Give Me More Space: A Novel Strategy for Dyslexic Readers

Dyslexic children do a better job of reading when the letters are spaced out, according to new research.

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Dyslexia is a learning disorder which negatively impacts one's ability to read and write for learning, work, and pleasure. When people have dyslexia, their reading levels are typically lower than their non-affected peers. Reading can be slow and tedious, and it becomes difficult to gain information from the written word and to express ideas in writing.

Even though dyslexia is independent of intelligence, it can lead to failure in school, poor self esteem, and social and vocational difficulties into adult life. It is found in as much as five percent of the school population. Dyslexics are often treated with specialized programs which focus on matching sounds and letter symbols and combinations (phonological processing), developing vocabulary, and developing reading fluency. Reading practice is essential to dyslexics, yet some dyslexics are so impaired that they read the same number of words in one year that a good reader reads in only two days.

The worse the children were at identifying letters, the more they showed a benefit from the increased letter spacing.

A recent study evaluated a simple strategy which offers a complement to intensive reading remediation. The technique studied improved the accessibility of reading material by a simple manipulation of the print.

The researchers based their approach on previous studies which had shown that crowded letters made reading hard for dyslexics. When letters are too close together, the dyslexic reader is influenced by the letters on either side of the target letter and has more difficulty decoding it. Since identifying individual letters is a basic step in word recognition and oral reading, the researchers suspected that reducing the crowding might improve reading skills. They experimented with increasing the letter spacing for dyslexic readers so that the letters were farther apart from each other on the printed page.

They tested 74 children, ages eight to 14, who had been previously diagnosed with dyslexia. Half the children were Italian and half were French. The children were presented with 24 short, meaningful sentences that were unrelated to each other. All were asked to read the sentences with normal spacing and the same sentences with increased letter spacing. Their speed and number of reading errors on each of the two trials were then compared.

In the text with increased spacing between letters, the spaces between the words and between lines were also increased to maintain a proportionate look to the text. Half of the group saw the sentences with normal spacing first and two weeks later saw the sentences with increased spacing. The other half saw the increased spacing first and the normal spacing second. The investigators felt that the two week gap between reading trials would diminish the effect of repetition on the children's reading success.

The investigators found that the dyslexics made fewer errors when they read the text with increased spacing. In fact, their reading accuracy was improved by a factor of two; and the worse the children were at identifying letters, the more they showed a benefit from the increased letter spacing.

The more widely spaced text also resulted in a significant increase in speed. Interestingly, these benefits were seen in both groups of children, those reading Italian and those reading French. The researchers concluded that extra large letter spacing provides a method that improves text reading performance even when the text is new to the reader and the reader has not had the opportunity to practice ahead of time. Because this is a method which requires little training, as compared with standard reading remediation strategies, the researchers believe the technique may therefore be accessible to more dyslexics and their teachers. They do not suggest that it replace phonological training and other intensive reading strategies, but note that this strategy may help increase the amount of reading practice that a dyslexic child might undertake and therefore lead to improved reading skills.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Esther Entin, M.D., is a pediatrician and clinical associate professor of Family Medicine at Brown University's Warren Alpert School of Medicine. She writes for TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.

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