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Science Nation: Smartphone Beats Paper for Some With Dyslexia

4 minutes

(Describer) In an animation, streams of light collide to create a globe filled with water. Title: Science Nation. A woman's eyes look side-to-side.

(male) You can see the eyes are jumping.

(male narrator) Matthew Schneps is an astrophysicist. He also has a learning disability. I have a PhD in physics from MIT, so I'm quite successful at some things. But reading is not one of them.

(narrator) Schneps has dyslexia, which makes reading difficult. When I read, I find it's very hard for me to kind of mentally lock on to the words.

(narrator) Then he bought a smartphone. It was easier to read than a paper or a book. Had he stumbled on something that could help others with dyslexia too? At the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Schneps specializes in how people learn science. With support from the National Science Foundation, he decided to put his smartphone theory to the test. He monitored students with dyslexia while they read to see if reading off smartphones would improve their comprehension of STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math.

(female) Each classroom will have a schedule.

(Describer) People meet in a classroom.

(narrator) The faculty and about 100 students at the Landmark School near Boston took part. The high school specializes in helping students overcome learning disabilities like dyslexia. In an initial test that pitted reading off paper against reading off a smartphone, Schneps found some, but not all students, read with greater comprehension off the device. Afterwards, he did more testing using an eye tracker.

(Describer) A test subject is shown a camera just under a monitor which tracks eye movement.

This is the camera.

(narrator) He and his colleague, Amanda Heffner-Wong, demonstrated for us how it works. This is the motion of the eyes over time.

(Describer) Lines on a graph.

The red is where she blinks.

(narrator) This time, Schneps compared reading on a smartphone with reading a tablet. This time focused on reading speed. The students read faster. I found it much easier to keep track of words and lines.

(narrator) Schneps found the key is having two or three words per line.

(male) Words on either side tend to distract people with dyslexia. They're looking at the word, but their focus is elsewhere. In my opinion, the iPod is a lot easier for me to read than the book.

(narrator) Not all students benefited from reading off a device. Schneps says the next step is determining why that is, and which students will be best served ditching the books for a better alternative. I want to try and level the playing field, to make reading something that's not an impediment to success.

(narrator) Kids can't seem to put their phones down. Now it seems some may have a good reason for being glued to their screen.

(Describer) A globe turns beside the title.

For Science Nation, I'm Miles O'Brien.

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Matthew Schneps is a researcher at Harvard University with a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He also happens to have dyslexia, so reading has always been a challenge for him. That is, until he got a smartphone. Schneps soon found that for him, a smartphone was easier to read than a paper or a book. But, was it just him? Or, had he stumbled onto something that could help others with dyslexia? Part of the National Science Foundation Series “Science Nation.”

Media Details

Runtime: 4 minutes

Science Nation
Episode 1
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 2
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 3
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 4
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 5
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 6
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 7
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 8
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 9
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 10
4 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12