E-readers as a Dyslexia Tool

Varda Epstein

By Guest Blogger Varda Epstein, Education and Communications Writer for Kars4Kids

The minute e-readers came on the market educators were exploring the inherent possibilities. Neither a book nor a computer, but something in between, e-readers offered hope that the printed word would not yet die out, but would be made accessible to digital natives in a digestible form. More to the point, educators wondered if e-reader technology might make texts accessible to those with reading difficulties such as dyslexia.

In this age of technology, educators have been changing their approach to learning. Kids these days respond to technology, so bringing it into the classroom is a given. Whenever technology is brought into the picture, learning morphs from an enforced chore to an interactive pleasure. In a 2010 Scholastic study, 57 percent of 9 to17 year-olds said they wanted an e-reader. The question is: Can e-readers ameliorate reading problems?

The answer appears to be a qualified, “Yes”. A recent collaborative study on the subject, conducted by researchers from Harvard and the University of Massachusetts, found that programming an iPod to display texts in shorter segments was helpful to people with dyslexia, in particular those who struggle with visual attention deficits. That is, as compared to viewing the identical text on paper.

Easier to Focus
Published in the PLOS ONE journal, the study results show that some high school students with dyslexia responded well when each line contained no more than two to three words. The researchers theorize that fewer words on a line prevent distraction and make it easier to focus. With the type of dyslexia that is characterized by visual attention deficits, the brain can only process a certain number of words at a time. A wider field of words creates a distraction that prevents the successful comprehension and absorption of the text. The student may attempt to concentrate by pointing and perhaps focusing his eyes on a few words, but the brain remains distracted by the surrounding text.

This study was the brainchild of lead author Matthew Schneps, who directs the laboratory for visual learning at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Schneps, who has dyslexia, got the idea for the e-reader study while reading a text message on a smartphone. The phone displayed just a few words at a time and Schneps realized how easy it was for him to read SMS messages. It came to him that his reading was facilitated by shorter word segments.

In an interview with, Schneps said, “I had stopped reading for pleasure about 20 years ago. I stopped reading novels. And when I discovered this technique – before we started the research – I realized I could read again. I could get through a novel in a couple of weeks, like most readers can.”

Greater Reading Ease
In addition to visual attention deficits, some with dyslexia have an issue called “visual crowding” in which individual letters are hard to distinguish and process from within a single word. Here too, Schneps’ experiment of displaying only a few words on a line succeeded in helping students read with greater ease by eliminating distracting elements from the visual field.

Of the study participants, all of whom had been diagnosed with dyslexia, one-third of them were known to have visual attention deficits, and it was these students that responded well to reading on an e-reader. The other students, however, were found to respond better to traditional display methods for text.

Schneps performed an earlier study in which he tracked the eye movements of students with dyslexia as they read. This study found that shorter lines created a situation in which eye movements became more efficient. In this newer, second study, the use of an improvised e-reader improved reading comprehension in addition to improving eye movement efficiency and reading speed.

Hitting the Plateau
Dr. Schneps commented that the fact that the subject participants were in high school means they have been receiving all sorts of interventions and therapies for dyslexia throughout the years. However, students who have dyslexia with visual attention deficits eventually “hit a plateau” in which traditional approaches to dyslexia are no longer helpful. For these students, using an e-reader holds the most promise in helping them reach their full reading potential.

At Kars4Kids, we frequently mentor teens and have found that anything that makes reading easier is a blessing. Dyslexia is not as rare as you might suppose. As many as one out of every four people have reading difficulties such as dyslexia. With the holidays coming up, it may pay to bear all this in mind when shopping for the teenager in your life. For students with dyslexia, the e-reader may not be just another technological “toy,” but rather the ticket to easy reading – and learning.

Varda Epstein is a researcher and writer with a focus on education who serves as the communications writer at Kars4Kids, a nonprofit car donation program that underwrites educational initiatives for children, such as camps and after school programs.

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