It’s Not the Kindle, Stupid! It’s the Text…

Picture1As a blogger on a topic tied to a specific device, the Kindle, it has been easy to overlook the real hero of the ebook revolution, and that is the digital text itself. The virtues of ebooks for schools reside not in the features and benefits of a specific reading device, despite what the pundits prattle on about as they compare the virtues of the Kindle or the iPad. Whether you turn the page with your finger or your thumb, whether you can read better in the light or the dark, whether a thousand or a million titles are available in one store or the next, whether the cool factor is high or low–these are ephemeral to the reasons that digital text can make a difference in the education of young people.

Should I get a bunch of Kindles for my school? It’s a question the answer to which is up in the air. A bunch of iPads? Still in doubt. Here’s the real question: should I be taking advantage of the properties of digital text in my teaching? The answer to that one is unequivocal, and the answer is yes.

OK, you say, digital text has been around for a long time. What’s the big deal right now? The answer to that one is easy, too: the emergence of dedicated mobile reading platforms, like the Kindle and the iPad (and the iPhone, and the Sony Reader, and the Nook). Digital text has been available for a long time in one form, primarily, and that is formatted as HTML and viewed on a computer monitor. (In fact, it is indicative of this history that 50% of ebooks today are read on a computer, even with the proliferation of choices in mobile readers.)

So what’s different now? For the first time we have devices and software that are dedicated to taking advantage of the virtues of digital text. My quick list of those virtues includes:

  • variable text size
  • variable type face
  • distribution of text electronically
  • availability of free text
  • storage requirements for digital text
  • amount of the world’s knowledge already captured in digital text
  • user control of digital text
  • the sustainability of digital text
  • fresh formats for prose enabled by digital text

In this and the next few posts, I am going to discuss  these virtues and link them to what we know about how students learn. First up, variable text size.

Digital Text: The Advantage of Variable Font Size for Reading

Something that has been widely reported is the pleasure that a lot of people take in reading text on the Kindle at a larger font size than is typical for them. That is certainly true for me; I am a declared lover of Kindle Font Size #4 which, as it turns out, is roughly equivalent to a 14 point font. In an unscientific survey I conducted on this blog a while back, 70% of the participants indicated a preference for Kindle Font Size #3 or higher. While this was a very small sample, the preference for larger font sizes was clear.

In the meantime, students have put their thoughts on the record about font size, and bigger is certainly preferred by the middle school students polled by Kathy Parker at Seneca (IL) Middle School, where Kathy has run a Kindle pilot program this past school year. They like the largest font size, period. They say it helps them read better.

Recently, a blogger in the UK noted that reading text on his iPhone was easier than in books or other settings. Why? A bit of investigation told him that larger fonts reduce the amount of print on the page; words are less jammed together. The blogger, it turns out, is dyslexic, and receives this diagnosis of the situation validated by a prominent neuroscientist, who comments that “Many dyslexics have problems with ‘crowding’, where they’re distracted by the words surrounding the word they’re trying to read.”

I did a little research myself on the “crowding” phenomenon, which has been carefully studied by researchers here and abroad, especially as it affects the reading rate of “normal” and “dyslexic” readers. The findings across many studies are clear:

  • all readers benefit from increasing text size up to a maximum, after which increased reading rate associated with the larger text flattens out
  • the optimal font size for “normal” readers is larger than average, but not as large as it is for dyslexic readers
  • much of the reading rate difference between normal and dyslexic readers can be mitigated through increased font size

In a Research Brief I wrote recently on the subject, I provide an overview of “crowding”: “In the research, crowding specifically refers to “the difficulty in identifying a letter embedded in other letters” (Chung, 2007). Studies have shown that the crowding effect impacts reading rates in both the horizontal and vertical proximity of text, so that larger font size creates more space between adjacent letters in the text, and may increase line spacing as well, reducing crowding.”

I have also summarized the findings of a number of studies. For example, a 2009 study conducted at the University of Rome, Italy, tells us that for both the control and experimental groups, “…the reading rate increased with print size up to a maximum. In dyslexics, the fastest rate was obtained at a significantly larger character size than in controls” (Martelli, DiFilippo, Spinelli, and Zoccolotti, 2009).

You can read or download a copy of the study in PDF format right here.

And if the research doesn’t persuade you, maybe the words of the middle schoolers who have reported on their Kindle-enabled reading will:  “The font that everyone prefers to use with the Kindle 2 is the largest font size.”

  2 comments for “It’s Not the Kindle, Stupid! It’s the Text…

  1. willd
    February 26, 2011 at 8:29 am

    Ralph, you might want to check with the teachers over at

  2. February 23, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    As a kindle publisher, I’ve been trying to find statistics on how adults hold the kindle for reading, i.e. landscape vs portrait, does it vary by age, fiction/nonfiction, etc. – have you seen anything on this?

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