A Better Way to Read Text Online?
May 13, 2007 11:03 PM   Subscribe

A Better Way to Read Text Online? By reorganizing text into cascading patterns, more circular (even vaguely poetic) than the usual dull horizontal layout, visual-syntactic text formatting (VSTF) increases online reading comprehension and efficiency while reducing eyestrain. Among high school students, who read with the format over an entire academic year, the VSTF method increased both academic achievement and long-term reading proficiency by more than a full standard deviation over randomized controls. Try it out. (Any login works)
posted by gottabefunky (47 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
all seem so
posted by Peter H at 11:08 PM on May 13, 2007

Is this some sort of Trojan pony?
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:10 PM on May 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't know, I found the declaration of independence quote to be much more readable in the altered form. I don't know how useful it would be for mixed medium text, where pictures and hyperlinks are interspersed with plain text, and I have some doubts on being able to convert all text to the format, but I think it has some promise.

Also, some people may have problems with the venturebeat links, they have moved to a new server, and I was pointed to the old one, which gave a 404.
posted by zabuni at 11:12 PM on May 13, 2007

Reminds me of bad powerpoint presentations - the kind where the person reads directly from their slides.
posted by logicpunk at 11:12 PM on May 13, 2007

I think this format is very helpful. It's hard to imagine people getting past their initial reactions to it, although it's a natural format for phones and other small-screened computers.
posted by serazin at 11:15 PM on May 13, 2007

Reading Comprehension
Platez of Beanz
In a
of π [3.14159 26535 89793 23846 26433 83279 50288 41971 69399 37510].
posted by ericb at 11:16 PM on May 13, 2007

As someone pointed out in the comments, it seems kind of biased that in the example the give the "before" text is blurry.
posted by vacapinta at 11:28 PM on May 13, 2007

Yeah, this is a good idea, even if the final output is a bit wonky. See also.
posted by zardoz at 11:29 PM on May 13, 2007

posted by taosbat at 11:34 PM on May 13, 2007

zabuni writes "I found the declaration of independence quote to be much more readable in the altered form."

Yes, sure, because it's intentionally got a poetic rhythm. This is not true fr most texts. And while this method may work for intriductory schoolbooks aimed at under-educated American high school students, it really fails for highly complex papers.
posted by orthogonality at 12:16 AM on May 14, 2007

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.
posted by exlotuseater at 12:19 AM on May 14, 2007 [7 favorites]

This FPP brought to you by the paper industry.
posted by T.D. Strange at 12:26 AM on May 14, 2007

It's like reading ee cummings.

Since I studied English Lit at college, and my brain is wired to read line breaks as poetic breath pauses, it makes the text feel incredibly stilted, because the line breaks don't follow any sort of rhyme or reason that my brain can follow.
posted by Happy Dave at 12:41 AM on May 14, 2007

So basically they take a text,

break it down to bullet points,

and then remove the bullets?
posted by moonbiter at 12:50 AM on May 14, 2007

Yeah, but how will I remember what I've just read?
posted by lazymonster at 12:54 AM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

It should be easy to write a greasemonkey script to do this.

There's a tool I've heard about for OSX which breaks up text into columns:

Does anyone know of a firefox extension, script, or css file which would do this for firefox, so that we could look at random normal websites in easier-to-read column mode?
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:10 AM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

the line breaks don't follow any sort of rhyme or reason that my brain can follow.

Really? It makes a lot of sense to me, it's branching based on sentence structure. From right after the declaration in the paper linked:

Computer-executed algorithms can analyze the natural-language content of digital text—primarily syntactic structure, but also such variables as word difficulty and patterns of punctuation use—and then specify formatting patterns (e.g., line breaks and indentations) that optimize perception and linguistic processing of the content.
posted by Arturus at 1:25 AM on May 14, 2007

If adding white space and indentation, and formatting into blocks of related ideas works for code, why not text?
posted by sfts2 at 2:42 AM on May 14, 2007

I'd rather read text in boustrophedon.
posted by Orrorin at 3:03 AM on May 14, 2007

Now just eliminate all the function words (easy to do, with a word-frequency list) and your computer can reduce beautiful text to fragmentary crud as well as any slideware-crazed MBA!

