Bradbury Thompson’s Alphabet 26: A Font System for Early Readers?

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:

  • There was significant improvement in his oral fluency when he read the text typeset using Thompson’s font system.
  • There was still some confusion identifying some letters that were typeset using Thompson’s font system. While Thompson successfully created an alphabet with fewer characters, the letters "U" and the "n" mirror each other across the horizontal axis creating recognition problems for him.

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 following manner:

  • More descenders and ascenders would need to be used in order to increase readability of larger blocks of text. The lowercase "g, j, k, p and y" should substitute the uppercase versions in Alphabet 26.
  • A lowercase "i" would need to replace Alphabet 26’s uppercase "I" in order to distinguish it from the letter "L" and number "1".
  • An uppercase "N" would need to replace Alphabet 26’s lowercase "n" for more discriminability between the "U" and "n."

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.