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Overview

People often ask what is the best font to use for people with dyslexia. But that is the wrong question. Research shows that fonts matter relatively little, although Sans Serif fonts like Arial are slightly better for people with dyslexia than others.

You can do much more to make your texts dyslexia-friendly with two simple adjustments that don’t require you to install anything on your computer.

This article will look at the top two most important things you can do today to make your texts more dyslexia friendly. This is based on current research. Then we will cover the general principles and the top dos and don’ts.

Large fonts

Compare the two texts of dyslexia definition below. The one on the left is written in 11pt Calibri font, the default font size in Microsoft word. The one on the right is written in the same font but with the size increased to 16 points. It also has a slightly increased character spacing and line spacing.

You can see at a glance that the text on the right is easier and faster to read. Research shows that for dyslexic readers, this increase in ease of reading is even more significant. 

We are used to books and magazines cramming as much information as possible on a page. That is because paper is heavy and expensive. And turning a paper page is ‘hard’ work. But for ebooks and documents read on the screen, that’s not necessary. Even for printed instructions and worksheets, if we are serious about making them accessible to struggling readers, we should use font size at least 12 points but ideally 14 points or more.

The nice thing is that this will make the texts faster to read for everyone. Particularly older people will appreciate this. And people with vision impairments will benefit, as well.

But it will require a mental adjustment. As you see from the picture above. The red tablet is how many people are reading their ebooks. They want to see something that looks as much as possible like a page in a book. But that is the wrong approach. Making text as large as possible while increasing line character spacing a bit will make you read faster. Even if you have to turn the page or scroll more often. What you see on the black tablet is how I read ebooks. I don’t have any issues with literacy or vision, I could read the text on the red tablet quite comfortably. But the black tablet is so much more efficient.

The black tablet has the added advantage for students with dyslexia in that it displays less text at once. This makes it less intimidating but also less likely to get lost in the text. That’s why many students who struggle with literacy say they prefer to read on the Kindle or even their phone.

What the research says

All this is largely confirmed by current research on formatting for people with dyslexia. No one study can be taken as definitive and much more work is required but from what we know, font size has the greatest benefitOne recent study, even found that it was the only adjustment that showed significant effects in speed of reading across the population. That does not mean that other adjustments will not be effective for individuals but it shows how important font size is.

 

Keyword highlighting

While font size has been shown to improve reading speeds, highlighting key words in text improves comprehension. As with text size, the improvements are there for everyone but are most significant for readers with dyslexia.

It is obvious why that might be. Compare our example text below. You can see that it is much easier to see what the key points of the paragraph are just by scanning the text in bold. You can then return to the paragraph and read it in whole knowing the gist. It is also easier to go back to the salient points.

It is easy to see how this would help somebody with a slower speed of decoding.

Regular readers of these posts will note that I always try to highlight key passages in each paragraph. You can judge for yourself how effective it is.

What the research says

So far, there has only been one study that looked at the effects of keyword highlighting. It found that it improves comprehension for people with dyslexia. Some people worry that highlighted keywords might slow readers down but this study found no impact on reading speed.

Conclusion

The conclusion for teachers and other people who create documents designed to be accessible to as many people as possible is simple:

  1. Increase the size of your font as much as possible – even if you need to take up more pages
  2. Highlight key words in the text – even if it takes more time

You can see the combined difference on the example below. All your students are likely to read faster and understand better. Your students with dyslexia will benefit even more.

 

Part 2: Formatting for Accessible Text

Below are the key dos and don’ts based on key principles.

You can also watch this Load2Learn video that covers the same points.  

More space

One of the difficulties dyslexic readers face is lower speed of processing. Reading is similar to driving fast on a narrow road. The faster you drive, the narrower the road seems. And if you have slower reflexes, the road seems narrower still. It seems, the same applies with reading. If your speed of decoding is low, it will be even harder when you have tightly squeezed text.

So if you give somebody with dyslexia more space around letters and words, they will be able to read a little faster. This could make a lot of difference to someone whose reading is already slow.

Line spacing

Increasing the line spacing to at least 1.2 lines is a good idea for texts for most people. It will make reading much more comfortable for most students.

