Researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and colleagues from other institutions say dyslexics may better comprehend the written word on e-readers not for the digital display but because shorter lines with fewer words help readers parse sentences by removing the potential distraction of what’s coming next. Dyslexics had long reported anecdotally a greater ease of reading from digital displays, with researchers wondering which alterations to text might produce these effects, such as alterations to fonts and formatting of text.

“While, in some cases, benefits have been observed, these effects have generally been small and, occasionally, controversial and difficult to reproduce,” lead investigator Matthew Schneps wrote in the study published online Wednesday.

In seeking to determine whether e-readers help dyslexics overcome known impairments, such as poor oculomotor control and deficits in visuospatial attention, Schneps and his colleagues used eye-tracking technology to watch 100 high school students with dyslexia reading handheld portable reading devices. They tested how the experience might differentiate from traditional presentations of text, with regard to the display of text and the behavior of reading from a handheld device.

“Effects of the hand are interesting because mobile reading devices are typically used while held in the hand, and ‘attentional’ processes are biased by proximity to the hand, shielding visual perception from interference by attention and enhancing sensitivity to detail,” Schneps and his colleagues wrote. “Dyslexia is associated with numerous deficits in visual attention, and therefore it is an interesting question whether holding text in the hand influences reading in people with dyslexia.”

The researchers then tested the students reading from a larger Apple iPad versus a smaller Apple iPod Touch, maintaining identical line spacing and angular dimensions of the characters in both study conditions. Finally, they tested a third variable — letter spacing — following a previous scientific study showing that the spacing of characters helps lower neurological interactions occurring between letters, which impedes comprehension in an effect that scientists dub “crowding.”

As researchers suspected, the high school students found greater ease in reading from the smaller iPod Touch device than from the larger iPad in virtually every observation — with just about every measurement of reading improved. The students read faster, with an “instantaneous reading rate” 27 percent greater than otherwise, and committed 40 percent fewer tracking errors when using the smaller handheld device compared to the larger one.

“As this study demonstrates, even relatively minor changes in the formatting and display of text--when done incisively—can lead to significant improvements in reading among those who otherwise struggle,” Schneps and his colleagues wrote.

Thus, the dyslexic’s plight may finally be solved a century after science first observed the condition, wrought not by faulty brain wiring but an immature technology now better serving a good chunk of the reading public.

Source: Schneps MH, Thomson JM, Sonnert G, et al. Shorter Lines Facilitate Reading In Those Who Struggle. PLoS ONE. 2013.