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July 2002

Literacy, web accessibility and WordCue

By Rob and Toni Seiler,
ELR Software Pty Ltd.

Difficulties inherent in the complex issue of literacy and web accessibility have recently been highlighted in a paper by Don Schauder, Steve Wright, Kirsty Williamson and Louise Stockfield (Does One Size Always Fit All - Reflections on Accessibility and Appropriate Web Design, AccessAbility Workshop 2001, Canberra 2001). This paper noted:

A team headed by Kirsty Williamson (Information and Telecommunications Needs Research, Monash University), also identified literacy as an important factor in web accessibility (Online Services for People with Disabilities in Australian Public Libraries). They have further explored ways to enhance literacy skills on the web in their two projects:

These projects were funded by the Australian government through the AccessAbility Program of the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, and undertaken jointly with ITNR Monash, the Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE (NMIT), in collaboration with ELR Software Pty Ltd.

The goals of these projects were ambitious, and the process of tackling the issues have highlighted pertinent points about the practical design and content of web pages which would facilitate literacy development.

When one initially contemplates the fact that decreased literacy skills prevent many people from accessing the web, the first response is usually to "use more pictures" - the idea being that it will reduce the need to read words. In developing materials for the project, we concluded that this relatively simplistic solution may sometimes limit a person's access and enjoyment of the web, and would not in itself increase access to the web.

Designing web content to increase access for people with literacy problems is a complex issue. This article will outline some of the factors that need to be considered. It will then briefly describe how one of the products from the "Literacy On Line" projects, (WordCue) attempts to assist people with literacy problems use the web, while preserving their ability to enjoy the extensive variety of the web. Additional materials developed for this project are available at the Literacy Online project site.

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The complex nature of literacy difficulties

Fluent readers have mastered a complex skill. They have developed a large store of words that they can read (decode) instantly. When they encounter an unfamiliar word they can call on their knowledge of how our alphabet "works" to decode the word (either by sounding it out, breaking it in to syllables, or using their knowledge of root words). They also have a good understanding of the meanings of thousands of words, and have enough general knowledge of the world to relate what they are reading to meaningful events. Their experience with reading means they can scan a page and know what to expect. For example, some pages convey new knowledge, where there is usually an introduction, content and then a conclusion. Other pages are stories, while others are lists, or bibliographies and so on.

A person with literacy difficulties can have problems in any or all of the above skills. The literacy impairment can also vary depending on whether the cause was present at birth or acquired after literacy skills had already been developed.

To give some examples, a person born with a severe cognitive impairment will have difficulty understanding the meanings of many words (whether they are spoken or read), will have trouble learning "how written language works" - ie the alphabetic principle, and will have a significantly reduced general knowledge. They may develop the ability to recognise a small number of sight words, but will be unable to get meaning from text or have an appreciation of different types of texts. For this person, a pictorial web page will help for the initial selection, but if different icons or pictures are used to represent the same topic on successive pages, they may be confused. It is also difficult, and sometimes impossible to generate concise, pictorial representations of all concepts. And because it is also typically time consuming (and expensive) to generate pictorial content, such content is rarely as diverse and dynamic as text.

The issues are quite different if a person has normal cognition, but a specific difficulty with reading and spelling. This person may excel in other disciplines, have a large vocabulary, and be dynamically interested in world affairs. Their reading skills, however, may be quite severely impaired. They may recognise many of the frequently occurring words, and the "small" words (eg "in, on"), but have difficulty with longer words (multisyllabic) or unfamiliar words. For this person, some method of providing assistance with specific words may be useful (eg either being able to hear the word, or see it broken into syllables).

Other issues are present for people for whom English is a second language. This includes the deaf, and people of other nationalities. They may have skills in reading short and familiar words, but have difficulties understanding the meanings of many words, and also comprehending subtle differences in meaning that are conveyed via different grammatical structures in English. These people may manage most navigational web pages and make selections from menus, but struggle with more complex, informational content. They would likely benefit from assistance with longer words (ie to decode and understand the meaning), or see the word within the context of a familiar sentence.

