An idea is only as good as its application and for that, there has to be a good reason to think it will do what it’s designed to do. Here’s why I think Readalongreads© will do the job of supporting and enhancing the reading experience.
Writing has been described as a form of communication that ‘translates mentalese into words and vice versa…in order to make images in the minds of others,’ (Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994, P82.), but a significant proportion of the UK population is literacy disadvantaged for reasons as varied as mild intellectual disability, acquired brain damage, specific reading difficulties, and reading English as an additional language. Learning to read as an adult can be stigmatising and unrewarding, and materials suitable for this wide-ranging group may not be readily accessible. Where the material is fiction, people are deterred from reading anything they feel may be ‘too difficult’; where it is factual, there is the risk of exclusion, dangerous errors in understanding instructions, or the acute embarrassment of having personal details read aloud by a third party.
Pinker, in his book, The Sense of Style, published in 2015,extends the notion of ‘mentalese’, observing that this is ‘the way in which one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind’. He calls this ‘joint attention’ which, like pointing things out to a companion, is about sharing something meaningful. This seems to be an implicit recognition that writing is incomplete without the reader; unfinished until it has been processed by an individual mind towards a unique gestalt. Chris Frith (2007) talks about how brains model minds, connecting the physical and the emotional via imitation so that seeing someone get hurt evokes an emotional response in the observer. He goes on to say that making models of minds allows one person to enter the shared mental world of another (P150). Mar, Tackett, and Moore (2009) further link the reading of fiction with the development of ‘theory of mind’, the psychological construct that allows us to make insightful inferences about the mental states of others (e.g. Howlin, Baron-Cohen, and Hadwin, 1998), implying that stories may facilitate empathic thinking.
Through this; showing us and allowing us temporarily to live in worlds that are ‘other’ than our own and giving us access to beliefs and constructions that we may not have contemplated, reading fiction appears also to be capable of enabling a rounding of our own character and personal outlook in the appreciation of other sentient entities in our world.
Unfortunately, reading is not available to everyone; literacy is a challenge to significant groups of people such as those with a global intellectual disability (ID), people with acquired brain damage that impairs reading ability, those with specific reading difficulties, and those reading English as an additional language. The available material for many tends to be formal (e.g. the proceedings of council meetings or health information) and diluted in terms of vocabulary by use of the Easy Read format, symbols or Widgits. While these are valuable in terms of inclusivity, it seems unlikely that they develop language skills or enhance literacy per se. Other material is simplified (e.g. Quick Reads) or involves the support of other people (The Reader Organisation). But these initiatives clearly illustrate the demand and it is evident from the ways in which many people with, for instance, ID involve themselves with the Arts, story-telling (e.g. Nowhere the warmth can escape by The Story Balloons, [Ed. Jonathan Raimondi, 2013]; TV and theatre  that there is as much interest in fictional and dramatic material in this population as any other. There are audio alternatives, but reliance on oral/voice media such as audio books to bring stories to people who already struggle to read seems more likely to reduce than enhance an interest in becoming more literate, and this in turn may deter people from accessing written material. Similarly, if the existing literature does not appeal because it fails to offer a wide range of socially recognisable characters, this too may deter potential readers from making the necessary effort.
Reading is an active process and this seems to be important to learning, operating perhaps by creating and extending the neural substrates of association and memory. A recently reported and related finding is that taking notes by hand rather than via the keyboard leads to better recall of conceptual material and this may be due to the different cognitive processes involved (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014). Handwriting seems to be meaning-led, relying on the deeper linguistic processing that feeds long term memory, while typing gives rise to the more superficial processing characteristic of short term memory. The relevance of this is that word knowledge per se does not predict reading ability as measured by comprehension. Fluency though – the pre-processing of words which allows for skipping along a line of text and which may depend on the same deep conceptual structures as those underpinning the handwriting finding – contributes significantly to comprehension (e.g. Levy, Abello, and Lysynchuk, 2014; Fox, 2008). But poor readers are not fluent, tending to focus primarily on the sounds and letters rather than the meaning of a word. This gives rise to slow, staccato, word-insular progress which must be desperately frustrating and unrewarding.
Readalongreads© adds a simple code to printed text that, when scanned by a smartphone app, accesses an audio file of the text concerned. The reader can then read along with the audio which is delivered via the smartphone’s earbuds. It offers dual-modality (audio and visual) input which in itself generally improves learning (e.g. Skocaj, Kristan, Vrecko, Leonardis, Fritz, Stark, Schiele, Hongeng, and Wyatt, 2010), and it is private – an observer would be unaware that the reader has literacy difficulties.
