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The Effects of Line Length on Children and Adults' Online Reading Performance

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The Effects of Line Length on Children and Adults’ Online
Reading Performance
By , Marissa Fernandez, &
Adults, as well as children these days often read an extensive amount of information online. For
example, of the 25-to-34-years-old age group, it is reported that 25 percent read online newspapers,
compared to only 19 percent who read from printed newspapers (The Digital Edge, 2000). Even
young children are now spending progressively more time reading online documents, including
being tested online in schools. Thus, the need to address the ergonomic issues associated with this
type of medium has become even more important. As discussed in previous editions of Usability
News, certain textual factors can affect user performance and preference when reading online text.
The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of line length on online reading performance
by both adults and children. Unfortunately, little research has been conducted investigating line
length and online reading with respect to both actual and perceived reading efficiency, as well as
preference; and, to date, no research has included children in its investigation.
Studies investigating line lengths have thus far produced mixed results. For example, Dyson and
Kipping (1998) found that longer lines (approximately 75-100 characters per line or CPL) were read
faster than very narrow ones (25 CPL), with no difference in perception of reading efficiency.
Moreover, Duchnicky and Kolers (1983) found that full-screen (187 mm) line lengths resulted in 28
percent faster reading times over 1/3 screen (62 mm) line lengths. In addition, the full and 2/3
screen (125 mm) line lengths were read significantly faster than the 1/3 screen line lengths.
Duchnicky and Kolers concluded that longer line lengths are read more efficiently from computer
screens than narrower ones.
Yet, conclusions have mostly favored short to medium line lengths. For example, it has been
recommended by researchers that shorter line lengths (about 60 CPL) should be used in place of
longer, full-screen lengths, since longer line lengths require greater lateral eye movements, which
makes it more likely to lose one’s place within the text (Horton, 1989; Mills & Weldon, 1987). Horton
(1989) points out that longer line lengths are more tiring to read and recommends limiting line
lengths to around 40 to 60 CPL. Huey (1968) generally supports this recommendation by finding
that narrower line lengths (approximately 4" or 10 cm) are more accurate on the return sweep than
longer line lengths. Gregory and Poulton (1970) maintain that people with poor reading ability
performed better when the line length was approximately seven words. This suggests that young
readers who have not mastered online reading, as well as readers who have vision deficits, may
benefit the most from narrower line lengths.
Moreover, Youngman and Scharff (1999) found that with 0.5-inch (12.5 cm) margins, the fastest
reaction times were for the shorter, 4-inch (10 cm) lengths over the 6- and 8-inch lengths (15 and 20
cm, respectively). The 4-inch lengths were also preferred over the other lengths. With no margin
lengths, the 8-inch line lengths had the fastest overall reaction times. Similarly, a recent study by
Dyson and Haselgrove (2001) found that medium line lengths (55 CPL, which is approximately 4-
inches) facilitated more effective reading at normal reading speed than shorter line lengths (24
CPL).
Method
Participants
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July 11, 2002 Jo
Michael Bernard Spring Hull
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Forty participants (20 adults and 20 children) volunteered for this study. The adults ranged in age
from 18 to 61, with a mean age of 29 (S.D. = 12 years) and the children ranged in age from 9 to 12,
with a mean age of 11 (S.D. = 1 year) and attended 4th, 5th, or 6th grade. All adults reported
reading text on computer screens a few times per week or more. Seventy-five percent of the
children reported reading text on computer screens a few times per month or more. The children
received $5.00 for participating in this experiment. All participants had 20/40 or better unaided or
corrected vision as tested by a Snellen near acuity chart.
Materials
A Pentium II based personal computer, with a 60 Hz, 96dpi 17" monitor with a resolution setting of
1024 x 768 pixels was used.
The passages consisted of three line-length conditions. These conditions consisted of passages
that had a line length that spread the full distance of the screen, which was 930 pixels (245 mm, 132
CPL; see Figure 1) wide; passages that had a line length of 550 pixels (approximately 145 mm, 76
CPL; see Figure 2); and passages that had a line length of 330 pixels (approximately 85 mm, 45
CPL; see Figure 3). As with typical online passages, the narrower the passage, the more scrolling
was required to view the entire passage.
