Subject: reading
From: "Robert H. Bohle" <rbohle -at- CABELL -dot- VCU -dot- EDU>
Date: Wed, 11 Jan 1995 07:55:04 EST

I hope this reads better. I am so sorry that I have caused some
back-n-forths about me on this list. I joined because I am,
unfortunately, interested in darn near anything about writing, design
and communication. I have found, however, that I have oversubscribed
to listserves and must delete some to have a life. The only reason I
am departing the list is because I am more of a designer and
journalist than a technical writer and your list is marginal and way
too active. As a snacker of lists though, I can say you appear to
have a good list. I feel that I have caused the only disagreements I
have seen. GADS! Thank you for your interest and kind comments on
what you could read from the initial post - and yes, the irony was
lovely. . . . I have learned not to be in such a hurry to so
something, and I apologize once again for the trouble. Please e-mail
me once again if you would like to discuss further or would like
cites. If this appears to travel unbroken, I REALLY will be leaving
the list this time. I just didn't want to leave the task undone.

Bob Bohle
DesignAND -at- aol -dot- com or netdzine -at- richmond -dot- infi -dot- net
Definitely under construction

After going through research on reading (little on monitors
specifically), some random thoughts on reading on paper vs. on

- the flicker of fluorescent light affects reading. I wonder if
the flicker of the monitor also affects how easy it is to look at and
focus on.

- as readers reach *bifocal age,* more light is necessary for
good reading. Maybe we old duffers (oops, I mean: speaking for
myself) need to make sure our monitors have good, high contrast.
Overall, brightness and contrast seems to be the most important
factor in easy reading.

- reading distance may be important. If our monitor is large
enough and/or close enough, we may have to move our head
(instead of just our eyes) to scan each wide, word-processed line.
The normal 3-degree cone of attention means that anything
beyond about 14 or so picas (on paper) gets more difficult. On
screen word processing makes for very wide line measures.

- the angle of the paper (e.g., on table vs. held in hand)
turned out to be a factor. A 45-degree angle for what we read
turned out to be optimum. My screen, for instance, is always much
flatter to my line of sight than is my paper reading. Maybe thatUs a
part, too. My head is also much more erect than it likely should be.

- lights off to the side of the visual field tend to distract. This
could be distractions around the monitor, as well as the fact that
we have more light in our peripheral vision by looking ahead at a
monitor, rather than by looking down at paper on a desktop.

- readers are very much creatures of habit, and our habit is
black on white, and also on paper, I suppose. Reverse video
reading may be slowed because of this. Color seemed to make
little difference here, although a background of a light blue or cyan
seemed to have a slight edge.

FROMJARTICLE: When we read, we donUt stop and wade
through every syllable of a word, much less every letter. We make
a stop, or fixation, at various points along a line of type, gathering
meaning as we do so. Sophisticated readers tend to identify
words by their shape, not by looking at each letter in a word or by
sounding each syllable, as we did when we were learning to read.
So the stops can be very quick P between 100 to 250

Then we jump to the next stop on the line and look again.
These jumps, or saccades, vary in length depending on an
assortment of typographic variables and the skill of the reader.
When we reach the end of a line, we must make the empty sweep
back to find the beginning of the following line so we can

If, during either the momentary fixation on a word (which is
referred to as the foveal word), on the saccade, or during the
empty sweep to the next line, the reader has to struggle, both
speed and comprehension suffer. When a reader has to struggle
he or she also is likely to give up and move on to something else.
Many studies have shown there is a strong relationship between
the visual characteristics of the text and the pattern of fixations.

The initial fixation on a word tends to be halfway between
the beginning and the middle of a word. Interestingly, not only is
the fixated word processed, but usually the word immediately to
the right is as well. This is called the *parafoveal* word in the

This is rather like peripheral vision. When we are looking at
one thing, we can also see other objects surrounding our object of
focus. We can move our eyes to focus on that other object when
we need to gather information from it. Reading is similar. When
we are focusing on one word, we are also peripherally studying
the next word in line.

This parafoveal word is often skipped over at the next
fixation or is fixated very briefly if our *preview* processing comes
up with a reasonable meaning, either from the shape of the word
or from the context, or both. The length of the parafoveal word
tends to determine where the next fixation will occur, if it occurs in
that word at all. Studies have shown, for instance, that three-letter
parafoveal words are often skipped over.

The importance of the parafoveal word in reading is that
some researchers believe it has great influence on the length of
each fixation and the size of the subsequent saccade. If the
preview, or peripheral vision glance, of that word is good, then
reading ease and speed is enhanced.

The *preview benefit* helps to speed the reading process
by allowing longer saccades and fewer fixations along the line of
type. The preview benefit seems to come not from perceived
structure or meaning of the word, but from low-level visual cues,
such as the length of the word.

This is why inter-word spacing is a critical variable in easy-
to-read text: if the reader canUt quickly tell where the parafoveal
word ends, confusion arises. The word spaces must be large
enough to be seen peripherally. On the other hand, studies have
shown that large and irregular word spacing (such as we
sometimes get with weak H&J) is a major culprit is hampering
reading speed.

Also, all caps are very difficult to process quickly because
the shape of the word doesnUt have as much variance as does
upper and lower case. Also, when we read we tend to look only at
the top of each letter, and lower case again, especially the
readability faces with large x-heights, is better suited for this.
Because the parafoveal word is seen only peripherally, but is very
important to text processing, making sure the visual characteristics
of text lend themselves to quick processing is critical.

Other researchers believe, however, that it is the foveal
word processing that influences the length of the fixation, and the
processing of the following parafoveal word that influences the
saccade, or the next stop down the line. Obviously, the studies

Good readers also have been found to do a number of
other things not directly related to typography.

Readers have been found to apply four levels of attention
as they approach a printed page: page, line, word, and letter. First,
they make a quick assessment of the page, noting the
straightforward organization of the grid-like line-by line structure.
Then they enter the presumed first line and begin fixating on the
foveal words and moving along line by line of type. If they
encounter difficulty with the word, they break down and look at
individual letters. Presumably, readers go only as far down the
hierarchy as they need to get the meaning.

As they gather word meanings, readers begin grouping
them into larger and larger meaning units to finally complete the
task at the sentence level. Clearly, for communication purposes,
the more quickly and the higher up the hierarchy access to
meaning is gained the better.

The familiar gestalt principles of visual perception come
into play as readers scan the information to gain access to
meaning. Size and shape proximity go hand in hand with
appropriate letter and word spacing, and to a lesser extent,
linespacing. Controlling these parameters allows for quicker
reading and better comprehension.

Other non-typographic factors that affect reading are
familiarity or habit (one of the reasons romans are, in general,
preferred over sans serif body types P at least in the U.S.), interest,
redundancy, meaningful grouping of content, and context.
Because of these and other influences, and because better
readers use certain schema or approaches to different kinds of
reading moments (e.g., a textbook vs. a Dave Barry column) and
they constantly monitor their comprehension, typographic fixes
can only go so far in assisting readers.

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