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Today, early readers are faced with the daunting task of memorizing an
abundance of characters—26 uppercase letters, 26 lowercase letters, 10
numbers and over a dozen basic punctuation marks and monetary symbols.
This task is daunting on its own, but becomes even more challenging for
early readers who are dyslexic. A big problem for early readers is the
identification of letters. In addition to being dissimilar across the
upper and lowercases, some of the letters mirror each other. For
instance, the lowercase "b" typeset in a sans serif font becomes a
lowercase "d" when flipped across a vertical axis (See Fig. 1) or the
number "6" when handwritten. Also, the lowercase "u" typeset in a sans
serif or serif font and handwritten becomes a lowercase "n" when flipped
across a horizontal axis. Consider even the uppercase "I" that becomes
the lowercase of "L" when typeset in a sans serif font like Arial. The
fact that a single letter can be mistaken for another letter depending
upon the font is a serious problem that will continue to compromise
literacy development among English-speaking early readers.
Educational psychologists Guy Bond and Robert Dykstra, whose 1967
article "Cooperative research program in 1st grade reading instruction"
have been cited over 70 times in interdisciplinary discourse, confirm
that being able to identify each letter of the alphabet is critical to
becoming a fluent reader. Most children learn to read by mastering
letter identification, sound connotation of each letter, word
recognition, spelling, reading and writing. Proficiency in the latter
two depends heavily upon mastery of the preceding skills—especially
letter identification. Rosemary Sassoon’s Sassoon (designed in 1995) and
Natascha Frensch’s Read Regular (designed in 2003) are examples of
fonts derived from extensive testing in Britain to make letter
identification easier for early readers, including those who are
dyslexic. In 2004, cognitive scientist Larry Reid, and design researcher
Audrey Bennett in their Visible Language article titled
"Towards A Reader-Friendly Font" posited that the design of a font
compiled of discriminable characters would ease, if not eradicate, the
difficulty that early readers have when learning how to read. However,
pre-dating all of the previous efforts to assess and alleviate the
difficulties early readers have when learning how to read, is Alphabet
26—a simplified English alphabet system—designed by American type
designer Bradbury Thompson in 1950.
With Alphabet 26, Thompson proposed a simplified plan for representing
the English alphabet after observing his own son experience difficulty
recognizing the similarity between "Run" and "run" in "Run pal. See him
run." (See Fig. 2). Thompson believed then that his son became confused
because of the change from a capital "R" to a lowercase "r"—two
different symbols that represent the same phonetic sound. Noting that
the alphabet contained 19 other instances of dissimilar upper and
lowercase symbols that slowed the reading process, Thompson set out to
remedy this problem by simplifying the alphabet. Based upon his own
theory that a graphic symbol must be consistent to be efficient,
Thompson designed Alphabet 26—a font system made up of only 26 upper and
lowercase characters typeset in Baskerville (See Fig. 3). He kept the
lowercase version (and discarded the uppercase version) of the seven
characters of the alphabet that are the same across cases—Cc-Oo-Ss-Vv-Ww-Xx-Zz. Of the remaining 19 dissimilar characters of our alphabet, he kept the uppercase version of them—Bb-Dd-Ff-Gg-Hh-Ii-Jj-Kk-Ll-Pp-Qq-Rr-Tt-Uu-Yy—and the lowercase version of four—Aa-Ee-Mm-Nn. Can Bradbury Thompson's Alphabet 26 serve as a contemporary solution to early reading problems among young children?
Towards the end of 2004, Bennett tested her seven-year-old son’s oral
fluency using Alphabet 26’s system after observing him write "B" instead
of "b" for the word "bad" within a sentence. He frequently confused the
letters "b, p, d and q" in his reading and writing. Thus, it was useful
to him to substitute the lowercase version of those problematic letters
with their uppercase counterparts. For the test, Bennett typeset a
series of short texts that included the sentence "Run pal. See him run."
in Century Schoolbook. One set used Alphabet 26’s font system and a
second set used the standard upper- and lowercase letters of our
existing alphabet. As Marcel read the two different texts, Bennett
observed the following:
Alphabet 26 could be adopted as a font or font system for early readers. However, it may need to be modified first.
During spring 2005 Bennett and Rensselaer undergraduate Bridget
Rice—inspired by Bradbury Thompson’s philosophy that it is misleading
for a letter, or any graphic symbol for that matter, to have two
different designs—assessed the adaptability of Alphabet 26 as a font or
font system for early readers. As is, Thompson’s font system has only 26
letters. Because there are fewer characters, it would be easier to
memorize than the existing alphabet of over 40 different characters.
However, a problem noted earlier about Alphabet 26 is that the "U" and
"n" are reflective across the horizontal axis. Also, if Alphabet 26 were
to be used as a system that can be represented by any font, the
uppercase "I" set in some fonts, such as Arial, is interchangeable with
the lowercase "l"—preventing early readers from identifying letters. As a
system, therefore, Alphabet 26 would need to have guidelines for usage
in order to achieve better results. Perhaps, a modified version of
Alphabet 26 as a font would provide greater control and ease of use.
Alphabet 26 as a font, instead of a font system, would have 26
characters made up of both uppercase and lowercase letters. The large
letter style set in the original version of Alphabet 26 would come in
handy for use at the beginning of a sentence or a pronoun. The selection
of letters that are either uppercase or lowercase would have to be
carefully considered in relation to letter identification problems
experienced by early readers and those with reading disabilities. The
revisited Alphabet 26 font may need to instill a strong, consistent
discriminability between all of the characters. Thus, the new Alphabet
26 (See Fig. 4) would need to deviate from its original form in the
Some might argue that the introduction of Alphabet
26 for early reading would be complicated to implement, extremely
costly, or even that the degree of unfamiliarity would be too difficult a
challenge. However, as Thompson once argued: all of the individual
characters of the Alphabet 26 font have been in use through 500 years of
printing. Therefore, through common usage, the Alphabet 26 font could
easily be conceived as both easier to read and write and simpler to
teach and typeset.
Understanding the dynamic qualities of typography through analogies with sound and music.
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