Typography and Readability

She brought Blaze by Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King) back to the tent, complaining that the print was too small. I took a look, and agreed - though it seemed more like it was too close together. I showed her the Quickreads, with their larger, roomier print. She borrowed The Dare and Chickenfeed. I haven't read either, but they're the two most recommended by my learners.

Later, I took a second look at Blaze. I've decided the typeset isn't terrible, though, because it uses fully justified margins, it does seem compressed in places. The font is Sabon, which isn't one I know. It isn't listed, for example, in my Word 2003. It is 'serifed' (is that a word) though not as strongly as Times New Roman or Bookman. I don't know what the point-size was - 10 maybe, or 11 at most?

Also, I should add, it has a fairly high reading level (10 or more at a guess). I wouldn't have predicted success for this reader. Even the Quickreads she took will be a challenge, I think. Of course, I'm learning that well-crafted fiction can be enjoyed by readers even when an assessment says a book is too hard.

Now... I'm talking about this because I've been watching some kids' reactions to the look of text in different Robert Munsch books. We have some storytent kids who are interested in pushing their reading skills - kids as happy to read to us as the other way around. I've been watching their eyes and lips move when reading to them. Watching them study the sentences instead of the pictures. What I think I'm seeing is that some Munsch stories are easier to read than others. And, one reason seems to be the layout of the text.

Here are some examples:

That's Pigs up top, and Mortimer on the bottom. Both have repetition in the text, though Mortimer has stronger repetition and less text over-all. As well, Pigs uses a "minimal-serif" font that is, I think, less easy to read than the text in Mortimer. In any case, look at all the white space in Mortimer! And the rising "thump thump thump" as the brothers and sisters come up the stairs is a wonderful example of... um, I don't know. In another context, I'd call it "concrete poetry." I'm sure there's some prose term the experts have.

Mortimer is our number one crowd pleaser. Once in a while another book becomes more popular - Down By the Bay, I Stink, Yummy Yucky - but over the eight years it is Mortimer that has been most asked for, most effective with crowds, most tempting for children who want to dabble in word-matching. One reason may be the way the text appears.

Here's another pair: the famous Paperbag Princess and The Boy In The Drawer. I have a fondness for The Boy In The Drawer (which I always read in a horrible fake-Irish accent), but the font used in the Classic Munsch version means few children will try to read it. In real life, it looks even worse than the picture below - it is a thick, black, dripped-paint font.

By contrast, Paperbag Princess is completely conventional - and thus very readable.

Plus, Paperbag Princess has lots of white space and a limited amount of text per page. So too, Up Up Down (below) offers lots of white space, text that physically reproduces the message (the rising "up,up..." and obviously falling "falllll down).

In the other hand, look at Zoom. The word "ZOOOOOM" does indeed zoom (plus being one of those omi-omnopedia-something words that sound their meaning). So, why do our new-readers seem to prefer Up Up Down over Zoom when it comes to trying out a book on their own?

All of this has me wondering about typography or font as a professional learning topic for adult literacy facilitators. What's out there in terms of current research? I have, somewhere among my stacks of paper, a paper on fonts as these appear across different browsers (from 2004, I think). I also have a pdf of a Canadian Labour Congress document that was written to "help unions and other social justice groups to communicate and organize more effectively as we work toward a just and inclusive society."

Yeah! Solidarność!

But what else is there out there?

I searched NALD for "typography" but got no results. The search term "font" yielded 20 returns, though only one was relevant to my needs: the above-mentioned Screen And Checklist by the Canadian Labour Congress, housed in NALD's Learning Materials collection.

By the way, this is an excellent tool which talks about line length, justification (they recommend "left" over "full"), text density, and Font ("Use a 12 point font or larger [with] "serifs," the little hooks on each letter. A serif font like Bookman or Garamond face is easier to read") among other things.

Another effective, short guide to clear presentation is Making Your Printed Health Materials Senior Friendly: Tips from the National Institute on Aging. Dated 2007, this pdf document, like the CLC one, seems to draw mostly on information from the late 1990's.

And, like the CLC, they recommend "serif typefaces - like Minion Pro (used here in this text), Times New Roman,and Georgia... which can help guide the eye across the print." They suggest we use "at least 12 point, 13 point, or 14 point" font, but remind us that "some fonts are naturally bigger than others." They ask for white space. "Empty space on a page can provide natural places for the eyes to relax from reading and may help older adults to focus their attention."

Other suggestions they make include:

Use upper and lowercase letters. Generally, readers are most familiar with print that has upper and lowercase letters. That’s why ALL CAPITAL LETTERS CAN BE DIFFICULT TO READ. Save using all uppercase letters for headlines or when you want to emphasize something.

Double space body text, where possible. It can be frustrating to read the same lines over and over again because they are blurring together. Double spacing text can help your reader avoid this problem.

Try to limit the use of italics, underlining, and bold for emphasis. These styles are good for highlighting information but if overused can make the text less readable. For instance, italicized letters can appear squeezed together; when a lot is underlined, it is hard to see what’s being emphasized.

Avoid yellow and blue and green in close proximity. As we age, these colors may become increasingly difficult to tell apart. Using blue or green text on a yellow backdrop or vice versa may make the words appear to blend in with the background.

Limit line length. Keeping lines from 50 to 65 characters long can help the eyes scan across the text more easily. This reduces the chance of readers inadvertently skipping to another line in the middle of reading. Think about using two columns to reduce line length. But, be careful about making your lines too short because that can also be difficult to read.

Avoid awkward breaks at the end of lines. Breaking a word at the end of a line with a hyphen can make it difficult to read. Breaking technical words across two lines may also be problematic. Also, try to keep numbers and their qualifiers, like 25 percent risk or 32 people, on the same line.

All good ideas: all good information. But is there anything new? What about website design - surely there's more information there? I'm not complaining, mind. I'm just thinking.

I'm thinking here is an area where research and professional learning might be especially relevant to literacy facilitators - whatever the age of their learners.

It would make a good conference or workshop topic - not just the tips, but the knowledge behind the tips. I might even pay to take a class in something like this - supposing it was done well and in depth. You can add it to my list of wished-for courses.

Right after "Effective uses of comic books with adult learners" and "Racial and gender neutral classroom design."

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