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Small e-readers help people with dyslexia read faster, comprehend more

Jason Cipriani/CNET

When a dyslexic person sits down to read, letters seem to move around on the page. Words don't appear the same as they do to other readers. The National Institutes of Health classifies dyslexia as a learning disability. It affects the ability to communicate in almost all forms, including writing, reading, spelling, and, in some cases, speaking.

Researchers estimate that anywhere from five to 17 percent of U.S. children have dyslexia, making it the most common learning disability among children. While many have average or above-average cognitive abilities, the difficulty with reading creates a frustrating experience. But now, researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center say technology may soon help change their ability to read.

In a study published Thursday in the open-source journal PLOS One, the researchers report that reading on an iPod allows people with dyslexia to read faster and comprehend more text.

The key feature is the fact that the e-reader screen can be customized to display just a few words on each line.

The study asked 103 dyslexic high school students to read on paper and on iPod screens. The selected participants struggled with either limited visual attention span or sight-word reading, both common impairments among people with dyslexia.

The iPods were set with only a few words per line, while the paper was a regular 8x11 inch page with full lines of printed text.

The students' reading comprehension and speed improved when they were reading off of the iPod. The findings support previous research showing that people with dyslexia read faster and comprehend more when they are reading shorter lines on paper.

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  • It's highly likely that the improvement had to do with the length of the lines, rather than the device. The researchers did not test the students' reading abilities with short lines printed on paper, so there is no way of definitively attributing the improvements to the e-readers themselves.

    This group of researchers conducted a previous study comparing reading ability on paper, an iPad and an iPod. The iPad showed no improvements over the paper, while the iPod did facilitate improved abilities. This indicates that it's not necessarily the electronic format that matters, but the size of the screen.

    A benefit of the technology is that it does make it much easier to customize reading materials. It would be costly and not very realistic to print pages of paper, or entire books, with only a few words per line. But an e-reader allows each reader to customize the layout at no cost.

    "In the century since dyslexia was first described, methods used for reading have undergone very little change," the authors concluded. "However, with the widespread adoption of e-readers and other digital technologies for reading, reading methods are rapidly evolving, opening the possibility that alternate methods for reading can perhaps reverse historically imposed constraints that have caused so many to struggle, and make reading accessible to many currently excluded."

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.