“Slow down. Sound it out.”
This is the mantra for most dyslexic students learning to read. But results from a new computer training program suggest that the opposite may be true for dyslexics once they’ve learned to read—going faster could improve reading skills and comprehension.
Researchers in Israel compared the reading skills of dyslexic and non-dyslexic university students, before and after using a custom computer training program. The program’s premise is this: a sentence appears on the computer screen, which the participant is supposed to read silently. One by one, the letters disappear off the screen, from left to right, pushing the reader through the sentence. When the entire sentence has been removed from the screen, the user is prompted with a question about the content of the sentence he or she just read. This ensures that the participant did not just read the sentence, but actually understood what it meant.
If the participant gives the correct answer, the computer program raises the stakes a little. The next sentence that appears on the screen will be erased at a slightly faster pace—two milliseconds (the equivalent of one eye blink) less time per letter. The reading and questions continue to alternate, getting a little faster after every right answer, for a total of twenty minutes per session.
So how did the program’s prodding impact dyslexic students’ abilities to read? After two months of training three times a week, participants read faster: the average reading rate dropped from about 135 milliseconds per letter to about 75. Comprehension went up too, and these improved outcomes lasted over time. Six months after the training sessions ended, participants still enjoyed improved reading skills, according to the results published in Nature Communications on Tuesday. Non-dyslexic participants also showed some improvement in reading speed and comprehension, but not as much as dyslexics.
The researchers aren’t sure exactly why the computer program works, but when they removed the time element, the training proved ineffective. So whatever the mechanism, time is of the essence.