Reader Mode: Sweeping Away Barriers to Reading

Alexandra Burke

For most of us, reading is as easy as breathing. Sweep the text with your eyes and zoom in on the structures that support reading, such as punctuation. But what if the text is a bit small; or it seems to be a strain to read it because of the layout (fully justified text can be a reading barrier); or you “don’t have enough time,” and your reading material becomes a doom tower on your desk; or much like nearly 20% of the population, you have barriers that prevent you reading with the ease that others take for granted? You may not even be aware of them. Enter the world of reader mode and accessibility.

“I don’t have a disability. This is irrelevant to me and my students,” you might say while you reach for glasses, a brighter light, or a favorite font. Have you ever walked away from a YouTube video or Zoom presentation to do something else while still paying attention to the topic? These are all ways in which you have compensated to make reading or learning more enjoyable. Ability status is irrelevant to your need or desire to use accessibility tools.

In your classroom, there are likely to be a number of students who have reading difficulty. If they are dyslexic, it may be up to five times more physically draining for them to visually read the same material as their peers (Richards et al., 1999). But turn on reader mode, and some of them will be able to learn how to change the brightness, font size, line spacing, or background color. Even more critically, most reading mode systems will read the text aloud to you. Language learners benefit every time they hear content.

Assuming up to 20% of your students have reading challenges, within that group, about 40% may have a type of reading barrier that does not respond to traditional solutions because of how their brain interprets, stores, and retrieves words. Reading is another hidden challenge for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Up to 51% of males and 46% of females with ADHD have a reading disorder compared with 14% and 7% of their neurotypical peers, respectively (Yoshimasu et al., 2010). These barriers to learning are not related to how much reading children are exposed to, willpower or intellectual potential: For some, the text on the page will simply dissemble, or some of the words will fade or move.

In addition, looking at this with a cultural focus, Todd Beuckens, creator of the website (English Listening Lesson Library Online) and JALT Listening SIG member, recently told me that of the world’s 6,500 languages, only 3,000 of them have a written form. Of these, 100 are used as a medium of instruction. Thus listening is an innate skill and the driver of communication and language acquisition (personal communication, September 6, 2023). Furthermore, the contemporary documentation practices in these languages is in its infancy, as is frequently the case with many of the First People’s languages. Listening is a critical life skill.


Reader Mode

So, let’s begin with reader mode. Most websites have it, but you may not have noticed it. For example, in Safari, it appears as a small “Aa” or perhaps a book symbol, on the left side of the URL (see Figure 1). Click on it and you see a panel that includes the option to “show reader.” Click on that, and you will get options for page background, preferred font, and possibly read aloud, depending on your device settings (see Figure 2).

Figure 1.

Reader Mode in Safari

Figure 2.

The Reader Mode Options

Selecting text can also allow the reader to listen directly to the content (see Figure 3). Imagine how much less stressed your eyes and shoulders might be if you selected and listened to content written by your students instead of having to read it. If you have Microsoft, all products include the Immersive Reader function via the View menu or by right clicking depending on devices, software, and browser, for example Edge. Immersive Reader has a wide range of tools, including read aloud, syllabification, parts of speech, and picture dictionaries.

Figure 3.

The Read Aloud Function on Reader Mode

Some websites have added accessibility plugins which give more options to users to make the screen their own, such as adjusting the alignment of text. Ideally, adjusting the column width will also make text easier to read (see Figure 4).

Figure 4.

Additional Accessibility Plugins

Students will probably not find these tools on their own, so as a teacher, you will need to become familiar with these options to demonstrate and normalize the concept of using them. Get students to try them out and discuss which settings they prefer so that they will see that one size does not truly fit all. Due to a widening of the types of research participants, a growing body of evidence suggests that paper is appropriate for many, but not for all readers. The longer students stay in education, the longer they will live: It is that simple (Yang et al., 2019).


Final Thoughts

Why don’t some websites have reader mode? At present, reader mode seems to be twinned with the ability to remove images and popups. This pairing is problematic as, by ensuring the advertising stream flows easily, it blocks the availability of reader mode. So, it is an ethical issue for every website owner. I would like to see a solution that would allow users to access text-based content in the way that meets their needs, as exemplified in Japan’s Reading Barrier Free Act of 2019 (MEXT 2019) and the United Nation’s Sustainability Development Goal 4: Ensure Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education and Promote Lifelong Learning Opportunities for All (U.N., 2015).



Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology Japan (MEXT). (2019). Daremo ga dokusho wo dekiru shakai wo mezashite: Dokusho no katachi wo eraberu (dokusho baria furiihō) ~ (keihatsuyō riifuretto) [Aiming for a society where everyone can read: The “Reading Barrier-free Act” in which you can choose the form of reading (educational leaflet)].

Richards, T. L., Dager, S. R., Corina, D., Serafini, S., Heide, A. C., Steury, K., Strauss, W., Hayes, C. E., Abbott, R. D., Craft, S., Shaw, D., Posse, S., & Berninger, V. W. (1999). Dyslexic children have abnormal brain lactate response to reading-related language tasks. American Journal of Neuroradiology, 20(8), 1393-1398.

United Nations (U.N.). (2015). Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015.

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Yoshimasu, K., Barbaresi, W. J., Colligan, R. C., Killian, J. M., Voigt, R. G., Weaver, A. L., & Katusic, S. K. (2010). Gender, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and reading disability in a population-based birth cohort. Pediatrics, 126(4), 1-14.