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Web Posted on: January 13, 1999

Reading in the Fast Lane: Using a Partnership of Educators, Researchers, Business, and Technology to Create a Bi-model Software Solution for People with Reading Challenges

Roberta Brosnahan and Peggy Dalton E-Mail: infor@arkenstone.org

In this presentation we will discuss the strategies educators have used to help students with reading challenges. We will present case studies of three people with different types of reading problems and, therefore, different needs. Finally, we will document how a successful partnership between educators, researchers, business, and technologists was used to create a solution for a community whose needs have long gone unmet.

It is a long-established fact, supported by research and practice, that people learn, comprehend, and retain things better using multiple sensory modalities. This multi-model approach is the basis for many educational approaches. Specifically, special education teachers often incorporate a bi-modal approach for people with reading difficulties, using a combination of verbal and visual input to enhance reading, comprehension, and studying.

These teachers also know that no type of input will help their students if they don't also have sound study strategies (try saying that three times quickly!). Part of teaching is helping students discover which strategies work best for their individual needs. For example, some students benefit from highlighting passages. But for the student who tends to perseverate, this method can have disastrous results. I'm sure you've all seen books covered with yellow markings from cover to cover. This student obviously needs a different method, such as inserting bookmarks on key pages or making notes for himself about important passages.

Until recently, teachers and students used only manual methods for multi-sensory input and study strategies because technology had not arrived to the point where these techniques were available at an affordable price. With recent advances in technology and its subsequent drop in cost, it is now possible to develop solutions tailored for the needs of people with reading challenges. However, this technology/cost tandem is seductive, and it is tempting to throw features at people without researching the best way to fulfill specific needs. We run the risk of giving students a product with the equivalent of yellow markings from cover to cover!

I will discuss a solution involving a partnership between educators, researchers, business, and technologists. But first I will present three brief case studies that demonstrate the wide range of needs of this disparate community, a community united by one need: the need to read, study, and comprehend.


A returning college student, Ben reportedly possesses strong auditory skills and weak visual processing skills. His compensatory tactics revolve around auditory communication, such as listening to books on tape and personal readers. He is able to understand and remember lecture material without taking written notes, and mentally composes his papers before dictating them to a personal assistant. He is highly motivated to learn, and would like to pursue knowledge outside of the academic arena through journals such as Scientific American. Although he prefers the human voice, Ben is anxious to have a tool that allows him more independence in his quest for knowledge by eliminating his dependence upon others as readers. Since he is very comfortable with computer technology, his ideal tool would be a talking computer.


Vicky is a high school student who is both LD and ADD. Her compensatory tactics revolve around multi-channeled learning, gaining information auditorially, visually, and kinesthetically. Unable to simultaneously pay attention and take notes during lecture, Vicky utilizes notes taken by other people. She especially likes charts and graphs, which help her organize concepts. While reading, Vicky uses a complex color-coded highlighting system and writes numerous notes in the margins. She is easily distracted, and the note taking system helps her stay focused on her material.


A paralegal who recently graduated from a 2 year college, Katherine has severe auditory processing problems, and is primarily a visual learner. She has difficulty remembering the content of meetings, and relies upon notes taken by her colleagues. Research is one of her primary responsibilities. The small fonts and dense text of law journals also bother Katherine. She likes to highlight as she reads information, but she tends to "highlight everything, not just the important things." These three people each process information in a different way. The challenge is how to develop a product that can be not just a tool, but a solution for all three, and for the many other individuals with reading difficulties.

Arkenstone decided three years ago to embark on that challenge.

We began by identifying the community as it relates to Arkenstone's core strength: implementing practical solutions for people who need access to print. We then shifted our focus to research. In some ways, a project like this needs more research than do many others. For one thing, the community has many different needs. For another, it is often an invisible community: very few people stand up in public to announce their reading problems. Our development had to be sensitive to those needs.