Figure 1. Full-length example
Figure 2. Medium-length example
Figure 3. Narrow-length example
Task Design
Line conditions were compared by having participants read three passages, each with different line
lengths. The conditions were counterbalanced by means of a Latin square design. Both the adults’
and children’s passages were 12-point Arial, which was black on a white background.
The adults read passages from Microsoft’s electronic library, Encarta
TM
, which were written at
approximately the same reading level and discussed similar material (all dealt with psychology-
related topics). The passages were adjusted to have approximately the same length (an average of
1028 words per passage, S.D. of 18 words)
The children’s passages were short children’s stories drawn from Whootie Owl’s Fairytales
TM
,
which were written at the 4th and 5th grade reading level. The passages were adjusted to have
approximately the same length (an average of 573 words per passage, S.D. of 13 words)
Procedure
Participants were positioned at a distance of approximately 57 cm from the computer screen. They
were then asked to read "as quickly and as accurately as possible" the passages, which contained
15 randomly placed substitution words for the adults and 10 for the children (they were not told the
number of substitution words). The substitution words were designed to be clearly seen as
inappropriate for the context of the passages when read carefully. These words varied
grammatically from the original words—for example the noun "cake" being replaced with the
adjective "fake." The participants were instructed to identify these words by stating the substituted
words aloud. This was designed to insure that participants actually read the passages, instead of
just skimming over them.
To accurately determine font readability and its associated effect on reading time, an effective
reading score was used. The score was derived from obtaining the time taken to read the passages
divided by the percentage of accurately detected substituted words in the passages—which was
registered by a stopwatch.
After reading each passage, participants answered a perception of readability questionnaire. The
questionnaire consisted of a 6-point Likert scale with 1 = "Not at all" and 6 = "Completely" as
anchors. The questionnaires consisted of statements regarding their ease of reading for each line
length condition. When all questionnaires were completed, they ranked the three line length
condition for general preference.
Results and Discussion
A within-subjects ANOVA design was used to analyze objective and subjective differences between
the line lengths. Post hoc comparisons were done using the Bonferroni test. Ranked font preference
was measured by means of a Friedman Χ
2
.
Reading Time and Effective Reading
Examining the mean reading time for each line length surprisingly found no significant differences
for both children and adults [p = .40; p = .88, respectively]. It is possible that the benefits of reduced
scrolling for the wider condition was offset by its increased line length and, thus, negating any
positive effects due to the decrease in its line length. The means and standard deviations for both
adults and children for the three conditions are presented in Table 1. Examining the effective
reading score (reading time/reading accuracy) also revealed no significant differences in reading
time/accuracy between the three line lengths for both children and adults [p = .10; p = .60,
respectively, see Table 2].
Table 1. Means and Standard Deviations for reading time
Means (SD) Full-length Medium-length Narrow-length
Adults 370 (107) sec 363 (103) sec 366 (109) sec
Children 276 (76) sec 279 (68) sec 266 (68) sec
Table 2. Means and Standard Deviations for effective reading score
Means (SD) Full-length Medium-length Narrow-length
Adults 425 (138) sec 463 (211) sec 443 (189) sec
Children 362 (102) sec 359 (66) sec 330 (94) sec
Adults’ Perception of Reading Efficiency
Accessing adults’ perception that the amount of scrolling was optimal for a particular line length
condition found significant differences [F (2, 38) = 6.70, p < .01]. Post hoc analysis revealed that the
Full-length condition was perceived as being more optimal than both the Medium- and Narrow-
length conditions (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. The amount of scrolling was optimal (1 = Not at all, 6 = Completely)
Accessing adults’ perception that the length was optimal for a particular line length condition
revealed no significant differences [p = .19]. Accessing adults’ satisfaction with the ease of
concentration for a particular line length condition revealed significant differences [F (2, 38) = 5.41,
p < .01] in that the Narrow-length was perceived as promoting easier concentration than both the
Medium- and Full-length conditions (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Ability to concentrate on the passages (1 = Not at all, 6 = Completely)
Accessing adults’ perception that the layout was optimally presented for a particular line length
condition revealed significant differences [F (2, 38) = 6.26, p < .01] in that the Medium-length was
perceived as promoting easier concentration than the Full-length condition (see Figure 6).
