Encouraging Audience-Accessible Writing Habits

Daniel Emery

Faculty members and instructors have learned that moving from face-to-face classes to online and hybrid instruction requires careful consideration of how we communicate information and expectations to our students. Meeting students’ needs and building community requires that we present materials in ways that are clear, concrete, and easy to navigate. 

The same lessons that instructors have applied to the design of their courses and course documents can also become a part of students’ writing processes. In this tip, we discuss the advantages of designing for accessibility to promote effective writing processes and improve written products and recommend campus resources to get started.

Strategic design choices improve writing processes


We encounter many technological conveniences every day (from touch screens and voice-to-text apps to curb cuts in sidewalks) initially developed as assistive technologies designed to promote equal participation. Practical, accessible design features improve accessibility for everyone. The tools we use to create digital documents (whether papers, posters, presentations, or web pages) include design controls that can ensure accessibility. 

Accessible U recommends seven core skills to increase accessibility and offers tutorials for using the styles features in Microsoft and Google documents to ensure students’ submissions reach their widest audience. Using descriptive headings and differentiating headings with styles (in addition to font and typography) can help students understand their documents’ organization and hierarchy. Alt-text descriptions of images, charts, and figures can help students to clarify the purpose and central message of their visuals. Using a defined header row makes tables clearer to understand and more readable. Considering these design elements can be a regular part of understanding a document’s purpose, audience, and form as students begin to draft.

Strategic design choices improve written products

Instructors already ask students to meet design requirements (word counts, citation styles, and formats) as a part of designing authentic and meaningful writing assignments. Creating and designing documents with accessibility in mind also produces more effective written products.

When producing written texts, attention to hierarchy promotes parallel structures, improves reading ease, and highlights missing information. Succinct language for captioning and alt-text promotes concision and clarity. Formatted tables and described visuals are less likely to include extraneous details and are more likely to be appropriately labeled and complete. Captioning and descriptive text make visual presentations more meaningful and more effective and highlight the intentional design and communication choices of student presenters.

Getting started: Further support for inclusion and accessibility

Accessible U is the online hub for inclusion on campus. Produced by the Office of Equity and Diversity and the Office of Information Technology, it offers links and resources to principles of digital accessibility and connections to training courses and resources available on campus.

Students can complete the Digital Accessibility: Foundations course in 90 minutes. For more complex assignments, further training is available on creating accessible documents, web pages, and presentations. By learning to create content free of barriers, students can avoid spending more time correcting design flaws.

In addition to assistance from Academic Technology Support Services, the University of Minnesota Accessibility Ambassadors brings together volunteer developers, content coordinators, instructional designers, and instructors to promote educational access and inclusion and transform the University of Minnesota. They sponsor monthly events and have an active Google group.

Further Support

Our Teaching with Writing Program webpage offers teaching resources to faculty members and instructors across the University of Minnesota system. We also host the popular Teaching with Writing event series each semester, offering workshops, panels, and discussions on writing-related topics. Visit the Writing Across the Curriculum Program webpage and follow us on Twitter @UMNWriting. You can schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation through our online consultation form



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