, 2010)
although there is an increasing evidence showing that persons with dyslexia face more
difficulties in learning to read English than other European orthographies (Seymour, Aro &
It is estimated that as many as 15–20% of the school population (one out of five students) in
the United States exhibit some symptoms of dyslexia (The International Dyslexia
Association, 2012). Other studies on the prevalence of dyslexia reveal frequencies between
5% and 17.5% (Chan et al., 2007; Ong, 2009; Roongpraiwan et al., 2002; Shaywitz, 1998;
Shaywitz, Gruen & Shaywitz; 2007; Silver, 1988). As such, being a significant minority, the
learning needs of students with dyslexia cannot be ignored.
Various computer-based interventions are found to yield benefits to phonological
awareness, rapid naming, phonemic decoding, word reading accuracy/fluency, spelling,
and reading comprehension for persons with dyslexia (Lynch, Fawcett & Nicolson, 2000;
Saine et al., 2011; Torgesen et al., 2010). In addition to such computer-based intervention
programs, some efforts are also made to gain better insights into experience of persons with
64 C. J. Chen, M. W. Y. Keong, C. S. Teh, K. M. Chuah
dyslexia on online Web materials as most designers understand that websites should be
made accessible to all. With the ubiquitous use of online learning in education, more efforts
need to be taken to enable learners with dyslexia to fully benefit from this mode of delivery.
However, McCarthy and Swierenga (2010), who have done a research review on dyslexia
and Web accessibility, conclude that there are only a handful of attempts to study web site
accessibility among users with dyslexia despite the fact that nearly one-third of Internet
users are diagnosed with dyslexia or possess some symptoms of dyslexia. Studies that
specifically focus on accessibility to online learning platforms are even lesser, causing a
greater concern as to whether learners with dyslexia could cope with the demands of such
According to McCarthy and Swierenga (2010), web accessibility guidelines for dyslexic and
other disabled users are derived by Bradford (as cited in McCarthy & Swierenga, 2010),
Jiwnani (as cited in McCarthy & Swierenga, 2010), Nielsen (2005), Pearson and Koppi (2002),
Phipps, Sutherland and Seale (2002) and Zarach (2002). Many of these guidelines are not
based on empirical studies (McCarthy & Swierenga, 2010) and most of them are meant to
accommodate all visual disabilities and not specifically meant to meet the needs of people
with dyslexia (de Santana et al., 2012; McCarthy & Swierenga, 2010).
The use of online learning is appropriate for learners with dyslexia as this delivery mode
allows self-paced learning and affords multimodal technologies that have the potential to
settle dominant deficit models of dyslexia (Moores, 2004). Nevertheless, a framework to
explicitly guide the creation of a suitable online learning interface and the use of appropriate
online instruction strategies that facilitate learners with dyslexia are still unavailable.
According to Sloan (2002), it is vital to capitalize the potential of the Web for learning and
teaching purposes and to increase its accessibility to widest possible audience. In addition,
Sloan (2002) has provided a set of guidelines to create accessible e-learning content.
However, these guidelines, once again, are not specifically meant for learners with dyslexia.
These limitations in the existing guidelines further justify the need to derive a framework
that specifically caters the requirements of learners with dyslexia when using online
The aim of this study is to explore the learning experience of students with dyslexia when
reading passages using three different online reading affordances to derive some guidelines
for dyslexia-friendly online text.
RQ1: How learners with dyslexia perceive their learning when using different online
RQ2: How engaged are learners with dyslexia with the different online reading affordances?
RQ3: How satisfied are learners with dyslexia with the different online reading affordances?
Significance of the study
Persons with dyslexia often face difficulties with written text on the web (de Santana et al.,
2012). As web text is one of the extensively used elements in online learning, this study
makes the initial effort by exploring experience of learners with dyslexia when using
different online reading affordances. The phonological deficits of these learners create
Learners with Dyslexia: Exploring their experiences with different online reading affordances 65
reading difficulties and exploring their learning experience with diverse affordances helps to
shed insight on the appropriate affordances that enable them to improve their reading and
understanding of text-based online learning contents. Although studies, such as the recent
one by Rello, Kanvinde and Baeza-Yates (2012), have produced some layout guidelines for
web text, most existing guidelines for people with dyslexia are derived in western countries.
Very few studies have been conducted in the eastern side of the world. This study focuses
on students with dyslexia of an eastern country.
