Research Bites: WTF: What The Font? – Typography and ELT, part 3

In my last blog post, I summarized some research that showed that cognitive disfluency in terms of difficult to read fonts can enhance the learning process. This work had originally been done on native-English speaking students and I wondered if it would apply to ESL/EFL students. The original research I summarized used a really simple memory test, so I decided to replicate this and test my students.

I gave my students a list of features of three alien races. Some students read the list in Times New Roman (fluency group). Some students read it in Comic Sans at 60% black (disfluency group). This was as it had been in the original. Ninety seconds of memorization, distract them for 15 minutes with other work, three-minute test with randomized questions.

The results were surprising. In this very informal research, the students in the fluent group did slightly better. But really, there was no observable effect. I was perplexed, so I contacted the primary author of the original study, Dr. Danny Oppenheimer, and explained my experimental design (in case it was flawed) and a hypothesis as to why it may not have worked:

Perhaps the act of decoding the language (most students are from non-Latin script backgrounds; e.g. Arabic, Korean, Chinese) and comprehending the text is already enough cognitive load and typographical disfluency has little to no effect on them?

His reply: “your intuitions for the failure of the effect to generalize appear to be right on the money“. According to Dr. Oppenheimer, students are already doing enough metacognitive and cognitive work to have any effects from font type, even if these fonts were very disfluent. In fact, the original effect isn’t always observable with native English speakers. The effect seems to be most salient with advanced learners (his original study was at Princeton and a high-level high school). To quote Dr. Oppenheimer:

The fonts work best when students might otherwise be tempted to be cognitively lazy.  When students aren’t thinking hard, the disfluency engendered by the fonts makes them think that the material is tough, and they had better bring their A-game.  For students who are already bringing their A-game (or, conversely, students who don’t care enough to bring their A-game regardless of how difficult they believe the material to be) manipulating the fonts won’t make a difference.

So, to sum up my What the Font? series, it seems that, for ESL learners, it doesn’t matter what font you use: Arial, Times New Roman, Comic Sans, heck, even Impact – it has no effect. So, design away with your fancy serifs, your modern sans serifs, or poor old beaten down Comic Sans. In the truest sense of the phrase: nothing gained and nothing lost!

2 thoughts on “Research Bites: WTF: What The Font? – Typography and ELT, part 3

  1. Thanks for writing this series Anthony. Font is something I’ve often wondered about, because like you I think the aesthetics of our materials can make a real difference. I’m a Calibri fan myself and find it much easier to read than a serif font if I’m trying to process new information. If I’m reading for pleasure I don’t really mind, but if I can change the size or font of materials to learn from I always do. I also find that when I’m learning space between paragraphs and a little space between lines can really help. This final post made me laugh 🙂

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the series. It was eye opening for me because I assumed that there were some real, generalizable effects.

      Lately, I’ve been preferring Corbel, which is a sans serif but has more of a professional air to it, though it is extremely similar to Calibri. I also like Georgia, which happens to be one of the official fonts of my uni.

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