Researchers at the universities of Harvard and Massachusetts in the United States have found that students suffering from dyslexia were able to boost their speed and comprehension of texts using e-readers rather than words printed on paper.
The students included 64 male and 39 female high school students with lifelong histories of struggling with reading.
All but one were enrolled at a school exclusively for students with language-based disabilities, although all had normal vision or corrected to normal, and no histories of neurological disorders other than dyslexia.
In the paper experiment, students read passages from a specially prepared reading test and answered multiple-choice questions.
For those using an i-pod, the reading passage was displayed on the machine and the student scrolled vertically using a finger on the touch screen.
The questions were answered on paper, as in the paper test, except the text passage was not displayed.
Following standard protocol for this test, in both conditions students were allowed to re-examine the text when answering questions.
The reading on paper was compared with reading on the small handheld e-reader device, formatted to display few words per line.
The researchers found that use of the electronic device significantly improved speed and comprehension when compared with traditional presentations on paper “for specific subsets of these individuals”.
In a report on the investigation in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers say previous eye-tracking studies had found that short lines facilitated reading in dyslexia, suggesting that it was the use of short lines, and not the device per se, that led to the observed benefits.
“These findings may be understood as a consequence of visual attention deficits in some with dyslexia that make it difficult to allocate attention to uncrowded text near fixation, as the gaze advances during reading.
Short lines ameliorate this by guiding attention to the uncrowded span,” the researchers say.
“Relatively simple adjustments to the visual presentation of text, in this case shortening the lines, or in other experiments adding spacing between letters and lines to control crowding can facilitate reading in those who struggle, or in at least some of them.
“Future investigations might focus on how the dynamic allocation of attention interacts with eye movements and crowding during reading, as formatting can influence such mechanisms, controlled through use of popular e-reader devices.
”But while reformatting a page significantly improves reading in those with dyslexia, the researchers note that this alone cannot address all of the factors known to impede reading.
Altering spatial formatting can only partially alleviate factors affecting the temporal dynamics in reading, such as slowness caused by sluggish attention shifting, difficulties accessing phonological representations of words, latencies in naming or difficulties with character recognition.
Each of these can act independently of the effects already mentioned to additionally impair reading.
The researchers say that in the century since dyslexia was first described, methods used for reading have undergone very little change.
But now, with the widespread adoption of e-readers and other digital technologies for reading, methods are rapidly evolving and opening the possibility that alternative methods for reading might reverse “historically imposed constraints that have caused so many to struggle, and make reading accessible to many currently excluded”.