This study used a qualitative multiple-case study to discover learning experiences of
students with dyslexia when using different online reading affordances. Twelve secondary
school students with dyslexia, seven female and five male, with their ages ranging from 14
to 18 years old were involved. There were three Malays, three Chinese and six indigenous
natives of Sarawak. All students were from middle socioeconomic families and studied at
public day schools in Kuching, a city located in Sarawak, Malaysia. The researchers obtained
their particulars from the Sarawak Education Department and these students were
diagnosed with dyslexia by medical doctors. The researchers had also obtained permission
to conduct this study from respective school principals of these students as well as obtained
informed consent from each student.
Online reading affordances
This study involved the use of three types of online reading affordances, known as Control
mode, Standard mode and Enhanced mode. Each mode consisted of a reading passage.
Table 1 shows the differences and similarities between these modes. In the Control mode,
the passage was presented using the layout and typefaces that are similar to those
commonly found on a conventional printed book. In the Standard mode, the passage was
presented based on some dyslexia-friendly text guidelines as suggested by The British
Dyslexia Association (n.d.). Some of these guidelines are similar to the dyslexia-friendly text
characteristics suggested in Plakopiti and Bellou (2014). The Enhanced mode used similar
information presentation guidelines as in the Standard mode but with the addition of a
This study examined three aspects of learning experience, which include perceived learning,
engagement and satisfaction. The study employed an interview guide (see Table 2).
Questions in the interview guide were derived from the literature on these three aspects to
ensure construct validity.
Table 1. Characteristics of Control, Standard and Enhanced modes
Paragraph form, justified alignment, single spacing, serif font type, font size
(12-14 point), black font on white background
Bulleted points, left justified, 1.5 line spacing, sans serif font type, font size
(16-18 point), black font on beige background
Bulleted points, left justified, 1.5 line spacing, sans serif font type, font size
(16-18 point), black font on beige background, screen reader
66 C. J. Chen, M. W. Y. Keong, C. S. Teh, K. M. Chuah
Table 2. Questions in the interview guide
- How much did you learn?
- Do you think the quality of your learning has improved?
- Do you think reading the passage broaden your knowledge?
- Do you find it easy to read?
- Do you find it easy to remember?
- Do you think the passage is useful to your learning?
- Do you have the tendency to stop half way while reading the passage?
- Do you put your best effort to read through the passage to gain a better
- Do you pay much attention to the passage?
- Do you check whether you understand the passage?
- Do you think learning is fun because you gain more knowledge through
- Would you recommend the use of [each reading affordance] to your
friend for online reading?
- Do you enjoy reading the passage?
- Do you think reading the passage is a waste of time?
- Are you looking forward to using [each reading affordance] for reading a
passage in your future studies?
Willingness to focus when learning
- Does the way the passage is presented attract you to focus on it?
Management of emotions
- Do you think reading the passage makes you nervous?
- Do you think the passage make you feel uncomfortable/uneasy?
- Do you think reading the passage let you feel psychological stress?
Management of behavior
- Do you think reading the passage makes you confused?
- Do you think reading the passage needs a lot of patience?
Perceived usefulness and ease of use
- Do you find it easy to read the passage?
- Do you think reading the passage is difficult/complicated?
- Are you eager to understand about the content of the passage?
- Do you think [specific features of each reading affordance] are useful in
helping you to read?
- If you have another opportunity to read the passage using [each reading
affordance], would you gladly do so?
Perceived learning or self-reports of learning is the amount of knowledge that students think
they are gaining (Wighting, 2011). Perceived learning is considered as a valid measurement
of learning as opposed to learning measured by grades or test results (Pace, 1990; Wighting,
2011). Questions to uncover participants’ perceived learning include asking them how much
they learned from their experience with the online learning (Rovai et al., 2009), how much
they think their learning quality has improved (Wu & Hiltz, 2003), whether the experience
contributes positively to learning (Koohang & Durante, 2003), whether the experience is
helpful for learning (Wu & Hiltz, 2003), and whether the experience may compensate
difficulties or enhance abilities (Koohang & Durante, 2003).