Figure 6. The layout was optimally presented (1 = Not at all, 6 = Completely)
Children’s Perception of Reading Efficiency
Assessing children’s perception that the amount of scrolling was optimal for a particular line length
condition found no significant differences between any of the line length conditions [p = .39]. No
significant differences were also found for the perception that a particular line length was preferable
or, a particular length was perceived as promoting easier concentration [p = . 61, p = .33,
respectively].
General Preference
Examining the first-choice preference indicated that the Medium-length condition was most
preferred by adults (Figure 7) and the Narrow-length condition was most preferred by children
(Figure 8). The Full-length condition was the least preferred by both adults and children.
Figure 7. Adults’ line length 1st choice
(no adult chose the Full length condition
as their 1st choice)
Figure 8. Children’s’ line length 1st choice
Conclusion
This study found no significant differences in reading time or reading efficiency between the three
line length conditions for both the adults and children. However, the results did support the finding
that shorter line lengths are preferred more than full-screen line lengths. As far as the perception of
reading efficiency, the results were mixed. For adults, the Full-length condition was perceived as
providing the optimal amount of scrolling in comparison to the two other conditions—presumably
because this condition required the least amount of scrolling. The Narrow-length condition was
perceived as promoting the highest amount of concentration, while the Medium-length condition
was considered to be the most optimally presented length for reading.
When examining children’s perceptions of reading efficiency for each of the line lengths, no
significant differences were found. It is possible this is due to the fact that children at this age-range
are still not fully skilled at reading and, thus, are concentrating more on simply reading the passages
than on any reading efficiency differences in line length.
From this study, as well as the studies mentioned above, it is suggested that full-screen line length
should be avoided for online documents, especially if a large amount of text is presented. For
adults, it is suggested that medium line lengths should be presented (approximately 65 to 75 CPL).
Children, on the other hand, indicated their preference for the narrowest line length (45 CPL) and,
thus, it may be beneficial to use narrow line lengths when possible.
References
Duchnicky, J. L., & Kolers, P. A. (1983). Readability of text scrolled on visual display terminals as a
function of window size. Human Factors, 25, 683-692.
Dyson, M. C., & Haselgrove, M. (2001). The influence of reading speed and line length on the
effectiveness of reading from screen. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 54, 585-
612.
Dyson, M. C., & Kipping, G. J. (1998). The effects of line length and method of movement on
patterns of reading from screen. Visible Language, 32, 150-181.
Gregory, M., & Poulton, E. C. (1970). Even versus uneven right-hand margins and the rate of
comprehension reading. Ergonomics, 13, 427-434
Horton, W. (1989). Designing and writing online documentation: Help files to hypertext. John Wiley
& Sons: New York.
Huey, E. B. (1968). The psychology and pedagogy of reading. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Mills, C. B. & Weldon, L., J. (1987). Reading text from computer screens. ACM Computing Surveys,
4, 329-358.
The Digital Edge. (2000). Print and online components bring strength to newspapers. Newspaper
Association of America. Retrieved 7/13/02:
http://www.digitaledge.org/monthly/2000_01/synergize.html
© 2015
Whootie Owl’s Fairytales® Whootie Owl Productions, LLC. Retrieved 7/13/02:
http://www.storiestogrowby.com/
Youngman, M., & Scharff, L. (1998). Text length and margin length influences on readability of GUIs.
Southwest Psychological Association. Retrieved 7/13/02:
http://hubel.sfasu.edu/research/textmargin.html
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...  Set Font Size to 12 point (1.5em for web) [23].  Set Characters Per Line (CPL) to 75 [24].  Ensure line-spacing preferably two points larger than the typeface [20]. ...
...  Set Characters Per Line(CPL) to 75 [24]. ...
