Education

Fonts and Young Readers

At some point in our lives, we realize that typographic letters and handwritten letters vary. In print, we decode multiple symbols as the same letter with little trouble. More or less, our brains see these symbols as variations on a theme and interpret them appropriately. For example, most of us would instantly recognize any of the following as A:

Also, these are all recognizable a G:

Our minds simply compare the glyph we see with the fifty-two letter variations with which we are most familiar, and they decode the given glyph based on the closest comparison. Most of the time, we are right. This translation happens in an instant, and we aren’t even aware of the process.

Since the wife and I both teach young children, we are reminded of this decoding process every day. Emergent readers and writers often have problems decoding letter variations that we take for granted – especially lowercase a. This led me to create a collection of fonts in Font Book of typefaces that include what I dubbed “friendly a‘s.” From here, though, my wife (who works with threes and fours) pointed out that lowercase a is only one problem. There is also lowercase g and differentiating uppercase I from lowercase l. Unfortunately, many fonts that include a child-friendly a end up failing on those other letters.

If you are working from a Windows-based PC at your school, chances are you default to one or two fonts when preparing a document you want young children to read:

Comic Sans

Century Gothic

Century Gothic suffers the same problem many sans-serif typefaces have with its uppercase I and its lowercase l. They might as well be the same letter. Again, most developed readers can quickly determine which letter they are looking at by the context of the word, but this can be a hangup for very young readers. Comic Sans, on the other hand, overcomes this obstacle, but poor kerning and letter-spacing can make this font very difficult to read in smaller sizes. Remember, Comic Sans was designed for use on low-resolution computer displays before being included in Microsoft Word back in the 90s.

If you have Macs at your school or a couple of the more popular Linux distributions, you might have some more options at your disposal. For example, I find Chalkboard a preferable alternative to Comic Sans. Also, one of the programming fonts on the Mac called Monaco is a fantastic alternative for those problematic letters.

Chalkboard

Monaco

Monaco may seem an odd choice at first. It’s a rather rigid-looking, fixed width, programming font. Its very design philosophy, however, centers around quick and easy readability. It was designed so coders could quickly scan and digest blocks of text at a time. When I was coding more, Monaco was my preferred font, and I kept it in that niche. The wife, on the other hand, instantly saw its benefits to her work when she stumbled across it recently.

Unfortunately, Monaco is a font distributed by Apple for Macintosh-based systems. Therefore, it is of little help to Windows users. This is where Mark Simonson Studios comes to the rescue. Mr. Simonson is a professional graphic and typeface designer, and he offers a free font on his site that is very similar to Monaco. The font is called Anonymous. It’s very complete for a free font and should serve the basic needs of most teachers.

Anonymous

If you want to give Anonymous a try, you can download it here.

You might notice another character I’ve been including in the samples – the number 4. This is my wife’s newest mission: to find a font that not only displays her problematic characters correctly, but also features an open-top 4, much like you or I would write. That mission is still unfulfilled. (Chalkboard comes close, but it’s not quite right.) Perhaps my next project will be to learn how to design her ideal font!

As a final resource, you should check out a site called Flipping Typical.

Flipping Typical is a simple website that displays a text sample in a variety of fonts installed on your computer. You can change the sample text as you like, and you can even manually check specific fonts if you want. It’s handy when trying to find a good typeface for a specific situation. Unfortunately, I haven’t found the panacea of fonts for working with young children as of yet, but hopefully this post gives you some starting points.

Update: Turns out Anonymous has one slight problem, too. The zeroes have slashes through them; great for programming, less so for reading. If you do choose to use Anonymous in any school documents, you will want to use a secondary font for numbers.

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