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In this Feb. 12, 2015 photo, Marquez Allen, age 12, reads test questions on a laptop computer during in a trial run of a new state assessment test at Annapolis Middle School in Annapolis, Md. The new test, which is scheduled to go into use March 2, 2015, is linked to the Common Core standards, which Maryland adopted in 2010 under the federal No Child Left Behind law, and serves as criteria for students in math and reading
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Is the key to improved literacy extra spaces in text?
READ BETWEEN THE SPACES

This article has been perfectly formatted for maximum reading comprehension

By Alice Truong

In the US, about 30 million adults struggle with basic literacy. The inability  to read proficiently  has wide-ranging economic consequences, affecting a person’s ability  to get  and hold onto a job, as well as increasing the likelihood one would rely on government assistance.

National Center for Education Statistics
Literacy rates in the US

But one tech company believes something as simple as increasing the size  of spacing between certain words could improve people’s reading comprehension. Research going back decades has found that “chunking,” a technique that separates text into meaningful units, provides visual cues that help readers better process information.

Grounded in this thinking, San Francisco-based Asymmetrica Labs  has created a tool that uses an algorithm  to logically insert spaces  to websites’ text. A free browser extension for Chrome, Safari, and Firefox, Asym automatically reformats English text without affecting a site’s overall design.

The image below shows  the before and after of Asym’s spacing on a paragraph  of text. Quartz  is also experimenting by manually adding Asym’s spaces  to this article. The effect  is subtle, but likely will irk keen-eyed copy editors (sorry!), especially those from the print world who are accustomed  to deleting extraneous spaces.

Asymmetrica
An excerpt from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer without (left) and with Asym spacing.

Incubated by PayPal cofounder Max Levchin’s HVF innovation lab, Asymmetrica  was founded by neuroscientist Chris Nicholas  and Ken Brownfield, who worked with Levchin at PayPal  and Slide.

“Some struggling readers, or low-literacy readers, will read one word at a time,” Nicholas tells Quartz. “We’re nudging eye-movement patterns that good readers on their own have done naturally.” He says  the technology could also benefit strong readers when they’re tired or under stress  and could also improve their reading speeds.

And though Nicolas wouldn’t divulge its “secret sauce,” the extension appears, after a few days of testing, to add spaces  in front  of words like “and,” “to,” and “of,” breaking down sentences into digestible units, akin  to the effect  of punctuation  and paragraph breaks.

One drawback  to the technology  is that it won’t  be readily available on mobile devices, since their browsers don’t yet support extensions.

To make money, Asymmetrica wants  to strike partnerships with publishers, such as Facebook, to implement  the technology on the server side so the text automatically parses without requiring readers to install an external tool. It’s selling  to publishers  the idea that improved reading comprehension would lead  to increased engagement—a hypothesis it’s yet to test. Plus, Brownfield says its technology could also help publishers make “inroads into low-literacy markets.”

The technology, Brownfield says, can easily scale  to other languages that use spaces in their written text (this wouldn’t apply  to Chinese, for example). The startup is also exploring charging people for a more robust version  of its extension, offering features such as the ability  to change the sizing  of the spaces. But the company recognizes that the people who would benefit most from the technology come from low-income backgrounds  and likely wouldn’t see the value in paying for its extension.

“The reason we’re  doing this is because we really want  to improve literacy,” says Nicholas. “The people  who are low literacy, and/or struggling readers, those are the ones who need the most help.”