What is the purpose of Schoolbook/Infant typeface variants?

_Palatine_'s picture

Plantin Schoolbook/Infant, Bembo Infant, etc.

Is it that they are easier for children to read? The single-story "y" and "g", the "a", etc., all look rather amusing and fun. They seem to be more decorative variants of the parent font, however.

I assume children find it easier to read this sort of type. Correct? Is it that the single-story shapes are perhaps less complicated and more readily recognizable by children? Or is it that these characteristic letter shapes themselves are smaller and more compact variants, therefore making them "infants"?



cuttlefish's picture

One would hope that the shapes of characters in schoolbook fonts were highly differentiated and based on forms easily recognizable by beginning readers and writers. I can't say whether or not there is any basis for this assumption.

Mark Simonson's picture

I think the idea is that the shapes are more similar to the shapes that are used when basic handwriting (block letters) is taught, so they're not confused by the inconsistency. I'm not sure it matters. Kids aren't that dumb. They catch on pretty quick, in spite of the inconsistencies and exceptions. They learn English, don't they?

quadibloc's picture

They learn to speak any language, however complicated, quickly enough. But just as learning to write Chinese characters takes extra time in school, so does learning how to spell correctly in English.

Of course, this slight disadvantage is compensated for by the fact that English-speakers don't have to spend a lot of time in school trying seriously to learn any second language, thus its technical and scientific leadership was attainable, however much it seems that at present we are bur resting on our laurels.

Florian Hardwig's picture

Riccardo, thanks for digging up those older threads. In addition to what Mark said, I repeat what I have written before:

In my opinion, the significance of a single-storey ‘a’ for children is, at least, debatable. Such a typeface might come in handy for teachers, when it is both used for reading and (as a model for) writing. Apart from that, the benefit of avoiding confusion of ‘a’ and ‘a’ is soon outweighed by the potential – and likely – confusion of ‘a’ and ‘o’.

Children are not stupid, they can handle more than one representational form per character. Their world doesn’t end at the edges of their primer. They do spot and effortlessly read a lot of different ‘a’ glyphs every day: caps, italics, serifs, sans-serifs, scripts, fat letters, condensed letters, single-storey and double-storey …

Furthermore, here’s what the researchers involved in the Typographic Design for Children Project at the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication (University of Reading) have found out about infant characters:

“Most children in our study were well aware that there were different forms of a and g, and some even made the point that single storey a's and g's are what we write and double-storey a's and g's are what we read. Some commented favourably about what they perceived as the 'normal' g used in Gill Schoolbook.

Other thought that double-storey a's and g's were 'harder' than single-storey a's and g's, but this did not affect their reading performance.

If infant characters are used it is important that there is clear differentiation between charactes such as o, a and g. This is the case in Gill Educational, for example, but not in Avant Garde Gothic or Helvetica.”

_Palatine_'s picture

Thank you for the informative replies!

I certainly find infant variants of typefaces interesting to read - "interesting" in the fact that their single-story letter features tend to jump out at me as oddities. As an advanced reader I (like most of us are) I'm capable of reading even partially obscured letterforms, partial words, etc. One learns to recognize words and entire phrases in even the poorest of conditions. Of course, I'm speaking as an adult.

As for children, I think the issue is not as clear as some would like to think. While infant letterforms might mimic a child's handwriting (typically, at least), the child must eventually move on to fill the grown-up shoes of readers who are more readily familiar with standard letterforms. Which is especially true in this day and age of typed/on-screen material. Handwritten material (with a few exceptions) is going the way of the dinosaur. It might be best to move children into reading standardized type as soon as possible. perhaps avoiding infant variants entirely. Of course, this raises the issue of the importance of handwriting as an important step in the development of literacy.

eliason's picture

I've never taken note: at what reading level do books for children introduce italics?

M J McGregor's picture

All I know is I remember in first grade reading the Dick and Jane books, being fascinated by the shapes of the lc a and g.

