Urban Myths & Comic Sans

I don’t hate comic sans. I don’t like it very much but I don’t hate it. It’s relative ugliness is not that big a deal, really, and, well, it’s a font, right? However, what does annoy me about it is the use of it in educational circles outside of primary schools (who generally use Sassoon or similar), and the reasons for this. This led, as is common with these things, to a bit of a staff room chat the other day.

The most common argument I’ve heard, apart from “I just like it,” is that it is easier to read for learners with dyslexia or those learners with lower levels of literacy. It’s worth clarifying at this point that dyslexia is not the same as having a low level of literacy. Someone who has a low level of literacy may or may not have dyslexia, (and indeed vice versa). These are complex things, and while there may be occasional correlations here, these do not mean they are the same.

So, anyway, I thought I might go and look it up in the Internet. As you do. And a little rummage found a couple of interesting pieces amongst the numerous “graphic designers hate comic sans” sites. The most telling and authoritative was the information from the British Dyslexia association‘s Tech blog, who you rather think should know what they are talking about. They suggsest that feedback from their users offers comic sans as a good font, but only because it is simple and sans serif, not for any reason tremendously unique to that specific font. Otherwise they are pretty ambivalent. It’s worth noting that they point out that not only is it “not considered professional in the publishing or academic worlds” but also that “some adults consider it looks childish.” On the same page they also suggest that the choice of font “may not be a burning issue” indicating that other factors (size, spacing, line length) are just as important. It’s worth noting that the main British Dyslexia Association site uses a fairly regular looking sans serif, Roman font as a standard, but, and this is a crucial observation, with the opportunity to reformat the site with a pretty extensive set of options in the “accessibility” link. On another site I found it refers to a study, (you can find the study here) which suggested that a font designed with dyslexia in mind fared badly. The study didn’t even look at Comic Sans, suggesting perhaps that the font didn’t particularly register as an appropriate font for analysis.

The other challenge here is that dyslexia is a complex concept which can manifest itself differently for different people. So even if the evidence for comic sans were conclusive, it might well be that the learner in your class with dyslexia may not in fact be helped by that particular adjustment. It would seem more useful, to my mind, to have some sort of open source document file format which allows for the content creator to fix the document so it is impossible to change the content, like a pdf, but allows the reader to change the font style, size, spacing, background colour and so on according to the individual needs of the reader. Now that would be awesome.

Either way, it’s not looking tremendously convincing for the use of Comic Sans as a help for learners with dyslexia. So what about literacy and language teaching? I should be on more comfortable ground here, this being my thing, so to speak.

Well, again, a little rummage around the Internet and I got, well, nothing much. As with dyslexia there wouldn’t appear to be much out there in terms of solid evidence, mostly there were lots of “literacy educators like it” comments. These pointed out the shape of the lower case a, and of the lower case g, but none of these are unique to Comic Sans. There are several others, including Century Gothic, which have the same sorts of shapes to the letters, although I personally find the roundness of Century Gothic a little tough going. There is a font I personally quite like called Andika. It was designed with literacy education in mind, and to me it looks like a sort of grown up version of Comic Sans, or perhaps the love child of Comic Sans and Calibri, I’m not sure. It looks the part though, somehow hitting lots of criteria for ease of reading but without looking like it was designed for five year olds.

That said, however, there is another issue with making all our texts so learner friendly in this way. The vast majority of fonts used in the real world are not governed by the needs of learners and the diktats of education, but rather the tastes and habits of typographers and designers. The upshot of this is that the lower case a that your learners encounter outside of class, even outside of your handouts, is likely to be the one with the funny hat on. Lower case g may have weird squiggling descenders on it. Typefaces come in all shapes and sizes, and really is it in the best interests of our learners to mollycoddle our learners in this way? Perhaps there’s a value where literacy in any language is low, but beyond Entry 1, I remain unconvinced.

My own habits tend towards a fairly large sized Calibri, because a) it’s sans serif and easy on the eye, and b) it’s the default and I’m lazy. But genuinely, I think it’s quite nice: curvier and more elegant than Arial, a bit less squat looking than Tahoma and Verdana. It ticks the boxes, and works well. I like Andika for learners at the lower end of the literacy scale.

But I avoid Comic Sans. Not perhaps to the extent that I would change something out of it, although I have done, but I don’t usually consciously use it. I find it infantile, annoying, unattractive and unprofessional. It’s good for cat posters, perhaps. The evidence is scanty at best, and the whole area is really not very well researched enough to make any great claims one way or the other.

However, like so much in education the “comic sans is good for dyslexia and literacy” idea has proven hard to shift in the face of this lack of evidence. This is a bit of a depressing habit, especially in FE, where all sorts of things hang on in spite of evidence, or in spite of an absence of evidence . It has become one of those things that “everyone knows”. As in “everyone knows you should use Comic Sans for dyslexia.”  It’s like a massive urban myth, the “friend of a friend told me” school of educational theory, and like many urban myths it has roots in a version of reality, but a very strained link to fact. So maybe next time you reach for the Comic Sans you might want to wait a minute and think.

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