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This article has been perfectly formatted for maximum reading comprehension

17 July 2015

From Quartz:

In the US, about 30 million adults struggle with basic literacy. The inability  to read proficiently  has wide-ranging economic consequences, affecting a person’s ability  to get  and hold onto a job, as well as increasing the likelihood one would rely on government assistance.

But one tech company believes something as simple as increasing the size  of spacing between certain words could improve people’s reading comprehension. Research going back decades has found that “chunking,” a technique that separates text into meaningful units, provides visual cues that help readers better process information.

Grounded in this thinking, San Francisco-based Asymmetrica Labs  has created a tool that uses an algorithm  to logically insert spaces  to websites’ text. A free browser extension for Chrome, Safari, and Firefox, Asym automatically reformats English text without affecting a site’s overall design.

. . . .


“Some struggling readers, or low-literacy readers, will read one word at a time,” Nicholas tells Quartz. “We’re nudging eye-movement patterns that good readers on their own have done naturally.” He says  the technology could also benefit strong readers when they’re tired or under stress  and could also improve their reading speeds.

Link to the rest at Quartz and thanks to Barb for the tip.

Here’s a link to the Asym site.


26 Comments to “This article has been perfectly formatted for maximum reading comprehension”

  1. As a teacher, I believe that those students who find reading difficult, even marginally difficult, are not likely to become readers (or writers). Anything that improves the situation would be a benefit to them as well as authors.

    • I once witnessed a substitute teacher teach a middle school student how to read. You read that correctly. This child made it 6 years through school and was failed by his parents and administrators. I won’t blame the teachers because I know that even when a teacher raises objections, they are ignored. (Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.)

      The sub spent her lunch (UNPAID) half an hour every day for about two months teaching this child how to read. It was amazing to see the transformation.

      I don’t believe that a change in typesetting is a magical cure. Children need to be taught how to read and be given the opportunity to find books that interest them. My children are allowed to read whatever they want. My 8 year old is on the 4th Harry Potter book. She read the first 3 in about 2 weeks.

      Voracious. Why? Because we read to her-I have photos of my husband reading to her when she was just a few hours old.

      When parents make the effort to foster a pro-reading environment, children will enjoy reading. But parents need to make the effort.

  2. If this technique can help folks who struggle with reading make more sense out of something, I’m all for it, but the typographer in me cringes every time I run across those double spaces.

    • Alan I’ve always been a slow reader. In law school I would read the cheat sheets and wikipedia in order to understand the cases because I’m such a poor reader. Once I get the info in my memory is okay and and my ability to make sense of things and explain them is very strong.

      I don’t know why but that 2nd article is MUCH easier to read for me. Fantastically so. It reads much faster and I understand it immediately. The rhythm is great.

      They are on to something here.

  3. You can’t have a ‘perfect’ anything. What might seem perfect for some won’t be perfect for most.

    (A case in point, I ‘play’ with electronics, microcomputers and computers. In any group I will have those that know less than I do — to which I need to explain more to get them up to speed, and those that know more — whom I am boring to tears …)

    One size seldom fits all.

  4. What I do for my own comfort in reading is set wide margins on my Kindle. The less my eyes have to scan, the better.

  5. “to which I need to explain more to get them up to speed, and those that know more — whom I am boring to tears”

    This is somewhat reminiscent of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development idea.

    Roughly, there are three categories of knowledge — things that the student can’t learn (at least right now) even with help, things that the student can learn with help, and things that the student can learn without help.

    The theory is that you should optimize your instruction for the second situation, but (as you note) everyone is different. It’s tough to do this if you have 30 students and only one teacher.

    Ideally, we’d be able to produce adaptive learning systems that zoom in on exactly what can be done with help, so not so many students are lost (can’t do even with help) or bored (could do even without help). Unfortunately, that’s not how most online learning is currently designed.

    • Which is why I don’t mind doing one-on-one or two-on-one teaching, but refuse to try to teach a larger group …

  6. This is why I continue to harp on the value of two spaces after a period — it makes the text uglier, but MUCH more readable.

    (As a matter of fact, I’ve been using this method when I have a script to read aloud, adding in an extra space to help separate word groupings. I didn’t realize it was a “thing.” I just did it because it helps.)

