I was afraid to change the font to sans serif because I thought it might mess up the formatting. So I tried for over three hours to edit the first chapter. The serifs seemed to be floating on the page into one another. I would read and re-read and I just could not focus on it. Finally, I called my manager who has seen me present hundreds of times over the years and he said, “Can’t you set up a standing station to work and change the font?” I looked around the room and realized that if I put my carry-on luggage on the desk it would be just the right height for me to work from while standing. Then, hoping that I wasn’t ruining the formatting the editor had done, I changed the font to Century Gothic and changed the font size to 14 point. I could not believe the difference. I’ had been telling teachers to do this for years but had never actually compared the difference myself because I rarely work in Times New Roman. I was able to focus for hours. The font no longer ran together and I got the job done in the evenings after working all day. When I was finished with the chapter, I changed the font back to Times New Roman. My editor never complained, and I finished a project that had seemed almost impossible to focus on when I started out.
In the International Association of Library Associations and Institutions guidelines for easy-to-read materials, they detail the importance of making easy-to-read materials available to everyone. In most developed countries, 25 percent of adults do not reach the level of reading skill and fluency expected after nine years of formal education. “Easy-to-read” can include both materials that have been reformatted to be visually easier to read, materials that have been revised for easier to read content, and materials that combine the two methods. There is another article entirely to be written about revising and abridging materials for students with learning disabilities, but I want to focus on the difference a simple change like font can make for readers.
Readers with dyslexia and other reading difficulties can benefit greatly from simple changes to a font type and font size. Dyslexia affects 5-10 percent of the population, and makes it difficult for readers to decode and spell words, although they do not have trouble understanding the words and the content. Putting reading materials into a sans serif font and bumping up the size can make a big difference for someone who struggles with making words out of letters on a page. If the words are as easy to read as possible, one more barrier to the reader’s decoding process has been removed. Other changes, such as printing assignments on matte paper (without glare) and using a background that is solid, not textured, can make a big difference for students with dyslexia and other reading issues. (Clear Print Guidelines for Students with Dyslexia).
Making materials as clear and readable as possible can also benefit students who struggle with attention disorders, including ADHD, and even those with certain autism spectrum disorders. A student with ADHD might be unlikely to fight through the difficulty of an experience similar to the one I had, and wind up abandoning his reading assignment. If his assignment were formatted in a way that was easy to read, there would be one less distraction and therefore one less impediment to his reading.
Every teacher can make these small changes with no more than a few clicks of the mouse. There are many, much more advanced, techniques for rewriting materials for struggling readers. You can find some great resources at The Easy to Read Network’s website (www.easytoread-network.org), and on the website of the University College of Cork, Ireland’s Disability Support Services web page (http://www.ucc.ie/en/dss/), both of which I referred to in the writing of this article. I’ve seen for myself what a difference something as simple as a font change can make, and I believe that it can make a difference for the struggling readers in your classroom.
For more information on differentiation strategies to reach ALL learners, see Susan Fitzell’s book, Special Needs in the General Classroom, Strategies That Make It Work. Available in both print and electronic versions!
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