Mind The Gap: The Role Of Spacing Letters In Early Reading

Have you lately observed a novice reader reading a text? Do you remember your own first reading experiences? You were probably reading slowly, gradually, one letter at a time. Words looked like long and jumbled sequences of letters.

Studies suggest that young readers, as well as older readers experiencing reading difficulties, might experience a visual interference in reading which is called the visual crowding effect. The visual crowding effect in reading refers to a challenging task of recognizing a target letter when other neighboring letters are too close to the target. At the early stages of reading, children decipher written words letter-by-letter and may be affected more by this interference. Studies show that the interference in reading caused by visual crowding diminishes with age and disappears around the age of nine. Hence, it may be assumed that around third grade, crowding is no longer an obstacle for reading. In this age, readers are also presumed to begin recognizing words as whole patterns, rather than sequences of isolated letters.

So, how can we help young developing readers with the challenging reading task? The action of reading reflects an encounter between a reader and a text. Educators usually try to improve decoding skills of struggling readers. However, the reader’s encounter with text is bi-directional. Alongside important literacy skills, we must also pay attention to the other participant of this encounter – the text.

Our research emphasizes the role of the text display and tests how altering text presentation may change the way young readers read. Studies of readers experiencing reading difficulties in different ages show that reading can be improved and crowding is reduced when the spaces between letters within a word are enlarged. However, a handful of studies have concentrated on normally developing young readers. Our study attempts to discover whether similar patterns of responses to increased spacing between letters are obtained in beginning readers, which are in their first steps of acquiring reading skills. Hence, we manipulated the presentation of words displayed to young readers by increasing the inter-letter spacing within words. In the experiment, we presented words under two conditions of inter-letter spacing; (1) baseline spacing, such that appears in children’s school booklets and (2) increased spacing to 150%. 132 Hebrew-speaking children in first and third grade read the words, and we measured their reading accuracy and speed. We also controlled for word frequency and length.

The findings supported our predictions and revealed that all first graders were more accurate in reading the increased spacing words, compared to the standard spacing words. Interestingly, in examining the effect of word length, we discovered that the effect of spacing existed for 5 lettered words, but not for three lettered words.
For the third graders, no effect of spacing was found for the whole sample. However, when we divided the third graders into two groups based on their reading ability, important findings were revealed. Similarly, to first graders, low-achieving third-grade readers’ reading accuracy was greater in reading spaced words compared to standard words. This effect was not found for high achieving readers in third grade.

So, it seems that the encounter of the reader and the text has two important participants we have to consider. Our study supports the emerging awareness of the effects of text characteristics on reading performance. As we predicted, novice readers in first grade, as well as low achieving older readers in third grade, are more accurate in reading a spaced text. These results imply that novice and struggling readers might need similar interventions in the field of text display.

The current study exemplifies the importance of research in the field of text display. Simple and non-expensive manipulations in text presentation may serve as an assistive tool for different readers. Such findings must lead educators and learning materials designers to be aware of the importance of text presentation and to use the empirical evidence as a basis for designing learning materials, apps, word processing software, internet websites, etc.

These findings are described in the article entitled Mind the gap: Increased inter-letter spacing as a means of improving reading performance, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.