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Formatting Text for Readability

Make Challenging Texts More Accessible by Adjusting the Formatting of Reading Material from Electronic Sources

Found In: teaching strategies

Educators who want their students to wrestle with more challenging texts can support effort and success just by making judicious choices about the formatting of reading material from electronic sources.

Good formatting improves readability without changing vocabulary or language complexity and without “dumbing down” the text.

Portrait or Landscape

Choice of portrait or landscape page format comes first. The landscape format allows for two comfortably sized columns with or without a text box for notes, but gets cumbersome if the article fills more than one double-sided sheet. Because readers learn to turn pages horizontally, they are less comfortable turning landscape pages over the top. The more customary portrait format handles two columns without notes, or a single column plus a text box for notes.

Column Width

It requires added attention to move from one line to the next without skipping or repeating when the text runs more than 6” wide. At the same time, the standard newspaper column width is unpleasantly narrow and has too many hyphens. Ideally, columns of text should be 3¼” to 4½” wide. On an 8½”x11” page, the landscape format allows room for two 4¼” columns or two 3¼” wide columns with a 2½” space between them. The space between the columns can then be used for a 2” wide text box that provides definitions, comments or illustrations that help the reader understand.

Font Size and Type

Font choices also affect readability. High school materials are usually printed in 10 or 12 points fonts. Resources printed from the Internet are often in an even smaller size. Moving to a 12.5-point or 13-point font makes text more comfortable to read, but the effect is subtle enough that students do not perceive it as babyish. By contrast, a 14-point font is obviously bigger, netting suspicious comments from high school students who bristle if they suspect disrespect.

Serif fonts have the little tails on each letter. Typographers say these help the eye “read” a group of letters as words and not individual phonemes. Recent research does not consistently support the notion that serif fonts make longer texts inherently more readable, but the fact that serif fonts are more commonly used in longer texts gives them the advantage of familiarity. Sans serif fonts are more customary for headings or bullet points and for materials that will be read on line.

[Editor’s Note: this page is intended to display the serif font Georgia at 14 pts., though it should be noted that online texts may be formatted differently, depending on your browser settings and the fonts available on your reading device.]

Line Spacing

Articles are usually single-spaced. Students are accustomed to being asked to turn in double-spaced essays, but, while double spacing facilitates editing, adding only a little more space to single spacing makes a more comfortably readable text. This article, for instance, is printed with 1.1 (110%) spacing. The extra space between the lines makes the text less dense and, thus, easier to read.

[Editor’s Note: the line spacing information above refers to the version of this document as it was written in MS Word; the line height of this online version is 1.6.]

Formatting Paragraphs

Marking paragraphs with tabs and extra space identifies a group of sentences as belonging together. It reduces confusion when the last line of the preceding paragraph happens to come close to the end of the line. The standard half-inch tab is unnecessarily wide for a four-inch column. A .2 or .25 inch tab suffices. Similarly, skipping a whole line between paragraphs is too much; about 6 points of space looks better. Now the reader readily sees which sentences connect into a single paragraph.

Adding Notes or Graphics

When preparing definitions for the notes in the text box, it is important to match the definitions precisely with the form of the word. Struggling readers often stop reading and guess before the end of the word. Precise definitions reinforce that endings make a difference. If the word is in the past tense or the plural, the definition should be in the same form.

Illustrations are a valuable tool for attracting interest and clarifying meaning. Images may be cut and pasted from the Internet and formatted for clarity and design. Alternatively, simple line drawings can be created with the drawing toolbar, autoshapes and lines.

Adding Citations

A citation for the article should appear at the beginning or end of the text. Sources for quotations or graphics should be credited. Using a standard format means students will have a clear model to use when they have to give credit to the source. The examples students see are more persuasive than lectures about the problems with plagiarism.

As educators incorporate Common Core Standards into the curriculum, formatting electronic texts properly can improve readability and make challenging texts more accessible to all students.


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