Handwritten 2 + 2 = 4 math equation.
Guide

Adapting digital equations: Math problems and low vision

Tools and strategies for adapting digital equations using math editors and web applications to display content in large print for low vision students.

The majority of math assignments display equations in a typeset format, which can be challenging for students with low vision who need to enlarge content or display it in a larger font size. Displaying content in a digital format can provide more flexibility for enlarging text or using a screen magnifier, but incorrect formatting or images with poor contrast can exacerbate reading challenges further or make it more difficult for students to read equations independently. Here are my tips for adapting digital equations for students with low vision and displaying them in large print, part of my Math Problems for Low Vision series that covers topics related to math accessibility.

Why are digital math equations hard to see?

I find it much easier to read math equations on my tablet or computer compared to reading text that is printed out on a page. This realization came during high school after I discovered that it was difficult for my math teachers and paraprofessionals to enlarge math content to a consistent large font size, since things like exponents or symbols could be printed at a smaller font size and I wouldn’t notice they were there, or I would have a lot of visual fatigue and find it difficult to read text that was theoretically in large print, but a magnifying glass wasn’t enough to make it large enough to read.

However, I quickly discovered that not all digital math is created equal. PDFs or scanned documents can look fuzzy and require a lot of horizontal scrolling and moving across a page to read an equation, which can trigger a lot of eye strain or vertigo. Formatting can get distorted and cause uneven spacing that impact readability, or the ability to use screen readers or text-to-speech. Alternatively, whoever created the original document might not know how to write math symbols or content effectively in a digital format, which can be confusing for the student to read. Learning to correctly adapt digital equations and use accessible math markup tools is an important skill for both teachers and students alike.

Markup languages like LaTeX, MathML, and Unicode Math can be used to write out math equations and apply formatting, which can then be enlarged by adjusting the font size or using screen magnification. This post doesn’t break down how to write in these languages, but does provide options for inputting content and converting it to these formats. I primarily use LaTeX in my own work because it is highly versatile and can be used across a variety of contexts from displaying basic arithmetic to advanced calculations.

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Consider using a web layout or horizontal page orientation

When writing out math equations in larger font sizes, it’s common for text to “spill over” or extend to a new line, which can make it more challenging for students to keep track of text. In one instance, an em dash/long dash symbol (—) was used on a math assignment I was working on to indicate that the equation continued onto the next line, but I assumed it was a minus/subtraction sign and spent a long time trying to work out this equation and having it marked incorrectly. In another instance, a paraprofessional had enlarged my math assignment with a vertical orientation and didn’t realize that the edge of the equations had been cut off when they enlarged it with the copier, and I scored another low grade on an assignment.

Instead of using the vertical orientation to enlarge equations, I prefer to read equations with a web layout or horizontal page orientation, which provides more horizontal space for writing out equations and having everything on one line. With the web layout in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, there is more space for text to extend to the edge of the screen, so it is easier for me to enlarge or use reading tools.

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Use a math editor to write out equations

I strongly recommend using a math editor or equation editor to write out equations or other math text, as this provides the most flexibility for making content accessible in multiple formats. Available in applications like Microsoft Word and Google Docs on the Insert tab, these tools incorporate Unicode Math or LaTeX (Microsoft only) math markup for displaying symbols so they are read more accurately by screen readers or text-to-speech, and the font size of math symbols and equations can be enlarged or magnified further at a higher resolution. Users can either write equations themselves in the editor, or copy/paste pre-formatted content from another source into the equation textbox.

For best results, share documents with equations in a DOC, DOCX, or HTML file format to ensure that users can enlarge the text effectively or use a screen reader to have it read out loud. This functionality is lost when the document is saved as a PDF.

One of my math professors in college would create a form with Microsoft Word that was locked for editing, but had space for a text box or other input controls so I could write my answer to a problem. I could enlarge the text by opening the document with a web layout, which would resize it as needed. I’ve shared a link to the process for creating a form layout in Microsoft Word below, but another option is to contact the state NIMAC office (K-12) or college assistive technology specialist for more information on document remediation services.

