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The Challenge of Reading Conventional Block Text

Competition for Attention in Visual Processing

"A Sea of Words"

"One of the most challenging activities for the visual attention mechanism in modern civilization."

Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesay, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the Bearing of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown seamen with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under one roof.

Reading entails a complex array of multiple cognitive processing tasks, in which the brain is continually processing and integrating visual, linguistic, and conceptual information.

Additional Tasks for Reading Comprehension

First, the human mind must PERCEIVE the characters of the text. We are only able to perceive a small span of about 9 to 15 characters at a time -- essentially a small peep-hole of perception in our visual field -- and this small peep-hole of perception must be continually moved through a sea of words on the page or screen, with most of the surrounding words competing for our visual attention. This first step, that is, trying to serially home in on one word after another in conventional block text -- which appears as a Sea of Words -- has been called one of the most challenging tasks for the human visual system in modern civilization.

The Reading Eye-Span

Conventional Text presentation only permits character perception of ~9 characters in a horizontal row at each fixation.

Next, we must DECODE the perceived characters into sounds, and these individual character sounds must then be fused into groups of sounds that correspond to a word that the reader recognizes from his or her spoken vocabulary.

The next cognitive process in reading: we PARSE the syntactic structure of the sentence; that is, we interpret how words relate to one another to form groups of words or phrases, and how these groups of words relate to other groups of words. In Speech, prosodic attributes -- such as inflections and pauses -- help the listener parse the syntax of the spoken sentence. In Reading, because conventional block text lacks the parsing cues of speech, we must continually parse and re-parse a sentence as we see, decode, and interpret the text one word at a time. Often we must re-read words because we misinterpret their syntax the first time. These regressions, which reflect the very hard work and difficulty of parsing sentences, account for up to 20% of eye movements in reading.

Finally, using the syntax and the meanings of individual words, we BUILD SENTENCE MEANING as a whole. Again, with speech, this overall task of comprehending happens automatically as we listen, because each word and phrase is simultaneously accompanied by prosodic syntactic clues. When reading block text, we lack these cues; the task of comprehending is serial, incremental, integrative, and vastly more difficult.

This is where LiveInk comes in: The great reading opportunity of electronic text is that digital content can be read by a machine. This machine readability can be used to analyze text for syntactic structure, grammatical attributes, word difficulty, pronunciation attributes, and the like, and the results of this analysis can then be used to give shape to the presentation of text, using patterns that enable the eye and the mind to work together to build meaning for the reader. Thus the first sentence of Treasure Island is transformed from a sea of words, to this:

    Squire Trelawney,
           Dr. Livesay,
         and the rest
               of these gentlemen
            having asked me
                  to write
                       down the whole particulars
                     about Treasure Island,
           from the beginning
               to the end,
         keeping nothing back
             but the
                  Bearing of the island,
           and that only
             because there is still
                   treasure not yet lifted,
         I take
               up my pen
                   in the year
                       of grace 17__
              and go back
                   to the time
             when my father
                   kept the Admiral Benbow inn
                       and the brown seamen
                     with the sabre
                      cut first
                took up his lodging
                       under one roof.

To see another illustration of how standard block text impedes good reading, and how LiveInk addresses the problem, click here. Otherwise, you may return toWhat is LiveInk?

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US Patent No. 5,802,533 and Patents Pending.
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