Some people acquire literacy problems following a stroke or head injury. They may have some preserved language skills, which enable them to easily decode words, and comprehend topics which are familiar to their previous interests. However, slowed processing of information often reduces their ability to make decisions, and comprehend topics that contain unfamiliar content.

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Meeting the needs

This diverse range in the degree and nature of literacy impairments means that there will not be "a solution" to make the web more accessible - "one size doesn't fit all".

A focus on using pictures and icons for people with decreased literacy associated with severe cognitive impairments, may mean that they soon become bored with static sites. Confusions may also occur as they move from one website to another, as different icons and pictures are used for the same topic, and sometimes the same type of icon can indicate a different message, depending on the context. Previous research completed by Seiler et al Enhancing Internet Access for People with Disabilities, demonstrated that people with significant cognitive impairment and very restricted word reading skills (ie sight vocabularies of about 10 words), got a huge amount of enjoyment from a variety of conventional web pages. When physical access issues were resolved and guidance/support was available, they enjoyed surfing, clicked on almost any navigational device that looked interesting, and often got to sites of their individual interest (eg pop stars and music). Given that it is unlikely that their literacy skills would ever reach an independently functional level, it may be more restrictive to steer them in the direction of specifically designed sites that lack the richness of the mainstream websites.

People who have reduced literacy skills (ie can read familiar words, but get stuck often enough that it becomes difficult to comprehend text), may reject sites that appear "overly simplified". This person is likely to have normal intelligence, but have difficulties with written language, either because that written content (eg English) is a second language, or because they have a specific literacy disorder (from birth or acquired). They understand how words, sentences and paragraphs "work", and recognise the nature of different text styles, ie lists, informational pages, headings etc. These people may benefit from the ability to select unfamiliar words and get more information about that word.

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How does WordCue fit in?

WordCue was developed to provide literacy support for people who have trouble decoding words and comprehending word meanings, but who understand how written language works. It was developed to provide assistance within the context of a normal web page, thus preserving the flavour of normal web pages. This is free software that is distributed under the GNU General Public License.

WordCue provides help in reading words, links and phrases on web pages. It can provide a range of cues, and the user is able to select which cues are of most use. For about 1,200 words there is a pictograph available and for about 1,700 words (from lists of the most frequent English words), there is a definition and an example sentence, and the word is syllabified, to help with decoding. A further 10,000 words are recognised by WordCue and are linked to their root word. Work is still in progress to expand the definitions and syllabifications of these words.

The definitions used are provided in plain English, as often the language used in dictionary definitions contain words that are more complex than the target word. All of these cues may be spoken to the person. To access the cues, the WordCue program is activated by clicking on the symbol in the task bar, and the word is clicked. Once the cue has been accessed, the program is deactivated by clicking on the symbol. For example the WordCue for "computer" includes:

Example of WordCue dialog box showing picture and word usage.

To activate WordCue for a word you will need to:

  1. Download and install the current version of the WordCue Trainer.
  2. Switch the Scroll Lock key on (or click the WordCue icon found in the taskbar), then position the cursor on the word (or picture), and click the left mouse button. Note: While the WordCue feature is on you will not be able to use any of the web page links.
  3. To return to the web page turn the Scroll Lock off (or click the WordCue icon found in the taskbar).

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Applications for WordCue

WordCue (in its GNU free software form) requires that a website prepares some or all pages to be WordCue "aware" by embedding an "object" tag in the page head section. To date the largest such site available is the e-bility website.

WordCue currently has vocabulary support for words that are in lists of the most frequent or useful English words. But there is a potential to develop a range of different dictionaries for WordCue which are associated with particular topics (eg words relating to Biology, or topics to do with government documents). This would enable people to read documents containing unfamiliar words and be provided with definitions within the context of the document. The developers of WordCue (ELR Software Pty Ltd) are happy to discuss such specialised applications.

Google links

End of Google links

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