This article discusses the effectiveness of Bionic Reading through the exploration of 5 key questions that language educators should take note before adopting the method. Read on to find out more.
In the age of information overload, the idea of being able to read in a focused mode at higher speeds without sacrificing understanding has undeniable appeal. One method that has generated buzz and became viral in 2022 was “BIONIC READING”. Nearing a year ahead, there are still proponents of this method posting about the impressive outcomes they seem to have obtained through using the app on social media.
But does BIONIC READING actually work, or is it just another gimmick? That’s the million-dollar question that we are still grappling with. On the one hand, the prospect of being able to read at lightning speed without sacrificing comprehension is undoubtably attractive. On the other hand, there are some sceptics who worry that BIONIC READING may be little more than a gimmick, with little real-world value.
In this article, I will try to answer this question. Though, as a spoiler alert, I do not have a definite answer. However, an analysis of the evidence and arguments currently available will be undertaken using 5 key questions, and this process can be revisited if more information becomes available. Additionally, this structure can be used to evaluate any purported revolutionary techniques that are exciting and promising on one hand, but seem too good to be true on the other.
- What is BIONIC READING? How does it boost reading comprehension?
- Question 1: Where is the rigourous empirical evidence for such an astounding claim?
- Question 2: What are the alternative claims and what are their evidence?
- Question 3: How do the proponents respond to opposing claims?
- Question 4: How is this in line or at misalignment with previous research findings in the Science of Reading?
- Question 5: Can we implement Bionic Reading in our language classrooms?
- Is Bionic Reading effective as claimed? What can we learn from this?
What is BIONIC READING? How does it boost reading comprehension?
Let’s start by defining “BIONIC READING” exactly is. As clarified on the official website, it is a technique by which the typography of a text is modified to guide the eyes through the text “with artificial fixation points”. The assumption behind the method is also articulated: “We humans store learned words and so just a few letters are enough to recognise whole words”.
Based on this assumption, the technique modifies the typeface of the initial letters of a word that can apparently send signals to the brain to fill in the whole word (e.g. from Bionic Reading to Bionic Reading). In other words, what is been suggested is that the brain becomes more efficient in word processing because we need not complete the identification of every letter in the word before registering it as part of encoding.
BIONIC READING is designed to be flexible. There are different degrees of “fixation”, “saccade” and “opacity” which a reader can toggle to find the optimal combination for more efficient reading comprehension.
Despite the modification to make one read faster presumably with stronger focus, BIONIC READING has been declared to be aimed at promoting “a more in-depth reading and understanding of written content” in the context of “a digital world dominated by shallow forms of reading”. It is not clear what such “shallow forms of reading” refer to, though my baseless interpretation is that they refer to other speed reading methods.
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Question 1: Where is the rigourous empirical evidence for such an astounding claim?
So, how does the creator of the BIONIC READING method, Renato Casutt, come to create this method and where is the evidence to claim its effectiveness?
According to two articles I found – one published on The Conversation and another published on Quartz, the official website of BIONIC READING did publish the claim by Renato Casutt that the method was independently tested on 12 participants. A positive effect was found, though not described, for most participants. The Conversation wrote that they did reach out to the company for clarification on the methodology of the study – an attempt that was futile as there was no reply.
Today, I cannot locate any remnant of this study on the website. What remains though, are the many individual testimonials on the website. They have also invited individual users to continue coming forward with their personal experiences in using the product, though I doubt they will publish the negative reviews.
BIONIC READING has also considerable support and a large number of positive reviews on social media. Personally, I also came to know of this “method” after encountering a shared post by one of the language educators in a LinkedIN group. Many users open to the method claim to be having Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. At face value, we can assume that the method could have worked for some though these claims are unverifiable since they are not properly documented or understood.
Nevertheless, similar to Dr Trakhman (the professor who wrote the piece on The Conversation), I share the concern on the validity of these claims. I will not discredit the potential that it might have in living up to its claim – just that there is no rigorous evidence suggesting that.
This is reminiscent of another claim of a ground-breaking typeface design that can help dyslexics read – the Dyslexic Font or OpenDyslexic. This font was designed as a graduate project by the creator, Christian Boer, who has dyslexia himself. The project was claimed to have “find a solution to improve the readability for people with dyslexia”. This was further covered in articles later, such as the BBC-published article “The typeface that helps dyslexics read”.
However, this claim has been contested later on by a number of studies. There is little support from research published in peer-reviewed journals that “these special fonts help kids or adults with dyslexia to read faster or make fewer mistakes”. It is still early and we should either proceed with an attached agenda of a rigorous action research to examine its effects or wait for further findings before adopting it on a larger scale.
Question 2: What are the alternative claims and what are their evidence?
Notwithstanding such, has there been rigorous research conducted by others who claimed the method as ineffective, or at least not as effective as claimed? To be fair, the sceptics of the BIONIC READING method are also in large numbers. When it received an outpour of support on social media, it was also balanced with many others who have either dismissed the positive effects of the method, or claimed that the method is counter-productive (e.g. slows down reading speed). That was how it went viral.
