A French-Italian research team headed by Johannes Ziegler of the Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive (CNRS/Aix-Marseille Université) has demonstrated that merely widening the spacing between letters and words improves reading speed by 20% and reduces the number of errors by 50%, as published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That news has attracted wide attention and interest, from Science Daily to the Wall Street Journal.
It’s tempting to give this news a major Duh! award for several reasons. One is that we’ve been talking about the role of print size and spacing in reading and dyslexia for quite awhile now, under the umbrella of crowding. Even if one weren’t aware of Optometric contributions, merely taking a look at the most common accommodations given to children with learning and reading difficulties by educators would reveal that the benefits of enlarged font size are already well recognized. Enlarging print size automatically increases inter-letter and inter-word spacing. Beyond this, why settle for the passive font fatale approach? If a dyslexic is functioning like someone who is visually impaired and needs enlarged and widened spacing despite having 20/20 acuity, why not offer that individual the ability to change visual function? This of course is the bread and butter of a successful optometric approach in helping patients with dyslexia improve their visual performance.
Let us not, however, give in to this temptation. Instead let’s embrace the research as further evidence that the Shaywitzian disregard for the role of vision in dyslexia is unfounded. After all, we need to bear in mind that what seems obvious to us isn’t obvious at all to professionals who are telling patients not to waste their time or money on visual interventions. Consider the conundrum that this research poses. If visual factors are irrelevant to success in reading, how does one explain the results of this research? If the root problem in dyslexia is phonological, how does the phonology change in this study when only the print size and spacing is altered? The answer of course is that the subtypes of dyslexia who are dyseidetic or have a visual component to dyselxia struggle more because of visual factors than phonologic factors. Some of these factors may be perceptual in nature, while other factors include visual instabilities that would cause letters or words to distractedly jitter or shimmer or wiggle or even run into one another when the spacing is tight. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that this research combined French and Italian orthography, one being transparent and the other opaque, lending even more power to their outcomes.
By the way, the Ziegler Laboratory that published this research has a number of other nice studies you may want to look at (sorry for ending the sentence with a preposition). You can check out their impressive list of publications here.