June 4, 2012 -- Spreading the letters of words a bit farther apart helps dyslexic kids read more quickly and make fewer mistakes as they read, a new study shows.
While the strategy isn't a cure for dyslexia, which causes the brain to process information differently, researchers say it may help some children with the condition to read more easily, a key to helping them become better readers and learners overall.
Therapists agree that one of the best long-term remedies for the reading difficulties of dyslexia is practice. But because reading is so frustrating for these kids, practice is often a tough sell.
"The consequence is that children with dyslexia read very, very little. We give the comparison that a child with dyslexia reads in a year what a normal reader reads in two days," says researcher Johannes C. Ziegler, PhD, director of research in the cognitive psychology laboratory at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France.
Crowding Complicates Reading in Dyslexia
In recent years, scientists have developed a greater understanding of a visual phenomenon called crowding -- a problem that affects a person's ability to recognize what they see.
Studies of people with dyslexia show that their brains may be overly attentive to information coming in from the edges of their vision.
That makes dyslexics very good at quickly absorbing and understanding the information in a scene or picture, but it makes reading more difficult.
"If these letters are too close to one another, the features intermix, so you're not able to tell which letter it actually is," Ziegler says.
While crowding has been known to be a problem for people with dyslexia for some time, Ziegler says little research has tested whether strategies to reduce crowding could improve reading.
Testing Wider Letter Spacing to Ease Reading
For the study, researchers tested whether spacing letters of words a little farther apart on the page could improve reading speed and accuracy in 74 Italian and French children who had been diagnosed with dyslexia.
The children were asked to read two blocks of 24 short sentences in their native languages. The sentences were unrelated to prevent the kids from using contextual cues to understand them. The words were printed in 14-point Times-Roman font. One block of text used normally spaced letters. In a second block, the space between the letters was increased 2.5 points.
H e r e ' s h o w t h a t l o o k s .
The children in the study were asked to read each block of text separately, at sessions that were two weeks apart to make it harder for them to remember what they read.
Some of the kids were assigned to read the widely spaced text first. The others were asked to read the normal text first.
In both cases, dyslexic kids made fewer errors when reading the widely spaced text. Increasing the spacing between the letters doubled the average accuracy. When researchers looked more closely at individual results, they found that the kids who were the poorest readers to begin with benefited the most from the wider letter spacing.
The extra space between the letters also helped dyslexic kids read about 20% faster, an immediate improvement that was on par with the average gain over a full school year for dyslexic children in Italy.
The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Not a Cure, but a Tool
Experts who were not involved in the research praised the study for its practical approach.
"It's a good study. It matches well with what we see in our clinic," says Fernette Eide, MD, a neurologist in Edmonds, Wash., who specializes in treating children with dyslexia.
Eide is also the co-author -- with her husband, Brock, who is also a doctor -- of the book The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain.
She says therapists who treat dyslexia have recognized that crowding can pose a problem for their patients.
"It's a real phenomenon," Eide says. "You can adjust the fonts, increase the spacing, reduce the number of items on a page and so on. It helps immediately."
Eide says many of her younger patients have embraced e-readers because they can adjust the spacing between letters.
While she stresses that wider letter spacing doesn't make the dyslexia go away, it can improve reading and learning.
"If you can address some of the visual issues that make kids put the book down and stop reading, I think it helps their overall reading ability," Eide tells WebMD.