Nick Shinn's picture

The purpose of infant variants is so that type companies can exploit the educational market with a targeted product.

As with any form of "readability" font, there is no proof that such special fonts perform better than the standard fonts used for normal adults.

Chris Dean's picture

@Palatine: You may find this of interest. I have not read the full article nor am I familiar with these authour's work, it is a very new study however. If you don't have database access try contacting the authour directly.

Wilkins, A., Cleave, R., Grayson, N., & Wilson, L. Typography for children may be inappropriately designed. Journal of Research in Reading, 32(4), 402–412.

We present four studies indicating that the size and design of the typeface in textual material for children aged 7-9 may impair speed of reading and comprehension, and measurement of reading attainment. The first study compared the speed with which sample sentences were comprehended. The sentences were printed in Arial font with an x-height of 4.2 or 5.0 mm. The sentences were verified 9% more quickly when presented in the larger typeface. The second study compared reading age on the Salford Sentence Reading Test when the typeface remained at the initial size (x-height 3.3 mm) throughout the test, and when it decreased in size as usual. The average reading age measured with the larger font was 4 months older. The final studies compared the font Sassoon Primary with the font Verdana and showed that Verdana was read and searched more quickly.

dberlow's picture

Perhaps you are right Nick.

But on one other hand, if you look at the hundreds of thousands of products targeted at the youthful end of the educational market, of all those products, special fonts for kids probably cause the least harm. I knows those is big words in a forum as diverse and sophisticated as this, but what product can you think of?

And on another other hand, and this one is technology-slapped as opposed to profit-driven: the many millions of users employing Verdana and Georgia to read, long have been proving the worth and excellence of infant font theory, no?


Chris Dean's picture

Wilkins, A., Cleave, R., Grayson, N., & Wilson, L. (2009) Typography for children may be inappropriately designed. Journal of Research in Reading, 32(4), 402–412.

Sorry, I forgot the date.

Tomi from Suomi's picture

I think that we should really just focuse on basic recognition of letters in the very beginning; after that, young mind guickly makes any necessary connections.

After figuring out the basis of written language, just about all written text is fine. I remember this from my youth. Glyphs not recognised come in from context, and so incorporated. And expression soon comes before impression. At least for me.

Bernard B's picture

Maybe it's good for scrapbooking.

russellm's picture

so (in general) what qualities & features do the designers & marketers of Schoolbook/Infant typeface variants add to make them Schoolbook/Infant typefaces?

in short, could a person pick out a Schoolbook/Infant font in police line-up of grown-up ones?

dan_reynolds's picture

>The purpose of infant variants is so that type companies can exploit the educational market with a targeted product.

Nick, I don't know this for certain, but I suspect that the real reason behind these fonts is the other way around… educators or publishers approached type manufacturers several decades ago, and asked for these weird "educational" fonts.

Ehague's picture

Supposedly they transition American students from single- to double-story As and Gs (and whatever other characters have traditional letterforms that differ from the standard Zaner-Bloser model) in the middle of the second grade. In K-12 educational publishing, we would use customized schoolbook versions of various fonts for anything to do with the second grade or lower, including teachers manuals. These fonts also had open 4s and serifed Is, even in the sans fonts.

Ehague's picture

Also--and I know I mentioned this before somewhere--American editions of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go have been set in Bembo Schoolbook, which is highly evocative of the novel's motifs of primary schooling and theme of lost innocence. It is the damn coolest thing I've ever seen.

Nick Shinn's picture

I suspect that the real reason behind these fonts is the other way around...

Perhaps, but it's impossible to know without historical documentation.
At any rate, changing a couple of characters to make a product that scoops the educational market is an attractive business idea.

Another theory: consider the sans serif situation mid-20th century, where alternate characters were provided by foundries, to enable their customers to turn Futura into Kabel (e.g. in the Anglosphere), on the one hand, or Gill into Futura on the other (e.g. for Europe).

