stacks of books

Digital Books and Universal Design for Learning

Author: Nicholas Hoekstra

Accessible Textbooks?

One of the most quintessential features of any class or course is the textbook: the go-to source for structure, knowledge, and exercises for almost any subject. Unfortunately, traditional print textbooks represent a barrier in the learning environment that can be disabling to a wide range of students who have diverse learning needs (Meyer et al., 2014). In her book entitled Teaching Literacy to Students with Significant Disabilities: Strategies for the K-12 Inclusive Classroom, June Downing argues that we should expand the definition of literacy from traditional concepts of decoding printed text to include listening, speaking, and interacting with text. This is fully in line with the framework of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach to reading. The UDL framework offers guidance on designing accessible learning materials and environments to meet the diverse needs of all students. In this post, I will present a number of options for teachers and schools to find textbooks and novels in alternative formats (e.g., digital books) to help support an inclusive classroom in line with UDL.

Sources of Accessible Digital Books for Students with Disabilities

A number of organizations offer books in accessible formats under the Chafee Amendment, which is a legal exception to U.S. copyright law that allows for the production and distribution of books in accessible formats for print disabled persons. These organizations require proof that the students who benefit from the accessible books have print disabilities, which include:

  • blindness or low visions;
  • physical impairments such that an individual is unable to hold or manipulate a physical book, or unable to focus or move the eyes well enough to read;
  • or a reading disability such as dyslexia.

Organizations in this category include:

  • The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS)

    The NLS catalogue offers tens of thousands of books, magazines, and music scores in Braille and audio formats. The books in NLS’ catalogue are literary, not textbooks; but NLS is a great source for novels covered in English classes. The service is free for qualifying members.

  • Bookshare

    The Bookshare collection includes over 950, 000 titles, including everything from textbooks to New York Times best-sellers. Bookshare offers its own online reading application (the Bookshare Web Reader) that provides text-to-speech coupled with onscreen synchronized text highlighting. Bookshare titles can also be downloaded in a wide range of formats, including Microsoft Word, DAISY text with audio, and ePub3. The service is free to qualifying students and schools; however, non-students pay a yearly membership.

  • Learning Ally

    Learning Ally offers over 80, 000 textbooks and popular literature in audio formats, as well as a more limited collection of audio books with highlighted text synchronization in the VOICEtext format. Learning Ally has a $135 year fee for qualifying members.

Sources of Accessible Digital Books for Everyone

One thing that UDL has taught us is that many of the same accommodations that benefit students with disabilities can improve the learning experience for other students as well. Fortunately, textbooks in digital formats that allow readers to adjust font sizes, text contrast, background lighting, and even listen to the book to reinforce reading are becoming more common. In this section, I present a number of organizations that offer digital books that are both accessible and open to all students.

  • OverDrive
    OverDrive’s catalogue contains over two-million textbooks, novels, and magazines. The platform is free for students with a library card, and schools can choose from a variety of paid subscriptions to build their own virtual library.
  • VitalSource
    The VitalSource catalogue contains over a million eTextbooks that are available to rent or purchase.
  • Project Gutenberg
    Project Gutenberg is a volunteer collaboration to digitize books in the public domain (where copyright has expired). The catalogue contains over 60, 000 titles primarily made up of novels, short stories, and plays that can be downloaded in a wide variety of digital formats.

Going Further

Although accessibility is an important part of UDL, the framework goes beyond physical accessibility to consider aspects of student engagement and executive functioning. Digital books are here to help:

  • Variety is the spice of the library: Research has shown that offering students choice in what they read, both in subject and difficulty level, can increase student engagement (Leko et al., 2013). With the wide variety of digital texts available, why not consider giving students options?
  • You can’t build a library without scaffolding: A number of digital book platforms offer scaffolded support for readers, including flashcards to review vocabulary and built-in notetaking where students can collect their thoughts. These supports help reinforce learning and build good study habits.

The days of a 30-pound backpack are over! Save a tree and make reading more UDL with digital books

Suggested Further Reading

Downing, J. E. (Ed.). (2005). Teaching literacy to students with significant disabilities: Strategies for the K-12 inclusive classroom. Corwin Press.

Leko, M. M., Mundy, C. A., Kang, H. J., & Datar, S. D. (2013). If the book fits: Selecting appropriate texts for adolescents with learning disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 48(5), 267-275.

Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. T. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. CAST Professional Publishing.