Improving performance. Fonts for revision, comprehension and dyslexia.
I know that this post is not strictly speaking anything to do with food or exercise but it is about performance and until reading the research earlier this year, I had no idea that font type could help improve learning, comprehension and revision. Even though my family is riddled with dyslexia, I had also not been aware that there are specially designed fonts for dyslexics. I thought it would be interesting to look into it in more detail.
There are thousands of typefaces available, each with its own distinct style and each thought to be suited a different purpose. They can be broadly broken into 3 main categories:
- Serif Typefaces – where the letters include small hooks or feet known as ‘serifs’ These help the eye group letters together into words and are thought to increase readability of a printed text. Examples are Cambria, Times New Roman, Garamond (used in a high proportion of novels) and Janson.
- San Serif Typefaces – contain no ‘serifs’ for cleaner lines. They are more legible when the print is small, when displayed on a computer screen or when the print quality is low. Examples are Arial, Futura, Myriad (used by a lot of software companies) and helvetica (used in the majority of text books). Univers is also san serif and is used by a lot of exam boards.
- Display Typefaces – are fonts that have been designed for effect and include things like brush stroke, chalkboard and baskaville as well as script based fonts.
(Some of the fonts given as examples above can be seen if you click on the lead photograph at the top of this page).
Most of the research into font types has been done for advertising or marketing companies. What they have found is that the more familiar the font, the more comfortable we feel with the product. Adapting that font can make us feel that a product is higher quality or even that it tastes better.
FONTS FOR REVISION
How many animals of each species did Moses take on the Ark?
If you answered “two,” you might need to reread the question, as it was Noah and not Moses that led the animals onto the ark making the correct answer none. This question is known as the Moses Illusion and when first used in research on students, eight out of ten got the answer wrong. The reason why it is so easy to get the answer wrong, is because the reader speeds through the question and does not read it word for word. What scientists have since discovered is that the number of people getting the question right can be manipulated by simply changing the type script or font. The more unfamiliar the type script and the harder it is to read, the more people that get the answer right.
When a task is perceived as unfamiliar, unusual, or especially difficult the brain needs to invest greater time and attention to tackling it. A familiar font enables the eyes to skim effortlessly across a text, often without much attention being paid. An unfamiliar font, by contrast, slows us down and so increases our chances of spotting anomalies—like the substitution of Moses for Noah.
HOW DOES THIS HELP IN REVISION ?
Contrary to what you might think, it isn’t any easier to remember a new fact if it’s in BIG BOLD LETTERS or underlined. In fact font styles that are harder to read and unfamiliar can improve both comprehension and memory. A wide variety of well designed studies have consistently shown that changing the text in a text book to a more unfamiliar ‘difficult’ font, causes students to pay closer attention and think more deeply about what they are reading. Although the student may then report that the subject is harder than they would have otherwise done, it has been shown that this slower processing improves memory retention and recall.
What is particularly interesting is that as a students own notes will become increasingly familiar and revision from them may become less effective over time. Continually changing the font of your work and the colour of the background has been shown to improve learning comprehension and memory recall. Creating disfluency by having some words upside down, in different sizes or in different colours will also improve memory of those words. Students will revise better from constantly changing notes as this stops the brain from thinking that it has been there before and so skipping the facts.
FONTS FOR DYSLEXIA
Reading ability and comprehension in young dyslexic children has been found to improve when the text size is increased, the font is distinct and the gaps between words are bigger. However as the children get older, font size is no longer found to have any effect on reading rate and accuracy and in college aged dyslexics reducing the font size has been found to enhance comprehension. Dyslexics have also been found to read more fluidly on an auto prompt where they are forced to read faster under pressure.
There are two things that have been found to make a font more attractive to dyslexics.
- Sans-serif fonts work better. Serif fonts, with their ‘feet’, ‘ticks’ and ‘tails’ at the end of strokes can obscure the distinct shape of letters and make them run into each other.