This alone seems likely to normalise the process of reading by removing the stigma associated with literacy problems. It also bypasses the screen readers which render text to speech and have poor tonal quality. Finally, it removes the formal pressure to learn, capitalising instead on unconscious incidental learning in much the same way a child learns by sharing book space with a parent who is reading to them, a process that is less stressful because it is beneath awareness.
An additional benefit of adding voice to print is that, as all writers of fiction come to understand, reading aloud maximises the benefits of the editing and revision process, resulting in a much more readable product. That in itself, before the reader is even presented with the material, is likely to improve accessibility. Health professionals, scientists, lawyers, social service workers, and many others who give out information to the public may benefit from the experience of fiction writers and in turn develop public information materials that many more people find understandable. This seems likely to maximise safety, engagement, interest, and collaboration, and minimise risk and disenfranchisement.
Suzanne Conboy-Hill, B.A. (Hons), Ph.D., M.Phil., M.Sc. M.A.
Conboy-Hill, S. Vulnerable Adults; assessing capacity to consent. Clinical Psychology Forum 158 19-23 2006
Fox, B.J. Fluency Contributes to Comprehension. Excerpted from 100 Activities for Developing Fluent Readers. B.J. Fox. Allyn & Bacon Pearson Education Inc. B.J. Fox, 2008 edition, P113-115. http://www.education.com/reference/article/fluency-contributes-comprehension/ Accessed 22/7/14
Frith, C., Making up the Mind: how the brain creates our mental world (Blackwell Publishing, 2007)
Hall, V., Conboy-Hill, S., Taylor, D., Using Virtual Reality to Provide Health Care Information to People With Intellectual Disabilities: Acceptability, Usability, and Potential Utility. Journal of Medical Internet Research, Vol 13, No 4 2011 Oct-Dec.
Held, R. and Hein A. (1963). Movement-produced stimulation in the development of visually guided behavior. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 56(5): 872-876. Reported undated and unreferenced, by R.L. Gregory in Eye and Brain. World University Library, 1966, P209-211.
Howlin, P., Baron-Cohen, S., and Hadwin, J., Teaching Children with Autism to Mind-Read. Wiley-Blackwell, 1998.
Levy, B.A., Abello, B., Lysynchuk, L., Transfer from Word Training to Reading in Context: Gains in Reading Fluency and Comprehension. doi: 10.2307/1511307 Learning Disability Quarterly August 1997 vol. 20 no. 3 173-188
Mar, R., Tackett, J., and Moore, C., Exposure to media and theory-of-mind development in pre-schoolers. Cognitive Development, 2009; 25, 1, P69-78.
Mueller, P.A. and Oppenheimer, D.M., The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0956797614524581
Pinker, S., The Language Instinct. Penguin Science, 1995.
Pinker, S., The Sense of Style. Penguin, 2015.
Raimondi, J. (Ed) Nowhere the warmth can escape. Popcorn Publishing, 2013.
Skocaj, D., Kristan, M., Vrecko, A., Leonardis, A., Fritz, M., Stark, M., Schiele, B., Hongeng, S., and L. Wyatt, J. Multi-modal Learning. In Christensen, Henrik, Kruijff, Geert-Jan M., Wyatt, Jeremy (Eds.) Cognitive Systems Monographs Volume 8, 2010, pp 265-309
 Extracts as reported by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian newspaper online 28/6/14.
 Reported by J. Santisi, 2014 Can Fiction Stories Make Us More Empathetic? Society for Personality and social Psychology. http://www.spsp.org/news/186589/Can-Fiction-Stories-Make-Us-More-Empathetic.htm Accessed 20/08/14
 People with specific reading difficulties such as dyslexia, traumatic brain injury (http://nora.cc/for-patients-mainmenu-34/reading-problems-after-brain-injury-mainmenu-75.html), or reading in English as an additional language.
 Easy Read – a way of making written material accessible to people who have difficulty reading. They claim approximately 5.2 million people are at below entry level literacy in the UK, http://www.easy-read-online.co.uk/ and a common estimate of the average reading age of the UK population is 10 years although this is only a rule of thumb as literacy is more complex than reading age. http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/adult_literacy/illiterate_adults_in_england
 Widgits are symbols often used in communications for people with ID. http://www.widgit.com/symbols/The_Little_Guide_to_Easy_Information.pdf
 Quick Reads – specially written books for adults with literacy difficulties. http://www.quickreads.org.uk/what-are-quick-reads/introduction Accessed 20/08/14
 The Blue Apple Company, comprising an entire cast of adults with ID, toured Hamlet http://blueappletheatre.hampshire.org.uk/hamlet.html
 This can be tracked right back to Held and Hein’s kitten carousel in which only the active kitten developed depth perception. [undated report by R.L. Gregory in Eye and Brain, 1966}