This award is led and managed by Smithsonian Institution Astrophysical Observatory with significant contributions from colleagues at Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts at Boston, as well as participation from Landmark School. The purpose of the project is to investigate how effective the use of a technological intervention that limits attention and controls text reading rate, labeled "Span Limiting Tactile Reinforcement (SLTR)," is for improving the science reading comprehension and fluency of high school students with dyslexia. A comparison of using SLTR with iPod technology to using traditional paper reading is being conducted. The design of the primary investigation involves assigning 150 high school students with dyslexia to four randomly assigned sub-groups to control for presentation order (iPod vs. paper) and for text (two different similar material sets).

Data from the primary research combined with additional data collection protocols is being used to address two additional exploratory research questions: 1. Does the effectiveness of SLTR depend on the type of STEM content? 2. To what extent does the utility of SLTR differ among subtypes of dyslexia?

The evaluation of this project is being conducted by an external and independent evaluator, funded under a different award.

A replication manual for this award is available on the award website and results from the studies are provided on the website and in peer-reviewed publication.

Project Report

Dyslexia is a reading disability believed to affect approximately 10% of all children and adults in the United States. Some estimates cite levels of incidence as high as 20%, making this the most prevalent disability affecting people in the United States, and therefore the effect on this on learning and careers in STEM can be expected to be substantial. Dyslexia impairs abilities for reading, making it difficult for people with dyslexia to read and interpret written textbooks, laboratory assignments, technical reports, technical instruction manuals, journal articles, and books on topics related to STEM. Although dyslexia is often described as a developmental disorder, the implication that children are able to grow out of dyslexia is a misconception. The effects of dyslexia persist lifelong and can be expected to not only negatively affect educational outcomes of students studying STEM at all levels, but also the career tracks of scientists and other STEM workers pursuing professional STEM careers. Furthermore, dyslexia can be difficult to diagnose and many adults with dyslexia do not discover the nature of their impairments until very late in their careers, therefore these individuals are likely to pursue STEM careers without adequate support to address the debilitating nature of their disability. This NSF RDE research project investigates the efficacy of a novel intervention to support reading in people with dyslexia studying or pursuing careers in STEM. An outgrowth of prior NSF-funded research, the intervention considers ways in which consumer electronic devices, commonly used for reading, such as smart phones, e-readers, and tablet computers can be configured to improve the efficiency of reading in people with dyslexia. Prior research suggested that when such devices are configured so as to display at most 2 to 3 words per line, many people with dyslexia were able to read more effectively. The current project investigated this effect in 103 high school students diagnosed with dyslexia, comparing reading using traditional paper presentations with the novel intervention that displayed text on a handheld e-reader device configured as suggested. This research revealed that while not all people with dyslexia benefited from this intervention, anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the people with dyslexia tested benefited. Those who benefited read with greater comprehension and greater speed. Furthermore, the project was able to identify two simple tests that could be used to distinguish those likely to benefit from those who are not. The distinguishing characteristics were related to the efficiency of phonological decoding (a traditional measure of dyslexia), and a new measure known as the Visual Attention Span that is thought to be related to the allocation of visual attention. The project developed a new way to measure this latter quantity using an iPhone app invented by the project, that teachers can use in the future to quickly determine whether or not a given student is a candidate for this intervention. In addition, the project carried out eye tracking studies on a subset of the group investigated above, to understand the neurological mechanism responsible for the improvements observed. Surprisingly, it was found that the number of regressions made during reading (backward glances in the text made to reinspect words not previously understood) was reduced by a factor of two when the intervention was used. This suggested that the mechanism responsible for the reading improvements was related to the visual interpretation of text in the immediate vicinity of the word being read. This possibility led the project to propose that people with dyslexia who have visual attention deficits become impaired in their reading because they are distracted by the text surrounding the words they are trying to read. The intervention ameliorates this effect simply by limiting the number of words on either side of each word presented. This suggestion has important implications for the theory of dyslexia, and will be the subject of future investigations to be carried out by the project team. It is important to point out that the sample of people tested in this study were students attending a highly respected school for children with dyslexia, and that therefore they had already received on average three years of high quality intensive training in reading prior to their participation in this study. The fact that improvements were observed nevertheless, over and above improvements received through high-quality training, points to the efficacy of this method to support people with dyslexia. Furthermore, given that many people are not able to participate in costly programs of remediation of this kind, the technological solution identified by the NSF research promises to help many people who otherwise could not afford support for dyslexia in pursuit of STEM. A public website,, provides information on how people can configure e-readers to support those with dyslexia, as well as other information related to this study.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
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Mark H. Leddy
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Smithsonian Institution Astrophysical Observatory
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