The research component of this partnership took place largely at University of California at Berkeley. Two years of qualitative research took place at the Disabled Students' Center. The report generated from that research is available after this lecture upon request. The research also involved looking at students' books and other study materials to see the variety of methods they utilized.

The educational component involved getting input from educators and students in various grades. We incorporated that input into a product proposal. That proposal was presented to focus groups. Their input was, in turn, incorporated into the next phase of development. This is an extremely important process. The results of this process included leaving out some capabilities that standard desktop programs take for granted. And example of this is the ability to have open and display more than one document at a time. Computer users take this for granted. Dyslexic students found it confusing, distracting, and sometimes downright harmful. The business component is IBM Special Needs Group, who worked as tirelessly as we did to provide grants to keep this important research going. Without them there would be no product.

And of course, the technology component is Arkenstone. Our goal is to implement the best solutions for the community, in this case, the reading challenged community. We hope we have succeeded.

Now I will tell you a little about WYNN and show you how it helps Ben, Vicky, Katherine, and others like them.

WYNN uses a bi-modal approach, both speech and visual, to display print material that we scan into a computer. WYNN's easy user interface has a color-coded rotating tool bar that provides pictures and words that define the feature being used. WYNN can be tailored to individual processing styles, auditory, visual, and a combination of both. A unique feature of WYNN's technology process allows students to easily customize the text presentation: the size, font, margins, and the spacing between words and sentences. These last two features are critical in alleviating the reading problems due to tracking problems and visual bleed.

WYNN also has a unique masking feature that allows students to block out distracting text and focus on the material being read. One of WYNN's key features is its suite of study tools: highlighting, bookmarks, text annotations, and voice annotations. Highlighting helps some readers recall and retain important information such as main ideas and details. Bookmarking can be used as an alternative to highlight, to re-emphasize details that are easily forgotten. Using WYNN's Find feature, students can search for individual bookmarks and highlights. Students can also write text and voice notes with WYNN. Text notes are good for visual processors, helping students remember to revisit and study important material. Using voice notes, students can dictate information. This may be preferable for students who are reluctant to type a note or for auditory processors.

WYNN also has a comprehensive dictionary and thesaurus, plus a Spell command and a syllabify command. And when they are finished marking up their text, students can print it out exactly as it appears on the screen. You've heard of a WYSIWYG? That's a "What You See Is What You Get" kind of program. Well, WYNN is a WYSIWYP! That's a "What You See Is What You Print" program! That means the size, format, word spacing, line spacing, margins, highlighting, bookmarks, text and voice notes, will all print out exactly as the student or teacher has customized them! Now let's revisit Ben, Vicky, and Katherine.

Ben was our auditory learner. Ben uses WYNN to read books and articles that he scans in, material he has on disk, and material which he has downloaded from the World Wide Web. While Ben will benefit primarily from WYNN's auditory features, such as the talking text, talking dictionary, and voice annotations, after seeing a demo of the product, he expressed desire to adjust font size and space between words and lines.

Vicky was our multi-channel processor. WYNN allows Vicky to absorb information through many channels. After scanning in her material, she manipulates the visual presentation of the text to suit her personal needs through the enlargement of text, increase of space between lines and words, and masking of paragraphs. The highlighting and annotation features allow her to learn kinesthetically, while the voice output and moving caret help her stay focused on the material, acting as a "pacer".

Katherine, our visual processor, takes advantage of WYNN by turning off the speech output, and only using the options for modifying the visual presentation of the text. She increases the space between words and lines, as well as selects colors that are comfortable for her. She also uses the masking function to help focus on particular important paragraphs, and the caret to pace herself. Using the highlighting feature, she is now more selective about the information that she highlights. This has enabled her to organize her research more efficiently.

This presentation has shown how a successful partnership between researchers, educators, students, companies, and technologies like Arkenstone can benefit people with reading difficulties. We hope to see many more such partnerships in the future.