Earlier this year, I was approached by Omoguru, a company in Croatia which is in the process of developing an app to help dyslexic kids to read. They asked me to test it out on a number of dyslexic children and report back what I learned.
What interested me about the app, and the work they’re doing, was that they weren’t promising to teach children how to read, as many other learning aids do, but to improve their reading fluency.
The app is aimed at children between the ages of 9 and 13, a particularly vulnerable group whose confidence – both in their reading and their ability to navigate the world – has likely been unravelling since they began to struggle in school. One part of Omoguru’s self-declared mission is to give these children “social equity”. It’s a bold statement, but one that suggests the app’s developers have a real understanding of the collateral damage that struggling readers suffer.
It may be because the app developer has a dyslexic child, or that he’s a graphic designer and sees the world, and the world of shapes, differently, but whatever the reason, he and his team of graphic artists, therapists and learning specialists, have taken a novel approach.
The software program is built around a simple premise: the ability to manipulate text, to change its physical configuration, helps increase reading speed and fluency. That’s an interesting idea, and one that has some basis in both science and conventional wisdom.
For example, although it’s incredibly hard for someone with dyslexia to learn a foreign language, Mandarin seems to be the exception. That’s because of its pictorial nature. Unlike English, or any language with an alphabet, Chinese is a series of graphic symbols. Researchers have found that when we read English, the visual form of the word maps onto the sound of the word, but with Chinese, it’s the other way around: we map the graphic form, the character, onto the meaning.
In essence, Omoguru lets the reader turn the Roman alphabet into a series of graphic symbols. Users can set the text size and weight of the letters, and space them further apart. They can untangle ps from qs, or bs from ds, by putting a colored dot inside one but not the other, and by adjusting the height of the extenders and descenders. They can choose to have the text automatically syllabicate words, and they can pick an overlay which greys out the lines above and below the one they’re reading, to help them keep their place.
Omoguru also uses an eponymous font, designed by the company’s founder, Petar Reic. It’s an entire font system, really, that aims to improve letter detection and recognition. That’s an enormous step. Battering dyslexic kids into remembering which sound goes with which letter shape is a fool’s errand; helping them engineer what the shape looks like so they can make the connection is a brilliant idea.
So....does it work? I tested the app on about twenty dyslexic kids from a range of schools in NYC. Some of the schools were public, some private and some were specifically for LD students. The testing involved asking children to read two appropriately leveled texts, one in hard copy and the other using the app. I recorded the time it took for the child to read each text, and the number of errors they made, and then asked them some comprehension questions at the end. Before they left, I also asked them what they thought of the app itself. I wanted to know how intuitive it was to use, and whether they thought it had improved their reading at all.
Some found the set-up straightforward and the app user-friendly; others somewhat less so. A much larger percentage of them read with more fluency and accuracy after they’d customized their reading preferences, and their comprehension was markedly better as well
Their reviews were mixed. There was high praise from some quarters (“I could see! I could actually read!”; “It felt like you had control over what way you wanted to read the text”; “I didn’t lose my place so much”; “I thought it was cool how you could highlight little things like “un”, [which] could change the meaning”), and more tepid praise from others (“Not all the options made a big difference”; “I couldn’t always see the differences [between the options]”).
The vast majority of the comments were positive, and most of the negative ones revolved around technical problems. Ironically, the children reported that one of the hardest things about using the app was that they couldn’t read the word “customize”, which is one of the first things they had to click on when they opened it up.
Omoguru comes with preloaded books and short stories, all donated by Dr. Barbara Radner, the Executive Director for the Polk Bros. Foundation Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, with the condition that they be accessible for free.
There is a subscription fee though, which allows the user to take a photo of the page or article they’re reading, using an in-built camera, and convert it into a digital text so they can make changes to the way it looks.
The Omoguru team calls the app a “powerful technology ally”. While it’s still glitchy, and there some of the feature could be tweaked, it does feel like the developers have a sound knowledge of the problems dyslexic readers face and have drawn on scientific research as well as graphic design to address them.