Bionic Reading  is all over social media.
When a parent sent me a TikTok about the latest miracle reading method, I was very apprehensive.   My first thought was to dismiss it entirely as another fad but when I googled it, it seemed like every news site had picked up on it (Newsweek, Huffington Post, Network 10 and more).
This is what the text looks like with Bionic Reading

Image with text highlighted with Bionic Reading
 It seemed that it was easier to read, but this was how I felt as a fluent reader.

The claims (from the website) went against everything that I know about reading.

The research behind it:

“The most important processes and structures have already been shown by the researchers Just and Carpenter in 1980 in a text comprehension model. Historical scientific eye movement research has existed since 1905 (© L.E. Javal. The Physiology of Reading and Writing).”

Reliance on simplistic, outdated research from 1905, and Just & Carpenter’s Theory of Reading from 1980 is alarming! There’s a critical flaw in any new application that relies on research from 1980 (Let alone 1905!)

An in-depth discussion can be found here.

How Bionic Reading Works:

“To understand how Bionic Reading works, we need to understand how reading fundamentally works.”

“Bionic Reading is a reading system that supports the reading flow. The eye is guided through the text by means of typographic highlights. With the interplay of “Fixation”, “Saccade” and “Opacity” visual stimuli can be transferred to the text, which decisively change the typeface.”

The fundamental premise of bionic reading relates to vision and ignores the science of reading which includes, behavioural, neurological, linguistic and cognitive processes which contribute to decoding and comprehension. Castles, Rastle & Nation (2018) emphasise that “Theories of skilled reading are among the most elaborate and well-specified in the field of psychological science.”

I discussed the causes of reading comprehension difficulties here.  

What it claims:

“10% of the population has great difficulty reading and understanding texts (dyslexia). We have received feedback from those affected that thanks to Bionic Reading they immediately understood the content of various texts the first time they read them, which was impossible without Bionic Reading”

Reading comprehension clearly entails more than the identification of individual words: Children are not literate if they cannot understand the text.  Although children with reading difficulties and without reading difficulties show a preference for a specific font, there is no impact on reading performance. (Kuster et al., 2018).

Despite the red flags, my own perception was that the Bionic Reading text was easier to read, so I decided to test it out. I typed out some text and gave it to a student who has reading difficulties. The text was familiar to her, and although I didn’t perceive that her reading was better or more fluent, the student felt that it was easier.  I decided to extend my experiment.
This is what I did:
(Note: This was a spur of the moment uncontrolled experiment and not quantitative research) 
  1.  I typed out a new passage and uploaded it to apply  Bionic Font and  I gave it to her to read.

I recorded her reading.

2.  The following day I selected 10 words from the passage and we worked on the morphological structure. Morphemes are the smallest meaning units in English (e.g., darkness consists of the morphemes {dark}+{-ness}).   I would normally work on decoding any difficult words in the text beforehand, but I didn’t because I wanted to compare the two readings as equally as possible. I then gave her the passage to read and I recorded it.

Below is the passage I used.

Thousands of children from across the kingdom came to the palace and were surprised when the Emperor exclaimed that he was going to choose one of them. He gave them all a seed. They were to go home to their villages, plant the seed in a pot and tend it for a year. When they return in a year,  the Emperor would judge their efforts and choose his successor.

The results:

The student’s reading performance on the two occasions was very similar.

On both days she misread the word ‘Emperor‘ as ‘important’ and the word ‘palace’ as ‘place’. These words are critical to understanding the text.

She could not read the word ‘efforts’ on either occasion. She read it as ‘ee-forts’ and ‘eefortees’.

The word ‘successor’ was read as ‘secrets’ on the first day and ‘secretary’ on the second day.

The word ‘kingdom’ was read as ‘country’ on the first day. She read it as country on the second day but self-corrected and read it correctly as ‘kingdom’.

I included the word ‘kingdom’ in the pre-reading morphology; king + dom = kingdom.

I used palace + /s/ = palaces, but she did not integrate this information.

What do these results mean?

The process of reading is not as simple as changing the font of the text. Whilst there is far more recent evidence, than from 1980 showing problems with eye movements in struggling readers, it is not clear whether eye movement deficits are the consequence or cause of poor reading.

In the early stages of reading, it is important to work on mapping sounds to graphemes (letters).  Morphology plays an important part in linking spelling and meaning and contributes to skilled reading. Several studies have shown that morphological instruction has a positive impact on reading aloud, comprehension, vocabulary and spelling.

The question isWhy did the student not have more success after receiving morphological instruction prior to reading?

I think that it boils down to the complexity of processes underlying reading.  Reliance on one method alone to address this complex skill, is akin to teaching music notes and expecting a concerto.

I did not include all the measures I would normally use when working with a struggling reader in an attempt to differentiate one method (morphology) over another (Bionic Reading).  This was a disservice to the student who had to ‘read’ without comprehension not once, but twice! I shouldn’t have to prove what I know works against something that only has the power of social media behind it.

 Bionic Reading feels easier on the eye, but feeling does not make it beneficial. It’s a new bandwagon; but you don’t have to get on.

 

References

Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19, 5–51. doi:10.1177/1529100618772271

El Hmimdi, A.E  Ward, L, M,Themis Palpanas,  Kapoula, Z, (2021). Predicting Dyslexia and Reading Speed in Adolescents from Eye Movements in Reading and Non-Reading Tasks: A Machine Learning Approach. Brain Sci.  11(10), 1337

Kuster, S.M., van Weerdenburg, M., Gompel, M. et al. (2018). Dyslexie font does not benefit reading in children with or without dyslexia. Ann. of Dyslexia 6825–42. doi: 10.1007/s11881-017-0154-6

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