What could make reading less taxing for people with dyslexia? Dyslexia is characterized by difficulty in learning to read fluently, but two of its hallmark—visual attention deficit (the inability to focus on a letter or word for long enough) and visual crowding (when words appear jumbled)—may be alleviated by using electronic reading devices, such as the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, iPad, or others. The main benefit of e-readers for people with dyslexia is that there are less words per line, making it easier to parse information on the “page.”

Researchers from the Science Education Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics evaluated 100 students from a Boston, Massachusetts high school; one-third had visual attention issues. Some students were asked to read using traditional print media while others read on e-readers. The research team observed that the students with visual attention issues read better when using the e-reader, but students without attention problems read better with traditional books. In fact, the students who exhibited the greatest difficulty with sight-word reading and the students who had problems who had short visual attention spans exhibited faster reading and better comprehension, respectively, when using e-readers.

This study was inspired by previous research that utilized eye-tracking data. The earlier work indicated that shorter lines of text would make reading easier for people with dyslexia. The new research revealed that shorter lines of text did take some of the pain out of reading. These findings suggest that students struggling with reading may need to find ways to limit the amount of text on a page, whether through e-readers, enlarged font sizes, or other means.

“The key factor that’s important in the effect being helpful is that there’s a few words per line. We think that could apply on paper, the blackboard or on any device. If people are struggling to read they may want to try to simply blow up the text in their small computer-like device to see if having fewer words helps,” explained lead researcher Dr. Matthew Schneps.

This research is published in the journal PLOS One.

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