Readability - Form and Substance

On our third night with the newspaper, my adult learner decided to read all or most of the comics. I don't know why: simple curiosity; the appeal of brief, illustrated narratives; a long-time want?

What I noticed, as he worked through them, was the font. Most were written in capitals. Many were messy. Some offered almost no space between words. Some hyphenated in unlikely places. The Duplex was a complete hash of upper and lower case letters of uneven size - he skipped it entirely after a brief attempt at the first couple of words. The picture below is from a different date, but you can see what I mean:

Looking back, I realized that most headlines were also written in capitals. They were also, often, constructed of metaphors and passive phrasings that added to a reader's difficulty: something like


Meaning, a Dodge dealer told the newspaper that car sales were increasing.

These conventions - capitalized sentences, passive word-order, puns and double-meanings - are undeniable parts of our language. Like cursive, they make reading harder, but you can't pretend they're not there. Plain language and clear language are wonderful goals but, outside the classroom, the real world is often badly written.

A few days back, a boy read through the Seuss classic Green Eggs and Ham. Though he struggled, he succeeded, and was ever so pleased: "Look you guys," he yelled to his friends, "I'm doing really good!"

Most lists level this book at a "J" (see Kids' Books & Reading) and so I cast about for another book at an "I" - something like Are You my Mother? or The Very Busy Spider - hoping to build on success. But he pulled Byron Barton's My Car from the pile.

Okay, I thought. That's a pretty easy book. But, you know what? It's not. The text appears to be easy, full of sentences like "My car needs oil" or "I drive my car to work." But he found this a harder book to read. Why? First, the text is sans serif. Second, the sentences are laid out in columns:



This format pushed the young reader to read slowly, one word at a time, and moved him away from a naturalistic phrasing. I suspect this mattered because when he read Green Eggs and Ham, the boy broke the sentences exactly where I would have, sort of like this:
Would you | eat them | in a box?
Would you | eat them | with a fox?
I didn't think much about that at the time; only that he was "reading well" and such. But I think now that he was using the rhythm as an aid. The form of the sentences in My Car make that same kind of cadenced reading much harder. (I can do it, but only by first reading the text silently and then, a second later, reciting it from memory.)

Well, okay. No need to belabour the point. In both case - the adult new reader and the younger reader - reading was made easier or harder by editorial decisions about the shape and arrangement of words and letters.

These are completely artificial barriers to literacy, of course. But they are also widespread and commonplace.

1 comment:

mysaintjohn said...

Interesting. I've always known that serif text is easier on the eyes, but I hadn't thought of it in terms of upping the reading level. Makes sense, though. Without the serifs, you have to work harder to lead from one letter to another.