The write type
For many years it was argued that letters for writing should be the same as letters for reading. One reason beginners were taught to write Print Script was the assumption that the typeface Helvetica or similar sans serif letters were what faced children in their reading books - though this was by no means always the case.
These typefaces were designed to fit as much text as possible into a page. They have shortened ascending and descending strokes to allow for closer line spacing. This may be satisfactory for fluent readers but not much help for beginners. When children are learning to recognise letters, tall letters can easily be confused with short ones. Then the shape of words is less defined and one of the vital clues in reading is lost. When it came to typefaces for reading, adult experts prescribed what was best for children. No one had ever asked the children what they thought - or even considered that children's eyes might perceive things differently.
So I decided to enlist some experienced remedial teachers in my research to find what children actually found easiest to read or liked best (sometimes different issues). We were all surprised at how much the children could differentiate between details of different typefaces. They showed us that the experts' choice of Times Roman was the least liked; Helvetica came next to the bottom. The favourite was a slanting sans serif, with Times Italic a close second. Those were the clues that helped me to design a children's typeface - a slight forward slant and what the children called a "flickup".
I had to add a feature not present in any modern typeface - slightly extended ascending and descending strokes to accentuate the word shape. The actual letters needed to be easily recognisable - not only with schoolbook "a" and "g" but somehow representing the movement and essential character of each one. So the Sassoon Primary upright and sloping range of fonts was born - and then it could be tested. The reason children liked flickups (I call them exit strokes) soon became evident. They clump letters together along the baseline, making each word a more definite unit.
As for handwriting, Print Script as a model was believed to be easy to teach and easily recognisable. It ignored the fact that writing is not just concerned with letter recognition and neatness. Handwriting i all about movement and pressures. Pupils who were the neatest printers found that altering their abrupt, automatic hand movement, adding an exit stroke and joining up, was extremely difficult. That is because they had simultaneously to alter direction and release pressure before acquiring a fluent joined script. Trying to join without adding an exit stroke results in uneven letter spacing. The deficiencies of Print Script are now accepted by most educators. Simple letters with an exit stroke are recommended as an infant model.
The reason for simple, efficient letters without loops or entry strokes, but with exit strokes, is tied to the need to develop fast personal hand- writing. The hand will learn a flowing, relaxed movement. Exit strokes may not look quite as neat, but they ensure that writers have no need to learn a new movement to develop a joined script. Joining-up entails only proceeding from where you finish one letter to where you start the next. It is now possible for primary schools to use similar letters for reading and letters to represent writing that will benefit the eyes when reading and the hand when writing. The exit stroke that leads the eye onward in reading, leads the hand forward when writing.
With the use of computers increasing all the time there are now other considerations. The computer screen is not a book. We need to find out what typographic factors would make it easier for children to assimilate knowledge from the screen. Layout will be important as the screen alters the traditional conventions of a page. The use of space to rest the eye as well as for emphasis becomes even more important. Indiscriminate use of colour can distract the eye; likewise excessive illustration.
Adult designers and those who market software may not be making choices that are in the best interests of young users. There is an urgent need for research in this area. Just as young children, when given a choice, knew what letters were easiest for reading, and older students could explain how Print Script inhibited their handwriting, they should be able to tell us about features of the screen. You could start by asking your pupils.
We'd be interested to hear what your pupils think makes an easy to read computer screen page. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to TES Primary, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 W1BX.
See next month's issue of TES Primary for the chance to get a free Sassoon Primary Infant font disc. For more information, visit www.clubtype.co.uk