Does Font Really Matter To Children With Dyslexia?

I’m a dyslexic, with a dyslexic son, and I have to admit that the question of there being supposedly dyslexia-friendly fonts has weighed on my mind.

I know from personal experience that there are fonts that have helped me. There are fonts that have helped the dyslexic members of my family, including my son. But that is anecdotal evidence. There’s no scientific basis to our personal experiences, and who knows, perhaps it is placebo effect or a personal inclination. There are thousands of fonts. I love some and not others. I even have personal preferences in regard to “supposedly” dyslexia-friendly fonts. I do know there are some supposedly dyslexia-friendly fonts that I don’t like vs those that I do. I’m also the one in control of the font used on this website. It isn’t currently using a specifically dyslexia-friendly font, but as a dyslexic reader I find it comfortable to read.

So, does font really matter to children with dyslexia?

For years, I have looked into a great deal of dyslexia research. Since my son was diagnosed in 2011, I’ve wondered what we could do to ease his journey. At first I was searching for the magic button. But in time, I learned that not only is dyslexia a spectrum, there are a range of factors that benefit or hamper the reading experience.

For example, did you know, many dyslexics may have heightened spatial ability?
Spatial skills allow us to see an object or image and think of it in other positions. I believe this is the root cause of a common trait with dyslexics having trouble with flipping or rotating letters such as “p”, “b”, “d”, and “q”. After all, they are effectively exactly the same. It is only the direction the letter faces that decides which of the four variations it is. The same is true of the letters “u” and “n”. In many fonts, and in fact in most handwriting styles taught in Australian primary schools, the formation of those letters has no difference except it’s rotation on the page.

Example of spatial letter rotations in dyslexia
And THIS is my biggest factor for choosing the Dyslexie font (from among the range of dyslexia-friendly fonts) for Aulexic books. I’ve noticed for myself that the weighted formations and unique depictions of every letter in the Dyslexie font has reduced instances where I experience confusion with those letters. I’ve noticed my son has begun to recognise differences between those letters and more frequently accurately decode when reading from text displayed or printed in Dyslexie font.

But again, that’s not a scientific basis. It’s anecdotal. Our personal experiences based on what we’ve learned and understood about ourselves can’t be held up as “proof” or “evidence”. And, more importantly, even if there is measurable improvement, font choice is certainly no “cure” for dyslexia.

Even using dyslexia-friendly fonts we face other challenges, impacted by environment and page design. Aspects, such as font size and line spacing, influence the readability of text. Font alone, isn’t a magic button. I think that’s one of the biggest potential traps that well-meaning scientists want us to consider as they warn against embracing “supposedly” dyslexia-friendly fonts.

But, don’t some people claim font doesn’t matter?

One of the biggest challenges we face when considering if dyslexia-friendly fonts really could help improve the experience for dyslexic readers is a phrase I’ve heard and read in a variety of different ways but which is well said by Guinevere Eden from the Center for the Study of Learning, “There is no evidence that dyslexia fonts help people with dyslexia to read faster and more accurately.” It’s a well-intentioned statement that warns parents and teachers that we can’t expect font to be a “fix” for dyslexia. But I feel it steps outside the bounds of academic writing because it delivers an absolute in an area where there are clearly shades of grey.

Looking at it more objectively, we realise, the reason there is “no evidence” has very little relation to a lack of effect, but rather a lack of research. There are very few studies into the impact of font on readability for dyslexics. The above quote could be more accurate if it added the word “currently”. New research comes to light as more and more scientists delve into dyslexia, it’s causes, and its impact on reading and learning. The research, “the evidence”, currently isn’t there, but perhaps it is coming.

dyslexicfonts
For example, a University in Spain has done a small study with 49 dyslexics that looked at readability with 12 different fonts. The study, which used eye-tracking and comprehensive tests and questionnaires to gauge participant preferences, found that there absolutely were fonts that dyslexics gravitated toward, stating that, “Good fonts for people with dyslexia are Helvetica, Courier, Arial, Verdana and Computer Modern Uni-code, taking into consideration reading performance and subjective preferences.” Further, “The two fonts that lead to shorter fixation durations than other fonts were Courier and Helvetica. Hence the use of these fonts might help people with dyslexia to read faster.” Finally, they concluded that, “Helvetica was the second most significantly preferred font … after Verdana.”

What about dyslexia-friendly fonts?

