English - The font's the thing

3rd February 2012 at 00:00
Elegant typefaces can beautify pupils' written work

"Can't you do something about his handwriting?" is the ubiquitous cry at parents' evenings. Since calligraphy was used in early manuscripts, we have attempted to recreate beautiful letter forms when writing. Yet I think it is important to show pupils that the use of different fonts can also make writing more readable, accessible and even a little more beautiful.

When you write, which font do you choose? Probably Calibri, the Microsoft font of choice and the default setting for Word, Outlook, PowerPoint and Excel. It is regarded as the most widely used font in the Western world. But there are now more than 100,000 fonts - a far cry from what was available when William Caxton set up his printing press in 1476.

The concept of serif and sans-serif fonts may well be taught when looking at printed medianon-fiction texts, but most analysis stops there. Serif fonts, such as Baskerville, carry a finishing stroke at the base of a letter or an upper flick. As my Year 9s point out, they look a bit like current eyeliner trends.

Sans-serif fonts such as Futura, Helvetica and Gill Sans are perceived as less formal. The first modern san-serif font is considered to be that created by master calligrapher Edward Johnston in 1915-16 for London Underground, and the plaque left on the moon by the astronauts of Apollo 11 was typed in Futura capitals: "HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON, JULY 1969 AD. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND." Let us hope that alien life forms do not misinterpret the use of capitals as shouting.

Technology has liberated the creative potential of words, allowing them to be used in more expressive and playful ways; something A-level language students should be aware of. Leading brands tweak typefaces for their own use, such as the Unity font created in 2010 by Yomar Augusto and Adidas.

English lessons often focus on Barack Obama's presidential campaign speeches, but what about looking at the "graphic vision" that formed part of the printed campaign? This used the Gotham typeface, also used on the inscription for the cornerstone laid for the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero; the font is now loaded with meaning. No longer is importance placed simply on what is written, but on how it is written and its inherent associations.

Which fonts do your pupils choose? For presentations on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, my Year 9s used Nosfer in blood red that appeared to drip down the page. Others used Eater Caps, a font seemingly infected by a rare disease that spreads over time and "eats" letters. A range of fonts can be downloaded for free from www.google.comwebfonts.

My current favourite is the wonderfully named Lobster Two in italics by Pablo Impallari, an exquisite serif font that looks like the perfect joined-up handwriting I tried so hard to master with pen nib and ink pot and that parents would today weep to see done by hand.

Julie Greenhough is a teacher of English and gifted children


Georgia Harris has shared an introduction to typography, which also considers brand identity.

Stimulate pupils' ability to analyse fonts with charlie ferrett's brand-focused lesson.

Font, colour and graphics are all key to brand identity, which magicjohnno explores in a PowerPoint case study.

For an extensive overview of typography, try Dean1977's presentation. It covers font styles and layout and contains a guide to type-editing software.

In the forums

In the TES English forum, teachers want to know if it is OK to use books by old-fashioned authors such as Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton in lessons.

Teachers are also comparing the number of hours allocated to English each week.

Find all links and resources at www.tes.co.ukresources020.

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