Word by Word

from Technology & Learning

RSVP technology can transform the reading experience.

There are often a few students in a classroom who struggle with reading. Whether they are reluctant to read because it is difficult or because they might have a visual or physical disability, students may find rapid serial visual presentation a technique that can help.

The basic idea behind the RSVP method is to display text briefly, in sequential order, using a small amount of space. With RSVP software, sentences are broken down into single words or small chunks that flash on the screen at a user-determined rate. Since the eyes don't have to move back and forth, and you can't dawdle or unconsciously go back, with practice, readers can increase their speed and efficiency.

RSVP can be more than a classroom exercise, however, thanks to the explosion of Web sites, online encyclopedias, and e-books providing academic materials in electronic form. In fact, its availability across a range of media and devices may be helpful for students who have dyslexia, attention problems, and visual or physical disabilities.

For example, reading is often hindered by subvocalization, or mentally pronouncing words while reading silently. Mental mispronunciation may also lead to comprehension errors.

RSVP reader is one of many new utilities to help reading comprehension.

When words are presented very quickly, there isn't enough time to subvocalize. Most RSVP programs allow for gradual increases in the number of words displayed per minute, up to four or more times the standard adult rate of 250 wpm.

Computer-paced, serial presentation allows students to practice focusing attention for short periods of time. One RSVP software program, RapidReader PRO, features a green bar tracking students' progress, and students can change the speed using up and down arrow keys. Upon reaching an important point, they can use an electronic "dog-ear" button so they can come back to the page later.

Though not all texts are digitized, many different kinds of electronic files can be loaded into an RSVP program. RapidReader PRO has an option for making pdf documents RSVP-capable, using a simple drag-and-drop utility. With WinBlit Speedread, a one-click RSVP tool is built into Internet Explorer, Microsoft Word, and Microsoft Outlook. A free add-on called RSVP Reader does the same thing for the Firefox browser, displaying selections from a Web page within the browser window itself.

Once an electronic document is loaded into the RSVP software program, you can customize the color, font, size, background, position on the screen, speed and chunking settings, and much more. Since RSVP eliminates the need to hold a book, read small print, click through a Web site, or scroll, students with visual and physical disabilities may find this style more comfortable.

While not all the news about RSVP is positive—some studies show comprehension plummeting at the faster reading rates, and the effect of rapid eye movement can be physically unsettling to some—this technology can still prove a powerful learning tool for many.

Lindsay Oishi is a graduate student in learning sciences and technology design at Stanford University.