Dyslexia is the most common cause of student reading, spelling and writing problems. Nearly 2 million public school children struggle with this learning disability, and twenty percent of those students will drop out of school.
A new study reveals that spacing letters farther apart can help dyslexic kids read quicker and make fewer mistakes as they read.
While the strategy isn’t a cure for dyslexia, it may help children read more easily and become better learners overall.
One of ways that children with dyslexia improve their reading skills is through practice. But frustration often leads them to give up.
"The consequence is that children with dyslexia read very, very little. We give the comparison that a child with dyslexia reads in a year what a normal reader reads in two days," says researcher Johannes C. Ziegler, PhD, director of research in the cognitive psychology laboratory at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France.
Studies of people with dyslexia show that their brains may be overly attentive to information coming in from the edges of their vision.
That makes dyslexics very good at quickly absorbing and understanding the information in a scene or picture, but it makes reading more difficult.
"If these letters are too close to one another, the features intermix, so you're not able to tell which letter it actually is," Ziegler says.
While crowding has been known to be a problem for people with dyslexia for some time, Ziegler says little research has tested whether strategies to reduce crowding could improve reading.
For the study, researchers tested whether spacing letters of words a little farther apart on the page could improve reading speed and accuracy in 74 Italian and French children who had been diagnosed with dyslexia.
The children were asked to read two blocks of 24 short sentences in their native languages. The sentences were unrelated to prevent the kids from using contextual cues to understand them. The words were printed in 14-point Times-Roman font. One block of text used normally spaced letters. In a second block, the space between the letters was increased 2.5 points.
The children in the study were asked to read each block of text separately, at sessions that were two weeks apart to make it harder for them to remember what they read.
Some of the kids were assigned to read the widely spaced text first. The others were asked to read the normal text first.
In both cases, dyslexic kids made fewer errors when reading the widely spaced text. Increasing the spacing between the letters doubled the average accuracy. When researchers looked more closely at individual results, they found that the kids who were the poorest readers to begin with benefited the most from the wider letter spacing.
The extra space between the letters also helped dyslexic kids read about 20% faster, an immediate improvement that was on par with the average gain over a full school year for dyslexic children in Italy.
You can see the difference in how a wider spaced sentence reads by looking at these two examples.
a) The large brown cow jumped over the moon.
b) T h e l a r g e b r o w n c o w j u m p e d o v e r t h e m o o n.
Experts who were not involved in the research praised the study for its practical approach.
"It's a good study. It matches well with what we see in our clinic," says Fernette Eide, MD, a neurologist in Edmonds, Wash., who specializes in treating children with dyslexia.
She says therapists who treat dyslexia have recognized that crowding can pose a problem for their patients.
"It's a real phenomenon," Eide says. "You can adjust the fonts, increase the spacing, reduce the number of items on a page and so on. It helps immediately."
The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.