Wednesday, November 20, 2019
Since the topic of neuromyths (and debunking them) seems to be popular these days (here, here and here) based on the passionate discussion they engender, here's another one to ponder, the idea that fonts affect reading ease. More specifically, the blog Shanahan on Literacy, written by Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago Timothy Shanahan who was also the Founding Director of the UIC Center for Literacy, debunks the myth that certain specialty fonts which have become popular in recent years can help dyslexic children read better or more easily. Despite the popularity of these fonts with educators, Professor Shanahan points out that there is no empirical evidence to support their use. He also alludes to a larger point that most "print design alterations" have little effect on reading ability (though he does note that things like line-spacing and white space can affect readability). Indeed, he mentions a study involving dyslexic children that found using harder to read font actually improves comprehension and engagement with the text because it makes students work harder - a point I recall hearing elsewhere that's applicable to the general reading public. Professor Shanahan concludes his blog post by reminding everyone that teaching students to read is just plain hard work for students and teachers alike, an observation backed-up by cognitive psychologists like Professors Daniel Willingham and Steven Pinker, suggesting that many of these neuromyths may be driven by the wishful desire to find shortcuts to the otherwise hard work that classroom learning takes.
Despite the above, however, it should be pointed out that one of the commenters to Professor Shanahan's blog post is a dyslexic reader who said things are not so cut and dried as the empirical data would suggest because he finds that font and color choice do indeed make reading easier for him under some circumstances. By way of another example, I require my students to use Arial 12 font because I've always thought it was easier on my eyes than Times New Roman when it comes to grading lots of papers. But perhaps that's just an aesthetic preference on my part rather than one based on any cognitive differences or benefits. What sayeth you?