It is easy to do in Microsoft Word in one of two ways:

Character spacing

Another way to provide more space, is to slightly increase the character spacing. As you can see, the text with slightly increased character spacing is easier on the eyes.

It is very easy to do in Microsoft Word using the Font advanced dialogue box.

Another way to give more space between letters is to use a monospace font such as Courier New or Consolas which are also preferred by some people with dyslexia. However, they often look more like text produced by a type writer.

Avoid text distortions

A lot of typical formatting used for emphasis can distort the shapes of the letters. This slows down processing for everyone but can be even more damaging for someone with dyslexia. These include italics, underlining and ALL CAPS.

Luckily, there are alternatives available such as bold or colours.

Another way, text can be distorted is the alignment of paragraphs and spaces between words.

Text formatting
FormattingProblems causedAlternative
Underlined textCan interact with the shapes of the letters like p or q but it also adds more things in the visual field for the reader to deal withUse Larger Font Size and/or bold for things you want to emphasize. Or make sure that the line under the text does not touch any of the letters.
ItalicsDistorts the shapes of the letters and makes them blend into one another.Use bold for emphasis. You can also increase the spacing of the letters to emphasize words.
ALL CAPSWriting in ALL CAPS creates an undifferentiated block that is much harder to navigate and slows down reading.

Large font and bold are the best alternatives.

You can also use different colours, if possible.

 

 

 

 

 

Paragraph alignment

Always, keep your paragraphs left aligned.

FormattingProblems causedAlternative
Justified text

Causes variable spacing between words.

Makes paragraphs look more uniform and easier to loose place.
Left-align when possible – avoid using hyphenation.
Centred text

Makes it more difficult to navigate the paragraphs because their beginnings are irregular.

This is a problem every time the centred text is more than a single line.

Left aligned titles look much better than you think.

You can put more space before and after the title and increase font size for emphasis.
Reduce visual stress and distractions

A minority of people with dyslexia suffer from different forms of visual stress. They may report increased tiredness or complain that the letters on the page ‘swim’ before their eyes. There are several ways in which these issues can be minimised.

You can use different colours, special fonts or avoid putting texts on distracting background.

Colour contrast

 

In many schools, children with dyslexia are given colour overlays as a ‘solution’ to their problem. This is not fully supported by evidence but never the less, it can be helpful to use colours that reduce the visual glare. This is much easier with e-books than with print but even in print, you can do some things. Some options are:

  • Use a slightly lower intensity of black
  • Set cream background
  • Reduce the intensity of screen brightness
Fonts

Much is made in the press about the selection of fonts. But the research indicates that fonts have only limited impact on reading.

However, most people with dyslexia seem to prefer Sans Serif fonts such as Arial or Cursive fonts such as Comic Sans.

Some people also prefer mono spaced fonts such as Courier New or Consolas. These fonts are often used to represent computer code because there is less potential for confusion between letters.

Dyslexic readers who report text swimming on the page also often report benefits from fonts designed to be dyslexia-friendly such as Open Dyslexic. Another font often reported to have these benefits is Century Gothic which is already installed on all Windows Machines.

Another reason why some fonts may be more dyslexia friendly than others is the shapes of the letters to minimise confusion. You can read more about different fonts on the BDA Tech blog.

You can also see that different type faces are bigger or smaller when set to the same point size. This may also have an impact on readability preference as we saw last time.

Research on fonts and readability has produced contradictory resultsSans Serif fonts are consistently preferred and produce better results but the differences are slight and not consistent across different type faces. 

Non-distracting backgrounds

Another way, in which text can be made more difficult to read, if it is on an image background or on a gradient background.

Many modern textbooks are guilty of this as are magazines and some websites. It is important to keep background colours as uniform as possible although some slight texturing may be acceptable.

Putting some solid background behind the text over the image is one solution. But even that may be distracting. It may be far better to simply put the text below the image.

For more of Dom's TopTechTips, see our Tech Thursday articles, here.

 

Image Credits

Photos of fonts and stress from Pixabay licensed under CC0. Others are by Dominik Lukeš licensed under CC BY.