Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?
We tend to think of writing as conveying verbal information – the words and their meaning are what is important. However, in much of the academic writing we ask students to do, formatting and citation in specific styles (MLA, APA, IEEE, etc.) is an integral part of the assignment. Formatting and citation are part of the visual elements of a text. The arrangement of the words on the page and the ways that punctuation, formatting such as italics and spacing are used convey some of the information. Formatting in accordance with a particular discipline’s style also visually demonstrates that we are following the standards of a discipline and joining in a particular kind of conversation or communication.
We are asking students to follow the standards of our discipline, but how do we teach those standards? Are we inviting all of our students into the conversation equitably?
Many of us provide examples of the formatting conventions and citations, and we ask students to follow the example or make their text look like the example we have provided. Essentially, and likely without realizing it, we rely on visual cues to convey much of the information. As the Purdue Online Writing Lab’s article “Visual Rhetoric: Text Elements” points out, “Text is so obviously visual that its visual nature and power (are) often invisible.” This invisibility can cause us to rely too heavily on visual examples when teaching elements of a text such as formatting, document design (including headers) and citation.
While this visual approach may work for some students, it is not universally useful. For students who use a screen reader because they are blind or have low vision, who have challenges processing visual information or who just aren’t certain what they should be looking for, this approach does not provide the comprehensive information needed to effectively format documents and precisely cite. Screen readers may not always read all the formatting information (italics, punctuation, spacing), and programs such as Word may change formatting (font, font size, etc.) as we work in a document.
While we tend to think of formatting and citation in terms of the verbal information they provide, a great deal of information is conveyed visually as well. For instance, we differentiate between a journal article title and a journal title by their position in the citation and by their formatting. In an MLA header, we determine student name and professor name in part by their position. We need to think about how we are presenting this information so that all students are included and have the information they need to succeed.
Take a SIP of this: Accessible Methods for Teaching Citation
We can approach teaching formatting and citation with information about how to do it rather than solely relying on how the finished project looks on the page. We can also start with the assumption that some of our students use a screen reader and include information about helpful features in screen readers.
For example, in teaching MLA format for a document, teach how to create the first page in Microsoft Word rather than only providing an example. Here are some sample instructions:
- Start by using the Insert menu to add the page number in a header. In the page-number menu, choose “Top of Page,” then “Plain Number 3,” which is the right-justified page number.
- The cursor will automatically be in front of the page number, and you can type or insert your last name.
- Close the Header menu and enter the body of the document.
- In the Paragraph menu, make sure that Before and After in Spacing are both set to zero and that Line Spacing is set to double.
- In the Layout menu, make sure your margins are set to 1 inch.
- With the cursor at the top margin of the document, put your full name and then press enter.
- Put your professor’s title and last name (Mr. Smith, Dr. Jones, etc.) and then press enter.
- Put the course number or name (ENG 1010, Intro to Statistics, etc.) and then press enter.
- Put in the date. This should list the day (use the numeral) first, then the month (use the word), then the four-digit year (for example, 8 March 2021). Then press enter.
- Change from left alignment to centered alignment in the paragraph menu. Type your title. Use regular font and capitalize each important word.
This approach is useful for all students – it doesn’t assume they are familiar with Word, and it explains all of the elements in the header and how to create them.
In teaching citation, you can name the punctuation, formatting and spacing as well as showing an example. This will also help all students recognize and understand each element included in the citation. Here’s an example:
Konrad, Annika. “What I’ve Learned from Working with Blind and Visually Impaired Writers.” Another Word: From the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 15 Sept. 2014, https://dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/what-ive-learned-from-working-with-blind-and-visually-impaired-writers/comment-page-1/
In teaching this to your class, you can verbalize the punctuation and spaces as well as the information. You can also name each element of the citation as you discuss it with your class (or you can embed comments that explain each element and the punctuation after it). For example, you can remind students that the article title is “What I’ve Learned from Working with Blind and Visually Impaired Writers” and that in addition to being enclosed in quotation marks, it should be ended with a period inside the quotation marks and one space after the closing quotation mark.
Finally, remember to check in with your students and ask if they are getting the information they need. Are your explanations of the visual information clear? Are they having challenges with technology or with your implementing your explanations? Do they understand why citing in this way is important? Helping students understand how following disciplinary conventions for citation and formatting helps build credibility and how it acknowledges the work of others can engage them in wanting to understand and follow the conventions.
By naming not only the information needed but also how that information should be formatted and where it should appear, we demystify formatting and help all students understand the verbal and visual information. This way, we invite all students to use and understand our discipline’s standards.
Still thirsty? Take a SIP of this:
Robinson, Denise M. “MLA APA Format of Heading for Paper Writing: Tech Tip.” TechVision, 2019,
Walker, Ros, and Samuel Kacer. “Academic Referencing for Blind or Visually-Impaired Students, Using
NVDA or JAWS.” Roswalker.org, 14 June 2018, https://roswalker.org/2018/06/14/academic-referencing-for-blind-students-using-nvda-or-jaws/