Can Bionic Reading make you a fast reader? not so fast
What if something as simple as bolded parts of a word could make it easier to read, improve your concentration, speed, and comprehension?
So claim the creators of Bionic Reading, an application that revises texts so that the most concise parts of words are “highlighted”.
According to the creators of the application, this encourages the eyes to focus on the important parts of the text. Because “your brain reads faster than your eyes”, it allows users to read faster and more efficiently.
Early users praised the app on social media, including some users with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. But as an educational psychologist who researches reading in print and digital media, I think the hype is overblown – if not misleading.
On the Bionic Reading website, the inventor, a typographer named Renato Casutt, explains that Bionic Reading was independently tested on 12 participants. He adds that it has not been explicitly tested on people with dyslexia.
He goes on to write that “the results are unclear”. From there, Casutt says the bionic reading had a positive effect for most participants, but others found it “disturbing.”
These tests do not follow standard scientific practices. A sample size of 12 is extraordinarily small, and highly unlikely to pass an editor’s desk for peer review in a reputable journal. Casutt does not tell readers what “positive effect” refers to. Was it reading time? Understanding? Enjoyment?
The Conversation reached out to Bionic Reading for clarity and to better understand their methodology. The company did not respond.
The company’s website claim that “the brain reads faster than the eye” is also deeply flawed. This may be a reference to sight words: when someone is learning to read, they normally have many words that they can make sense of by simple recognition, rather than by breaking the word down into individual syllables or sounds. . These sight words often appear at a higher frequency in texts at all reading levels.
Either way, what makes reading “slow” isn’t due to an inability to quickly perceive the words themselves – which Bionic Reading claims to fix. Instead, reading takes time due to language processing, where our brain turns strings of letters into words and a series of words into meaning.
So no matter how quickly you recognize certain words, your brain still has to do the work to figure out the sentence.
Speed has a cost
This isn’t the first time someone has tried to introduce ways to read text faster. In fact, educators were teaching speed reading in the 1980s. However, this method has disappeared from the curriculum because research has shown that faster isn’t always better – and the techniques don’t even lead to faster reading in in most cases.
Bionic reading can even confuse readers. Consider the speed-accuracy trade-off, which theorizes that the faster you do something, the worse the performance.
My colleagues and I tested this theory for reading comprehension in print and digital media. We have found, time and time again, whether in print or on screen, that the faster a person reads a text, the less likely they are to understand it.
When people read quickly, they interact with text on a more superficial level, often skipping sentences or entire paragraphs and not re-reading important parts of the text.
To help struggling readers, especially those with dyslexia and ADHD, research suggests that one of the most helpful tools may simply be to encourage slower reading.
This is the antithesis of the Bionic Reading argument. However, unlike bionic reading, the “slower reading” school of thought is based on decades of research.
Other simple steps, such as following with your finger or your computer mouse, can also be helpful for people with reading difficulties.
I can understand the appeal of bionic reading. Information bombards us. Sources of distraction are everywhere. But reading proficiency scores were dropping to new lows even before the pandemic. Now is not the time to value speed over understanding.