Free font for children with reading problems

What free font do you think children prefer with serious reading difficulties (dyslexia, foreign language, low IQ, …). Children are from a Flemish Belgian primary school (Het Kompas, Gent), many non native speakers of Dutch (Roma, Turkish, Bulgarian). Most of them poor, some of them homeless, many abused or seriously neglected.
Preliminary indicative experiments and questioning point at Verdana > Source Sans > Roboto.
There is no budget and no possibility to prevent illegal copying.
Any help welcome.

sevag's picture

Being dyslexic and coming from a different background are two different categories.

Can't think of a free font at this moment, but commercial font families like Frutiger, Flama or Guardian Sans were conceived for satisfying the typographic needs of large groups of people. There is an interesting article in Bseline's 61th Summer issue tittled "Letter and symbol misrecognition in highly legible typefaces for general, children, dyslexic, visually impaired and ageing readers” by Thomas Bohm which will be useful to read.

On the other hand you have the perfect environment for conducting your own tests. All you have to do is to print text samples with different fonts and ask what your readers think about them.

Peter Van Lancker's picture

I did, on a limited scale, and the result is Verdana. Dyslexia and speaking a different language are 2 different things indeed, but most of our pupils have both. At least. Local dyslexia groups also advise Verdana. I could not believe this at first as I am a graphic designer with ample interest in font design, but I can not find convincing counter arguments.

Peter Van Lancker's picture

I did, on a limited scale, and the result is Verdana. Dyslexia and speaking a different language are 2 different things indeed, but most of our pupils have both. At least. Local dyslexia groups also advise Verdana. I could not believe this at first as I am a graphic designer with ample interest in font design, but I can not find convincing counter arguments.

quadibloc's picture

There is a free font called Open Dyslexic, but I don't know if it will meet your needs.

Albert Jan Pool's picture

… double posted … when will Typophile be working at its ‘normal’ speed again?

Albert Jan Pool's picture

… also double posted …

Albert Jan Pool's picture

When talking about typefaces for dyslectics, I think it we should take notice that several researchers in this field find it highly questionable wether typefaces such as ‘Open Dyslexic’, ‘Dyslexie’ and ‘Sylexiad’ even meet the needs of dyslectics at all. To me, projects like ‘Open Dyslectic’ seem rather idiosyncratic and unreflected. For example the ‘banding effect’, caused by the thickening of the horizontals, can also be achieved by more line feed, or taking a slightly bolder typeface. More differentiation between characters (as promoted by the creators of ‘Open Dyslexic’, ‘Dyslexia’ and ‘Sylexiad’) such as bdpq can also be reached by designing asymmetric counters (such as in ‘Source Sans’) or by increasing the thick-to-thin contrast in a more conventional, but still asymmetrical way (such as in Albertus, Angie or DTL Argo). As far as I know, none of the researchers involved in projects such as ‘Dyslexie’ tested their own ‘inventions’ against other sans serif typefaces than Arial. Their interpretation of the ‘banding effect’ was not even tested against other typefaces of similar (but professionally executed) design such as the widely available typeface Antique Olive or, of more recent date, FF Balance by Evert Bloemsma. For type designers and typographers it may be interesting to know that our colleague Henk Gianotten got into contact with the person who did the research accompanying the development of ‘Dyslexie’ (designed by Christian Boer). He asked her if she had been aware of literature on the subject of legibility and readability such as Robert Hillier (who did Sylexiad), Sofie Beier and Gerard Unger. The answer was ‘No’ … When Henk Gianotten asked why she had not been reading this literature, she said that it was because ‘it was not available in the databases’ she had access to. Which is a bit strange, because Christian Boer happens to be a graphic designer. The Netherlands are a small country and so is the graphic community. Being a graphic designer and not having heard of people like Gerard Unger or Gerrit Noordzij is virtually impossible. Especially when you are a researcher. When googling dyslexia one can hardly overlook Robert Hillier I think. Maybe they simply did not want to know about other opinions on the subject, let alone research projects, findings or results?

