18 December 2012

Children’s reading and the small letter g

This, from Sue Walker:

These small-letter ‘g’s are taken from some early twentieth-century handwriting manuals used for teaching print script, which was very popular with teachers at the time.
Some teachers thought that children would find it easier to read if such letterforms were used in children’s reading books, and as a result handwritten forms were used for the text in some reading books. Many such books were written and produced by teachers using the same letterforms as they used for teaching handwriting.

Detail from L. M. Sidnell and A. M. Gibbon, Little ones’ own picture reader,
Blackie’s Coloured Manuscript-Writing Infant Readers’, London and Glasgow: Blackie, 1924

Detail from My first reading book, ‘The Seandar Individual Reading Books’, Leeds: E. J. Arnold, 1929

Most publishers of children reading books, however, used traditional typefaces, but several began to acknowledge a link with handwriting through the use of a single storey g and a, which became known as ‘infant characters’. To begin with many were badly rendered, often resulting in an uncomfortable fit with the other letters.
Detail from S.N.D. [Rose Meeres] Book IIA, ‘The songs the letters sing’, London: Grant Educational Company, circa 1920.

Detail from Simplified print-writing primer, Gibson’s print-writing primers, Glasgow: Robert Gibson & Sons, circa 1922

A rather good-looking small-letter g was drawn by Eric Gill at the request of a teacher, Augusta Monteith, initially for a children’s poetry book. The pink book of verse was first published in 1931, and reprinted as First poetry book in 1934.

Probably as a result of the alternative g (and a), Gill Sans was used in many children’s reading books until the 1960s. Many teachers continue to think that infant characters should be used in books for beginner readers. But, in some typefaces, such as Helvetica and Avant Garde Gothic, the o, a and g can be perceived as very similar and this can lead to confusion.

What do children think? In recent classroom research most children I spoke with were aware of different forms of small letter g. Some even made the point that single storey g's are for writing and double-storey g's are what we read. While those that thought double-storey small-letter g's (and a’s) were 'harder' than single-storey ones, this did not affect their reading performance. What was more significant was the way typefaces are used: the space between letters, words and lines. See about the project here.

What was very important for young readers was the ‘look and feel’ of a typeface. My typeface, Fabula, designed originally as a screen font for interactive multi-lingual story books for children, was designed to have an informal ‘feel’. It has a cursive small-letter g that has been carefully designed so that it is not easily confused with other characters; the double-storey ‘a’ and clear distinction between other confusable characters also helps. In testing, Fabula has been described by children as: ‘clear, so you can see it properly’; ‘normal'; ‘like an ordinary book’.