Learners with Dyslexia: Exploring their experiences with different online reading affordances 67
Engagement reflects a person’s active involvement in a task or activity (Reeve et al., 2004)
and specifically refers to attitudes, interest and self-efficacy in a particular learning situation
(Reading, 2008). According to Fredericks, Blumenfeld and Paris (2004) and Jimerson,
Campos and Greif (2003), there are three types of engagement: cognitive (investment in
learning, self-regulation,); behavioral (positive conduct, participation); and affective
(positive feelings, interest, belonging, valuing). Questions in the interview guide that
examine cognitive engagement include asking participants on their level of attention which
reflects the desire to learn (Fredericks et al., 2004; Miller, Rycek & Fritson, 2011, Reading,
2008) and self-regulated strategies used to learn (Appleton et al., 2006; Fredericks et al.,
2004). As for the behavioral component, participants were asked in terms of their effort and
persistence to pursuit learning goal (Appleton et al., 2006; Fredericks et al., 2004). In
addition, observations were also made on participants’ involvement and commitment
(Appleton et al., 2006; Fredericks et al., 2004) to the learning task to gain more insights into
their behavioral engagement. Questions on the affective component include asking them on
their feelings, interest and how they value the experience (Appleton et al., 2006; Fredericks
et al., 2004).
Satisfaction is one of the major aspects used to evaluate learning effect. Satisfaction is found
to be positively affecting students’ behavioral intention to participate in online learning and
such behavioral intention is highly correlated with learning effectiveness (Liaw, 2008).
Questions to reveal participants’ satisfaction check whether the experience produces
positive feelings and attitudes (Lee, 2008; Tough, 1982) which include willingness to focus
when learning (Lee, 2008), management of emotions (Lee, 2008; Sun et al., 2008),
management of behavior (Lee, 2008), perceived usefulness and ease of use (Arbaugh &
Duray, 2002; Gardner & Amoroso, 2004; Isik, 2008; Sun et al., 2008; Wu et al., 2006), learning
motivation (Lee, 2008), and learning interest (Lee, 2008).
A pilot test involving a 15 year-old student with dyslexia was conducted prior to the actual
evaluation sessions. Findings from this test led to some revisions to questions in the
interview guide as well as tasks for the three different reading affordances to improve their
clarity and comprehensibility. One of the major changes made to the reading passage was to
produce another version using the national language as this pilot study revealed the
difficulty of this participant to understand the passage in English. This reading passage,
written in Malay language and the content on hobbies, was subsequently used in the actual
evaluation sessions. Similar to the English language, the Malay language is also an
Each participant was involved in three separate evaluation sessions consecutively. Each
session was conducted by two researchers, one in-charge of interacting with the participant
while the other one was to assist in taking notes, recording non-verbal information as well as
controlling the video recorder. In the first evaluation, the participant was required to read a
passage presented in the Control mode followed by an interview based on the questions in
the interview guide. In the second evaluation, the participant was required to read another
passage presented in the Standard mode and subsequently another passage in the Enhanced
mode during the third evaluation session. An interview was conducted after the participants
have gone through the passage reading using each mode. All interviews were video
recorded, with the permission of participants being interviewed.
68 C. J. Chen, M. W. Y. Keong, C. S. Teh, K. M. Chuah
Table 3. Comparison of perceived learning between modes
Very much, much or little
Ease of reading and
- Bulleted points
- Font (16-18 pt)
Very easy, easy or difficult
Very much, much or little
This study employed the iterative qualitative data analysis model as proposed by Gay and
Airasian (2003). This iterative process involves the following steps: (i) familiarize with data
and identify potential themes, (ii) provide detailed descriptions, (iii) code and categorize
data into themes, and (iv) interpret and synthesize data into written conclusions.
The researchers transcribed the recorded interviews and cross-checked the transcript with
video recordings in order to add pertinent non-verbal information. Three researchers
independently analyzed data for each mode based on the three learning experience aspects,
which are perceived learning, engagement and satisfaction. For each online reading mode,
significant statements on each learning experience aspect were coded with a label and
corresponding statements were coded with the same label. These labels were categorized
into the three learning experience aspects. Then, the researchers chose an appropriate theme
for labels for each aspect or category to summarize statements within a mode. The
researchers discussed among themselves to reach consensus on any inconsistent
interpretations. This organization of data into different modes and learning experience
aspects has allowed a more effective comparison of the three online reading affordances.
Results and Discussion
The following subsections explain the results based on the data analysis for each aspect of
learning experience. The researchers translated some of the quotations, which were
originally verbalized in the participants’ first language, into English.
The following describes the key concepts and themes for each reading mode. Table 3
summarizes how participants perceived their learning using each of these modes.
