Mistaking dyslexia

Daniel Britton’s Alphabet

In “Powerful images show what it’s like to read when you have dyslexia,” Ana Swanson reported about the typeface developed by Daniel Britton in 2013. As an individual with dyslexia, Mr. Britton, who works in graphic design, created a typeface that omits parts of capital letters, as illustrated here, putatively to simulate the experience of reading with dyslexia.

I am saddened by the possibility that people may get the mistaken impression that dyslexia is caused by misperception of the shapes or forms of letters. Fortunately, Ms. Swanson discounts this mistake at two points in her article. First, she notes that the font is not designed to mimic what a person with dyslexia sees when she or he reads, but to force skilled readers to lose fluency. Second, although I might quibble with the phrasing she uses, Ms. Swanson puts the focus in the right place when she reports

Dyslexia doesn’t really have anything to do with the way that people see letters. The condition is actually related to sound, according to a review of the disorder’s background that PBS created for parents.

People with dyslexia have what’s called “weak phonemic awareness,” meaning it’s more difficult for them to hear and distinguish the individual sounds, or phonemes, of a language. Because of this limitation, they have trouble rhyming, spelling and making connections between sounds and words, and that leads to long-term difficulties with reading and writing

In alphabetic languages, readers learn to turn those little squiggles—whether they are printed in Mr. Britton’s typeface or Helvetica, Times New Roman, Alhambra, Beech, Cirilico….—into their sound equivalents and compress those stretched-out strings (“say it fast!”) into words. In a simple way, that’s one little part of the decoding part of reading. It’s helped, in fact, when learners get practice with different fonts, so that they don’t get the misunderstanding that the letter t might also be written t or t or t or t or t (ugh) or t or t or t.

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