Ever since I started working with children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities in the mid-1990-ies, I wondered about various ways of adapting the texts that children get to read. From wearing frames with coloured classes to raised 3D type letters embossed in paper: many new “cure dyslexia” interventions have crossed my desk.
New fonts appear on the Market
Closer to 2008, I started to encounter specific font types that were designed to help children read better. Some of these fonts looked different and slowed down my reading speed and accuracy. These fonts were different from some common neuropsychological interventions that would juggle various font types and sizes within words and sentences.
During the last 20 years, several fonts appeared on the market (some free, some paid) that claimed to assist individuals with dyslexia with their reading, each without any empirical evidence (scientific and peer-reviewed research). Over the years though, several researchers have looked at the science behind these specialized fonts and also tried to determine the effectiveness of using the fonts on for example reading speed and accuracy. Let’s take a look at some of the results.
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 children and adults with dyslexia preferred reading standard fonts to the special ones (Harley, et al., 2016; Kuster, et al., 2018; Wery & Diliberto, 2017). Only one study reported a few students with dyslexia read faster (Marinus, et al., 2016). This benefit was not at all attributed to the font design, but to the spacing within and between words. When the researchers increased the spacings in common standard fonts, the same effect was seen. Masulli (2018) likewise found that larger spacings improved the reading speed of individuals with dyslexia, similar to readers without dyslexia.
In addition, French et al. (2013) found that harder-to-read fonts generated deeper processing of the texts and better recall for students with dyslexia, but also significantly increased the reading time. Increasing their processing speed and increasing the amount of comprehension is only reasonable if the goal is faster completion of reading tasks. When the goal is to increase learning from text without significantly increasing reading time, it is much better to learn effective study skills and detective-reading that results in fact-finding rather than remembering insignificant parts of the text. For that reason, specifically engineered fonts yet again show a disadvantage.
What is recommended then?
The British Dyslexia Association recommends various settings, colours, font selection, and font sizes to assist individuals with dyslexia. Typically, use a sans serif font (Arial, Verdana, or Tahoma for example). For on-screen use such as websites, the recommended font remains Open Sans. If you are interested in all the settings and configurations for fonts, take a look at the style guide that the British Dyslexia Association published in 2018.
Should you or your child use special fonts?
This might be more about preference than about relying on scientific evidence. If you or your child read better using a special font, why not continue with it? However, evaluate progress based on reading rate, fluency, comprehension, as well as eye fatigue, and then make an informed decision.