Dyslexia, fonts and football.

“Comic Sans. Use Comic Sans for everything. It’s the easiest font to read.”
“Righto. Will do.”

Up until a couple of years ago, I used to car share with Paul. Very sadly, Paul isn’t with us anymore. Paul was a real intellectual, the sort of chap you don’t seem to find very often in education. Strangely, for a teacher, he was genuinely interested in education. He wanted to talk through and work out what it was for, how it worked and why we did it. We’d sit and specualate on how teaching had arrived in its current form, imagining the informal institutions of the early pre-Roman Britains, through Greek symposia and mediaeval court tutors. We’d reflect on the impact of various Education Acts and the non-impact of the latest government initiative. If he’d still been here, we’d have had a field day spending 45 minutes each morning and evening dismantling Gove’s daily updates. But he wasn’t only interested in education; our conversations would move from Anthropology to Zoology, via English Literature and Computer Science. The man was a rare find indeed – he knew something about everything and lots about most of it.

I remember one particular conversation where we both became particulalry irrate. It was following our school becoming “dyslexia friendly”. We kept getting emails about making sure displays were “dyslexia friendly” and to ensure that all worskheets were in “dyslexia friendly font”. Poor old Paul used to get furious about this, and I could see his point. “How are we helping these people by making everything easy for them?!” he used to howl in derision, “how is this preparing them for the real world?” He was absolutely right. You can’t turn up to an interview or a presentation or even a football match and suddenly demand that all fonts are changed to make them easier to read. Anyone with even the tiniest knowledge of typography understands that fonts are chosen for a reason. Every font we see is a conscious design choice to create an effect on the audience. So by encouraging people with poor literacy skills (“dyslexia” as they call it these days) we are simply cultivating a selfish belief that things should be tailored to their own individual needs and denying them the rich experience of cultural literacy.

The final straw came one day when they decided that all the door signs should replaced. The new sign specification demanded that all door signs should be in Century Gothic font (it has a “dyslexic friendly” ‘a’ font you see) in blue on a cream background with an accompanying image to depict what subject was taught in the room. Paul was furious. To him, and to me too, this was the absolute height of farce. By purporting to help these people with poor literacy skills, all we were doing was creating a culture of dependency whereby if the text wasn’t tailored to the individual then it wasn’t worth considering. We had nightmare visions of a dyslexia-friendly future where government directives were cascaded to the local authorities demanding homogeneity in sign design. All houses would have door signs written in blue Comic Sans on cream backgrounds with a little picture to depict the meaning of those inaccessible fonts. If your house was Apple Tree Cottage you were laughing, but what about housenames with Anglo-Saxon roots (Duncombe Terrace, for example) or, heaven forbid, plain old numbers. Would the rep from the executive pop round with his clipboard to ensure number 143 clearly depicted 143 things on it, so as not to confuse dyslexic delivery drivers? We spent a whole 45 minute car journey speculating on the horrors of this Naive New World.

The whole irony of this is that Paul himself was a self-confessed possessor of what he felt were “poor literacy skills”. He used to muse that if he had been at school now they’d have labelled him as dyslexic. They’d have modified work sheets for him so that he could read them (in his day, worksheets were handwritten and photo-statted. Heaven help the dyslexic whose teacher had dodgy handwriting). But his point was if they’d made it easy for him he’d probably be sat at a conveyor belt somewhere pushing buttons for a living. As it was, he had a degree in engineering and spent nearly all of his working life as Head of ICT or the county advisor on ICT in schools. But, for a self-confessed “dyslexic”, his knowledge of literature was amazing. He could cite passages from Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He had read, and could quote, the most obscure mediaeval poetry. He enjoyed The Canterbury Tales in their original Middle English. He gleaned complete pleasure and satisfaction from immersing himself in literature and as a result his life experience was a whole lot richer for it. But, as he pointed out, if they’d told him he was dyslexic and pandered to his “needs” all this would have been closed off for him.

So what about football. Why are Brazil so damn good at football? Is it because they’re just gifted? Is it because they’re naturally better than the rest of the world? No. I’ll tell you why it is. It’s because they practise with tiny little balls on the beach (obviously not all Brazilians live on the coast, but stay with me here). Playing football on the beach is a damn site harder than it is on grass or a hard surface. And it becomes even harder when you do it with a ball less than half the size of an ordinary football. Consequently, when they play with a full size ball on grass, it seems a doddle in comparison. So if we apply this analogy to reading, the more you practise with difficult fonts, the easier it gets to decipher all the other tricky fonts. And, guess what? The easy fonts become an absolute doddle.

So, my point is, don’t make it easier for those with weak literacy skills by modifying fonts and worksheets. Instead, support them and chivvy them along to work hard at reading the tricky stuff. They’ll thank you for it in the end.

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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

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