Bionic Reading: is speed really our problem?

speed reading, typography
Rob Waller

A friend alerted me to Bionic Reading, a patented system for displaying text to (they claim) make reading faster. Apparently some people in government communications are wondering about it. It’s had a flurry of press coverage this year, too: for example, this piece in Huffington Post.

Reading is not a process of smooth eye movements across a line of text, but instead comprises a series of jerky movements (known as saccades). When your eye stops, it is termed a fixation. Many many reams of research have been published to explain what happens when your eye alights on a fixation: Why there? How much of the visual field is processed and for how long?

Bionic Reading is an app that takes the text you wish to read, and boldens the first part of words to guide your eye – not to every word, but where it judges your eye should fall for maximum effectiveness. It’s adjustable – you can change various parameters including font, spacing and colour (which is probably very helpful for people with dyslexia).

This is how they explain it.

The problem is that they don’t supply any supporting evidence – it seems to have been informally tested among the developer’s friends. But they do claim a million users, so perhaps people are finding it helpful (although I wonder if a million users means a million downloads, which is not the same thing).

Their intellectual property rights are fiercely guarded, although this hasn’t stopped at least three other competitor apps with similar techniques and claims (assuming Bionic Reader was first). There’s SpeedyRead-BioSpeed, Bionica and Bio Reading. Come to think of it, these all sound like names you’d give a rip-off rival.

I’m instinctively sceptical about things like this. Not just because there doesn’t appear to be much evidence, but because I think they seem to have a limited idea about what reading is. Not reading as decoding lines of text, but strategic reading – varying your pace and attention as you monitor your own understanding. Strategic reading means navigating a text and using structural cues for enquiring, problem-solving or study. These form the essence of higher order reading skills, as measured in standard literacy tests (such as PIACC). If you start bolding every other word, you weaken the ability to signal the status of text through typography: headings, emphasised words, typographic voices and so on. I’ve made similar comments about the use of bold for defined terms in contracts (see this very old blog post about spotty text).

For a much more carefully considered critique of Bionic Reading, have a look at this blog by Daniel Doyon, the developer of a quite different approach to reading support:

Daniel’s own product is called Readwise. I like the sound of it and plan to try it. It doesn’t address the problem of reading fast, but of remembering the interesting ideas you have read. Readwise allows you to highlight text while you are reading (for example in Kindle), and then it feeds your highlights back to you over time. To quote their blurb: ‘Highlighting is great, but what's the point if you're never going to see any of those highlights again? Readwise lets you quickly liberate your highlights (all into one place), and ensures that you'll actually see and use them.’

I quite frequently pick up a book I’ve read some years ago, and spot things I’ve underlined but forgotten. I love the idea of a repository for them, and occasional reminders. It sounds more specific than browser bookmarks, and quicker than scraping web pages into Evernote or similar.

Back to Bionic Reading for a moment. Daniel Doyon lists a series of speed reading fads he’s come across, and this reminded me I have one here:

This is a Speed Reading training device from the 1950s. The idea is that you train your eye to recognise words faster by flashing them up quickly in the small white rectangle and trying to read them. You set up a springed cover over each word, then press a trigger to release it. I was quite unable to recognise a single word when I tried it.

But the claims on the box remind me a little of Bio Reading.

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