Might it not be that the type already existed (for grown-up aesthetic reasons) when the educationalist came calling, and all the foundry had to do was package the sorts?

This conjecture begs the question: which came first, infant fonts in sans or serif?

the many millions of users employing Verdana and Georgia to read, long have been proving the worth and excellence of infant font theory, no?

Perhaps if Gadget had been bundled by Microsoft in a 4-font family with a 3-syllable name ending in "a", things would have been different!

Florian Hardwig's picture

The traditional ‘Schoolbook’ or ‘Infant’ versions have different forms for a few key letters.
In Plantin and Bembo, that’s ‘a’, ‘g’, ‘y’.
In Gill Sans, that’s ‘a’, ‘g’, ‘l’, ‘y’, ‘J’, ‘1’, ‘4’.
In Tuff School, that’s ‘a’ and ‘g’.

For these four typefaces, the same applies to their italics respectively – except for the ‘a’, which is identical with the one in the standard (i.e. non-infant) version.

[edit] Addition: Andron 2 ABC: ‘a’, ‘g’, ‘ß’; Italic: ‘b’, ‘h’, ‘j’, ‘p’, ‘v’

There is a large number of other families that offer optional glyphs like a single- and double-storey ‘a’ and/or ‘g’ within the standard fonts – usually via OpenType alternates – but which are not advertised as special ‘Schoolbook’ typefaces. Those include:

The asterisk indicates that the ‘infant’ form (single-storey a, g, y; hooked l) is the default.
The ellipsis indicates that there are more stylistic alternates which, however, go beyond the pattern of single- vs double-storey a/g/y and straight vs. hooked ‘l’, and beyond the scope of infant characters.

Nick Shinn's picture

Figgins Sans: g
Scotch Modern: g


I have provided single-storey variants of "a" and "g" for Fontesque, at the request of a children's publisher.
That's strange, as it straddles both the genre of "children's type" (easy for children to read) and "kid's type" (looks like fun; looks irregular like a kid did it).

Ray Larabie's picture

Did anyone else give their elementary school teachers gray hairs by insisting on printing the binocular a & g?

When Report was commissioned by the BBC, the goal was to emulate the look of primer printing. Report's design had more or a thematic purpose than a teaching purpose. It doesn't follow the typical primer rules; there are overshoots, optical corrections an x-height other than 50%. If it's working the way I hope i does, kids read it and think "school".

Thomas Phinney's picture

Just to reiterate, the "theory" behind the schoolbook variants is that they are easier for children to learn to write, and following on from that, that children would find it easier and more comfortable to read the same forms they write with.

If children were kept in test tubes apart from school, and if all school materials were perfectly consistent, this might make sense. But of course they are exposed to plenty of material that does not fit this bill, and it seems they all learn the double-story "a" and "g" pretty quickly. It's hard to justify the schoolbook forms outside of materials specifically aimed at kindergarten age children. But somehow lots of publishers seem to think they are important.

Of course, the obvious problem is that these letterforms are less distinctive than the alternative, and likely HARDER to read.



quadibloc's picture

It is true that Century Schoolbook, Clarendon - and even Caslon - are more likely to be seen in schoolbooks than, say, Futura. But I do see Futura and similar faces in books designed for use by parents with children at home, like "pat the bunny".

Ray Larabie's picture

I do find it hard to believe that kids really struggle with the alternate a & g to the point where it has a significant effect on their ability to learn to read or write. There are so many inconsistencies in English that 2 letters with slightly different, yet more distinctive lowercase forms. Perhaps there are some learning difficulties where it's a big issue but c'mon.

.00's picture

I remember getting into trouble in first grade when I would write a two-story a. When reprimanded by the teacher, I pointed to the text in the reader which was probably set in Century Schoolbook as justification. It didn't help my penmanship grade.

