Category Archives: spacing of letters in words

What fonts might help dyslexic readers read better?

Many easy-to-read fonts already exist on computers.  They incorporate the characteristics of sans serif, upright, monospaced typefaces, recognized as features enabling easier reading for people with dyslexia.

OpenDyslexic font

Newer fonts designed specifically for dyslexic readers have become available within the past decade.  Some are free; some are available for a fee.  These fonts assume that dyslexia is a visual problem, a problem solved by changing the size and shape of letters.  These fonts are designed so letters don’t seem to move.  A “d” can’t flip to a “b”; a “p” can’t flip to to a “b.” A “u” can’t rotate to an “n.”  Letters are less likely to switch places as in “saw” and “was.”

According to research, the following characteristics improve reading for dyslexic readers:

  • Sans serif typefaces. Serifs are tiny projections at the ends of letters.  Sans serif typefaces do not have serifs.  Times New Roman is a typeface with serifs.  Arial is a typeface without serifs.  Sans serif fonts are easier to read.
  • Upright fonts. Upright fonts (sometimes called Roman fonts) show the ascenders (upright lines as in b, h and k) and descenders (descending lines as in j, p and q ) at 90 degree angles from the horizontal.  Upright fonts are easier to read than italic or oblique fonts which show the ascenders and descenders as diagonal lines from the horizontal.
  • Monospace fonts. Monospace fonts show each letter taking up the same amount of horizontal space.  So a “w” and an “i” occupy the same amount of space within a word.  Most typefaces, including the one you are reading now, use proportional or variable width spacing, allowing a wider letter to occupy more horizontal space than a narrower letter.  Monospace fonts are easier to read.

Fonts created for dyslexic readers add a fourth typeface characteristic.  They distinguish between letters often confused, like “b” and “d” with additional  differences, such as angling slightly the round parts of the letters, or shaving off the thickness of parts of letters.  Some of these fonts make the bottoms of letters thicker and heavier -looking than the tops.

Another typeface characteristic making for easier reading is the size of the middle part of letters (letters minus the ascenders and descenders, such as the rounded parts of a, c, d and p).  The larger these mid-parts are in proportion to the ascenders and descenders, the easier the typeface is to read.

With these characteristics in mind, what are free recommended fonts you might  set as default fonts on computers used by dyslexic readers?

  • Arial, Helvetica and Verdana are san serif, upright fonts, but they do not use monospacing.
  • Courier is an upright, monospaced typeface, but it uses serifs.
  • OpenDyslexic is freely available to download. It is sans serif and upright for the ascenders, but it does not use nonospacing.  Its letters get wider and heavier (like bell-bottomed jeans) as they go from top to bottom, giving letters a weighted look.

But do typefaces designed for dyslexic readers make that much of a difference in enabling them to read? We will look at what the research says in our next blog.


Increasing interword spacing may help students to read better

Both versions of the above paragraph are shown in the same size type and with the same spacing between lines. What is different is that the first version is the normal (default) way words are shown while the second version is the expanded version with additional space between letters.

The research, conducted by Elizabeth Sacchi at Binghamton University, State University of New York, is part of the National Science Foundation-funded Reading Brain Project.  The project studies how children’s brains behave as they read.  Sacchi’s research is the first of its kind in the US to look at what happens inside the brain as children read letters which are spaced variously.

Researchers think the improved reading of children who read words with letters spaced farther apart is not due to visual processing.  Children at the very beginning stages of reading don’t show much change in reading ability when letters are spaced farther apart.  But as the reading gets more advanced, reading improvement can be seen.

This US study backs up a European study of six years ago which showed that more space between letters can help children identified as dyslexic read 20% faster.  In that study, not only was the space between letters expanded, but the space between lines was expanded.

The Italian researchers think increased spacing helps dyslexic children overcome an effect called “crowding.”  Crowding makes letters hard to identify when the letters are placed close to other letters.

Children without reading problems showed no benefit when reading the more widely spaced letters and lines in the European study.

For more information on the American study, go to Elizabeth Sacchi et al, An Event-Related Potential Study of Letter Spacing during Visual Word Recognition, Brain Research (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.brainres.2018.01.028.  For more information on the European study, go to the Proceedings of the American Academy of Science, 2012.

The X factor in type faces

[Another way to increase the readability of words is to increase the size of the half-space letters, as in the first example above.  For more information, see an earlier blog.]