What about Special Fonts for Kids with Dyslexia or Other Reading Problems?

  • 16 November, 2019
  • 13 Comments

Teacher question:  

Some of my ELA teachers have been talking about dyslexia fonts lately. Is there any merit to this?

Shanahan response:

This question takes me back to graduate school. I was fascinated with print and its impact on reading.

That led me to study the work of a psychologist named Miles Tinker. He published scads of research and reviews of research on the impacts of print on reading and learning to read and on print itself (his 1963 book, Legibility of Print, is still a standard work).

Tinker made me a skeptic concerning the supposed benefits of print design alterations, eye movement training, and the like. He provided several summaries of each decade of research on these issues—always with the same conclusions—most print features made little difference in reading or ease of reading, and none facilitated learning to read.

That isn’t to say that he didn’t identify any print features that mattered—it is just that much of what he found out has become standard practice. Tinker helped standardize line lengths, identified type sizes that were too small to accommodate successful reading, and so on. We now live in a digital age, so many of those earlier studies are being replicated with regard to reading on the Internet or designing effective PowerPoint slides.

The idea that those with dyslexia might benefit from a special type font suggests that dyslexia is mainly a visual problem—an idea that has largely been rejected in the scientific community. The notion is that some fonts would be easier to read and would be particularly preferred by readers having trouble getting the print to stand still.  

My Tinkerian response: “Oh, here we go again.”

Nevertheless, I conducted a quick search of the literature and here is what I found:

Over the past decade or so, three new fonts have appeared (Open Dyslexia, Dyslexie, and Read Regular), all claiming—without any empirical evidence—to somehow aid dyslexic readers.

Since then there have been 8 studies into the value of these fonts.

Most of the studies found no improvement in reading rate, accuracy, or eye fixations (Duranovic, et al., 2018; Kuster, et al., 2018; Rello & Baeza-Yates, 2013; Wery & Diliberto, 2017). The studies even found that dyslexics—children and adults—preferred reading standard fonts to the special ones (Harley, et al., 2016; Kuster, et al., 2018; Wery & Diliberto, 2017).

Only one study reported a benefit of any kind—the dyslexic students in this study read faster (Marinus, et al., 2016). This benefit apparently came, not from the font design, but from the spacing within and between words. The researchers increased the spacings in the standard fonts and the same effect was seen. Masulli (2018) likewise found that larger spacings improved the reading speed of dyslexics—but that effect was apparent with non-dyslexic readers, as well.

Reading faster is a good thing, of course, as long as reading comprehension is maintained. Unfortunately, these studies didn’t look at that.

If you think I’m being overly skeptical, then consider the results of one final study (French, et al., 2013). French and colleagues found that the harder to read fonts engendered deeper processing of the texts and improved learning from texts for the dyslexics. Helping dyslexics to make their processing quicker and shallower is a reasonable thing to do if your goal is faster completion of reading tasks. However, if the goal is to increase learning from text, then these new font technologies are a really bad idea.

Oh, and by the way, although some tout these new fonts for teaching purposes—there is no font that has ever been found to make learning to read any easier or more effective.

I know the media loves these kinds of “innovations.” They are sexy and fun to write about. But a century of research has shown that there are no lenses, eye movement trainings, fonts, special printing techniques, alphabets, or musical supports that improve reading or learning to read.

If you to increase reading abilities—of dyslexic or non-dyslexic readers—there is only one route that consistently delivers: You have to do the hard work of teaching students to read!

Please tell your ELA teacher: Fuggedaboutit!

References

Duranovic, M., Senka, S., & Babic-Gavric, B. (2018). Influence of increased spacing and font type on the reading ability of dyslexic children. Annals of Dyslexia, 68: 218-228.

French, M. M. J., Blood, A., Bright, N. D., Futak, D., et al. (2013). Changing fonts in education: How the benefits vary with ability and dyslexia. Journal of Educational Research, 106(4) 301-304.

Harley, L., Kline, K., Bell, C., Baranak, A., et al., (2015). Designing usable voting systems for voters with hidden barriers: A pilot study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interactions, 32: 103-118.

Kuster, S. M., van Weerdenburg, M., Gompel, M., & Bosman, A. M. T.  (2018). Dyslexie font does not benefit reading in children with or without dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 68, 25-42.

Marinus, E., Mostard, M., Segers, E.., Schubert, T. M., Madelaine, A., & Wheldall, K. (2016). A special font for people with dyslexia: Does it work and, if so, why? Dyslexia, 22: 233-244.

Masulli, F., Galluccio, M., Gerard, C., Peyre, H., et al., (2018). Effect of different fonts sizes and spaces between words on eye movement performance: An eye tracker study in dyslexic and non-dyslexic children. Vision Research, 153, 24-29.

Rello, L., & Baeza-Yates, R. (2013). Good fonts for dyslexia. Assets. https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2513447

Wery, J. J., & Diliberto, J. A. (2017). The effect of a specialized dyslexia font, OpenDyslexic,on reading rate and accuracy. Annals of Dyslexia, 67, 114-127.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Sam Bommarito
Nov 16, 2019 03:26 PM

Nicely done! Literacy instruction is subject to so many fads, good to have a fact checker to seperate the wheat from the chaf, and it's pretty obvious that this particular practice is clearly chaf!