And by the way all our new Trilons have alternate a, g, and y as well

Florian Hardwig's picture

Thank you, Nick and James – I’ve added them to the list.

Tomi from Suomi's picture

I remember in (I think this was) sixth grade, I just started writing differently; my personal hand writing. I do not remember any special event. I just wrote the way it was natural to me. That was it to me.

Thomas Phinney's picture

Today in making a folder for use in her kindergarten class, my daughter Miranda started putting serifs on her letters. Of course, she's known what serifs were since the age of two, but I was still surprised to see her spontaneously starting to use them in drawing letters.

Hmmm... thread drift.



Andreas Stötzner's picture

D. Reynolds: “…these weird "educational" fonts”

If they would be that weird, publishers would hardly use them repeatedly.

Hamburg-based Carlsen-Verlag asked for additionall Italic, Bold and Bold Italic sorts of Andron 2 ABC. A pitty that their Harry Potter editions are targeted at readers too old for it, really.

dan_reynolds's picture

They are weird, sorry. I don't think that these forms are based on any sound research. Some publishers just seem to prefer these forms for some uses. More power to them, I guess. But they are still weird. They look ungainly, and I highly doubt that they help children at all.

Nick Shinn's picture

These are reductive, supposedly functionally superior forms.
The social idealism of modernism is at work here, applied to the proper instruction of the young.

Post-modernism provided some perspective:

"Formalism was more symbolic than functional. It was symbolically functional. It represented function more than resulted from function. It looked functional more than worked functionally.” –Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, 1974.

This doesn't deny the role of functionality in reading.
It just means that what is considered most functional no longer corresponds to the mid-20th century formalist style.
Now, it seems more reasonable that two-storey "a" and "g" are easier to read, as well as more interesting and more fun, and a richer cultural experience for children.

Modernism, as a functionalist credo, is not discredited. But as a style, formalism is historical.
So the use of infant letterforms has a retro quality.

Also, the theory of distinct and different character forms for early readers says something about how its proponents think about childhood -- that children are essentially different and not just mini-adults.

Andreas Stötzner's picture

Mr. Reynolds: “They are weird, sorry. I don't think that these forms are based on any sound research.”

You seem to have not thought about it very much at all, sorry. What these forms are “based on” does hardly count here. The point is that there is *some reason* to sometimes apply them and and you may eventually respect the fact that some people *have* a reason to do so. However, I’m not at all advocating a general favour for these shapes, nor am I an expert in child teaching.

Mr. Shinn: “…the use of infant letterforms has a retro quality”

I found the use of the Latin alphabet – has some retro quality, too.

Nick Shinn's picture

Why, what are you using now?

Tosche's picture

Here's a Japanese example.
Mincho is an ordinary book typeface which is equivalent of Roman in western world. Japanese schoolbook face is aimed to provide a good example of written form (with pencil). It has some different stroke from Mincho, in which many strokes are stylized. Hiragana has shorter swash in each stroke to make children to learn how to achieve legibility. This typeface is used in primary shool books (age 6-12). After that, Mincho replaces it entirely.

Going back to Latin, as many people said already, I assume that the whole purpose of schoolbook typeface is that to teach children how to write (than to read). Therefore I think serifed schoolbook faces are pointless (e.g. Bembo). Upright italic typeface with serifless capital letters satisfies the purpose much more effectively. Hopefully, it should be monolinear to imitate pencil writing (Is this the reason why Comic Sans is popular in schools? At least I'm convinced). And it should be replaced with roman as soon as children become aware of the difference bewteen written form and typographic form.

ahyangyi's picture


The Japanese schoolbook font looks lovely! Is it related to Imitation Song style? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imitation_Song

Going back to latin typefaces, I have a question. As italic typefaces originate from handwriting, would a sans-serif italic typeface just work at all? (hard to imagine a whole textbook like that, though)

Florian Hardwig's picture

The Sassoon family is built around a slightly slanted, flowing sans-serif, but has more members, for different puposes, including upright and partially seriffed styles. You can download a PDF guide from the Clubtype website.

