Finding Accessible Fonts for Classroom Use

I spent years creating, curating, and downloading cute fonts onto my computer. I looked for ways to make anything I created — for use in classrooms or for PDs I was leading — visually pleasing to the eye. However, my never-ending font quest shifted from swirly to highly-readable after my daughter, Isabelle, was diagnosed with ocular motor dysfunction and eventually Dyslexia. I came to realize what might look whimsical on the page to me could place a stumbling block in front of a reader with a language-based learning disability, such as Dyslexia.

As a font enthusiast, I began researching readable fonts. I learned that “sans serif, roman, and monospaced font types increased the reading performance of our participants, while italic fonts did the opposite” (Rello and Baeza-Yates, 2013). In addition, I have discovered:

While the majority of fonts were designed to be aesthetically pleasing, there are some dyslexia-friendly options that were created with functionality in mind. People with dyslexia often struggle to differentiate certain pairs of letters, but by changing the height, weighting and center axis of a letter, you can make it look different. It’s also possible to put it on a slant and adjust the empty space to help differentiate it as a shape. For example, letters built out of circles may have wider openings added and the bits that go up and down on some letters, commonly referred to as extenders, can be lengthened.

SOURCE: What is the best font for Dyslexia?

There are other characteristics, besides the actual font, that matter. Factors such as within-word spacing, between-word spacing, and the spacing between lines also plays an important role with the readability of a text. 

The research I have done is important, but it didn’t help me gain an understanding of how to better-select fonts for classroom materials I am creating for use with students. Therefore, I wanted to seek out some professionals who I hadn’t heard from in the journal articles and blog posts I was reading. I reached out to several children’s book publishers and requested to get more information about font, color, and size choices from art and design directors. I received comprehensive responses from multiple industry professionals who taught me a lot about the way they present information to children.

FIND AN ACCESSIBLE FONT WITH PERSONALITY: Jennifer Tolo Pierce, Design Director of Children’s Publishing at Chronicle Books, stated, “For children just learning to read or for those who perhaps struggle with reading, we want to make sure that the letter and number forms in the fonts we use are easily recognizable for what they are. We avoid fonts in which letters that might look too similar to other characters of the alphabet, aren’t immediately recognizable as a letter, or contain flourishes or swashes that interfere with legibility. This doesn’t mean that a font can’t have personality. On the contrary, the distinct personality of a particular font can go a long way in making reading exciting, emphasizing key parts of the text, or communicating voice, emotion, or action.  But in order to perform any of these functions, the text needs to be visually accessible rather than a stumbling block. This awareness around legibility and accessible letterforms are especially important when using script or handwriting fonts. Both bring a particular feel and personality to the design, but if using these kinds of fonts, we want to be extra sure that the style of the font doesn’t interfere with legibility and accessibility. It’s also important to remember that if text interacts with visual elements, the letterform should be sufficiently visible and easily identifiable. A ‘Q’ could easily be read as an ‘O’ if the bottom part of the letter is obscured by a visual element.”

SELECT A SANS SERIF FONT FOR THE BODY OF A TEXT: Rachael Cole, Art Director at Schwartz & Wade Books, asserted, “A number of factors come into play when choosing a typeface for a children’s book. I do not use decorative typefaces in the body of a book—only for the title treatments and to call out special headings or phrases. I try to choose friendly, open looking fonts which are specifically designed to be used in the body text of a book, and which do not have eccentric flourishes.” 

STRIKE A BALANCE AMONG SIZE, SPACING, AND TYPE: Tolo Pierce asserted, “To help make the text more accessible, a designer would employ a typeface that is easy to follow word to word. Typically for a novel this would be a serif typeface as the serifs help lead the eye letter to letter. The size of the type and use of white space are also important factors. Type size doesn’t need to be bigger, but should be set in a way that allows the eye to easily navigate the text, with a balance between the size of the type, the font, and the white space both between the lines of text and in the margins. The text should invite a reader in rather than form a wall discouraging them from entering.”

TAKE A CUE FROM LEVELED READERS: Louise May, Editor at Large for Lee & Low Books, spearheaded Bebop Books, which is a leveled imprint at Lee & Low. Some things Bebop does to make their leveled readers more accessible to emerging readers are:

  • We use Sans Serif type for all of our leveled readers. This is a clear type that is easy to read for young students. 
  • We also use Manuscript lettering, which is the type of font that mirrors how the letters that students learn to write. For example, the printed a has the tail going down and the capital I has the two lines over the top to not confuse with a lowercase l. 
  • For each book there is extra spacing between the letters and words that you would not see in a typical picture book or other printed text. 

USE COLOR JUDICIOUSLY: Diane Earley, Art Director at Charlesbridge, asserts, “We love color for display fonts. But where text is concerned, we are much more judicious with the use of color. Black text is the most readable, in most cases. There are times when the type needs to KO (that’s knock out) to white, because the art beneath is dark. Again, we are very careful about using white type, as it’s not quite as readable as black is.” Note: Display fonts are used primarily for titles or fancy headlines. Generally, display fonts are not used for text because they’re difficult to read at a smaller size.

Isabelle preferred the fonts in the following order: Dyslexie, OpenDyslexic, Verdana, Arial, Lexia Readable, and CMU.

A CHILD’S PERSPECTIVE

Finally, I wanted to hear what Isabelle thought about the readability of different fonts. OR A child’s perspective is perhaps the most important we can learn, so I decided to enlist the help of Isabelle for the final stage of my research.  I printed out several sentences using the most readable fonts from the research I did (shown in the image to your right). I asked Isabelle to rank them in order of preference of what she’d like to read. She explains her reasoning in the video. In addition, the final clip of the 3.5 minute video includes Isabelle talking a bit about the challenges of non-standard fonts and print layout in a text she recently abandoned. 

For me, as an educator, the takeaway is clear. If I’m going to create handouts or any other materials for students, I’m going to use a highly-readable font with adequate spacing between letters so that it’s more accessible for kids like my daughter.

For Further Reading: Here are some of the articles — popular and scholarly — I’ve read that have helped me better understand this topic.

Resources for Free Fonts: 

Note: You’ll want to look back at the art and design directors’ advice prior to downloading the fonts on Da Font and Font Squirrel since not all sans serif fonts are created equal.