Two weeks ago, before the start of the new semester, I was at the copier running prints of some snazzy little document I made which was set in the font Georgia, an “elegant but legible” Microsoft font. Looking at my document, hot off the press, I remarked aloud: “Hmm…that doesn’t look right.” Immediately, I found myself in conversation with three nearby colleagues about favorite fonts, the fonts we like to use, and what we had knew about how students may (unconsciously?) perceive fonts. What amazed me about this conversation, besides the inherent geekery, was how the minutiae of teaching life may have some small but nevertheless real effect on our students and their learning.
Since that conversation, I have mulled the idea over in my mind, being very careful about my font choices on materials, as well as overall aesthetics. Thanks to a conversation with some students today over ice cream, I was inspired to write this post.
I set out to write a simple “serif vs sans serif” research summary, but I was actually disappointed with the results: no real difference, too many contradicting studies. However, through the rabbit hole of research, I stumbled onto a rather interesting article that proposed the benefits of disfluency (i.e. harder to read texts), at least for L1 readers. No research has been done (yet) on disfluency for L2 readers, but the idea is intriguing.
Below, I summarize research on the role of typography in L1 (actually a summary of summaries) and L2 reading. In part 2 of this post, I will discuss research on disfluency and its implications for material design.
Serif vs Sans Serif and L1 Reading
A popular study by Errol Morris of the New York Times offered a serif vs. sans serif online quiz to readers disguised as a credibility quiz based on a scientific article. Those who read the article read it in randomly assigned serif and sans serif fonts, including Comic Sans. The results showed that those who read serifed fonts, especially Baskerville and Georgia, found the article more believable, and those who read it with sans serifed fonts found it less believable, with Comic Sans readers rejecting the article the most. For this type of study, while it is interesting, the effect on the reader likely has more to do with perception of the font than any actual qualities of it.
Alex Poole (2008), a user experience consultant, summarized a plethora of research on font legibility and readability (comprehension) among native English readers and found that:
- There is scientific evidence for and against either font type, and most of the experimental evidence is weak or based on poorly designed tests
- Some argue that serifs guide the flow of reading, eye tracking studies reveal we don’t read linearly and smoothly but in quick jerking movements called saccadic movements
- While readers may prefer serif fonts, this is likely due to familiarity, and “perceived legibility seems to be inconsistent with user performance” (Lund, 1999, cited in Poole, 2008).
- Sans serif fonts may be better for the web and digital mediums, but some evidence questions this.
- There is no difference for children’s books or children’s reading (Walker, 2001; Walker and Reynolds, 2002).
- Poole concludes that font type may not be worth measuring but “x-height, counter size, letter spacing and stroke width” may be more important. [Note: The evidence for this is quite old (70s) so it may not be relevant to modern readers.]
So, the consensus for English L1 readers is that font type doesn’t matter, but other font elements may. What about for English L2 readers?
Serif vs Sans Serif and L2 Reading
My research in this area didn’t turn up many useful, recent article, but I did find this one by two Iranian professors that had a good literature review, theoretical base, and experimental design. Because of the overall unimpressive findings of serif vs sans serif fonts in general, I am confident this article is representative of most ELT findings (lacking as they are).
Soleimani, H. and Mohammadi, E. (2012). The effect of text typographical features on legibility, comprehension, and retrieval of EFL learners. English Language Teaching, 5(8). Retrieved from http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/elt/article/viewFile/18852/12443.
A literature review of research on L1 readers revealed that:
- font type and font size are factors that can influence reader-text interaction
- According to Huges & Wilkins (2000), 16-point serif fonts are preferred for legibility
- Chandler (2001) found that font size, not the type, is important
- Gasser, Boeke, Haffernan, and Tan (2005) found “a significant effect of serif fonts on information recalling.”
- De Lange, Esterhuizen, and Betty (1993) found serif and sans serif fonts have equal legibility
The authors of the article then did their own experimental study.
- 120 intermediate learners
- four instruments: timed speed reading test, untimed comprehension test, untimed recall test (2 weeks later)
- conditions that were manipulated include font size (10 or 12), font type (Arial or Bookman Solid) and line spacing (set solid or double spaced
- The only significant difference that came up among all the various conditions was for the effect of font size and speed of reading.
- A larger font (12 point) is more conducive to faster reading.
- While their findings seem at first to contradict their literature review, the findings are quite in line with the general trend of inconclusiveness in terms of font type.
- Their findings on font size are in line with most other research.
Conclusions and Implications
So, what do I make of my initial feelings at the copier, when I saw my Georgia font and was taken aback? As the research shows, it’s likely not any effect of the font choice itself but rather the overall design of the material and my own perceptions. Perhaps there was not enough white space, or the size of the font was unbalanced. In any case, based on the research, I doubt it would have had any effect on my students.
To me, though, aesthetics in material design is important. My sentiment, however, seems to reinforce the overall conclusion of this kind of research: beauty (and perceived legibility) is in the eye of the beholder.
Other Links of Interest
- Episode 209 of the Talk the Talk podcast is all about typography. Give it a listen.
- How Type Faces Influence Perception and Persuasion
- How Typefaces Influence the Way We Read and Think
- 5 Psychology Studies that Tell Us How People Perceive Visual Information
- Aesthetics in Reading: Can Text and Images Hinder Reading
- An Eye Tracking Study of How Font Size and Type Influence Online Reading
- The Psychology of Fonts
Chandler, S. B. (2001). Running Head: Legibility and comprehension of onscreen type (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-11172001-152449/unrestricted/chandler.pdf.
De Lange, R. W., Esterhuizen, H. L., & Beatty, d. (1993). Performance differences between Times and Helvetica in a reading task. Electronic Publishing, 6(3), 241-248. Retrieved from http://cajun.cs.nott.ac.uk/compsci/epo/papers/volume6/issue3/rudi.pdf.
Gasser, B., Boeke, J., Haffernan, M., & Tan, R. (2005). The influence of font type on information recall. North American Journal of Psychology, 7(2), 181-188.
Hughes, L. E., & Wilkins, A. J. (2000). Typography in children’s reading schemes may be suboptimal: Evidence from measures of reading rate. Journal of Research in Reading, 23(3), 314-324. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-9817.00126
Lund, O. (1999). Knowledge Construction in Typography: The case of legibility research and the legibility of sans serif typefaces. Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Reading: The University of Reading, Department of Typography & Graphic Communication.
Poole, A. (2008, Feb. 17). Which are more legible: serif or sans serif typefaces? [blog post]. Retrieved from http://alexpoole.info/blog/which-are-more-legible-serif-or-sans-serif-typefaces/.
Walker, S. (2001). Typography for children: serif or sans?. Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, The University of Reading. Archived in http://www.kidstype.org/?q=node/43.
Walker, S. and Reynolds, L. (2002). Serifs, sans serifs and infant characters in children’s reading books. University of Reading Information Design Journal, 11(3): 106-122. Retrieved from http://www.researchgate.net/researcher/79987637_Sue_Walker.