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The Startling Case of the Dyslexie Font

Paul Simon said it well in his song "The Boxer" (1968): "A man hears what he wants to hear. And disregards the rest." While there are almost endless examples of this type of myopia in every field, education tends to be particularly prone to the shortsightedness of substituting anecdote for evidence. Fueled by a remarkable amount of positive media coverage, the Dyslexie font has the potential to make inroads into education in spite of a glaring lack of research support.

The Dyslexie font was created by the Dutch graphic designer Christian Boer with the intended purpose of making reading easier for people with dyslexia. Boer, a self-identified dyslexic, began work on the font in 2008 while he was studying at the Utrecht Art Academy in the Netherlands, and the design of the font eventually became his graduate school project. While the Dyslexie font has been around since 2008, it did not take off as a media darling until November of 2014, when it was featured at the Istanbul Design Biennial. A blizzard of publicity followed. The New York magazine feature, "The Approval Matrix," rated the Dyslexie font as somewhat "highbrow" and "brilliant" (November 17-23, 2014). The on-line magazine Slate reported, "Designed to make reading clearer and more enjoyable for people with dyslexia, Dyslexie uses heavy base lines, alternating stick and tail lengths, larger openings, and semi-cursive slants to ensure that each character has a unique and more easily recognizable form" (November 10, 2014).  The Guardian of Great Britain (demonstrating a lack of understanding of the true nature of dyslexia) got on the bandwagon saying, "Watching letters float and twist across a page, flipping and jumbling with gymnastic abandon, can be a daily frustration for readers with dyslexia. But the restless characters might soon be tamed thanks to a new font", and that Boer, "...has put all 26 letters of the alphabet through a finely-tuned process of adjustment to weigh them down and make it harder for similar letters to be confused" (November 12, 2014). The Dyslexie font was also the subject of reporting on NPR radio and CBS television, and quickly began to trend on social media outlets like Facebook.

Supported by this positive media coverage, Boer's website proclaims that, "Traditional fonts are designed solely from an aesthetic point of view, which means they often have characteristics that make characters difficult to recognize for people with dyslexia. Oftentimes, the letters of a word are confused, turned around or jumbled up because they look too similar." His website also posts, "Representative research among many dyslexics has shown that the font actually helps them to read text faster and with fewer errors."

The only problem with these glowing reports and enticing promises is that there is scant evidence to support them. 

Actually, the evidence is far less than scant. On his website, Boer has a section called "Research." One of the principal sources of the evidence listed there, that supposedly supports the Dyslexie font, is the paper that Renske de Leeuw (2010) wrote as part of her graduate school program. There are several significant problems with this research. For example, the sample was compromised in a number of ways. It consisted of a small number (43) of adult (ages 19 - 25) Dutch-speaking dyslexics and non-dyslexics who attended the same university as Leeuw.

All of these factors severely limit the ability to generalize from the results of the study. Most astonishing are the conclusions that Leeuw reaches based on the results of her study that examined four hypotheses. Three of the hypotheses dealt with reading speed and accuracy differences, which was produced by the Dyslexie font in dyslexic and non-dyslexic participants. She concluded that the results of this study did not confirm two of her hypotheses: "The results indicated that neither the dyslectics [sic] nor the normal readers did increase their reading speeds significantly while reading the words on the EMT and Klepel with the Dyslexie'" font." EMT and Klepel are the instruments that were used in this study to measure reading speed and accuracy. The results directly contradict the claim on Boer's website that with the Dyslexie font, "Reading is faster, easier and, above all, more enjoyable."

The second hypothesis in the study predicted that reading with the Dyslexie font would allow dyslexics to read more accurately. The results provide conflicting (scant) support for this hypothesis. Leeuw found that while dyslexics made fewer substitution errors with the Dyslexie font, they made more guessing errors.

Another study cited on the Boer website was conducted by Pijpker and reached the same conclusions as Leeuw: there was no improvement in reading speed with the Dyslexie font and there were mixed results for reading accuracy.

The graphic designer Chuck Bigelow has examined more than fifty scientific studies and books about the relationship between dyslexia and typography. He concluded, "In the scientific literature, I found no evidence that special dyslexia fonts confer statistically significant improvements in reading speed compared to standard, run-of-the-mill fonts." He also found conflicting evidence regarding reading accuracy: "Some studies found that for certain subsets of reading errors, special fonts do reduce error rates for dyslexic readers, yet for other subsets of errors, special dyslexic fonts were no better, or in some cases worse; hence, the findings on reading errors are mixed."

 Despite the enthusiasm of the media, like many other educational innovations, claims about the Dyslexie font's ability to make reading faster and easier for dyslexics simply do not survive careful scrutiny. While Boer's self-proclaimed intentions are admirable, it should be noted that he owns and sells the Dyslexie font. All students--and most certainly dyslexic students--need to be protected from well-intentioned innovations and fads masquerading as science. As the ultimate consumers of educational innovations, we must all be wary of the substitution of anecdote for evidence, testimonials for data, and personal opinion for real science.#

Dr. John Russell is head of The Windward Schools in White Plains, NY and NYC.

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