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Designing for Dyslexia: A More Readable Font and a New Dictionary

November 12, 2014

Two tools designed to help dyslexic people have been getting attention recently. One, a dictionary, is being designed by a father and son team Neville and Daryl Brown who say the way most dictionaries are organized—by alphabetical order—is difficult to navigate for dyslexics who struggle with phonics and spelling. The Browns are organizing their dictionary instead by common word components, or “morphemes.” For example, in their dictionary the words signature, resign, and assignation will all be listed together because they share the morpheme “sign.”

It seems confusing, but Daryl Brown says that their new method is helpful because it “bypasses the requirement to learn words by sounding them out” in favor of recognizing the root parts of words. And it won’t be just dyslexics who benefit. He continues:

The meanings of words will be prevalent in our dictionary. Whilst we believe it will be an invaluable tool for dyslexics, it will also give children and adults without the learning difficulty a greater understanding of the origins of our language, enabling them to grasp the true meanings behind parts of words and make greater sense of a language that we learn verbatim, but never question.

Another innovation, a font called Dyslexie, is being featured at a design festival right now in Istanbul. The font was created by designer Christian Boer, who is dyslexic himself, and claims that Dyslexie is easier for some people with dyslexia to read.

Most children with dyslexia have phonological deficits, which means they struggle to understand the sound structure of words. This means they have difficulty identifying phonemes, which are the smallest sound units that make up words (e.g. the “ch” sound in chair is a phoneme) as well as recognizing rhymes. But there is also a smaller subtype of children, who have poor visual processing—for example they might accidentally flip or skip letters. This is the group that Dyslexie is aiming to help.

Boer, the designer of Dyslexie, says traditional typefaces make the tendency to flip or skip letters worse. In an effort to prevent this, Dyslexie letters look more grounded because they have a heavier bottom half—something Boer says makes dyslexic readers less likely to flip them. Some letters are also tilted slightly, to make it easier to distinguish between, for example, b and d or i and j. To make words clearer letter openings are also larger, there is more space between letters and words, and the font color defaults to blue.

Finding a font that makes reading easier for dyslexics who struggle with visual processing is an ongoing quest. In 2013 researchers compared several fonts in a study to see which were more readable to people with dyslexia. The researchers used eye-tracking and comprehension tests to evaluate readability. From the study researchers isolated three characteristics dyslexics should look for in a font:

1.  Monospaced (all letters occupy the same horizontal width)
2.  Roman (letters are upright-not slanted, in script or italic)
3.  Sans serif (the letters don’t have “feet”)

Helevetica, Courier, Arial, Verdana, and Computer Modern Unicode all tested positively. Interestingly, another font specifically designed for dyslexic readers called OpenDyslexic did not lead to better readability or faster reading.

Although it wasn’t included in the study, Comic Sans is also anecdotally considered easier to read for people with dyslexia. Some teachers also prefer to use Comic Sans because it resembles the handwriting children learn in school.

Tagged with: Self-Advocacy
Rachel Ehmke
Rachel Ehmke is a freelance writer and the former managing editor at the Child Mind Institute. She holds a BA … Read Bio