Control mode - Low learning quality
The results show that all participants perceived the amount of knowledge that they
managed to gain via the control mode was little as compared to the two other modes. The
experience with this mode did not contribute positively to their learning experience as they
faced difficulty to comprehend and remember the passage. For example, one of the
participants commented “I think this is hard to read and understand…I cannot remember
anything”. In comparison to the other two modes, all participants agreed that the control
mode is least useful to their learning.
Most participants did not think the font size was inappropriate as fonts of 12-14 points were
still legible. This is in line with the font size recommendation by Al-Wabil, Zaphiris and
Wilson (2007) and British Dyslexia Association (n.d.). However, three participants expressed
their problems with the font size. Example of the comments include “Words are too small,
Learners with Dyslexia: Exploring their experiences with different online reading affordances 69
difficult to read and learn…make mistakes when reading because font size is too small” and “Reading
is difficult because small font size makes it hard to pronounce a word”.
Standard mode - High learning quality
Results from the analysis show that all participants provided positive responses on this
mode. They reported their ability to understand the passage and remember the content
more easily as compared to the Control mode. The use of bulleted points and highlighted
keywords may partly explain this perception. Some related comments from the participants
include “In point forms…easy to read. Keywords also useful. I can broaden my knowledge because
can do self-reading”, “Able to remember some of the main points”, “Able to learn because main points
are highlighted…easy to remember as well because of highlighted points”, “Easy to find main points,
hence able to increase my knowledge”, and “Able to learn the most because easy to identify main
points…arrangement of the passage is easy to read”.
The use of bulleted points seems to aid the participants’ reading. This is in line with one of
Sloan’s (2002) accessibility guidelines, which recommends the breaking of text into lists or
short paragraphs. A participant commented “I read and stop”. Such pausing is most probably
guided by the way the information is presented and assisted in understanding. The same
participant, on the other hand, reported to have read the reading passage continuously in
the Control mode (the passage was presented in paragraph form). This further strengthens
the benefit of using bulleted points in aiding comprehension. As pointed out by Freire,
Petrie and Power (2011), the third most frequent problem faced by web users with dyslexia
was their difficulty to scan page for specific items due to lack of structural or visual aids that
would highlight these items. Beacham (2002) also highlights the needs to communicate key
points in his proposed guidelines for developing dyslexia-friendly learning materials. In the
Standard mode, both bulleted points and highlighted keywords would serve as such aids.
Although many of the participants thought the font size used in the Control mode was
acceptable, all of them agreed that the bigger font size used in this Standard mode (16-18
points) made reading easier. This echoes the findings of Rello et al. (2013) who, based on
their empirical study on dyslexia-friendly Wikipedia, have recommended the use of 18
points font size when designing web text for readers with dyslexia. In another study on the
accessibility of web text for people with dyslexia, Rello et al. (2012) found that even bigger
font size (22-26 points) was preferred by users with dyslexia. Despite the difference in
suggested size, it clearly reinforces the role of bigger font size in increasing text readability.
The results reveal that participants found this reading mode to be useful to their learning.
Some of the reasons given include the ability to do self-reading, easier to follow, and the
highlighted keywords ease their understanding. Self-pacing may also explain the ability of
this reading affordance to aid in remembering the learning content. For example, a
participant commented “Easier to remember because [my] thinking process is slow” and another
commented “Reading by myself helps me to remember better”.
When examining the effects of different media combinations on the learning of persons with
dyslexia, Beacham and Alty (2006) have reported the highest increase in learning when text
only presentation was used. This is in line with the perception of improved learning quality
by all participants for this Standard mode as only text is presented in this mode. The reasons
gathered through this study may also help to further explain Beacham and Alty’s (2006)
study results on the effectiveness of the text only presentation. According to Beacham and
Alty (2006), the use of a single text modality reduces the possibility of split attention
(Sweller, van Merrienboer & Paas, 1998) and consequently reduces the switching of code
modalities and cognitive load. The unavailability of redundant information also allows
persons with dyslexia to keep pace of their reading.
70 C. J. Chen, M. W. Y. Keong, C. S. Teh, K. M. Chuah
Enhanced mode – Mixed excellent, high and low learning quality
Four participants showed very strong preference towards the Enhanced mode although they
reported the Standard mode to be acceptable to them. These participants believed that the
availability of screen reader helped much in improving their reading, comprehension,
retention and pronunciation. They also found this reading affordance to be most useful to
their learning. Thus, these participants were categorized as having excellent learning quality
with this mode. One of these participants commented “Can understand and learn the
most…easier to read because got audio. It broadens my knowledge due to better understanding. Most
useful for learning…”. The other participant commented “It improves my reading because the
audio helps. Easier to understand and can remember better…the audio is most useful for unknown
words as it helps to pronounce”.
