E-readers may help people with dyslexia
September 18th, 2013
05:01 PM ET

E-readers may help people with dyslexia

People with dyslexia may have an easier time reading on an e-reader than using traditional paper, a new study published today in the journal PLOS One suggests.

Researchers say the idea for the study came out of anecdotal reports they were hearing from dyslexics who said they never read for pleasure before smartphones and e-readers enabled them to start.

“They said it was a much more comfortable experience,” said Jenny Thomason, a study author who worked at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education at the time. “We wanted to take a closer look.”

The study

Thomson and her colleagues selected a group of 103 students from Landmark High School in Massachusetts, which is focused on students who struggle with language disabilities. The students were given age-appropriate text to read on both traditional paper and on an iPod touch. (The study authors also later duplicated this experiment using an iPad.)

Researchers measured the students' reading speed with a stop watch. They then gauged their reading comprehension with multiple choice questions about the text.

On traditional paper, the text was presented using 14-point Times Roman font with 1-inch margins. Students read from the paper under light conditions that were consistent with a classroom setting.

The reading material on the iPod used a 42-point Times Roman font. That made the lines they read short, with about three or four words per line. The background was black, and the font was white.

The results

Most students consistently read faster and remembered more using the iPod. Researchers attributed this to the fewer words per line on each page.

For example, one sub-group of dyslexics who benefited from the e-reader had what’s called low VA Span Scores. A low VA Span Score means the reader’s attention can’t keep up with the speed that their eyes are moving along the text. 

Text on paper is usually formatted to be maximally efficient, according to the study - i.e. book publishers put as many words on one line as they think typical readers can handle. "Efficient readers are able to accurately control the dynamics of their gaze and make use of the long lines of text," the study authors write.

The takeaway

Not all dyslexia is the same. While researchers found the e-reader helped most dyslexic students, not all benefited from the electronic device. For instance, dyslexics who had a high VA span actually did better reading with traditional paper.

The study suggests that an assessment tool to determine what kind of dyslexia the student has would be helpful for teachers or parents, Thompson says. Knowing the type would help identify what kind of device would best fit that child’s reading skills.

“It’s great news,” Thomson said. “Our study shows that you don’t have to create a new device, you can use the technology many people already have to help people read better. It’s such an easy thing you could do.”

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