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Creating accessible learning materials

Modifying learning materials takes skill and a knowledge of how it will be used. But with practice a straightforward literary text can be downloaded and changed into the required font size in just 90 seconds.

Structured Word documents like those on RNIB Bookshare help your learners navigate their way through the text. They also enable teaching assistants and learning resource staff in schools to create other accessible formats such as PDF, audio, braille and eBook files using easy to learn shortcuts. It’s the structure provided within them that makes modifying these files a much simpler task. Importantly these documents can be easily used with access technology.

Modifying fonts, colour and spacing

In a structured Word document you can quickly and easily modify font colour, font type, font size, background colour, line spacing and paragraphs. It can take as little as 90 seconds to download a structured Word textbook file from Load2Learn and change it to the required font size (30 seconds for short reading scheme books). The tips in this article are for Microsoft Office Word 2003, 2007 and 2010.

Selecting text

To select all the text in a document press Ctrl A.

To select part of the text place the cursor at start of the text, left click and drag mouse to highlight the area of text you wish to change. Keyboard users can use the shift and arrows.

Font size

Using this method automatically scales up headings in line with the body text. Formatting, such as page breaks, will automatically adjust appropriately, so headings remain larger and more prominent than the main body of the text. First select all the text using Ctrl A.


  • Increase size two points at a time: Shift Ctrl >
  • Decrease size two points at a time: Shift Ctrl <
  • Increase size one point at a time: Ctrl ]
  • Decrease size one point at a time: Ctrl [

Font style

You can also change the font style of a whole document without affecting the heading levels and other formatting. Select all the text and then select the font style from the drop down list in the font box.

Font colour

Likewise you can change the font colour of a whole document or for particular sections to make it easier to navigate Select the text you wish to change, and then select the font colour from the drop down list in the font box.

Background colour

It can be useful to change the background colour of a whole document or for particular sections. Some learners find light text reversed out of a dark background easier to read, or it can be useful for short bits of text such as dialogue to indicate who is talking.

For Word 2007 and 2010 choose the page layout tab. Go to the page background box and select a colour from the page colour drop down menu.

Line spacing

Many readers with a vision impairment appreciate a larger than usual line spacing for ease of reading. Alternatively where the line spacing chosen by a publisher makes a document unnecessarily long and bulky for the student to carry around, you can decrease the line spacing to something more manageable.

To increase or decrease the line spacing in Word 2007 and 2010. Go to the paragraph box on the home tab and select the required spacing from the line spacing drop down menu.

For Word 2003 select Paragraph from the Format menu. Then select the spacing you want from the Indents and spacing tab.


If the file contains pictures and images, you may need to enlarge these separately, modify, remove or replace them with alternative accessible resources.

Converting existing materials

Teachers often want to use learning resources downloaded from the internet or electronic versions of textbooks and associated materials on a smartboard for a whole class or to print for individuals. These tend to be PDF documents.    

Unaltered, most of these resources are inaccessible for most learners with a visual impairment. The learner may be able to access the original file on a laptop or tablet using a screen reader or magnification, but often the layout, text and images make them difficult to use effectively.

Why an enlarged photocopy won’t do

Some busy teachers sometimes resort to photocopies but this is far from ideal. Although they are quick to produce, enlarged photocopies give limited access because learners struggle with:

  • difficult to read fonts of variable size, italics or cursive script
  • text on coloured backgrounds with poor contrast
  • unclear images
  • unwieldy A3 paper
  • low quality printing
  • a layout that is confusing if you can’t see the whole page.  

Accessible learning materials

A truly accessible copy is one that:

  • a learner can access independently
  • all the text is correctly formatted on a high contrast background
  • images, tables and diagrams are placed correctly in relation to the text
  • unessential information in text and diagrams may be reduced.

How can PDF converters help?

Staff who support learners with a visual impairment need fast ways of creating good quality resources.

To use a PDF converter a teaching assistant or resource technician needs:

  • consistent access to a reliable computer with internet access
  • access to the file converter websites – not blocked by a filtering system
  • to be able to upload and downloaded files – this feature is sometimes blocked on school computers
  • access to an e-mail account if the site sends the converted file via email.

How do they work?

To convert a PDF file into a Microsoft Word file:

  • locate the PDF file on the computer or memory stick
  • load the specific PDF converter website
  • upload your PFD file
  • download the converted Word file.   

How quick is it?

Four out of the five websites that I tested successfully converted a 3-page PDF file containing text and diagrams into a Word document in about three or four minutes. A larger PDF file might take slightly longer. Some converter sites limit the size of the PDF file (normally the number of pages) that you can convert. One site requires an e-mail address to convert a PDF file bigger than two pages. 

How do you modify the result?

Once your file has been converted, you can move and change the size of the diagrams, although unnecessary text or details in the diagrams cannot be edited very easily. The text can be fully edited and fonts and formatting (size, bold, italics) can all be easily changed.

I also tested a PDF document containing a table of text. Once converted the table could be moved, text could be enlarged, reduced, deleted and formatted and extra rows and columns could be added. All of these edits could be made in a converted document from four out of the five websites that I tested. The fifth website that I tested just did not allow me to upload a document onto it.

Are all PDFs as easy to convert?

The ability to modify and edit a converted Word file depends on how the original PDF was created. Ironically most high quality PDFs created by reputable education websites or textbook publishers would originally have been created in Microsoft Word and then converted to PDF to make them more “portable” or to make it harder to modify them.

In high quality PDFs elements such as text, tables, diagrams have been added in separately. Once converted, these will be easily modified because the conversion can easily identify the different elements.

A low quality PDF tends to be a scan or a photo of a document. The converter finds it much harder to separate out the text, tables and diagrams and make them editable.

PDF documents are intended to be read-only documents that you can view but cannot edit. Although that is not strictly true any more, they are still notoriously difficult to edit in PDF form. The easier option is to convert it into another file type such as Microsoft Word so that you can edit it much more easily.

For a comparison of online PDF conversion programmes watch this video.