Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Another neuromyth bites the dust - this time it's font choice

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?


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In response to WPHDMPHD, is it fair to summarize your comment this way: Know your audience, know your goals. When it comes to getting law students and judges to engage with the text, those goals are often similar but not coextensive. Same can be said about the audience.

Posted by: James | Dec 6, 2019 4:11:23 PM

There have been decades of repeat studies about the generalities of typeface and the impact on readability. I’ve written about some of that research as have others. While I’m not questioning your reporting on the dyslexia studies, I do take issue with your extrapolation and suggestion that there is no proven science. You are overreaching and simply wrong.

Posted by: Ruth Anne Robbins | Nov 26, 2019 3:47:28 AM

On using harder-to-read font because it [allegedly] improves comprehension and engagement with the text because it makes [readers] work harder

I wouldn’t try this out on appellate judges, esp. not in courts with discretionary review, such as the SCOTX. As with other forms of applied writing, it’s all about the target audience and pleasing their eyes: Catching their attention, piquing their interest, and keeping it.

To want to make students work harder may be noble; to want to make the judge or staff attorneys work harder would be folly.

Suppose I learned from insiders that some justices have taken to reading briefs on hand-held electronic devices, rather than on an oversized desktop monitor that displays full letter-sized pages. Wouldn’t I want to take that into consideration in drafting a petition for review or a brief on the merits? The reading mode would have a bearing on whether to use in-text citations or footnotes, for example.

Under our Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure (TRAPs), the minimum font size is 14 pts for text and 12 pts for footnotes, with 1 inch margins all around. Some attorneys (few) make the font larger. The number of pages no longer matters because brief length is regulated by word count. Some filings now measure hundreds of pages in PDF due to a large appendix merged with the brief. The latter don’t count against the limit.

Times New Roman and Calibri are popular. A few use Ariel. Almost nobody except pro se prisoners use Courier font/monospace. It’s the worst to deal with when there is little time and much material to review.

Noncompliant documents may be struck. Here are check-list items from a form order striking a brief:
☐ 1. Margins (rule 9.4(c))
☐ 2. Line spacing (rule 9.4(d))
☐ 3. Font size (rule 9.4(e))

Presumably there is a good reason for minimum font size in briefs, but that rule dates from before e-filing and e-courts. So now, the margins should arguably be re-considered also (widened) because the magnification on screens can be adjusted by the reader as desired, but the words-per-line not (at least not in document converted to PDFs, which is required for all e-filings in Texas). Interestingly, justices make their preferences known to the appellate bar for the format of e-briefs (and the SCOTX Clerk just posted a new instruction manual) but state supreme court opinions are still issued in smaller-than-14pt font double-spaced PDFs, which makes them harder to read on a screen. And the double-spacing serves no readily apparent purpose. Google Scholar (Caselaw) offers much better visual display, including use of enlarged and bold-face section headers, which neither judges nor attorneys use in their respective legal work products. Westlaw is even worse when it comes to display and readability.

As for state trial court judges, they often can’t be counted on to read a motion or response before a hearing, or will perhaps only skim it. So that puts a premium on having a summary at the front or a table of contents that actually makes all important points through the section/subsection headers, rather than using generic category labels for the distinct parts of a narrative or an argument. In the same vein, it makes sense to use larger font and bold typeface for section headers within the body of the motion or memorandum, should the busy judge find enough time to move beyond the cover page but not enough time to read all of the presumptively excellent fine print. But on the assumption that the judge will look no further than the cover page, there may be a tradeoff between larger font size and ability to put all of the essential information on a single page. Single-spacing may be called for, with blank lines between point/arguments.

Alas, old bad habits linger and many trial court filings still include redundant COMES NOW SO AND SOSOS, HEREWITHS, and HEREINAFTERS, therewith wasting precious frontal real estate with meaningless verbiage and redundant repetition: Party information that is already in the case style, and basic content description that should already be clear from a well-crafted document title. And who would ever doubt the such is presented TO THIS HONORABLE COURT [and none other] BY AND THROUGH HER ATTORNEY. As if a pro-se litigants would be prone to serve up such word salads.

Bottom line: The focus ought to be on (1) who the target audience is and what is known to work better for them (even judge-specific, if the judge is known beforehand), and (2) the purpose of the work product.

In education, the students must please the teacher/instructor/professor and meet their standards; in the field, it’s about persuading a judicial decisionmaker, or getting the busy decisionmaker’s attention in the first instance (as in the case of a discretionary petition for review, which will go down the conveyor belt and into the trash bin if nothing is there to catch a justice’s or law clerk’s attention).

In school, the student will generally know the identity of the person who will grade their writing. In court, that may be the case, but not always, as with centralized docket systems for hearings and random assignment of judges. When the identify of the reader/decisionmaker is known, it can be helpful.

Just two scintillas from one who went from the ivory tower into the trenches and holds out as a social scientist.

Posted by: WPHDMPHD | Nov 21, 2019 11:29:28 AM

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