Not Giving Up on 20 Percent of Readers!

My first thought after reading an article in the SCBWI Winter 2018 newsletter about accommodations for dyslexic readers was that this significant problem could easily be resolved.

Provocatively titled, the article “Are Authors Giving Up on 20 Percent of Their Readers?” by Dr. Theodore Jerome Cohen, begins by stating, “I don’t know of any industry that purposely would give up 20 percent of its potential markets without a fight. Yet mistakes we make in the selection of typefaces, formats, and backgrounds can indeed have that effect.” Dr. Cohen gives useful tips about legibility, cites the work of Daniel Britton who is a designer with dyslexia, and specifies two typefaces – Open Dyslexic Alta and Dyslexie – purportedly designed to help people with dyslexia and other reading disabilities. Dr. Cohen saw to it that a separate edition of his novel The Hypnotist, written under the pseudonym Alyssa Devine, was formatted using the free Open Dyslexic Alta typeface. The font is bottom heavy and has other alterations making it less likely that readers will confuse letters. His desire to implement a solution is admirable.

Is there proof?… However, I could not find any scientific evidence on line showing that either of these fonts facilitated reading better than any other existing typeface. To the contrary, Wikipedia cites studies with the opposite view: “Rello and Baeza-Yates (2013) measured eye-tracking recordings of Spanish readers (aged 11–50) with dyslexia and found that OpenDyslexic did not significantly improve reading time nor shorten eye fixation.[5] In her master’s thesis, Leeuw (2010) compared Arial and Dyslexie with 21 Dutch students with dyslexia and found Dyslexie did not lead to faster reading, but may help with some dyslexic-related errors.[6]”

When I contacted, Abbie Gonzalez responded that he knew of no efficacy studies specific to his Open Dyslexic Alta font. His objective was to make available a dyslexia-friendly font free for everyone, an honest goal.

Are there really as many as 20 percent of our children’s book readership who have a language disability? My sister, Norma Audy who taught Special Education in Lowell Massachusetts for 35 years and eventually became head of the department, said that yes, that’s about right. Shocking, if true, but anecdotal.

Marianne Knowles, Senior Science Curriculum Specialist at Six Red Marbles sent me links that show controversy over perspectives about learning disability accommodations, including the percentage cited in the SCBWI article and elsewhere. For example:

“One disconcerting outcome of the challenges involved in making distinctions is that estimates of the incidence of dyslexia vary widely….. In fact, interventions that are appropriately responsive to individual needs have been shown to reduce the number of children with continuing difficulties in reading to below 2% of the population (Vellutino et al., 2000).” from a document

So, perhaps the higher percentage of 15% to 20% that is sometimes used refers to all who have ever had dyslexia or other learning disabilities before educational interventions?

The following list shows common ground between two major associations, from an International Dyslexia Association publication. Note the last item.

IDA (International Dyslexia Association) agrees with ILA (International Literacy Association) that…

  • Beliefs and practices should be grounded in available evidence. (See IDA Resources below.)
  • Boys and girls have difficulty learning to read regardless of levels of intelligence and creativity.
  • Engaging early intervention that is responsive to the child’s instructional needs is key.
  • “Evidence does not support what many take to be indicators or predictors of dyslexia, including clumsiness, fine motor problems, attention deficits, creativity, or handedness.”
  • “Dyslexia, or severe reading difficulties, do not result from visual problems producing letter and word reversals.”
  • The estimates of the incidence of dyslexia vary widely. (See How widespread is dyslexia? for more information about the range/spectrum of dyslexia.)

Interesting that the last bullet point says that estimates vary widely, yet when you follow the link at the end of the sentence you will see numbers similar to what has been casually cited elsewhere.

Regardless of the actual number, there are readers with significant difficulties. Can or should the book community do something to help them? The SCBWI article suggests that attention to typography is one obvious step.

Lance Hidy, a designer friend who created Adobe’s Penumbra font, stated that authors and illustrators should not get involved in typography choices for their books at all, which is true for those produced by traditional publishers who have experienced designers on staff. However, for the increasing number of self-published children’s book people, including Mr. Cohen, readability over the widest spectrum of the audience should be a consideration. Lance was also not convinced that the special fonts mentioned above were developed with the sort of design rigor that commercially available fonts are, although the goals of the designers may be laudable.

I spoke with my son Eric about this issue because Guðjón, my seventeen-year-old grandson, is dyslexic. Eric said that schools in Iceland where they live use no specially designed textbooks; rather they make available audio versions of the texts for kids with reading difficulties. For a country that publishes more books per capita than any other in the world, that suggests the solution doesn’t rest squarely in typography.

What about text accommodations in the United States? My daughter, Melody, who has been teaching at schools in California for fourteen years, says, “I have never received a specific font-related accommodation for a student with dyslexia. I have had students who used font enlargers, audio tools and other things.”

Then, in discussing this with Paul Kahn who is Experience Director at Mad*Pow, Boston and New Hampshire, came a revelation. He said, “James Christie, who is our resident accessibility expert at MadPow, pointed to the Heinemann font which was developed thru a collaboration among educational designers and font designers at Elsevier (now owned by Pearson) about 10 years ago.

This font was developed specifically to mitigate learning disability reading issues.”

So there is a font designed and used by a respected educational publishing company that strives to address readability issues specific to those with dyslexia and other verbal disabilities. Hallelujah. It is not free, but available.

Lance added that it is “Interesting to compare [the Heinemann font] to the Magma family designed by Summer Stone, former director of the Adobe font program. The “child-safe” font in the Magma family is called Tuff.” He points out that Tuff’s Roman a and g are more legible and distinctive from other letters than those in Heinemann. Tuff also rounds the corners of the letters. He likes its monoweight strokes with slight swelling of the ends. And says that, “I think highly tapered strokes (Times) and serifs both add complexity, that while familiar, ultimately detract from legibility. This is why monoweight, sans serifs are gradually dominating user-friendly design for digital displays.”

And potentially for more easily readable materials for our dyslexic audience. 

Other aids to some dyslexic readers:

  • increase letter spacing
  • increase line spacing
  • use ragged right rather than justified right
  • care should be taken when type is overprinted on colored backgrounds
  • use sans serif
  • enlarge the type
  • make audio versions available
  • digital texts allow choice of font and size

Awareness is the best tool in finding viable solutions so that kids with difficulties can enjoy the wonders that stories create.

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