When Dr. Matthew Schneps needs to read, he turns to his iPhone 4S. The handset’s 3.5-inch screen squeezes text into one skinny column, which is helpful because the Harvard astrophysicist has dyslexia. Schneps finds the repackaged text easier to focus on, allowing him to better absorb everything from news articles to books to technical papers.
Before Schneps discovered this tactic, he had given up reading books and struggled to parse the scientific proposals and papers he encountered as an academic. Reading felt "overwhelming," he says. Now Schneps is bringing his method to a broader audience. Backed by the National Science Foundation and a Youth Access Grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he and several other researchers from the Laboratory for Visual Learning at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics are investigating whether people with dyslexia benefit from reading on handheld devices with small screens.
They recently performed tests at Landmark School, a private Massachusetts school that specializes in language-based learning disabilities. From late April to early May, 130 high schoolers read books on customized iPod touches and took special reading exams. The results, which will be published in a research paper in one to two years, could have ramifications for millions of people. Organizations such as the National Institutes of Health estimate up to 15% of the U.S. population has dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult to read.
Besides his own experiences, Schneps was inspired by 1980s research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The MIT cognitive scientists found dyslexics tend to have a broader visual span or peripheral vision than non-dyslexics. Participants in the 1980s study who read through a "window" cut into a piece of paper reported improved comprehension because the technique focused their attention.
The Landmark Study is replicating that effect via mobile apps and iPods. Using an app called GoodReader, Landmark students read books in a single column of 42-point text that only allowed for two to three words per line. "The screen acts like blinders," explains Schneps. "You end up reading vertically."
Because the neurology involved in vertical vision differs from that employed in horizontal vision, people with dyslexia may find vertical reading easier, says Schneps. He personally finds that maintaining focus on a long line of text and then making connections to the next line takes "tremendous effort" but that shorter lines are manageable.
Schneps calls his method SLTR for Span-Limiting Tactile Reinforcement. Besides restricting the amount of visible text, SLTR asks people to push the text upward (on the gadget’s touch screen) with their fingers as they read, rather than let the text scroll automatically. Manually moving the text aids concentration, according to Schneps. It also lets readers keep their gaze fixed at the top of the iPod instead of scanning the entire screen, which could introduce distractions.
Schneps has been refining SLTR for several years. In 2009, he led a pilot SLTR experiment with 16 college students. That study found students with dyslexia were able to read at least as well on SLTR-equipped iPods as on paper. The students also preferred the iPods to paper. Schneps considered the outcome significant since the students with dyslexia had spent years developing techniques for reading on paper and were not accustomed to reading on iPods. SLTR also boosted reading comprehension for non-dyslexic or "typical" readers. "We think anybody can benefit from [SLTR]," says Schneps.
This time around, Schneps’s team is giving study participants seven hours of practice on their iPods before measuring their reading aptitude. If the results confirm SLTR’s effectiveness, Schneps hopes technology firms will take note.
e-reader manufacturers, for example, could tweak their software to include an SLTR display option. Those changes would be easy to make and could dramatically increase the e-reader market, contends Schneps. "A whole segment of the population isn’t accessing books right now because they’re not pleasant to read," he says.
Portable game consoles and smartphones could also be reconfigured. Schneps chose the iPod touch for his experiments because of its high-resolution display (he finds that "subtle cues" from serif fonts facilitate his reading) and compatibility with reading apps and e-books. Any palm-sized device should work, however.
Software developers, too, could create apps tailored to people with dyslexia. Schneps praises the customizability of GoodReader but says an app that preserved author style (italics, etc.) and had a smarter search function would be ideal. Likewise, Schneps likes the layout and bookmark function of Apple’s book-reading app, iBook, but wishes it allowed readers to manually advance text, instead of only flipping pages.
"Companies need to understand they could change their apps a little to make them better for people who struggle to read," says Schneps. "And those people need to know they can use these apps in a different way to read more easily."
Schneps would also like to see a hybrid app that presents text in two windows: a larger PDF overview of the page, in its original layout, linked to a small SLTR window for close reading. The setup would counteract readers’ tendency to get lost in the blown-up SLTR text and enable them to see graphs, pictures, and other formatting in the larger, supplemental view. The dual windows could be presented on the same screen or on two Wi-Fi-connected screens, such as an iPad and an iPod/iPhone.
Bob Broudo, Landmark’s headmaster, says the school has tested ways to eliminate reading distractions before, but not using technology. If SLTR increases reading speed and fluency, the school would consider implementing it, says Broudo. Another bonus: Even students who weren’t involved in the study are intrigued by the idea of reading with iPods and iPhones. "All the kids are well-steeped in this technology, so this is resonating with them," says Broudo.