Holly Joseph and Daisy Powell, Associate Professors at University of Reading
Who wouldn’t love a miracle cure for dyslexia and other learning difficulties faced by thousands of children everyday? In recent years, a number of specialist fonts have been developed which claim to help people with dyslexia to read more easily and fluently. The main idea is that by increasing space between letters and designing letters that are distinctive in terms of their height and shape, letters will be less confusable (for example letters such as b and d which are identical when reversed) and therefore reading can progress more easily. Sounds plausible, doesn’t it?
Well, perhaps not. Many researchers argue that focusing on letter form is missing the point. There is now a large body of research that supports the view that for most people with dyslexia, their core difficulty lies in their phonological skills, and in learning the relationships between letters and the sounds they represent. This can prevent young readers learning to alphabetically decode, or “sound out” words, a skill essential for independent reading. This means that the most effective form of remediation for those with dyslexia lies in a targeted phonics-based intervention. This is not an easy answer, and as many people with dyslexia and those supporting them will testify, such interventions are hard work, often frustrating, and take time. It is tempting to think that changing a font, or using coloured overlays, can provide immediate relief but sadly it is usually not that simple.
A number of studies have shown that while increasing spacing between letters can help some people with dyslexia to read more quickly, the font itself is not important (see recent TES article for a comprehensive and accessible summary), and so it is not worthwhile investing in an expensive specialist font when it is easy to increase spacing in any standard font. We know that resources are more stretched than ever in schools at the moment, so using existing evidence-based phonics interventions is a sensible first step. Fonts may be appealing but the evidence shows that they are not the answer if we want to do our best by struggling readers.