Another three participants perceived their learning to have improved, as compared to the
Standard mode, if they were asked to read passage in English and when they were given the
control of the screen reader. Thus, these participants were categorized as having high
learning quality with this mode. The remaining five participants who perceived better
learning using the Standard mode were categorized as having low learning quality with the
Enhanced mode. The reasons for their preference towards the Standard mode include (i) the
audio produced by the screen reader was distracting, (ii) the default screen reading speed
used in this study was too fast, and/or (iii) personal preference towards the Standard mode
although the Enhanced mode was also acceptable.
The distraction caused by the screen reader can be associated with Dual Coding Theory
(Paivio, 1990) and Cognitive Load Theory (Sweller, 1994). Generally, Dual Coding Theory
posits that there are two independent information processing channels; the verbal channel
processes information such as text and audio, and the visual channel processes information
such as image and animations. The use of the verbal channel to process both text reading
and listening to the screen reader may have overloaded this particular channel. The
participants may also experience split attention between these two modalities (Sweller et al.,
1998). In addition, the impairment in phonological processing (Joanisse et al., 2000; Laasonen
et al., 2012; Ramus et al., 2013) and deficit in visuo-spatial attention (Vidyasagar & Pammer,
2010) as well as weaknesses in their short term memory (Laasonen et al., 2012; Ludwig et al.,
2010; Perez et al., 2012; Trecy, Steve & Martine, 2013) limit the number of verbal items that
persons with dyslexia can retain in memory. Thus, this may explain the reported distraction
experienced by some participants when using the screen reader.
Learning styles seem to play an important role to justify participants’ preferences. As shown
by Beacham and Alty (2006) in their study, different media combinations yield different
learning effects for learners of different learning styles. The VARK model (Fleming, 2001)
defines learning style as an individual’s preferred ways of gathering, organizing, and
thinking about information and it focuses on perceptual modes. The acronym VARK stands
for Visual (V), Aural (A), Read/Write (R), and Kinesthetic (K). Those who prefer the
Enhanced mode are most probably auditory learners who learn best through listening (Leite,
Svinicki & Shi, 2009) while those who prefer the Standard mode are most probably
reading/writing preference learners. This possibly explains the third reason on personal
Table 4 summarizes participants’ behavioral engagement (BE), cognitive engagement (CE)
as well as affective engagement (AE) when experiencing each of these modes.
Learners with Dyslexia: Exploring their experiences with different online reading affordances 71
Table 4. Comparison of engagement (BE, CE, AE) between modes
- tendency to stop
- put best effort
- read attentively
- yes for some
- read attentively
- read attentively
- pay much attention
- check understanding
- yes, white background
posed problem for
- read repeatedly
- paused in
- yes, audio was
distracting for some
- repeated audio
- confusing and boring
- satisfying and
- interesting, confident
- worried, lost
Control mode – Mixed High and Moderate BE
The observations made during the study reveal that all participants read the passage
attentively with almost half of them read out the passage softly. All of them self-reported
that they put their best effort to understand the passage. Only three participants reported
their tendency to stop half way while reading the passage mainly due to small font size and
difficulty to identify main points. Thus, this Control mode has yielded high BE among most
participants and moderate BE among some others. Moderately engaged participants read
attentively but faced the tendency to stop half way.
Control mode – Mixed Moderate and Low CE
When asked about how much attention was put for this task, most participants did not
report any problem in paying attention except for two of the participants who earlier on
reported perceived learning as occurred the most through the Enhanced mode (see Section
4.1.3) made the following comments respectively: “I cannot pay attention” and “Words
move…cannot read on white screen…make my eyes painful and tired”. These participants were
categorized as having low CE.
This is consistent with the study done by Freire et al. (2011) in which many web users with
dyslexia in their study encountered problems with black writing on white background as
the text forms ‘visual patterns’ or ‘dancing around’. The impaired development of the
magnocellular component of the visual system among many people with dyslexia, which is
crucial in controlling eye movements, explains this unsteady vision (Stein, Richardson &
Fowler, 2000). Gregor et al. (2003) report similar finding in which black on white setting
caused their study participants to experience visual stress and lost. Using the combination of
black on white produces high contrast and is not recommended for persons with dyslexia
(Beacham, 2002; Rello et al., 2012) as some of them are sensitive to color and brightness
(Jeanes et al., 1997). This phenomenon distracts attention.