    And to the person at the top comment: Um, as one of those who “finds reading difficult” (at least in the physical way they are talking about in this article), I gotta say watch your prejudices. I’ve always loved reading. I always read a lot. I learned coping mechanisms.

    These days, one of those coping mechanisms is an e-reader — the small amount of text on a page is very helpful in and of itself. With paper I have to track with a finger or card, usually. Having smart, variable spaces would have been a wonderful thing to have.

    • -Puts on ‘Team Camille’ jersey-

      I love my paper books but it’s mostly comics for me in paper anymore. For reading I have a small laptop, kindle program, and I blow up the words to the maximum size.

      Then I put the reader at a good distance away and use a mouse to scroll the pages. Less eye moving. I can read at least double speed this way without getting tired, so I can read longer. It used to take me weeks to read a novel. Now I can do it at normal speed.

      Coping mechanisms. The curious mind with a wonky eye/brain connection must learn to cope.

  7. You could improve readability significantly using this method just by using the spaces better when you justify the text.

    There is also a font out there for dyslexics – every little bit helps.

    • Pre- InDesign, pre-Quark manual typesetting was a thing of beauty. A typesetter would be fired for most of the layouts produced today.

  8. I found the ASYM version hugely distracting – like reading a book with bad typesetting. 🙁

    I do believe that it has its uses in certain settings, though I hope and trust that it won’t become the default typesetting mode for everything, and instead remain a readily-available option for those that could benefit from it.

    • Glad it’s not just me. I find it awful to read.

    • I kept pausing at each ‘ of’ but didn’t bump against anything else.

    • I didn’t like it either. It interupted the flow of the sentences, or something of that nature.

    • Me too! It slowed me down tremendously every time I got to extra spaces. Anything that interrupts the flow throws the reader out of the story.

      It may improve reading for some, but it had the opposite effect on me.

      • Must not be meant for good readers. As a bad reader it’s incredible. I’m going to watch this tech grow, hopefully I can get it on my kindle.

        EDIT: I’ve got the extension working in my browser, just not sure it’s doing anything. Hmm…

    • And anything at all distracting can keep the reader from enjoying the story one’s trying to tell.

      And this should have been done ‘blindly’, where we might have been given the texts to decide which we preferred — and only then have what’s been changed pointed out. The better to weed out preconceptions. 😉

  9. Phyllis Humphrey

    I’ve never had difficulty reading, but I, too, wish they’d reinstate the double space after a period. I never understood why they took it out.

    • Double spaces after periods were never in correctly typeset material, ever. Double spaces are a function of typewriters and monospaced typefaces such as Courier.

      @Alan: the typesetter in me also cringes over those larger spaces.

  10. I found the extra spaces distracting. I tended to mentally pause at them, almost like they were mini-commas, making the text come off as stilted. I spend lots of time going over my sentences to make sure they flow a certain way, and I’m not sure a computer is likely to make the same choices I would. If some people find this helpful, I’d have no objection to them using it on their own versions, but I wouldn’t be in favor of having this methodology applied to my writing as a default. That said, to me, at least, the distinction was a subtle one. I find it difficult to believe that those who read sentences one word at a time are likely to notice any difference at all. Perhaps it’s those with intermediate skills who somehow benefit? Is there any supporting research out there that doesn’t come from the company promoting the technology?

  11. Al the Great and Powerful

    I hate double spaces, but I was raised by readers, so I never found it difficult.

    If this helps people read, and doesn’t affect my reading, super hot, go for it.

  12. Are we discussing reading problems or vision problems?

    Formatting for vision problem is all well and good but first students must learn to read.

    A strong reader can easily learn to read with any system, but, IMNSHO, modern systems leave too many weak readers in the dust.

    My eldest daughter holds a masters in reading comprehension, but all her life she’s heard my same opinion repeated, ad nauseam – twenty six letters, forty four sounds. Works for almost everyone.


    And, yeah, those twenty six letters could be refined to fewer.

  13. Al the Great and Powerful

    That only works for English… as soon as you start adding languages that don’t follow the same rules, you add sounds even if you aren’t going to learn the new writing systems.

    Case in point – Peking and Beijing are the same place. Both are attempts to fit Chinese into “twenty six letters, forty four sounds.” And never ask me to pronounce things in German or any of the Scandinavian languages.

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