Reading Bee-tween the Lines: BeeLine Reader and Spritz Raise Research Questions

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Inspired by psychology research in perception, entrepreneurs Nick Lum and Andrew Cantino recently developed a browser plugin they believe helps readers read faster.

Their invention, BeeLine Reader, adds color gradients to passages of text to help readers track lines of text from beginning to end quickly and easily. While independent study is still needed, their initial internal findings suggest BeeLine Reader improves reading speed for most users and may be particularly helpful for users with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and dyslexia.

We looked into the science behind BeeLine Reader, which was recently awarded first prize in a Social Entrepreneurship competition at Stanford University, and another speed-reading app, Spritz, to find out more about how they work and if they work.

Check out what BeeLine does to this passage of text below (on BeeLine’s “Bright” color setting):

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BeeLined Excerpt from “The Cognitive Burden of Poverty” (The Psych Report)

The idea for BeeLine Reader was developed after the founders began thinking about the classic Stroop test. In Stroop tests, participants are required to say the printed color of the words they are reading, but the words themselves are names of other colors (Stroop, 1935), making the task rather difficult. (Test yourself below—try to say the color that the words below are printed in, as fast as you can.)

Now, the theory behind BeeLine Reader is not the same as the Stroop task, but one of the principles behind this task is that color information as well as text information are integrated when we are reading text. Notice that once you find a good rhythm for doing the Stroop task, it gets easier and easier. Your brain begins to treat the ink color of the words as valuable information for the task, and you quickly adapt. A similar concept is fundamental to BeeLine Reader. Your brain automatically pays minimal attention to the color gradient of the text, and it quickly adapts to the BeeLined text, letting you concentrate on the content of what you are reading. Whereas normal black text does not contain any additional bits of information for your brain, BeeLined text leverages the fact that your brain will encode the salient color information and uses it to your advantage.

Does It Work?

Besides turning the text into a mixture of black and red and blue words, BeeLine has a few noticeable effects. The fading between colors makes the transition from line to line much more pronounced, and within a line, the color gradient seems to help guide your eyes across the page. The logic behind why BeeLine could increase reading speeds seems intuitive, but does this method work, scientifically?

In an internal analysis of the effectiveness of the plugin, 60% of readers experienced an increase in reading speed, with an average speed increase of about 20%. Subjective measures were even better, with 80% of readers preferring the “BeeLined” text on computers and 90% on mobile devices. The creators think that this differential preference is due to the smaller text size of mobile devices and the fact that mobile reading is often done in while on the go, like in subway cars. With this in mind, they created a “subway demo” that mimics the motion associated with reading on a subway. Especially in this environment, they claim that the color gradients help with both cross-line tracking and same-line tracking. Many users have also reported that using BeeLine Reader can eliminate the visual fatigue and headaches that sometimes come with reading long passages of text on a computer screen. The makers of BeeLine Reader also discuss its potential to help users with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and dyslexia, both of which are associated with decreases in reading speed and comprehension. Through their testing, Lum and Cantino have found that many users with dyslexia or ADD increase their reading speed by 50% or more.

Despite these promising findings, the BeeLine method has not yet been independently researched and peer reviewed, and questions remain about the mechanisms underlying its effectiveness. One possibility is that BeeLine works because a reader’s brain does incorporate the extra color information to help him/her read faster. Another possibility is that it is the reader’s expectation of an improvement in reading speed that makes it effective (e.g. a placebo effect, as discussed in a previous Research Lead). Alternatively, BeeLine’s initial results could be the result of an interaction between a reader’s high expectations and the effectiveness of adding color gradients to the text. Parsing out the two will be important for determining any causal links between BeeLined text and increased reading speeds.

In an important first step, researchers at the Lab for Visual Learning—a lab co-hosted by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institute—are planning a study that looks deeper into the effects of BeeLine Reader on users with dyslexia.

If BeeLine’s internal findings are independently validated, researchers, as well as the BeeLine team, will have many interesting experimental questions to consider: Are there gender/age differences in the readers who find it effective? Are passages of BeeLined text easier to read aloud than simple black text? Do speed-readers read faster with BeeLine? Could BeeLine be integrated into passages of text for standardized tests, such as the SAT? If people adapt to reading BeeLined text for a month—is reading plain black text subsequently easier? Before these questions are explored, however, researchers must first look at whether it is the color gradient, users’ expectations, or an interaction of the two that is responsible for BeeLine’s initial results.

Increase Your Reading Speed With Spritz?

Compared to BeeLine, the Spritz app offers a more machine-gun approach to getting faster reading times by building on a method known as RSVP (rapid serial visual presentation). RSVP is a way to present text to readers where they see a rapid flashing of word after word (one at a time), until they have read the entire sentence. The creators claim, however, that the similarities between Spritz and RSVP end there.

They maintain that Spritz capitalizes on the failures of the RSVP method by using their understanding of where our eyes move while reading text, and they’ve tailored their algorithms to suit our natural eye movements—a “smarter” RSVP, so to speak. This method has been shown to be very impressive at getting users to read at immense speeds (some users boast over 700, 800, or 900 words per minute).

Recently, however, the research community has caught up with the app-making community, leaving some researchers shaking their heads. For decades, psychologists have studied the relationship between RSVP techniques and actual comprehension of text, and recently, Professor Liz Schotter and colleagues at the University of California San Diego published an article in Psychological Science that examined the comprehension benefits of reading text with the ability to regress. That is, it is very helpful for our comprehension when our eyes look back at a previous word or two, even though that process takes a few hundred extra milliseconds. Schotter and colleagues replicated a 30-year-old finding that when words are quickly presented to us one at a time without the ability to look at the previous word, comprehension of the text is diminished (Masson, 1983). Tellingly, the researchers did not find a difference in participants’ diminished comprehension when the RSVP was presenting either an ambiguous text or an unambiguous text. Text that is difficult to read and text that is easy to read both are negatively affected by RSVP reading.

To the extent that this branch of research can inform and change the Spritz method, the makers may actually find some guidance in it. Surely users who want a speed-reading app want the best, most effective version of the app. With these results, some research questions arise as to how to tweak Spritz’s methodology. Does the RSVP have to be only one word at a time? What if, to allow for small regressions back, a single clause or even just several words were presented at the same time? Is there a seamless way to incorporate backtracking into the user’s experience? If there isn’t, is there any way that Spritz can become a viable addition to how we choose to read?

Ultimately, as Schotter puts it, “The only way to truly become a better reader is to practice normal reading. There are no shortcuts to becoming good at a complex skill.” And as long as we remain 21st century humans, we will inevitably want our content faster. Some of these new speed-reading methods will end up working, most won’t, but all of them will teach us something about how we choose to take content from the world and incorporate it into our comprehension.

Disclosure: Brennan Klein and Nick Lum previously worked together on a Swarthmore Student-Alumni entrepreneurship program unrelated to BeeLine or The Psych Report.