- Longer ascenders and descenders on letters (the ‘stems’ on letters like p and b). Many dyslexic readers rely on recalling the visual shape of words. If ascenders and descenders are too short the visible shape of the words are more similar.
Some teachers have also suggested dyslexics find it easier to read a font that looks similar to hand writing, as this improves the recognisability of words. However this type of font can also lead to confusion with some letter combinations, such as “oa” and “oo”; “rn” and “m” and it doesn’t work for everyone.
The British Dyslexic Association (link here) and dyslexic.com (link here) both give detailed information about the best fonts to use and where to down-load them, if they are not available on your computer. These include both sassoon specifically designed for children and sylexiad designed for dyslexic adults.
What is not included on these lists is information about a new typeface developed by a Dutch graphic designer Christian Boer and called dyslexie. Boer who is dyslexic himself felt that one of the main problem for dyslexics, is that when they read they can subconsciously switch, rotate and mirror letters in their minds. Traditional typefaces have tended to base all the letter designs on each other to have consistency. This “inadvertently creates ‘twin letters’ for people with dyslexia.” Dyslexie is different in a number of ways.
- All the letters are weighted towards the bottom, this gives a heavy baseline and makes it harder for the letters to be flipped upside down.
- In many fonts, the d, b, p and q are very similar and just rotated or mirrored from each other. In dyslexie the typeface is distorted, slanting the ascenders and descenders and enlarging the openings to make them harder to confuse. For example the c is prised open to make it more different from an o.
- Other similar looking letters are given different heights or their proportions are slightly deformed. The valleys of the v, w and y are all set at subtly different levels and the tails, ascenders and descenders are all lengthened.
- The space between letters is increased to counteract the crowding effect
- Capital letters and punctuation are in bold, making it easier to spot where one sentence ends and a new one begins.
Dyslexie was developed for Boers final thesis project in 2008. Since development it has been extensively studied by researchers at both the University of Amsterdam and the University of Twente. This research has shown that 84% of readers can read text in the Dyslexie font faster than a standard typeface and 77% did so not only faster but with fewer mistakes. More details about Dyslexie can be found at dyslexiefont. Christian Boer has gave a Ted talk in on his font in 2011 and can be found here.
There is no quick fix for dyslexia but the research suggests that playing with the fonts you use while studying and the colour of the background may help and is worth a try. Using a font that improves readability will make the subject easier to grasp in the first place and will reduce the number of reading mistakes but for revision, texts that are unfamiliar and harder to read seem to improve memory retention and recall. When revising it is worth playing with different texts, colours and word orientations increasing disfluency.
Novemsky, N., Dhar, R., Schwarz, N. & Simonson, I. (2007) Preference Fluency in Choice, Journal of Marketing Research, XLIV, pp 347-356.
Erickson, T.A. & Mattson, M.E. (1981) From words to meaning: A semantic illusion. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 20, 540 – 552.
Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, p 23.
Norretranders, T., (1998) The User Illusion, New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.
Song H, Schwarz N (2008) Fluency and the detection of misleading questions: Low processing fluency attenuates the Moses illusion. Soc Cogn 26:6: 791-799.10.1521/soco.2008.26.6.791
Bjork EL, Bjork RA (2011) Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In: Gernsbacher MA, Pew RW, Hough LM, Pomerantz JR, editors. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society. New York: Worth Publishers; pp. 56-64
Renske de Leeuw (2010) A special font for dyslexia? Masters Thesis. University of Twente. Faculty of Behavioural Science. http://www.ilo.gw.utwente.nl/ilo/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=32:master-thesisleeuw&catid=9:theses&Itemi
Tineke Pijpker (2013) Reading performance of dyslexics with a special font and a colored background. Masters thesis University of Twente Faculty of Behavioral Science. http://essay.utwente.nl/63321/1/Pijpker,_C._-_s1112430_%28verslag%29.pdf