OK, actually, I can see this being very handy for second-language readers, and especially for learners who need to learn how the syntax works. I am an ESL teacher, and I'm thinking of pointing my writing students to this.

But for native readers, it strikes me as an unholy alliance between the well-known benefits of narrow columns and the newly-emerging cognitive style of PowerPoint. People used to learn how to understand what they read by reading a lot and then thinking about it. Was that so awful?

Yes, I am textist.
posted by eritain at 3:14 AM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think we can all appreciate the improved presentation of Sermon on the Point.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:03 AM on May 14, 2007

I was thinking this could be a way to improve writing. Divide up the sentences and highlight the verbs. It will help a writer focus on creating better clauses and using specific, muscular verbs. I realized this when reading the crappy construction of the sentence about cells. It used weak, fit-anywhere verbs.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:10 AM on May 14, 2007

sebastienballard - Tofu is a great program. It installs a service and you can apple-T to transform highlighted text into columns that scroll horizontally.
posted by leftoverboy at 6:10 AM on May 14, 2007

I think the difficulty of reading long stretches of text online may have something to do with a typical monitor being two or three times wider than a normally typeset book. But rather than doing this goofy free-verse looking shit, why not just test smaller columns?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 6:14 AM on May 14, 2007

This reminds me of the way I took class notes in college twenty-five years ago. I scribbled across the top of the page, then half-way down the right side, then back to the left margin, across, down, then back to the bottom left corner, then filled in with stray boxes and starred items. Sounds like chaos (like my mind?) but it worked very well for me.
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:08 AM on May 14, 2007

Well, if this method is so effective for comprehension, why is the study not presented in this manner?
posted by PigAlien at 7:13 AM on May 14, 2007

moonbiter: So basically they take a text,
break it down to bullet points,
and then remove the bullets

michael corvin: What happens to them afterward?

moonbiter: We put the bullets back in.

God damn you for making me quote that.
posted by dreamsign at 7:30 AM on May 14, 2007

But all that clicking
to get to the next page
will certainly result
in carpal tunnel syndrome
a whole lot sooner!
posted by Possum at 7:33 AM on May 14, 2007

Definitely seconding Tofu - it's a handy little app.

hehe - from the Venture Beat article comments section:

i think that
e. e. cummings
already has
the patent

God, I love me some Sillycon Valley snark in the morning.
posted by rmm at 7:56 AM on May 14, 2007

How do we know the effect isn't due to the novelty of the medium? Like adding a new break like to a car will decrease accidents for a few years before people begin to zone out on it.
posted by geoff. at 8:07 AM on May 14, 2007

This would be interesting to me if (and perhaps this is true) they tried many different arrangements of many different texts on many different people, and this is the cream that rose to the top.

And geoff, you're right about the novelty factor with any of these things -- the center-mounted rear brake light is a terrific example of this. Of course, if you believe the NHTSA's own data, there was a novelty effect -- but also a long-term benefit, just not to the same level as the novelty-driven short-term effect.
posted by davejay at 8:37 AM on May 14, 2007

geoff, the paper mentions a follow up study that addresses your question. In it, all students used electronic media. The text differed only in presentation.

That said, I have trouble accepting this as a complete solution. Studies of cognitive psychology reveal that recall improves with the semantic continuity of text. That is, subjects do well with simple, "flowy" writing. Makes sense, no? Well, there's a significant caveat. The same science suggests that the opposite effect applies to experts. They go into catharsis reading such trivially understood text. Large and disjoint blocks of text facilitate greater understanding among experts as it leaves them to incorporate what they've learned into their mental representation of the topic. That processing is crucial to comprehension.

So, while this seems to work with a novice child, I would expect it to fail with an expert reading within her field.
posted by nilihm at 8:44 AM on May 14, 2007

This doesn't have anything at all to do with simplifying the text like what is often done for Powerpoint presentations. No words are omitted: it is only a reformatting.
posted by demiurge at 8:58 AM on May 14, 2007

____ipsum dolor
________sit amet,
____consectetuer adipiscing elit.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:01 AM on May 14, 2007

I fed it a chunk from a text version of "The Space Merchants" by Kornbluth and Pohl and it did seem to lend itself to an easy read.