Half of the participants reported that they faced difficulties to understand the passage
although they were able to pay attention. Participants also self-reported that they checked
their understanding of the passage by reading it repeatedly and/or paused frequently while
reading. According to Beacham (2002), persons with dyslexia tend to re-read computer-
based textual learning materials to allow context to aid decoding and thereby to increase
understanding (Fidler & Everatt, 2012).
72 C. J. Chen, M. W. Y. Keong, C. S. Teh, K. M. Chuah
Control mode – Low AE (confusing and boring)
Generally, participants reported this Control mode as confusing. Passage presented in such
format did not seem to aid understanding and repeated reading of long paragraphs were
considered as wasting their time and needed a lot of patience. Although most participants
did think reading using computer was fun, this Control mode was viewed as uninteresting
Standard mode – High BE
Similar to the Control mode, all participants were also observed to read the passage
attentively with almost half of them uttered the passage softly. All of them were observed as
well as self-reported that they did not have the tendency to stop half way while reading the
passage and put their best effort to understand the passage. Thus, this Standard mode has
also yielded high behavioral engagement among participants.
Standard mode – High CE
All participants were able to pay attention to the passage. Several participants reported that
they paused in between reading to check their understanding. The use of bulleted points
most probably guided the read-pause pattern of these participants. Eye tracking study by
Schneps et al. (2013) demonstrated that short lines, as with the use of bulleted points as
oppose to lengthy paragraph form, facilitate reading for persons with dyslexia by guiding
visual attention to the uncrowded span.
Standard mode – High AE (satisfying and fun)
None of the participants reported negative emotion after experiencing the Standard mode.
Some sample comments include “I have the most fun reading using this…would introduce to
friends and use again in the future”, “Enjoy reading this passage…I like reading quietly”, and
“Learning is fun because I can remember what I read”. Generally, they were satisfied with this
experience and found it to be interesting and enjoyable.
Enhanced mode – High BE
As with the Control and Standard mode, all participants were also observed to listen and
read the passage attentively with almost half of them read out the passage softly. All of them
were observed as well as self-reported that they did not have the tendency to stop half way
while reading the passage and put their best effort to understand the passage. Thus, this
Enhanced mode is interpreted as also yielded high behavioral engagement among
Enhanced mode – Mixed High and Low CE
Most participants were able to pay attention to this reading mode. A participant commented
“Screen reader acts as a person reading for me…this makes it more attractive and easier to
concentrate”. However, four participants reported the use of audio or screen reader
distracted their reading. This echoes the study by Elkind, Cohen and Murray (1993) which
reports 14% of their study participants showed lower comprehension scores when using
computer reader to aid their reading although majority of their participants benefited from
this reader. All participants were observed to repeat the audio to ensure their
Learners with Dyslexia: Exploring their experiences with different online reading affordances 73
Enhanced mode – Mixed High (interesting, confident) AE and Low (worried, lost)
All participants reported the Enhanced mode as interesting, exciting and fun. This mode
also gave more confidence to some of them. Some of the comments include “Most fun…will
introduce to my friends as I think they will also like this because they are lazy to read”, “It also gave
more confidence and I will use it in the future”, “I felt relieved because computer reads for me”, “I do
not feel so lonely when reading with the screen reader”. Nevertheless, some participants felt
worried and lost when they were not given the option to control the reading speed and
play/pause function. Examples of the comments include “The computer reads too fast…I am
lost”, and “Screen reader promotes better learning when suitable speed is used. If speed is too slow,
the audio becomes a disturbance”. This finding points to the importance of providing adequate
control to the learner when using a screen reader.
Control mode – Mixed Moderate and Low satisfaction
A number of participants regarded this Control mode as unattractive. Sample comments
include “The passage is lengthy…small font, unattractive color and boring” and “Design
looks boring and words are too small”. Some also thought the passage made them nervous,
confused, uncomfortable, and the passage was perceived as difficult to read. Among the
reasons given include “Words move around makes me feel nervous” and “Difficult to read
because black on white” which are related to the use of black font on white background as
well as “Very lengthy… need to read and stop frequently”,” I feel lost because of long
sentences”, “I am scared of reading wrongly” and “Confused and stressed in identifying
main points”, which are related to the use of paragraph form. However, half of the
participants reported this reading mode as not causing any discomfort, confusion and
anxiety to them. Familiarity to such information presentation, which is often found on
typical printed books, may explain their positive emotion and behavior towards this mode.
