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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Dyslexia helped by wider letter spacing

Update 7/16: Craig Wright at Understanding Minds disagrees with the following interpretation. You can read his criticism here.

Dyslexia is a broad term describing a number of learning disabilities. In general, it’s a reading deficiency. Children who are dyslexic tend to have more difficulty learning to read and spend much less time reading than their peers. This, of course, only increases the differences in reading ability between them and their agemates. Though there is no agreed upon cause, let alone cure, Marco Zorzi of the University of Padova and his colleagues have hit upon one possible treatment: wider letter spacing.

If letters are too close together, we all have difficulty making them out. However, many dyslexics see letters as crowded together even when other people think the letters are properly spaced. Zorzi and his colleagues wondered whether this perceived crowding could be one of culprits behind the poor reading performance of dyslexics.

The researchers recruited 34 Italian and 40 French children between the ages of 8 and 14 who had been diagnosed with dyslexia. The kids were each asked to read 24 short unrelated sentences in their own language. Half the kids got the sentences printed up with normal spacing, the other half got the same sentences, but with roughly double the space between letters. There were compensatory increases in the spacing between words and between lines. Two weeks later, the groups of kids were switched so that by the end of the test period each child had had the opportunity to read the samples with both spacings.

The children were twice as accurate in reading the widely spaced sentences. They also read more quickly by the equivalent of jumping up one school year. Kids were also better at identifying letters when those letters were more widely spaced.

Taken together, this suggests that upon diagnosis with dyslexia, children should be provided with widely spaced reading material. Ideally, this would also encourage children to practice reading more frequently so that they would eventually become proficient enough to read normally-spaced material.

By the way, in most reading material, the letter spacing is optimized for skilled readers, not beginners or dyslexics. If that spacing is increased or decreased, reading pace is slowed down. Compare these paragraphs for yourself to see how spacing alters your reading fluency.

By the way, in most reading material, the letter spacing is optimized for skilled readers, not beginners or dyslexics. If that spacing is increased or decreased, reading pace is slowed down. Compare these paragraphs for yourself to see how spacing alters your reading fluency.