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Chapter
In many comprehensive and overall considerations of usability of web presentations, readability as a factor that potentially influences usability is not represented at all, or it is represented unsystematically and superficially. The main goal of this paper is establishing a connection between usability and readability. There is no known research that previously dealt with this topic. In order to establish the above correlation, firstly the classification of usability features was performed. This original classification has had an important function in identifying the major website usability constructs. Based on the identified major usability and readability features (constructs), an original questionnaire for assessing the usability and quality of websites was formed. This tool, together with the interviewing method was used in the case study, which referred to the website of a company operating in the banking sector. As a result of the case study, a high correlation of 0.943 is established between the organization of information on the screen (a usability feature) and the structure of headings, sub-headings, and positioning of the text (a readability feature). The existence of a strong link between the possibilities for finding information (a usability feature) and the content (explanations, arguments, coherence) of the textual presentation (a readability feature) has been established. This and other results obtained indicate that complex considerations that refer to the usability of websites, as well as tools that are used for usability assessment should involve in a systematic way the readability as an important factor, which can have the influence on usability.
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Full-text available
This paper reviews empirical studies concerning the readability of text from computer screens. The review focuses on the form and physical attributes of complex, realistic displays of text material. Most studies comparing paper and computer screen readability show that screens are less readable than paper. There are many factors that could affect the readability of computer screens. The factors explored in this review are the features of characters, the formatting of the screen, the contrast and color of the characters and background, and dynamic aspects of the screen. Numerous areas for future research are pinpointed.
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Describes two experiments that explore the effect of line length and paging versus scrolling on reading from screen. Finds that long lines were read faster than short lines with no change in comprehension and that subject's judgment of reading ease did not correlate with performance. Concludes that further study is needed. (PA)
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With such a large volume of material accessible from the World Wide Web, there is an urgent need to increase our knowledge of factors in#uencing reading from screen. We investigate the e!ects of two reading speeds (normal and fast) and di!erent line lengths on comprehension, reading rate and scrolling patterns. Scrolling patterns are de"ned as the way in which readers proceed through the text, pausing and scrolling. Comprehension and reading rate are also examined in relation to scrolling patterns to attempt to identify some characteristics of e!ective readers. We found a reduction in overall comprehension when reading fast, but the type of information recalled was not dependent on speed. A medium line length (55 characters per line) appears to support e!ective reading at normal and fast speeds. This produced the highest level of comprehension and was also read faster than short lines. Scrolling patterns associated with better comprehension (more time in pauses and more individual scrolling movements) contrast with scrolling patterns used by faster readers (less time in pauses between scrolling). Consequently, e!ective readers can only be de"ned in relation to the aims of the reading task, which may favour either speed or accuracy. ( 2001 Academic Press
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Comparison was made between the rate of comprehension when reading material presented with justified (i.e. even) right-hand margins with that when reading the same material printed with ragged margins (unjustified). Eighty-six Ss, who had previously been divided into three classes, were tested with the material arranged in short lines of seven words. The style of printing made no difference for good readers, but for the poorer readers the justified style resulted in a significantly worse performance (p≤0.02). Thirty-two poor readers were then tested with the same material arranged in longer lines averaging 12 words, and no disadvantage of justification was found.The findings are explained in terms of the irregularities in spaoing introduced by justification when the line length is short.
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Readability of text scrolled on visual display terminals was studied as a function of three different line lengths, two different character densities, and five different window heights (either 1, 2, 3, 4, or 20 lines). All three variables significantly affected reading rate, but to markedly different extents. Lines of full and two-thirds screen width were read, on average, 25% faster than lines of one-third screen width. Text appearing at a density of 80 characters per line was read 30% faster than text in a format of 40 characters per line. Text appearing in windows four lines high was read as efficiently as text in 20-line window, and text in one- or two-line windows was read only 9% more slowly than text in 20-line window. Comprehension of the passages did not vary as a function of window size, indicating that subjects maintained a constant level of comprehension by varying their reading rate. Implications of the results for mixing text and graphics and for limited-capacity electronic displays are discussed.
Text length and margin length influences on readability of GUIs. Southwest Psychological Association
  • M Youngman
  • L Scharff
Youngman, M., & Scharff, L. (1998). Text length and margin length influences on readability of GUIs. Southwest Psychological Association. Retrieved 7/13/02: http://hubel.sfasu.edu/research/textmargin.html Like this? Share It: