Articles about “dyslexia fonts” have been appearing in the news recently. It’s easy to see the appeal of these stories. A special font or typeface that helps children with dyslexia would be a wonderful thing—especially since it’s so easy to change fonts via our computers.
But there is no evidence that dyslexia fonts help people with dyslexia to read faster and more accurately. Why are these fonts getting so much attention? Sometimes research findings make it into the popular press without enough vetting. This often happens when the findings appear promising, as in the case of the dyslexia fonts, Dyslexie and OpenDyslexic.
Let’s step back for a moment before we get into the specifics of dyslexia fonts. Some people prefer certain fonts over others. Some people find the shapes of letters in certain fonts to be more appealing and easier to read. That’s one reason why some people with dyslexia may prefer to read dyslexia fonts.
Here are some of the ways the creators of these fonts say they differ from traditional fonts:
- Parts of the letters have thicker lines.
- Letters are slanted a bit, such as a lowercase L that leans to the left.
- Letters that have sticks and tails, such as b, d and p, vary in length.
These fonts supposedly make it easier for people with dyslexia to recognize the differences between letters. The fonts can be downloaded and used for free. But keep in mind that more rigorous research still needs to be done to find out whether these fonts really help with reading.
Specifically, these fonts still need to be studied using what researchers call controlled, randomized studies. The studies also need to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. “Peer-reviewed” means that the work has been examined and deemed worthy of publishing by independent experts in the field.
This process is crucial for evaluating any program thought to ease reading difficulties. The absence of peer-reviewed studies for dyslexia fonts means that this fundamental first step has not yet occurred. (The next big step is to see if other researchers get similar results under slightly different circumstances.)
OpenDyslexic’s website is upfront about the lack of research. Its FAQ section notes that “there are no formal studies conducted on OpenDyslexic.”
The other dyslexia font, Dyslexie, is the result of a graphic designer’s student thesis project. A student at a different university who conducted a Dyslexie study concluded: “So where does this leave parents who are wondering about using these fonts? Hopefully there will be peer-reviewed studies that shed light on this question.”
In the meantime, there is some related research that is noteworthy. For example, peer-reviewed research findings have shown that there is a relationship for all readers between reading speed and the spacing of letters.
The reason why spacing might affect reading has to do with how the presence of some objects (including letters) interferes with our ability to see some aspects of what we are viewing. This is referred to as “crowding.” It has been suggested that crowding occurs more in people who have dyslexia. It has also been suggested that reading text with greater spacing between letters improves reading ability in people with dyslexia.
Should more studies turn up similar results, then it might make sense for more teachers and parents to use letter spacing to help struggling readers. However, it’s unlikely that fonts or letter spacing will help people with dyslexia a great deal. That’s because the fundamental problem of dyslexia is in mapping the shapes of letters to the right sound units or phonemes.
As a scientist, I’m not only a big believer in understanding why and how things work. I’m also a big believer in relying on data rather than testimonials. Some people may think, “What’s the harm in trying something that’s unproven—especially if it’s free?” But there is always the concern that spending a lot of effort on something that doesn’t help your child distracts from using a successful approach.
To help you find the best course for your child, talk to her reading teacher. Work together as a team to provide your child with the evidence-based approaches. This means they have been shown to help children acquire good reading skills.
These approaches typically involve structured, explicit instruction that carefully builds skills over time. They’re designed to strengthen your child’s understanding of spoken and written language. They also focus on using memory when reading. Crucial ingredients include the learning of phonics, phonemic awareness, word recognition or “sight words,” reading fluency and comprehension.