Schools hope program will improve reading

Education » Local company says the software trains kids brains to work more efficiently.
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Fifth-grader Hugo Tejada follows a tiny basketball with his eyes as it bounces around his computer screen.

He then reads a passage about Rapunzel, two lines at a time. A small, green apple appears on his screen and he attempts to simultaneously focus on it and visualize it expanding.

One might not know it from watching, but this is essentially a reading lesson. The idea is to teach kids how to use both sides of their brain at once in order to read faster and more comprehensively. It's part of a program called eyeQ being tested in 11 Granite District schools.

"It helps you read faster," said Tejada, a student at Granger Elementary, after finishing his 7-minute lesson on a recent school day. Students generally do the lessons for seven minutes at a time, three times a week.

Infinite Mind, a Salt Lake City-based company, has been selling the program, which is based on methods developed in Japan, for nearly 10 years via infomercials and the Internet. It developed the program for use in schools this past year. The people at Infinite Mind think of the program as "strength training for the eyes and brain," said company president John Humphreys.

The human brain is capable of a lot more, with proper training, than most people think, said Jeff Flamm, Infinite Mind founder and CEO. Most people are taught to read when they're very young by looking at one syllable or word at a time, he said, and they continue to do that through adulthood. But because people's minds can do so much more, they get bored.

"What happens is our minds wander," Flamm said. "We get down to the end of the page and think, 'What did I just read?' "

But with training on how to engage both sides of the brain while reading, including how to use peripheral vision to read more than one word at a time, the average person can process up to 2,000 words a minute, without losing comprehension, he said.

The program, however, has its skeptics.

Kathleen Brown, director of the University of Utah Reading Clinic, said she's wary of any program that claims to improve reading through visual exercises and by engaging both hemispheres of the brain. The university's reading clinic trains teachers to help students read better through research-based strategies, among other things.

"There is a strong consensus in the scientific community that has emerged over the last 30 years that the vast majority of reading difficulties are caused by glitches, if you will, in the reader's phonological system, not in the way his brain hemispheres connect and not in the visual system," said Brown, referring to a person's ability to manipulate speech sounds.

But the people at Infinite Mind said they've already seen success.

An independent functional MRI, paid for by the company, showed that activity in the left hemisphere of the brain doubled after a 7-minute session and activity in the right hemisphere of the brain increased by nearly 1,500 percent. And a previous pilot project showed average improvement of as much as 17 percent between pretests and post tests, Flamm said.

Brown, however, said she wonders whether the program's success so far is because of the visual and brain exercises or simply because it forces students to read more.

The eyeQ program for schools has not yet been featured in any peer-reviewed journals, but Infinite Mind hopes to get results from the pilot schools in Granite as the school year progresses. As part of the pilot program, groups of students using the program will be compared to control groups not using it.

Several Granite district educators say they're happy with what they've seen so far.

Mary Nilsson, a fifth-grade teacher at Granger, has been using eyeQ with a class of students learning English and with special education students for about three weeks. She said some of her students have improved by 100 or 200 percent -- as measured by reading speed and comprehension -- from where they were when they started, she said.

She said it's giving her students confidence.

"If they see these big chunks of text, they're not going to be overwhelmed," Nilsson said. She said she wishes her own daughter, who has attention deficit disorder, could have used program when she was in school.

Rebecca Tesch, Granger principal, said the program is unlike anything she's tried before with students.

"If it does the kinds of things they say it does, that can be a phenomenal investment for our students," Tesch said.

The program is now in more than 750 schools and colleges nationwide. It's free to the pilot schools but normally costs about $16 to $50 a student, depending on how many students use it and other factors, said Kathy Hansen, a regional sales manager for the company.

Flamm said the program could help students across all subjects by teaching them how to use their minds more efficiently.

He said it's not just a speed-reading program. It's not about racing through books, skipping words or skimming. It's about training brains to read and understand words more efficiently, say those at Infinite Mind.

"It shows us what the brain is capable of doing with training," Flamm said.

What is eyeQ?

EyeQ is a reading enhancement program developed by Salt Lake City-based Infinite Mind. The idea is to teach students and others to read faster and more comprehensively by training them to use both sides of their brain while reading.