Reading is unnatural. Unlike spoken language, which is hard-wired into the human brain, we aren’t built to read. Children will naturally acquire spoken language just by being around adults. Not so with reading — this typically must be taught, and it often takes years.

If we’re not hard-wired to read, then how do we do it? Linguistic neurologists believe that when we read, our brains are repurposing neurons that were designed to do other tasks. But because humans have only been doing this neuron repurposing for a couple thousand years, our brains have not actually evolved (or been subject to natural selection) to be particularly skilled at reading.

As a result, there is a lot of variation in reading ability: Some people have brains that are great at reading and others have brains that find reading incredibly difficult. About 15 percent of people have dyslexia. These people struggle to read because their brains simply aren’t well-suited to the task. Similarly, 5-10 percent of people have ADHD and find sustained reading to be difficult.

If your brain isn’t great at reading, then a career path that would have been open to you 20 years ago is now an uphill battle.

For most of human history, it didn’t matter if your brain was good at reading. Most jobs in an agrarian or industrial economy (farmer, cobbler, or factory worker, for example) didn’t require strong reading skills. You could grow up, raise a family, and live comfortably even if you weren’t much of a reader. But in the information economy, one’s ability to read is absolutely crucial. According to Forbes, all of the “10 Best-Paying Jobs” require strong reading skills. Not surprisingly, none of the “10 Worst-Paying Jobs” does.

This dichotomy has become even more apparent in the last few decades, as reasonably well-paying jobs that used to require very little reading now require much more reading. For example, salespeople used to work mostly face-to-face, but they now spend lots of time reading and writing emails to customers and colleagues. If your brain isn’t great at reading, then a career path that would have been open to you 20 years ago is now an uphill battle.

At a macro level, these trends mean that people whose brains aren’t great at reading find that there aren’t a lot of well-paid, established career paths for them to follow. This is one reason that many of these people strike out to build their own businesses — as a group, entrepreneurs have a much higher percentage of dyslexic individuals (35 percent) than the general population (15 percent). Unfortunately, many people with dyslexia end up populating a different statistic: 48 percent of the prison population struggles with the learning disorder.

This presents a problem for people who have difficulty reading, but it’s also problematic for humanity as a whole. At the most fundamental level, our global community will need to marshal as much brainpower as possible to solve the enormous problems currently facing humanity. We don’t want to let the cure for cancer slip through our fingers simply because the brain that could have thought it up wasn’t able to get into medical school. As a society, we need to enable the ingenuity of every person to flourish to its maximum capacity.

One way to do this is to go back to the drawing board on how we actually read. This is the approach we have taken at BeeLine Reader. We have developed a different way of displaying text that makes reading more cognitively efficient both for skilled readers, and also for people who find traditional reading to be difficult.

Our approach makes just one small change: Instead of using plain black text, we display text using a color gradient that wraps from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. This gradient pulls your eyes through the text, making reading easier and faster. The user gets to pick what colors are used, based on what feels best (red and blue are the most popular, but many people also like inverted “night modes” as well).

Skilled readers report that reading with these color gradients make reading easier, improve focus, and increase reading speed by up to 30 percent. For many people with dyslexia, the addition of these color gradients transforms the task of reading from a burden into a joy.

We don’t want to let the cure for cancer slip through our fingers simply because the brain that could have thought it up wasn’t able to get into medical school.

Educational research studies have demonstrated the benefits of this new approach for both general education and special education students, as well as for English as a second language (ESL) and English language learner (ELL) students. These educator-led studies show significant improvements in reading fluency and reading comprehension.

Testing by CNET showed that people reading with BeeLine’s color gradients were 35 percent more likely to finish reading an article than readers using conventional black text. By boosting focus, BeeLine helps readers stay engaged — a welcome development in this age of constant distraction.

Interestingly, these color gradients appear to work in any written language. It doesn’t matter whether the reading direction is left-to-right (like English) or right-to-left (like Hebrew). It also doesn’t matter whether the language uses an alphabet (like Romance languages) or has more complex character sets (like many Asian languages).

BeeLine’s novel approach to reading has attracted the attention of leading literacy organizations, including Bookshare and Reading Is Fundamental — both of which have adopted the BeeLine technology. We also make our own apps and plugins, and people around the world have read over 250 million pages with our tools. If you want to make your content easier to read, stickier, and more accessible, you can include the BeeLine widget in your app or website.

It’s easy to forget that reading is not a universal skill. When thinking about language, we often conflate spoken language and written language. We blithely assume that anyone who can talk can read just as well, but our brains are hard-wired for only one of these activities. When it comes to reading, our brains are simply not optimized for the task. That’s why we need to think creatively about how the task of reading can be redesigned to enable us — all of us — to engage in it more efficiently.

Share Feedback

Add Beeline Reader to your website

Nick Lum

Author Nick Lum

Nick has founded startups that have won international social impact awards and been written about in the New York Times, the BBC, and the Atlantic. His apps Read Across the Aisle and Beeline Reader are used to read millions of pages every week, by people in over a hundred countries.

More by Nick Lum