Another study, conducted by the Georgia Tech Research Institute, considered the experience for dyslexic adults in research that looked at improving readability for dyslexics when voting. It found that two supposedly dyslexia-friendly fonts offered no benefit to reading speed or accuracy, and in fact the participants had a clear preference for Helvetica, which was the control font chosen.

What the above studies have proven is that the “supposedly” dyslexia-friendly fonts that were included in the tests, OpenDyslexic and Lexia Readable, did not lead to improved reading for the majority of dyslexics in the small sample of participants in this particular study. Taking it back to the personal anecdote of a dyslexic, I’ve found I don’t like OpenDyslexic or Lexia Readable either. That doesn’t mean they might not benefit and be preferred by other dyslexics.

Of the available supposedly dyslexia-friendly fonts available, Dyslexie is my favourite. And, to clarify, I receive no compensation for my endorsement of their font. In fact, I believe in them so much myself that I decided their font was the most beneficial in my experience, and from the non-scientific comparison testing I did with my own small collection of dyslexic and non-dyslexic pre-readers, that our Aulexic readers would benefit from my investing in the rights to publish in that font.

But what does the research say about Dyslexie font?

A study by Dr Eva Marinus, from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Macquarie University, found, “that low-progress readers read Dyslexie text more quickly than Arial text, when matched on absolute letter size. When general spacing was also matched, the performance difference became smaller. Finally, when both the within and between word spacing was matched, the children performed the same on the Arial text as they did on Dyslexie text.” This research appears to have looked specifically at reading speed rather than accuracy and concluded that because you can change the default within-­word spacing and between-­word spacing there would be no point in “buying”* the Dyslexie font. *Please note that the Dyslexie font is actually free for home use and only requires purchase by publishers and in school-wide use (both of which are reasonably priced). Personally, I feel the fact that you don’t have to manually adjust the spacing is advantage enough for using Dyslexie font.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is that there needs to be significantly more research done in this area but there ARE indicators that font (among other variables) can have an influence on the reading experience for dyslexics. The specific evidence for particular dyslexia-friendly fonts are not yet available due to a lack of accumulated research, so do not blindly trust that just because a font is declared “dyslexia-friendly” it will benefit the dyslexic child you work with. Experiment for yourself, try different fonts to find which ones are preferred in each individual case.

As fellow dyslexic and University of Massachusetts Boston researcher, Matthew Schneps said, “Some people will find improvement with new fonts, while others won’t because there are different causes of dyslexia involving different brain regions.”

What does this mean for our dyslexic children?

Does Font Matter? Is there value in using dyslexia-friendly fonts?
We have to remember that font alone is not a magic button.

The right font choice can contribute to creating an easier and more enjoyable reading experience, but there are several other factors that can also lead to improvements. You should consider varying font size, line height, line width, line spacing, font colour, background colour, space in the margins, reflective surfaces, environmental lighting and distractions, etc. These are aspects we’ve optimised in our Aulexic books based on our own experiments, but that doesn’t guarantee that the dyslexic child you work with will find the same settings are right for them. I recommend you play and experiment to see what helps your child!

Find what works for your dyslexic child. Because, yes, these choices CAN make a significant difference for dyslexic readers. They won’t be cured, but everything that contributes to make reading easier and more enjoyable will improve their progress, foster a love of reading, and help transform them into successful readers.

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I’d love to hear feedback about the reading experience for dyslexic children with our Aulexic books. The P.I. Penguin series are not intended for independent reading because we do use some advanced vocabulary, but there ARE words your dyslexic child may be able to read. See if they can? And compare reading those words against the same words written in other fonts and other formats. Ask the child which they prefer and see if that can tell you why? I’d love to hear your “anecdotal evidence”. Because at the end of the day, it’s what WORKS for each individual child that means more to me than anything at all.

References (Recommended Reading):

3 Comments

  • Matt Donnelly Posted May 22, 2017 11:02 pm

    Dude comic sams is a good one to helps me with writting uni essays a lot

    • Rebecca Laffar-Smith Posted May 23, 2017 2:30 pm

      Hey Matt, YES! Comic Sans is also a good one.

      My mother used to prefer that (before we found Dyslexie) too. Because I come from a design background where Comic Sans is summarily hated I always cringed when she printed things in Comic Sans but it helped her read which was what really mattered most to all of us.

      Thanks so much for sharing!

  • What makes books dyslexia-friendly? [A P.I. Penguin Example] – Aulexic Posted May 23, 2017 10:01 am

    […] a lot of debate about the value of font choice with dyslexia. (I’ve written an entire blog post about it.). To summarise, we compared and contrasted different font choices. We found most of our small test […]

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