I think it is more interesting hear what researchers who know both about science and typography tell us about typeface design for children with learning problems:
In her PhD project at the university of Leiden, Ann Bessemans scientifically tested modified versions of Frutiger and DTL Documenta that were distorted in ways that are similar to those in ‘Dyslexia’ against the non-distorted versions of these typefaces. It was proved that none of this kind of distortions were of any help. The only kind of ‘distortion’ that seems to help is one in which she changed the horizontal proportions by widening and narrowing some of the characters. But this was only of help for children who are beginning to read, it did not seem to be of any help for children with more reading experience (if I remember this correctly). And (at least in my opinion) even this kind of ‘irregular patterns’ can also be achieved by using existing typefaces which already show clear differences in horizontal proportions by design. Examples of this are typefaces such as Futura, Gill Sans and DTL Haarlemmer Sans, just to name a few. But that has not been tested, so it is just my personal guess. I am aware that Futura, Gill and Haarlemmer are not free fonts, I only want to point to the kind of ‘features’ to look for when choosing (free) sans serif typefaces for dyslectics and/or dyslectic children. But beware of Futura, its single story ‘a’ and ‘g’, also know as ‘infant characters’ are often believed to be of help for beginning readers. From a scientific point of view, this seems to be highly questionable as well. Here is an excellent review and an article on this subject by Thomas Phinney:

http://www.thomasphinney.com/2012/06/should-dyslexics-unite-on-a-typeface/
http://www.commarts.com/columns/should-dyslexics-unite.html

Thomas Phinney's picture

What Albert Jan said. :)

If you have any questions about my articles above, I'm happy to discuss them.

abattis's picture

You may enjoy this Typophile thread on this topic from 2005 :)

http://typophile.com/node/14206

(http://www.kidstype.org seems taken over, but https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=fabula+font tells some things :)

Albert Jan Pool's picture

The article ‘Typography in Children’s Books’ by Sue Walker will be a good read as well I think. She discusses tests of the typefaces Century, Gill, Sassoon Primary Infant, Flora and Fabula and questions wether ‘infant characters’ are needed or not.
http://booksforkeeps.co.uk/issue/154/childrens-books/articles/other-arti...

Peter Van Lancker's picture

I think "Open Dyslexic" is too ugly. But I maintain the Frutiger structure. Thank you.

Peter Van Lancker's picture

Open Dyslexic seems too ugly (i.e. not attractive enough), but I maintain the Frutiger structure. Thank you.

Peter Van Lancker's picture

Is there any sense in Dutch dyslexia organizations promoting Verdana?

Nick Shinn's picture

Verdana has an asymmetric, nib-informed ductus, which means that while /d and /p have rotated bowl shapes, /b and /d are not flipped versions of one another.

I’m not sure how visible this principle is during reading, but it conforms to the the idea that easily transformable glyphs can be problematic, which is the big gimmick in dyslexic fonts (as noted by AJ above).

Si_Daniels's picture

>Is there any sense in Dutch dyslexia organizations promoting Verdana?

The organizations supporting dyslexic communities are unlikely to promote any one font over another, because there is zero science to support the belief that a particular font helps dyslexic readers. They might post something on their blogs or sites that make common sense suggestions and recommendations about general readability, or they might even point to anecdotal reports that individuals like a particular font, but this is a very, very long way from "promotion".

Peter Van Lancker's picture

Thank you.

Peter Van Lancker's picture

Thank you.

Albert Jan Pool's picture

On his weblog OpenType.info, the German graphic designer and typeface designer Ralf Herrmann published an article by Ann Bessemans on her research project concerning typeface design for children with low vision: http://opentype.info/blog/2013/10/01/type-design-children/ Don’t miss the list of literature she consulted at the end of the article!

Thomas Phinney's picture

Great article! I saw her presentation at ATypI and was very impressed. Ann is one of my heroes!

phrostbyte64's picture

I hate this subject. The misconceptions are vast and ignorance is boundless.

Even if there was a miracle font out there which would make reading effortless for those of us who are dyslexic, what is the point? First, this miracle of typography does not exist and never will. Second, are we proposing a special library of books for dyslexics similar to braille? If this miracle font does exist, will all the newspapers and road signs change to the dyslexic friendly font? If you teach youthful dyslexics to read the this wonderful font, how does this in any way help them navigate a world of dyslexic unfriendly fonts.