Standard mode – High satisfaction
All participants reported satisfaction towards this reading mode. The reading passage was
able to attract them to focus on it. They also did not experience nervousness and discomfort
during the reading experience. Some of the comments include “I feel comfortable because
can read myself” and “Easy to follow”.
Participants also reported their reading as not difficult due to bigger font size, highlighted
keywords and the absence of ‘dancing words’. The passage for this Standard mode was
presented using black text on beige background, which produces lower contrast comparing
to the black on white setting used in the Control mode. This finding further supports earlier
work such as Gregor et al. (2003) who reported higher reading comfort for persons with
dyslexia when reading using settings that have lower contrast both in luminance and color.
Enhanced mode – Mixed Excellent, High and Low satisfaction
Four participants reported excellent satisfaction towards the Enhanced mode. As compared
to the Control and Standard modes, these participants made a firm preference towards the
Enhanced mode. The screen reader was regarded as successfully attracted them to focus on
the passage. The screen reader did not cause them to feel nervous, discomfort or confused
but rather eased their reading and understanding. A participant commented “The sound helps
me in remembering the passage…it is easiest to read with screen reader…easy to follow through the
passage without the need to stop”. Screen reader is an assistive technology tool recommended
to help individuals who struggle with reading as it facilitates decoding, reading fluency, and
comprehension (GreatSchools, 2008; Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2012). This tool accesses the
74 C. J. Chen, M. W. Y. Keong, C. S. Teh, K. M. Chuah
listening capability of a person with dyslexia and enables him/her to gain knowledge from
an auxiliary source (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2012). Elkind et al. (1993) who studied on
computer-based readers found that 70% of 28 middle school students with dyslexia read
with greater comprehension when using such readers and concluded that computer readers
are important compensatory aids that enable students with dyslexia to perform more
effectively in reading-related tasks.
Analysis of data also revealed another subgroup of participants who were classified as
having high satisfaction. Two participants, who generally preferred the Standard mode,
opted for the Enhanced mode if the reading passage was presented in English, a language in
which they were not proficient. These two participants highlighted the benefit of the screen
reader in aiding their understanding of the English passage compared with self-reading.
According to Freire et al. (2011), unable to make sense of language is one of the problems
reported by web users with dyslexia. Thus, the results from this study point to the potential
of the screen reader in alleviating this problem.
Another participant chose this Enhanced mode over the Standard mode only when she was
given the option to control the reading speed and play/pause function of the screen reader.
As shown in the experiment by Stenneken et al. (2011), the reduced attention span of the
group with dyslexia is due to the slowing of the visual perceptual processing speed. The
speed of reading the passage, which involves visual perceptual processing, needs to be
coherent with the audio processing. Giving screen reader control option enables the speed
for both processing to be adjusted accordingly.
Generally, those who were satisfied with the Enhanced mode thought the audio attracted
their attention and helped much in their reading. The use of audio allows these participants
to access knowledge using an auxiliary source via listening (Schoeberlein & Wang, 2009).
Only four of the participants found the audio to be distracting while the rest thought the
experience did not make them nervous, uncomfortable, and/or confused. Those who found
the audio as distracting are categorized as having low satisfaction as they reported their
incapability to cope with both reading and listening at the same time and would not opt for
such reading affordance.
Summary of results
Table 5 summarizes the key themes derived from each reading affordance.
Referring to RQ1, the results show that learners with dyslexia perceived low learning quality
with Control mode but high learning quality with Standard mode. On the other hand, the
Enhanced mode did not yield a single common agreement among all participants on this
aspect. A group of them perceived excellent learning quality due to the use of screen reader.
On the other hand, another group reported the screen reader as distracting.
Table 5. Key themes for Control, Standard and Enhanced modes
Mixed Excellent, High and Low
Mixed High and
Mixed Moderate and
Mixed High and Low
Mixed High and Low
Mixed Moderate and
Mixed Excellent, High and Low
Learners with Dyslexia: Exploring their experiences with different online reading affordances 75
As for RQ2, all participants showed high behavioral engagement to all modes. The Standard
mode produced consistent high cognitive and affective engagement as well as satisfaction
among all participants. The Control mode is generally less engaging comparing to the
Enhanced mode. Unlike the Enhanced mode, none of the participants were classified as
having high cognitive and affective engagement as well as high satisfaction with the Control
The results from this study provide a series of implications.
