Want to improve your reading skills? You might just need more space

Students with and without dyslexia read better when letters have extra spacing between

a woman putting colored overlays on a paper as she talks to her teacher

Simply adjusting the spacing between letters could help people with dyslexia avoid having to use colored overlays (seen here) or other aids to read more effectively.

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Have you ever tried to pick out the face of a friend in a group photo? It can be hard, especially when everyone is crowded together. It can also be hard to read a passage of text when the letters are crowded together. In fact, a new study shows that spacing the letters farther apart can help anyone read faster, and potentially with better comprehension.

Dyslexia is a common reading disorder. It traces to a language-processing problem in which the brain tends to confuse the order of numbers, letters and other images. Past research had shown that crowded text was especially difficult for people with dyslexia to read. So researchers at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England wanted to see how much help an increase in the spacing between letters would provide.

Steven Stagg and his team recruited 59 students between 11 and 15 years old. The kids came from schools in three cities in England. Thirty-two had dyslexia; 27 did not. While the researchers recorded them, each student read two passages out loud. One passage was printed in its original format. In the other, the spacing between the letters was increased by 2.5 points. That extra space equals about 0.88 millimeters (0.03 inch). The recording allowed the scientists to measure someone’s reading speed and count any errors, such as skipped words.

People with dyslexia often employ aids to help them read, such as colored overlays. So the researchers offered those to the students here. These plastic sheets are tinted with one of several colors. Readers place the plastic on top of the text and then read through it.

Those colored overlays didn’t help either group of kids. But the extra spacing did. Kids with dyslexia read the wider-spaced text 13 percent faster than the text with original spacing. These kids also made fewer mistakes. Students without dyslexia read faster, too, although only by 5 percent.

A simple fix

Stagg studies how the mind processed language. He wasn’t surprised that the colored overlays weren’t helpful. Stagg has dyslexia and says colored overlays never helped him much, either. What did surprise this cognitive scientist was that wider-spaced letters helped even kids without dyslexia

This is very good news. It means teachers and publishers can print material with extra spacing between letters knowing it will help everyone. Readers with dyslexia won’t feel singled out by having to use special reading materials.

Jenae Cohn, who works at California State University in Sacramento, agrees. “This will,” she says, “level the playing field.”

It’s a simple fix, too. Certain text-writing and document-processing software (such as Microsoft Word) can easily add extra spacing between letters. Web designers can add space to the text on their pages, too.

Cohn suspects it may take some time for techniques like these to become widely used.

An organization called Readability Matters is working on it, however. This organization sponsors research into how character size, shape and spacing affect reading ability. Its research is similar to Stagg’s. The group is trying to get tech companies to make changes that should ease reading. This could even be personalized.

Marjorie Jordan, a founder of Readability Matters, explains that readers could determine which format is easiest for them to read. Then they could store that information in a piece of code, or a “token” that would work with many websites and reading apps. Potentially the token could even allow individuals to order print books printed in their preferred reading format. The technology is here, she says. Tech companies just need to get on board.

Stagg is optimistic that wider spacing between letters will catch on. “Some methods to help people read better have shown mixed results,” he says, “but letter spacing seems to be the one thing that everyone is finding works.”

Avery Elizabeth Hurt is a science journalist and author who hasn’t yet met a field of science that doesn’t fascinate her. 

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