The problem is not dyslexia. The problem is the outdated, ineffectual methods used to teach people with dyslexia. Non-dyslexics simply have no concept of the organization of the dyslexic thought process, and yet they feel comfortable devising torturous, useless methods of teaching people in this spectrum. Learning anything for dyslexics is only as difficult as the obsolete structures used to teach them can make it.

The one idea which essential is that dyslexia is not a disability. It is a slight difference in design.

quadibloc's picture

@phrostbyte64:
If this miracle font does exist, will all the newspapers and road signs change to the dyslexic friendly font?

Road signs quite possibly; remember the ADA.

If you teach youthful dyslexics to read the this wonderful font, how does this in any way help them navigate a world of dyslexic unfriendly fonts.

It is presumably only intended that they will be helped in this way: they come out of school or the elementary grades of school literate rather than illiterate, because the process of teaching them how to read has not been impeded by their dyslexia. Once that is achieved, presumably they will be able to learn the skills of coping with the real world on their own.

It helps that while b and d are mirror reflections, few whole words have boumas that are mirror reflections, for example. A high level of literacy, I think, helps to bypass dyslexia, since now the reading process makes use of more of the brain.

phrostbyte64's picture

@quadibloc The basic problem is the method. Current teaching methods use obsolete devices which make it more difficult for the dyslexic child to learn to read. These methods seek to make associations in use by average brain function. The brain function of the dyslexic uses different architecture. The age old methods become a block hamper future learning
I am dyslexic. I was dyslexic before there was a word for it in common usage. When I was a child I was reading quite well before I entered school. But, whenever I would read aloud, it came out wrong. I could tell the teacher what I had read but not read the words out loud in a ordinary fashion. So, she did not believe that I could read. Through the course of my first few years of school, they destroyed my reading ability forcing me to relearn everything. This went for math as well.
The current method does not teach the dyslexic to use their natural abilities. It tries to force the dyslexic into a mold. There in lies the problem. Fit the method to the child. Don't fit the child to the method.

JamesM's picture

> will all the newspapers and road signs change

Don't know about signage, but books, magazines, newspapers etc are increasingly read on computers and tablets, and it's often easy for the reader to change fonts.

Martin Silvertant's picture

"But beware of Futura, its single story ‘a’ and ‘g’, also know as ‘infant characters’ are often believed to be of help for beginning readers."

I find that rather funny, because one argument says these simplistic forms work better while the other argument recommends as much variety between characters as possible, which is the opposite of Futura's design principle.

My father is slightly dyslexic and I might be too. When I was a kid my parents used to practice reading with me every day, though this was to compensate for learning difficulties due to Pyknolepsy (a form of epilepsy) and Asperger syndrome, though the latter wasn't known then and the notion that I might be slightly dyslexic didn't come until quite recently. I've been experiencing more issues reading, switching some letters around at times and forgetting how to spell certain words while I've always been pretty good with language, despite my shortcomings. Either way, I can't say this will work for everyone, but I was taught to read with conventional methods and a lot of practice and eventually I became the best of the class in reading and writing. Whether I have slight dyslexia or not though, I've always been skeptical about the dyslexic fonts I've seen. I haven't done any tests or done any research, but I tend to believe that non-repeating elements will potentially make it easier for a dyslexic person to differentiate between letters, because as far as I'm aware they have a tendency to rotate letters in their head (my father even forgets what's left and right at times) which is what supposedly causes them to read less efficiently. However, I never understood why dyslexic fonts have to be so ugly. I'm fairly convinced a typeface could be made which is easy to read for the dyslexic and not aesthetically displeasing for regular readers (assuming for some reason dyslexics don't notice aesthetics in type). Perhaps such typefaces already exist. Perhaps an exaggerated Legato would do the job.

Also, although I certainly understand why some designers feel the need to design a typeface for dyslexic people, I think the solution to the problem has been established before even doing proper scientific tests. I also wonder on what grounds these typefaces will be validated by the end users. Grown up, non-dyslexic friends of mine often can't say which typeface is more pleasant for them to read (this often requires some knowledge of typography, optics and human psychology I think), so I question the accuracy with which dyslexic children could validate the efficiency of a typeface. And when you hear the people involved in these dyslexia type projects haven't even read basic legibility books, it doesn't confide confidence in me.