The main advantage, however, in the opposing camp is that there is at least one rigorous study that as conducted. Readwise.io conducted this study which went out to test the effectiveness of BIONIC READING. The findings of this study, including the methodology, are published for all to review and see. The raw data of the study has also been made publicly accessible for analysts who wish to run the data analysis by constructing your own statistical models.
In a nutshell, no evidence was found that BIONIC READING has any positive effect on reading speed – no significant impact that it affects reading speed (at least it does not slow down reading as some critics claim too). In fact, to be extremely precise, “participants read 2.6 words per minute slower on average with BIONIC READING than without” though the effect size is so small that this can be considered negligible.
Till date, I have not yet found any other academic empirical study which make a thorough assessment of the method – or at least something similar to this study on Readwise.io. While we can fairly question Readwise’s motivations in conducting the study and publishing it after the findings invalidated the method, it is at least presented in an open and articulate manner – critics can come and examine the study and data otherwise. As such, the strength of evidence is currently in favour of opponents to the method hitherto.
Question 3: How do the proponents respond to opposing claims?
In the same article published on Quartz, Renato Casutt did respond to the study conducted by Readwise.io. He remained unfazed by those who doubt him, for he believes that recognition on social media is enough. In his own words as cited: “I don’t think BIONIC READING would have gone viral if it didn’t make a positive impact for readers. Millions of people, including me, think BIONIC READING works.” Note that the notion of “millions of people” came in the context of “over 7 million views on TikTok [on] just one post” and “liked and shared millions of times on Twitter”.
Is Renato Casutt planning for a study at his end to validate the claims on social media? Apparently, he did, according to the Quartz article, though we have yet to find any published findings or that whether the study was really implemented. Renato Casutt did mention the existence of a large number of studies on the Science of Reading which seems to suggest that the evidence for this approach can be found there.
Before we move on to the discussion on theoretical grounds, I confess that I found this response unsatisfying though I can understand Renato Casutt’s motivation. BIONIC READING is already in the market, and seems to have garnered enough attention and affirmation. For a business, that is sufficient as long as the market continues to demand the product/service and is willing to pay for it.
On a side note, I just want to highlight the notion of “confirmation bias”, which is the tendency for people to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. Confirmation bias can impair our ability to think critically and objectively, especially in updating our beliefs based on new evidence since we tend to disregard those that invalidate our current ones. The challenging part about confirmation bias is that it can exist in the implicit realm, such that we are not aware of it in activity.
Whether or not we are an open-minded innovator or a critical consumer, we do need to be mindful of the ways confirmation bias may catch up with us – especially in the face of innovations that gain viral attention. With BIONIC READING, noting that rigorous empirical evidence is not in its favour, we should still remain cognisant of the other positive reviews it received and not discount it completely yet. Let’s bring it to an assessment with other findings from the Science of Reading.
Question 4: How is this in line or at misalignment with previous research findings in the Science of Reading?
Dr Trakhman has explicated much of this in her article on the Conversation. The main proposition put forward by the BIONIC READING method is that the modification of the typeface of initial letters of a word (by bolding given the examples) has the effect of expediting word recognition. The difficulties though, are the constraints of this method.
Must the reader already be a skilled language user before this method can be used, since the reader must already have the “stored words”? Can this be used on early readers who are still developing their reading expertise? To further extend, can this be used on developing early readers who have been found to have ADHD or dyslexia? What are the long-term effects of using this method on reading in general? Will reading of general text be made more difficult since the method cannot be applied on existing prints?
Frankly, I do not have comprehensive answers to all these questions, though I can attempt to address some related concerns. First and foremost, typeface modification is not a method unique to BIONIC READING. I have earlier shared on the well-intended innovation of the dyslexic font which turned out to be ineffective. In an alternative world, typeface modification has also been a highly adopted and researched method in input enhancement, particularly known as textual enhancement or perceptual enhancement.
Specifically, perceptual enhancement makes use of phonological and typographical cues in attempt to shift attention to the targeted forms. Manipulation examples include bolding, using italics, underlining, highlighting, changing the font size or style, or any combination of these for written texts; or varying intonation, stress and loudness for speech/utterances. It is hoped that the enhanced perceptual cues can draw learners’ attention to the linguistic forms underpinning the manipulated words (or strings of words) by increasing their salience.
Based on this understanding, typeface modification can theoretically be used to bring salience to selected sentences/phrases/words thus improving the chance of “Noticing” – an important pre-requisite for language acquisition according to research. Note that this is not a fool proof technique as research on such techniques have found effects to be mixed. However, typeface modification for every word in the case of BIONIC READING will thus diminish the effect of perceptual enhancement typically used to help language acquisition. Fundamentally this also means that perceptual enhancement as a technique will not be possible when the BIONIC READING method is engaged.
Assuming that typeface modification is not applied systematically for input enhancement, can typeface modification of initial letters in BIONIC READING then allow one to process the word faster? This needs a revisitation of the processes involved in reading. There is no doubt that reading is primarily an activity that relates to vision. The words need to be seen and captured by the eyes before any reading can start.
