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Could the Future of Reading be Text Plus Audio?

When it comes to reading on paper versus reading digitally, there are a hundred and one conflicting and contradictory studies that show that one format is better than the other.

Students have higher reading comprehension with print, one study shows. No, they don’t, concludes another. Turning books into games hurts reading scores, but reading digitally can (in some cases) require less mental energy.


This discussion could go on for hours with little result other than to generate fodder for hand-wringing and lamentations over the evils of technology. Whether ebooks or print books are better won’t be decided any time soon, but in any case this debate could end up being moot.

There was an article in Scientific American this past week that discussed new research which is beginning to show that (in terms of reading comprehension) mixed media is winning out over either print or digital books.

The researchers have combined speed reading tech like RSVP or RAP with matching audio to develop a new reading method that forces readers to process information at the fastest rate they can.

To put it another way, Amazon (with its broad support for and encouragement of audio and text sync) may be the future of reading.

In our laboratory, we are investigating a potential re-design for reading that intends to break through the brain’s speed barrier for comprehension. We intend to do this by building on the neurological circuits for auditory processing, and use these in parallel with reading.  Here, people read using a highly accelerated visual presentation of the text (e.g., using RSVP or RAP), while at the same time they listen to a highly compressed auditory rendering of the same text, using compressed text-to-speech. Forcibly accelerating the rate of language processing in both the visual and auditory domains simultaneously, the brain can process the information in parallel. Our theory is that the high-speed language inputs from each of these perceptual streams will reinforce the other, to effectively increase the buffering capacity of the brain, and allow people to read with comprehension at faster speeds than is possible with either technique alone.

Preliminary indications from a controlled experiment, conducted in our laboratory at UMass Boston, have been encouraging. Here, we examined new methods for reading, wherein 40 college students, both with and without dyslexia, read using a smartphone driven by Voice Dream reader, using RAP concurrently augmented with compressed text-to-speech (along with other visual modifications to address crowding and attention). Though our results are still preliminary, what we are finding is that this new method of reading is far more effective (in terms of comprehension and speed) than any method attempted so far, whether people have dyslexia or not. Importantly, our early indications suggest that the least effective method of reading may be the one society has been clinging to for centuries: reading on paper.

One of the more effective ways to teach kids how to read is to say a word while they are reading the word. This research suggests that the technique is just as effective when used as a reading method for adults who already know how to read.

Or at least that is what the controlled study in a lab is saying; whether this will work in the real world (and whether this technique will work for all readers) is a whole other matter.

Something tells me that the next great breakthrough in research into reading will be the confirmation that no single format or technology will work for everyone because our brains work in too many different ways.

We’ve already begun to see that in the study that showed that senior citizens found it significantly easier to read on tablets than paper while a test group of younger readers did not. The difference results in that study could be attributed to the ages of the test subjects, but additional research is required before we will know for sure.

And in any case, given what is already known about different neurological types, that won’t be the only example of conflicting methods. There will be more.

image by Moyan_Brenn

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carmen webster buxton September 13, 2015 um 9:15 pm

My daughter-in-law is dyslexic, and she finds it helps her comprehension to set the fonts quite large on her Kindle so that there are only 3 or 4 words on a line. She sometimes has it read aloud with her, too. The robot voice is not great, but it doesn’t cost extra.

William D. O’Neil September 13, 2015 um 9:40 pm

"We’ve already begun to see that in the study that showed that senior citizens found it significantly easier to read on tablets than paper while a test group of younger readers did not."

I’m having what are supposed to be temporary vision problems that make it difficult to clearly distinguish text. Reading printed material is a pain, but I can read well on screen, whether Kindle or laptop, by increasing text size and making sure the contrast is high enough. While I like well=produced books as objects, I’m coming more and more to rely on e-media. I can really imagine finding one of the proposed advanced reading schemes working well for me and am eager for apps to appear so I can try it.

Thomas September 13, 2015 um 11:07 pm

I’m not a senior citizen, but now that I’m past 45, I really like being able to adjust the text. That said, I would probably hate the combined text/audio. I don’t care for reading text while listening to the audio because I can read much, much faster than the pace of an audiobook.

El libro impreso y sus hermanos – techleo January 8, 2016 um 10:52 am

[…] posible la complementariedad entre el libro digital y el texto tangible, así como entre las técnicas de lectura rápida y la escucha. También existe una obra que refleja con luces las emociones según se va leyendo y otra que no […]

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