Also, I know this is not entirely valid reasoning, but I find it odd that it often takes more than 10 years before someone is identified as being dyslexic, and yet everyone pretends to know the solution for them. In other words, they can't spot the symptoms well but they're experts at the solutions to these symptoms they barely recognize. I find that odd.

Martin Silvertant's picture

"Is there any sense in Dutch dyslexia organizations promoting Verdana?"
I think they overestimate the impact of Verdana's design principle, which is high legibility for low resolution screens. Wouldn't a monospaced typeface like Courier work much better?

Now I think about it, I actually think that's a valid question. If asymmetry and variety in letter forms is so important, why have I never seen monospaced fonts mentioned in dyslexia research? As I said, they probably fabricated solutions before even properly understanding the issues.

And I just realized something else. Why is there so much time wasted on dyslexic fonts when in all likeliness a lot of issues can be solved by proper typography? Read this: http://uxmovement.com/content/6-surprising-bad-practices-that-hurt-dyslexic-users/

Most of these bad practices are being avoided in dyslexia-specific material, based on image results on Google, but perhaps doing proper typography in general helps dyslexic people read regular typefaces better. I understand typography and typefaces aren't mutually exclusive, but progress should be made in all areas, not just the typeface. It's good to have a wheelchair when you can't walk, but its application is limited in a world full of staircases.

quadibloc's picture

@Martin Silvertant:
And I just realized something else. Why is there so much time wasted on dyslexic fonts when in all likeliness a lot of issues can be solved by proper typography?

Having read the article, some of its suggestions make text more difficult to read for normal people - using sans-serif typefaces instead of serif - some are against the grain of quality typography - right-justified text, although rivers are bad typography - and some won't occur to people unless they have a specialized site goal - specifying colors other than the default.

Mind you, I remember when Mosaic displayed pages on a grey background.

Martin Silvertant's picture

I'm not convinced by the validity of those practices though. I keep reading very conflicting ideas on sans vs. serif in general so I'm not convinced the dyslexia research has better results than the typographic research for average people. Right-aligned text is probably the best way to read anyway if your leading is tight. If your leading is big enough you don't need to align text to the right or avoid justification necessarily.

But you're right though; doing better typography will resolve only half of the issues and will be too restricting regarding design choices.

Martin Silvertant's picture

Unmistakably? Yes, within the confines of the test, absolutely. I agree with a lot of the tests done there regarding point size and x-height, but I feel they fail quite miserably in the final tests which lead them to the conclusion that Verdana is the best option. First off, they only compared three typefaces. Of Verdana it was already expected it would perform well, Times New Roman is used to check whether sans or serif works better but I submit TNR wouldn't be a good serif choice for children in the first place so the only thing you might conclude here is that sans in general works better for children, and of Sassoon Primary it could almost be expected it wouldn't perform as well as Verdana considering the /a looks too much like /o, and the /g has a similar shape while it's probably best practice to use a double-storey /a and a single-storey /g. They start off with questionable typefaces, test them on a rather small group and then conclude that Verdana performs best, which was already to be expected.

From all the typefaces around, I'm convinced Verdana performs rather well for children, but I'm absolutely not convinced Verdana is the best choice. I feel tests like these are often done by people who aren't particularly well versed in typography. I may be wrong, but that's the feeling I get from this test.

Peter Van Lancker's picture

You know of any other experiments? Science is counter intuitive by definition.

Martin Silvertant's picture

Science is counter intuitive by definition.

I've never heard of that before and I'm not sure what you're implying.

I've read a few but none of them have convinced me so far. I'm still puzzled as to how to cater to people with dyslexia particularly. When it comes to children, I have more faith in the tests that are being done, but when it comes to dyslexia they often start with faulty premises. When you hear about a dyslexic person who designed a typeface specifically for dyslexic people which is essentially designed to cater to his exact needs, and you then read scientific tests which completely undermine the premises this man has worked with, you don't quite know what to think anymore. I usually have tremendous faith in science (though comparing only three typefaces and no multiple ones from the same category [and possibly worse: not testing all categories for sans, serif and possibly slab] would invariably give scientific results of limited scope and practicality), but I also tend to believe someone with dyslexia knows exactly what he needs to perform better at reading. And yet, it's just anecdotal evidence. The typeface this person designed should also be tested scientifically with control groups.

