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Writing for Dyslexic Readers

Tricks to make make your writing more accessible to people with dyslexia and visual impairments.

By
Erika Enigk, read by Mignon Fogarty
November 8, 2012
Episode #342

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Have you ever tried to read something in a foreign language? Maybe some words looked familiar, but it was hard to determine what the sentence meant. Maybe the structure didn’t seem to follow the rules you’re used to. Now, imagine having the same problems reading your native language. Today, we’re going to talk about how to write for a special group of readers: people with dyslexia.

What Is Dyslexia?

Before we get to the writing tips, you first need to know that dyslexia is a learning disability that affects reading. Some people see words or letters jumbled around. They might see “left” as “felt” or the letter “p” as “b.” They may not be able to understand jokes or idioms. Some have a hard time following complicated instructions.1

Dyslexia is not a sign of low intelligence. In fact, some of the most successful people in history were dyslexic, including Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, and Roald Dahl.2 Dyslexia can’t be cured, but reading specialists can help people cope with the problem. As a writer, you can help too.    

Write Short, Simple Sentences

First, write short, simple sentences. Have you ever read a sentence that was so long, you were lost by the end? Many dyslexic readers have that problem all the time. Keep your sentences brief. Use short words. And use a simple subject-verb-object sentence structure.

Keep your paragraphs short too. Use bulleted lists if it makes sense. If you’re writing a list of instructions, break it down step by step, no matter how simple each step might be.

Avoid Abbreviations

Second, avoid using unnecessary abbreviations. Dyslexic readers have trouble keeping track of abbreviations, and avoiding them is actually a good tip no matter who your readers are. In his book Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner says overuse of abbreviations “require[s] the reader to refer constantly to the original uses of terms to grasp the meaning. This kind of writing…is tiresome and inconsiderate….”3

In some cases, however, the long form is awkward, or the abbreviation is more popular than the original term. For example, it’s much easier to talk about a product’s UPC than its universal product code. In such instances, feel free to use the short version.

Emphasize Boldly

Third, use bold face type for emphasis or headings. To people who have dyslexia, underlined or italicized words can look like they run together. Avoid using block capital letters too; they can also be hard to read.

Use One Space After a Period

Fourth, use just one space after sentence-ending punctuation, not two. This is a style choice, but many dyslexic readers prefer the single-space method because it makes the text easier to read.4 The extra space over many pages can create a “river” through the text.5 The website typographyforlawyers.com has a good picture of this.

Think About Screen Readers

Fifth, keep screen readers in mind. Routinely used by the blind, a screen reader is a tool that reads text aloud. A good screen reader can interpret unusual spelling and punctuation, but no screen reader is foolproof. For example, curly quotation marks may be read aloud as “back quote.” So use straight quotation marks instead of curly ones.6

We’ve already said you should be careful with abbreviations. One more thing to consider is how you pronounce them. A screen reader will try to read them as words if there are enough vowels and consonants, but it will pause if periods are inserted between letters.7 You wouldn’t shorten “United States” to the word “us,” so insert periods there: U.S. But you would say “NASA” for National Aeronautics and Space Administration, so write that one without the periods.

A final tip about screen readers is to take advantage of punctuation. A screen reader will pause for semicolons, commas, and ending punctuation, so make use of those marks at the ends of headings and bullet point statements. If that doesn’t fit your style guide, put them in a font color that matches your background. Voila! People reading from the page will never know.

Consider Your Design

Sixth, think a bit about design elements such as font and spacing. A plain, evenly spaced sans serif font like Arial or Verdana, in a 12- or 14-point size is your best bet. (Verdana even has the straight quotation marks that will help screen reader users.) The easiest layout to read is left justified with line spacing of 1.5. Use dark text on a light background, but don’t use white—it’s a bit too bright and hard on the eye.8 That last tip is also useful if you’re writing for elderly readers or others with impaired vision.

Check Your Readability

Finally, check the readability of your final draft. Readability is exactly what it sounds like —how easy your document will be for someone else to read. The most common tool to test this is the Flesch Reading Ease scale. Developed in the 1940s by author and writing consultant Rudolph Flesch, the scale calculates a score between 0 and 100 using word and sentence length. A higher score means a more readable document, and a score of 70 or above is generally considered good.

Microsoft Word has a Flesch score calculator built in. You can turn it on in your Preferences menu. If your score is lower than you’d like it to be, check each paragraph separately to identify trouble spots. Please note, however, that the Flesch scale measures only word and sentence length, not design elements.

Balance Readability with Style Requirements

As noted earlier, sometimes the recommendations for making your writing accessible conflict with the recommendations of popular style guide. For example, although putting periods in the abbreviation “U.S.” helps people who use screen readers, the Chicago Manual of Style recommendation is to write “US” without the periods.9 If you’re required to follow a certain style, you may need to balance that requirement with accessibility-or you can petition your editor or employer to make some style exceptions.

Some of these concepts may be hard to understand if you’re not dyslexic, but most of these tips make good sense no matter who your audience is. Keep it simple, and you won’t go wrong.

This article was written by writer and editor Erika Enigk. Find out more about her at www.erikaenigk.com.

References
  1. Mayo Clinic Staff. “Symptoms.” Mayo Clinic website. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/dyslexia/DS00224/DSECTION=symptoms (accessed October 29, 2012)
  2. Famous Dyslexics. British Dyslexia Assocation website http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/about-dyslexia/famous-dyslexics.html (accessed October 29, 2012)
  3. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage. Third Edition. 2009.
  4. Anthony. 6 Surprising Bad Practices That Hurt Dyslexic Users, UX Movement website. http://uxmovement.com/content/6-surprising-bad-practices-that-hurt-dyslexic-users/ (accessed November 3, 2012).
  5. Butterick, M. One space between sentences. Typography for Lawyers website. http://www.typographyforlawyers.com/?page_id=1325 (accessed October 29, 2012)
  6. Dyslexia Style Guide. British Dyslexia Association website. http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/about-dyslexia/further-information/dyslexia-style-guide.html (accessed October 29, 2012)
  7. Designing for Screen Reader Compatibility. Website of Web Accessibility in Mind. http://webaim.org/techniques/screenreader/ (accessed October 29, 2012)
  8. Dyslexia Style Guide. British Dyslexia Association website. http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/about-dyslexia/further-information/dyslexia-style-guide.html (accessed October 29, 2012)
  9. “Abbreviations.” Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition. 2010. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/16/ch10/ch10_sec033.html?para= (accessed November 3, 2012).
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Resources

Open-Dyslexic (a font created to increase readability for readers with dyslexia)

 

Couple-reading-books image, Erin Kelly at Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

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