The intervention implemented in BIONIC READING is targeted at the manipulation of vision. The “artificial fixation points” force one to start the processing of words there. Note that this manipulation does not delete the subsequent letters completely – Bionic Reading to Bionic Reading, and not Bionic Reading to Bio Read. This implies that BIONIC READING is not trying to suggest that we only process the initial letters to know the words – it does not make sense since other permutations can exist (e.g. Biological Readers, Biochemical Readiness).
What does this suggest? Within BIONIC READING, the reader is still processing the whole word. This is not too different from other methods, albeit not proposed as reading enhancement techniques, that have tried to demonstrate a prime feature of reading (specifically word recognition) – visual invariance (Dehaene, 2009).
One particular hallmark of development in reading expertise is the ability to mainfest invariance in word recognition when the character shapes are changed (font type, font case, font weight). We cAn amazIngLY pRoCeSs WoRdS in a sentence despite a chaotic combination oF tHESE VARIANTS. Handwritten manuscripts can lead to additional levels of variability and uncertainty, but skilled readers can deal with them nonetheless. Reading scientists basically find that “our letter normalisation processes are so efficient that they easily resist such transformation”. As such, it is really interestingly unknown why BIONIC READING can work in expediting reading speed, since it will probably get “normalised” over time.
In addition, the claim that “just a few letters are enough to recognise whole words” is also baffling. I have demonstrated earlier that we cannot omit the letters of a word after the initial letters (e.g. Biological Readers, Biochemical Readiness), so it is mysterious how this claim can be substantiated. On the contrary, reading scientists have found that our visual system processes all letters of a word at the same time, rather than sequentially, on the condition that we have become proficient readers. For developing readers (e.g. children), they still take time to process the individual letters.
In other words, skilled adult readers do not “fill in the whole word” after seeing the initial letters – they are just simply efficient in processing all the letters of a word or even words simultaneously. If we are already familiar with the 2 pathways to reading comprehension – the phonologically mediated pathway and the direct semantic pathway, the skilled adult reader utilises more of the direct semantic pathway after many years of using more of the phonologically mediated pathway. As for the developing readers, they still need to use the phonologically mediated pathway, and will need to process every letter nevertheless.
Perhaps one of the most bewildering claims is the proposition that Bionic Reading is aimed at promoting “a more in-depth reading and understanding of written content” since it is also marketed to speed up reading. Reading scientists generally converge on the understanding that “speed” and “comprehension” do not go hand in hand in reading. In fact, to promote deeper engagement of details, some experts advocate “slow reading”.
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Question 5: Can we implement Bionic Reading in our language classrooms?
Reviewing the whole article hitherto, you might be wondering that the answer is a definite “no”. At least for now, with the lack of further evidence, we may want to be a bit more mindful if we do want to try it out.
For developing readers, especially for younger learners, I will be more inclined to say “no”. Given the space, if the readers can do it, they should develop all the necessary expertise required in reading (e.g. encoding capabilities and language comprehension skills). Furthermore, authentic texts out there may not necessarily be presented in such forms and the readers will still need to be accustomed to those forms.
For skilled and expert readers, if you are keen in experimenting different ways of presentation, you can still consider how to factor in BIONIC READING as one of the many approaches to test out the different effects based on different means of input enhancement. Notwithstanding such, you may want to keep good documentation or incorporate it as part an action research project. At a skilled level, the key goal in reading instruction will probably be geared towards increasing their willingness in cultivating a habit of personal voluntary reading. If BIONIC READING can potentially reap some effects in that area, it is worth a try (though we need to be cautious that it may just be a novelty effect).
For ADHD and dyslexic readers, we may want to heed Dr Trakhman’s advice: “To help struggling readers, especially those with dyslexia and ADHD, research suggests that one of the most helpful tools can be to simply encourage reading more slowly.” Slow reading has decades of research supporting it and is more assuring than the unverified BIONIC READING. Other easy actions, such as following along with your finger or computer mouse, might even be more beneficial.
Notwithstanding such, if you do want to offer an alternative for adults, you can still introduce it to them to try out as part of their personal voluntary reading. Again, it may reap benefits in unknown ways – and you can sure be an innovator researching that.
Is Bionic Reading effective as claimed? What can we learn from this?
For now, the verdict is not in the favour of BIONIC READING if we are talking about science-based evidence. Potentially, as an approach to perceptual modification, it can be studied alongside all other variations to assess their impact on reading for language acquisition. In reading as an expertise, the prime feature of visual invariance suggests that we may be looking for a treasure which is not there.
The overwhelming eagerness in the adoption of BIONIC READING and any other speed-reading techniques is a testament of our performance anxiety in wanting to acquire more information in shorter periods of time. That is definitely a win for reading as a pursuit, but not necessarily useful for in-depth understanding. However, in adopting any new methods, we should always be mindful of the questions asked in this article to examine the new method(s) while calibrating the degree of our adoption.
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