I must also say I haven't looked specifically into this issue. Now and then my obsessions lead me to research these areas, but I'm not actually looking to design typefaces for children at this point so I haven't done my very best to be able to draw a conclusion. As I said the tests I have read are either questionable or inconsistent with other tests. I don't have enough insight into the matter to draw any appropriate conclusions, but I do have just enough insight to suspect that while Verdana may perform wonderfully for kids, it's probably not the pinnacle of clarity and optimal reading for kids. More elaborate tests need to be done to get to such a conclusion.

quadibloc's picture

Well, while I don't agree that "Science is counter-intuitive by definition", I do agree with the principle that I think this was trying to express.

Scientific results will sometimes be counter-intuitive, and the whole point of doing scientific research is to get at the actual truth in a way that will allow us to find it even when it turns out to be not what we would expect. This is why objectivity is so highly prized in science.

Martin Silvertant's picture

I'm very familiar with the scientific process, so I definitely agree. However, it's not counter-intuitive by definition.

and the whole point of doing scientific research is to get at the actual truth in a way that will allow us to find it even when it turns out to be not what we would expect.

I think that's what went wrong when the typefaces were being tested. I have the feeling they counted on Verdana performing well.

Nick Shinn's picture

Those children will have no trouble shopping at IKEA.

Martin Silvertant's picture

Reverse: IKEA caters optimally to children.

Peter Van Lancker's picture

The children I work for don't shop at IKEA. At a later age, some of them maybe go pickpocketing at IKEA. Most of their furniture is second or third hand, and in some cases inexistent.That's maybe also what I meant by counter intuitive.

Nick Shinn's picture

(My comment here is not specifically about slow learners.)

It seems to me there are two opposing concepts of “readability”.

On the one hand, favoring the textual content, the idea is to use simple, child-friendly typefaces that help the learners to progressively read more sophisticated content (measured in terms of “reading age”).

But I wonder, why not turn things around, and assess “reading age” by how well learners deal with more sophisticated typography? Let’s assume that would involve Bembo, Garamond, etc.

It could be argued that restricting learners to simplistic typography restricts their ability to progress, stunting their cultural growth.

Ideally, reading and typography go hand in hand.

Martin Silvertant's picture

Well, I suppose with these tests one wanted to gain insight into what typographically works best rather than insight into the children themselves. Assessing reading age would be on an individual basis, wouldn't it?

You have a point though. By assessing the reading age one could better cater to their needs, rather than complimenting their reading level now. Theoretically they may improve in reading performance on the long run.

I have the feeling this aspect of practice will be better for children anyway. I mean, practice is inherent in learning and I'm not suggesting they don't do that. However, initially I had problems with reading so my parents practiced with me every day, and in no time I was at the top of the class and even won a reading competition and later some poetry competitions. I bet reading development can be improved on, if only more tests are being done that give a lot more insight into reading development and the correlation between typography and age. I often feel we pretend to have the best educational system that is achievable, but I think we're greatly undermining our abilities. Dyslexia is a particularly good example, where many schools still think it's akin to being a slow reader or being unintelligent. People with dyslexia tend to be very intelligent but just require a slightly different education. Our psychologies need to be taken into consideration more when it comes to education.

quadibloc's picture

Neither Bembo nor Garamond is particularly difficult to read.

Before Century Schoolbook came along, textbooks for children were often set in Caslon - and, of course, for a while, nearly everything was set in Caslon.

But typography is only an instrumentality - words and meaning are the goal. So it is natural and reasonable that if a simplified typeface will enable children to read texts with bigger words sooner, that will be the alternative chosen. As I pointed out earlier in this thread, an increased level of literacy, once achieved, can be expected to help people cope with dyslexia, because they will have more context, more sensory channels, and so on to aid them in reading.

Albert Jan Pool's picture

just saw this link on TypeDrawers to a recent article on typefaces for dyslexic by Chuck Bigelow. It seems that we know something about the role of typography (type size, leading etc.) When it comes to typeface design, it seems that from a scientific point of view a lot is to be researched yet.
http://bigelowandholmes.typepad.com/bigelow-holmes/2014/11/typography-dy...

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