Nadia
Nov 16, 2019 04:45 PM

Hi Thanks for your interesting articles. Very interesting as we are in the process of purchasing a reading program that starts with Grade 1 and the first story has a mixture of fonts as well as letters in italics. When I looked at it I thought it unsuitable for grade 1 because of that. Should the font type be consistent or is that also irrelevant when learning to read? Also, does the size of the font matter for those in earlier grades?

Edith
Nov 16, 2019 05:00 PM

I would like to know being two entirely different processes if the type of font matters in writing .The script is said to be
The precursor of cursive and therefore the one that should antecede it Will you please help me with clarifying that.Thanx

R. Owen
Nov 16, 2019 05:09 PM

I am glad to read that there is no evidence to support the use of these fonts. There are three important take-aways for me.

1. It seems like we should try to help dyslexic students try to read text as they encounter it in real life. The notion of having to run all text through a computer seems extremely limiting.

2. It reminds me that I would like to learn more about the research regarding spacing and white space on the page.

3. ". . . there is only one route that consistently delivers: You have to do the hard work of teaching students to read!"

Timothy E Shanahan
Nov 16, 2019 07:04 PM

Nadia--

I think it is possible that a mixture of fonts early on could confuse the occasional young reader for a very brief time. When I taught beginning readers, one of the programs that I worked with did a lot of that kind of font switching. The kids seemed to enjoy it. Of course, part of what a learner has to learn is that fonts don't matter in decoding or meaning--we have to come to see all those different formats as equivalents. I'd say don't worry it should be fine.

Timothy E Shanahan
Nov 16, 2019 07:10 PM

Edith--
As you know there are different print styles (or fonts) that can be used. One of them, the D'nealian, is aimed at being a precursor to handwriting--the idea being that the more the font is like cursive the easier it will be to learn cursive. I know of no research on that, but personally don't give it a lot of credence. I've never noticed children having that much trouble with that part of the transition from manuscript hand to cursive.

tim

Timothy E Shanahan
Nov 16, 2019 07:14 PM

Owen-

Your take aways make sense to me. The spacing thing is interesting, but not terribly helpful given that most beginning reading materials tend to use relatively larger fonts with more spacing. Even when transcribing children's language experience stories most people use bigger letters and put a greater amount of space between words than they might if they were printing for themselves. Of course, older dyslexics/disabled readers may be beginning readers, but without texts with such spacing. I don't think it is a deal breaker, but it likely makes it easier to distinguish words (in the examples in the journal articles cited in my blog, I found the non-spaced versions to be uncomfortable--the letters, to me, seemed closer together than in usual text).
tim

Jo Johnson
Nov 16, 2019 07:50 PM

Well, I guess I’ll stop using comic sans.

miriam
Nov 16, 2019 11:28 PM

I thought this said special foods for kids with dyslexia! So what about for teachers, lol?

Holly Lane
Nov 17, 2019 12:23 AM

Thank you for helping to dispel the widely held belief that dyslexia is a visual problem! One of my doc students recently completed a dissertation that found, among other things, that this belief is still alarmingly common among teachers.

Kimberly Jackson
Nov 17, 2019 12:50 AM

Yes! There is only one route that proves to be effective. We have to dig in and teach kids to read. This is so powerful.

JOYCE SHAW
Nov 17, 2019 10:52 PM

Teachers are not opticians so I really do wish they would stop telling children it's babyish to use their finger when reading. No optician in the world would tell a child under 8 years old NOT to use their finger as it helps their weak eye muscles to focus. I have seen a whole generation with poor eye convergence since our Education Authority imposed this silly rule. Children will remove their finger from under the words when they are ready to ... regardless of font.

Simon
Nov 20, 2019 07:07 AM

I'm dyslexic. And things are not so black and white. I'm not convinced these studies yet have control over all of the independent variables in their statistical analysis. I think they are correct for the mean data and may also be true for children learning to read. Maybe not true for proficient high functioning dyslexics on their bad to fair days. (My reading ability fluctuates).

On a bad day I can't comprehend text. On a medium day I'm between struggling and fair. A good day, no issue, and can read academic peer reviewed journals.

On the fair to bad days Times New Roman is unreadable/no comprehension. As are narrow columns of text or lists with single words or short sentences.

Dyslexie was useful on older PC screens before they went 3k or 4k on my fair days but made no difference to Arial when printed as the print resolution is a lot better. Windows plays tricks for text on older screens to make text look smoother which made things more difficult for me to read. On these older screens from 15 to 5 years ago I could see the pixels.

Text and background colour also impacts me on those fair days and can make the difference to comprending text or not.

On my bad and good days, font and colour make no difference. On my fair days they can make the difference in being able to work or not as my profession is all numbers, reading and writing. I'm a PhD qualified engineer who writes evidenced based policy for State Government.

Also note on my bad to fair days I can not read Times New Roman. It was one of the curses of my PhD pre the current digital age. I spent many days copying academic journal articles letter by letter to convert the font to my handwriting so I could later read the article once copied.

The psychologist recommended to me by SPELD NSW put some of this due to a level of distractability.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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What about Special Fonts for Kids with Dyslexia or Other Reading Problems?

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