Empirical support for existing guidelines
As pointed out by McCarthy and Swierenga (2010), many existing web accessibility
guidelines for users with dyslexia are not empirically derived. The perception of improved
learning quality, high engagement and satisfaction towards the Standard mode, compared
particularly to the Control mode, provides additional evidence on the appropriateness on
some existing guidelines that were employed in the Standard mode. These guidelines
include the use of bulleted points, left justified, 1.5 line spacing, sans serif font type, font size
(16-18 point), and black font on beige background. On the other hand, the perception of low
learning quality, less engaging and less satisfying findings for the Control mode further
strengthens the inappropriateness of using lengthy paragraph, justified text alignment,
single spacing, serif font type, and black font on white background for presenting web text.
As this study was conducted on learners with dyslexia from an eastern country, results from
this study also provide evidence on the relevance of the existing guidelines that are all
derived in western countries to be used in this part of the world.
Screen reader is an excellent aid for some but not all
Many studies highlight the benefits that persons with dyslexia can gain from using screen
readers (Balajthy, 2005; Bigham, Prince, & Ladner, 2008; Elkind, 1998; de Santana et al., 2012;
Roberts et al., 2012). Results from these studies show that the use of a screen reader has
yielded the perception of excellent learning quality, high engagement and excellent
satisfaction among some participants, and suggest that this reader has indeed served as a
great aid for these participants. However, the perception of distracted learning, less
engaging and/or less preferred by some other participants also suggests that the use of
screen reader may not be useful to all learners with dyslexia.
Screen reader aids language incompetence
The results of this study also reveal that the language proficiency level of learners with
dyslexia affects their preference for screen reader. This study was conducted in a country
where English is taught as second language or sometimes as third language. When
participants were asked to read passages written in English, those who faced difficulties
with the language found the screen reader to relieve their reading task and aid their
comprehension. This suggests a context in which screen reader should be employed.
Screen reader control is crucial
The results from this study also point to the need to provide adequate screen reader control
for learners, particularly for adjusting reading speed and play/pause functions. Low
affective engagement was found on participants who needed such control to gain better
reading and comprehension of the passage. This is in line with other initiatives to provide
76 C. J. Chen, M. W. Y. Keong, C. S. Teh, K. M. Chuah
highly customizable system to meet varying needs of different users with dyslexia such as
those by deSantana et al. (2012) on Firefixia, Gregor et al. (2003) on SeeWord, Petrie, Weber,
and Fisher (2005) on MultiReader, Rello and Baeza-Yates (2014) on DysWebxia as well as
Topac (2012) on Text4All. Nevertheless, all these initiatives have yet to consider the
inclusion of customization options for screen reader.
Online reading affordances guidelines
Based on the results, this study recommends (i) the use of screen reader for online reading
should not be made compulsory but as an available option, (ii) adequate control for screen
reader should be provided to learners, (iii) existing web accessibility guidelines (limited to
those available in the Standard mode) are applicable and (iv) the use of screen reader if
online text is written in a language that the learner is not proficient in.
This study has provided empirical evidence on the appropriateness for some of the existing
web accessibility guidelines as well as their applicability to learners with dyslexia from the
eastern culture. Although not conclusive, it has greatly contributed in identifying the
affordances that are perceived positively by the learners with dyslexia, which may assist in
the formulation of a more comprehensive guideline. It has also provided some
recommendations to afford online reading. A very near future work is to compare the
learning experiences of learners with dyslexia with the learning experience of normal
learners to produce inclusive guidelines. So far, this work has mainly focused on online text
presentation and delivery. Future studies may look into other aspects such as online web
text navigation as well as plausible learning and teaching strategies (Rice & Greer, 2014) to
aid online reading comprehension among learners with dyslexia. A correlational study
between learning styles of learners with dyslexia and their learning experiences on these
different reading affordances would also be insightful.
The authors acknowledge the financial support rendered by Universiti Malaysia Sarawak through
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To cite this article: Chen, C. J., Keong, M. W. Y., Teh, C. S., & Chuah, K. M. (2015). Learners with Dyslexia: Exploring their
Experiences with Different Online Reading Affordances. Themes in Science and Technology Education, 8(1), 63-79.