.00's picture

Last year I did a bunch of these "early learning" fonts for MeadWestVaco. Personally I think the reason young designers have such trouble with type is because of some of the forms used in these alphabets. Particularly the fully ascending lowercase t.
It was interesting that MWV required a different lowercase q and uppercase U for their French market. They also required small caps which made no sense to me, but I was happy to oblige. The lowercase form for the uppercase Y may be the most distrubing.

Florian Hardwig's picture

Interesting! James, how did the ‘French’ U and q differ? A stemmed U (i.e. with final downstroke), no hook/bar on the q descender? Thank you.

.00's picture

Florian Hardwig's picture

Thank you very much for providing that image!

quadibloc's picture

I suspect that the rational behind Infant type variants is to avoid confusing children. If they are being taught to print one way, then the reading material they see in class should, presumably, be made the same way - at least if it's sans-serif.

This, of course, doesn't require extensive research on testing reading speeds. Instead, it has to do with the questions students ask teachers, or errors made when children print by imitating the printed model. Even if such typefaces aren't used in books, they might be used in display charts illustrating the alphabet.

Of course, this suggests the use of faces that simulate handprint instead of Infanta variants of normal typefaces. Fortunately, though, it is unlikely that anyone will stoop to teaching the children of the future to read with Comic Sans or anything similar. (And then there's the culturally-sensitive and politically-correct Papyrus...)

I know that when I was young, although Century Schoolbook was used for early readers, there was a sense that the "canonical" form of the print alphabet was Caslon - all other typefaces being deviations from that one truth. Today, if schools want to avoid straining the brains of the young tykes by teaching them to recognize the English alphabet in multiple typefaces, they could just use Times Roman for everything.

Thomas Phinney's picture

"I suspect that the rational behind Infant type variants is to avoid confusing children. If they are being taught to print one way, then the reading material they see in class should, presumably, be made the same way - at least if it's sans-serif."

Yes, I'm sure this is the usual argument, if one is even made. However, it falls down on several grounds:

- Kids see letters all over the place, not just in class. Most of the letters they see do not use the "infant" forms, so restricting the materials used in their class materials is of minimal help.

- They already have to learn 52 letters, 10 numerals, and and assorted punctuation. Maybe about 65-70 characters altogether. Learning just a couple of variants is really going to be that hard?

- If you want to avoid confusing them, actively *teach* them that these letters can take two different forms. They are going to encounter them anyway. What will really confuse them is encountering them without being told what they are! Similarly for sans vs serif and other concerns....

- The one and only study on the subject, by Sue Walker, showed that even in first grade, kids preferred the more adult forms to the infant forms.



Arthus's picture

The use of a schoolbook or infant version of a typeface can always of course be a choice based on the writing system taught within the publishers' country, but these tend to change multiple times every decade.

One of the main selling points (and a problem) of these schoolbook versions is that we think children have a lot of difficulty understanding letterforms because of our adult conventions, For adults it is more difficult to learn different shapes since we are not used to them, for children this is far easier since they see every letterform in a different context anyway.

So actually we make it much harder than it should be. Of course there are other problems, such as dyslexia, but a simple schoolbook type solution won't help there (nor will some of the so-called dyslexia-fixing typefaces, which complicate the matter by introducing far too many variables instead of looking for a simple solution)

Since trying to teach children writing in block letters has been extremely sub par, the difference between the taught script and the reading letterforms is already huge, that the few 'schoolbook-specific' letterforms won't really matter much.

Bert Vanderveen's picture

I remember reading somewhere that teaching reading and writing with just capitals is far easier on the young ones. (I think that also has to do with developing finer motor skills — caps are easier to draw, right?). Learning lower case later on seems to be the thing.

I have to search my library for the pertaining info, but maybe someone can chime in.

Syndicate content Syndicate content