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Copy and paste formatted equations from another website or program

Writing equations from scratch with the math editor can be challenging, but there are several free websites that offer options for composing equations in accessible formats. One method I have used to write out equations is to open a graphing calculator or other calculator application, type the equation out, and then select the text to copy/paste into another application, which can then be enlarged further. Another option is to use the free Microsoft Math Solver web application to write out an equation and then copy/paste the text into the math editor in Word.

For equations copied in linear formats with markup language, users can have equations automatically converted to a visual format when they select the Convert tool and then choose “All-Professional” from the drop-down menu.

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Convert handwritten equations to digital text

Some users may find it easier to write out an equation and have it converted to text, which can then be enlarged or edited as needed. One tool that can do this is the Ink Equation tool available in Microsoft Word, OneNote, PowerPoint, and Excel, which provides users with the option to draw an equation with a stylus, mouse, or finger and have it inserted as text into their document. Users can correct errors by using the lasso tool to “select and correct” a character or symbol as well, which I found helpful when writing arithmetic symbols or Greek letters. Ink Equation can be accessed by navigating to the Insert tab on the ribbon and selecting Equation.

Another application that supports handwriting recognition is the paid Equatio tool from TextHelp, which offers a 30-day free trial. Using either the web or desktop application, users can handwrite an equation and have it converted to LaTeX, which can then be pasted into an equation editor and converted to a “professional” display format with the Convert tool.

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Recognize equations from an image

Many of my math teachers were not the original authors of their worksheets, or had lost the original file over time. Another option for adapting digital equations is to use an image recognition tool such as the MathPix Snipping Tool, which can recognize math equations from a screenshot or image, with options for recognizing handwritten and typed text. MathPix will then convert the equation to LaTex or another format that can be copied into a math editor. Equatio also offers a similar feature, though I have not personally tested it.

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Write numbers and symbols inside of a grid

One of the students I was working with didn’t need the advanced features of a math editor for making text more readable, and instead wanted a solution for aligning numbers and text with consistent spacing. For this student, using a grid background and either typing or handwriting each number or symbol inside of a single square helped them with better aligning text and identifying where symbols were located. Several productivity applications including Notability, Microsoft Word, OneNote, and digital whiteboard applications offer grid background options.

For the student I was working with, we used the Draw tool with Microsoft Word and set the page background as a “very large grid”, which accommodated up to 60-pt font and required some text to be double-spaced. To insert an equation, the student could either type, draw, or use the ink-to-math tool to convert handwritten text to math. This worked well for helping the student align content as they worked through problems or wrote out their answers.

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Insert equations as high-resolution images

Inserting a screenshot of a typed equation is not generally recommended for accessible math, because it is critical to ensure the images are displayed at a high resolution that can be enlarged at least 400% to 500% larger without any distortion or blurring of important visual content. In order to enlarge images, I usually have to open them in a new tab or window to zoom in and having them in a compressed or small size can make it difficult or impossible to enlarge.

While the math editor remains the best option for inserting math equations and formatting them, screenshots of handwritten or digital text may be useful for some students, who can use pinch-to-zoom or resize an image so they can enlarge it further. It’s helpful to include alt text for the image so that students can also use a text-to-speech or screen reader to listen to the equation, or to “expose” the text so it can be read in large print. Teachers may prefer to include alt text of equations in a written form/expanded form for students that are still learning to use a screen reader effectively or to ensure that content is displayed in a natural reading order.

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Display equations one at a time as slides

For students that are easily overwhelmed by large amounts of visual content on a page or visual clutter, another option for adapting digital equations is to create a slide deck/slideshow with one or two equations on each slide. This can be done with the math editor in Microsoft PowerPoint or Google Slides, and provides users with the option to customize the font and background color for improved readability. The slides can then be viewed on the student’s device or on an external display with a larger size, such as a TV or flatscreen monitor.

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Write equations on a digital whiteboard

Instead of being restricted to a specific page size or dimensions, some may prefer to use a digital whiteboard, which offers an “infinite” canvas for writing or drawing equations. While most digital whiteboard applications do not offer a math editor for inserting more advanced equations, the free iDroo web application does have an option for inserting equations that can be resized and displayed at a larger size, however they cannot be copied into another application.

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More resources on adapting digital equations for low vision

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com

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