Why computers aren’t part of our system

To introduce new skills, computers are not as effective as one-on-one facilitation. A routine complaint about computers in schools is that learners are not really learning useful skills while spending time in front of a screen and using a mouse to click on words and images.

For a learner who finds reading difficult, the temptation to play on the computer rather than to practise reading skills may be particularly strong. Computers can supplement reading remediation classes or tutoring, but they are no substitute for help from teachers and parents.

The eye movements of a learner correspond to the reading method he has been taught. Remedial reading nowadays relies largely on retraining the eyes. The work done by the eyes is poor – the theory goes – so let’s teach the eyes to do a better job, hence all the mechanical gadgets, the films, the tachistoscopes, the reading accellerators, and so forth.

Actually, the relationship of eye movements to reading is very simple. The eyes wander along a line across the page, stopping from time to time to pick up a word or two or three, then moving on to the next stop, and the next, and the next. Sometimes the eyes jump back, to correct a mistake in reading. So, technically speaking, there are only three important mechanical elements in the reading process: the average duration of fixation pauses, the width of the average fixation span, and the average number of regression movements. It is therefore clear that any improvement in reading will and must reduce the number of regression movements. The better you read, the less often you will have to go back to correct an error.

The basic problem of remedial reading therefore boils down to this: The eyes of the slow reader stop for too long and take in too little. To improve his reading, he must either shorten his fixation pauses or widen his fixation span.

Every single one of the current reading-improvement gadgets and techniques are designed to widen the learner’s fixation span.

If you improve your reading by learning phonics, your fixation span will probably stay the same, but your fixation pauses will get shorter. You’ll gradually learn to see the letters on the page more quickly (from “The study of eye movements in reading” by Prof. M A Tinker, Psychologist Bulletin, March 1946).

This means that the majority of remedial reading courses concentrate on exactly the opposite of what they should. They strengthen the bad habit of word guessing instead of trying to cure it. Even the currently fashionable speed-reading courses and programmes won’t help you much.

Next: What does it cost?