How mixed reality glasses can help struggling readers

Young readers read scientific text using mixed reality glasses to deliver supplementary content in the virtual world

Imagine you are a struggling reader. You dread reading…in any class. You feel like a failure, and you are starting to hate school. One day, your science teacher brings in a Microsoft HoloLens headset. You put on the mixed reality glasses and pick up the science article that the teacher wants you to read. You begrudgingly begin reading.

After only a few sentences you are lost because you don’t know what “light energy” means. Because your eyes stopped on that phrase, an animation jumps off the page through the glasses demonstrating an example of the concept with a voiceover explanation. Several moments later you read the word “photosynthesis” and another animation appears with an audio explanation. Suddenly, reading in science class takes on a whole new emotion…you are feeling success and are even interested in reading more about science.

Characteristics of struggling readers

Some students struggle with reading, and it’s a complicated situation. First, they struggle with anxiety. High anxiety is often present for struggling readers, and they tend to have reading anxiety along with general anxiety. Second, low-proficiency readers struggle with motivation. Essentially, struggling readers have a low reading self-concept, which is linked to lower motivation. Third, struggling readers have low achievement. Given the high anxiety and low motivation, struggling readers only perform at a low reading level. For these struggling readers, common instructional methods are insufficient…and they fall behind.

Mixed reality science reading

At East Carolina University, we wanted to create something uncommon, so we created a science reading experience for 5th grade students using the Microsoft HoloLens. The HoloLens is a mixed reality technology—it merges the real and virtual worlds to produce something entirely new. Young readers wore the mixed reality glasses and then looked at a page of scientific text in the real world. But we programmed the HoloLens to deliver supplementary content in the virtual world that could only be seen and heard within the glasses. Because abstract concepts can be intimidating for young learners, we focused on supplying additional information for difficult scientific concepts. When the students’ eyes paused on a particularly difficult word or phrase, the glasses would deliver audio-visual information to supplement the reading.

These young readers really responded to mixed reality reading! The students in our study were clearly attracted to the novelty of the technology. To use their words, it’s “cool” and “fun.” But the level of engagement goes beyond simply novelty. Students indicated that it was “a wonderful experience” and “it was pretty smart.”

During this study, we specifically saw how struggling readers can benefit from the affordances of reading science information through mixed reality glasses. The struggling readers were intrigued by the audio component of mixed reality reading. In the post-interviews, students mentioned the audio a lot, saying things like, “it read it to me,” and, “it will tell you more about it.” However, struggling readers were most affected by seeing videos and animations in the glasses. Some students simply mentioned the visual element with basic information like, “you see different pictures,” while others commented about the realistic nature of the video elements: “It just made me feel like I was there.”

Why is mixed reality better than regular reading?

We already have audio-visual technologies like iPads to support struggling readers, so what’s different about mixed reality reading? Basically, mixed reality reading is like reading on paper, but better.

First, students read better from paper than from a screen. The process of scrolling through digital text seems to impair reading comprehension. So mixed reality retains the real paper experience. Second, it’s a completely personalized experience. No one else sees the supplemental visual content or hears any of the audio content. Basically, when a reader’s gaze remains on an unknown word, supplemental content appears in the glasses, and no one else is privy to that content. Our study participants seemed particularly aware of this element of the experience; it may have reduced their anxiety. Lastly, the audio-visual enhancements are designed to help struggling readers increase their vocabulary retention and overall understanding of science. We know that our mixed reality experience increased their interest in reading and science, which is a good place to start on the path to being able to read-to-learn science.

At East Carolina University, we believe that reading scientific text with mixed reality glasses holds promise to help struggling readers. It’s a novel technology that provides an important, personalized audio-visual experience. As one female student who struggles with reading said: “It’s a very fun way…You can actually see it and…you can hear it while you’re reading it.”

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