I'd be interested, though, to see more on the cognitive implications of different reading styles though.
posted by Samizdata at 9:04 AM on May 14, 2007

Thanks for the Tofu pointer - I'm using it to read the stuff that Charlie Stross has published on his website, and it makes things flow MUCH nicer. 640-pixel columns are definitely easier to read than a web page stretched across a 20" widescreen.
posted by mrbill at 9:53 AM on May 14, 2007

I got some weird message telling me I had to allow cookies (they were already turned on) and then this:

You must enter your Userid
to use
the ClipRead Parser.

But nowhere to enter a Userid. Must be a geek beta thing, huh? Next!
posted by Charles Wilson at 10:33 AM on May 14, 2007

Optimus Chyme: But rather than doing this goofy free-verse looking shit, why not just test smaller columns?
My thoughts exactly. There has long been a school of thought in print and web design that narrow columns are the most readable. And the reasoning (the narrowness of the high-resolution portion of the eye's field of view) is virtually identical, too.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:42 AM on May 14, 2007

Interesting I was just reading some information about speed reading and they recommended that one start with the 2nd or 3 word in from the left margin and end on the 2nd or 3rd word from the right margin as one reads each line. The eye's peripheral vision is able to pickup the skipped words so one can see an immediate increase in reading speed. Eventually one can increase the number of words skipped in the margin to get better gains.

It seems good for skimming text but I don't have enough personal experience with it to make any claims about retention.

But as one who has been nursing eyestrain all day today I must say that it was a lot easier on the eyes to read the sample text, possible because it involved little to no left-right eye movement.
posted by daHIFI at 12:15 PM on May 14, 2007

It's Python for People™!
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:19 PM on May 14, 2007

This familiar form
(brief phrases on soft, short lines)
has long had its place.
posted by weston at 12:23 PM on May 14, 2007

"if this method is
so effective for
why is the study
not presented
in this manner?"

Ya beat me to it,
PigAlien. Word.

This will never catch on in meatspace,
cuz we kill enough trees already.
Essentially they're talking about
turning poetry into prose
using computer algorhythms.

The decayed corpse of e
e cummings is like,
"heck i coulda told you that"

Laurie was right: language is a virus.
posted by ZachsMind at 1:23 PM on May 14, 2007

Tofu does indeed sound cool, which is why I brought it up, but I'm running linux - does anyone know about firefox-based tools for multiple-columnating webpages?
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:47 PM on May 14, 2007

it really fails for highly complex papers.

I entered some paragraphs from a pdf pulled from my 'PhD work' folder (so a peer reviewed journal article about Crohn's disease), and yeah, it sucked. Long complex sentences are impossible to keep track of when broken up like this and the disjointedness made me lose all flow or coherence. Science writing is hardly good literature and we break all kinds of rules of 'good' writing. But it has it's own rhythm and flow and can get across a lot of information fairly concisely and unambiguously, and this layout method totally broke that.

I would expect it to fail with an expert reading within her field

Which is pretty much what I was doing and what I found.

Reading a whole paper would be even harder. I rely a lot on the overall structure of the article, each paragraph and section has a job and a point to get across and being able to jump around and glance backwards is really important. I know I'm not alone in this, we were taught how to read these things in my postgrad classes. Chewing it up into bite sized pieces like this removes all that. And given I can hardly follow the individual sentences any more I see no benefit at all.

That said, I threw in some askme questions and they were fine, possibly even easier to read. The smelly cow manure questions became almost poetry.
posted by shelleycat at 8:53 PM on May 14, 2007

I'd rather read text in boustrophedon.

I actually know a guy who has a patent (in Ukraine) for a vertical-boustrophedon method of text layout. His idea is that your eye moves smoothly along a line, but when it jumps back abruptly to the next one, the high accelerations cause incremental damage to nerves, blood vessels, lens ligaments, and whatnot. So eliminate the jumps, and you've stopped the damage.

Too bad your eye moves in jumps all the time. It was a neat idea.
posted by eritain at 8:01 PM on May 20, 2007

Hey, the first link appears to be broken. Dammit.
posted by spitbull at 8:53 PM on June 1, 2007

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