Reneè Seward began working on her graduate thesis at NC State in 2005, the iPad didn’t even exist. Yet seven years and countless hours of research and refinement later, the iPad is now the central component of Seward’s effort to help young children struggling to learn how to read.
Seward has been working to develop an iPad application, called SeeWord Reading, that uses multi-sensory on-screen reading tools to help children associate the correct sounds with each letter of the alphabet.
“It asks students to recall what sound belongs to what letter form,” says Seward, an assistant professor in the digital design and graphic design program at the University of Cincinnati. The app also accommodates different strengths in learning style, combining audio, tactile and visual features. “Most people have some combination of the three,” Seward says. “This will help students engage their own learning strength.”
As a working prototype, the app is currently in the research testing phase and Seward says she doesn’t have an idea yet when it will be on the market for widespread use. “I’ve been testing it in two different elementary schools in the Cincinnati Public Schools System for one year, and I’ll test it for another year after making refinements,” she says.
Seward recently presented the findings from her first year of testing at a meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading in Montreal. Feedback from professionals in the educational field has been positive so far.
“It’s proving to be something that will help people read on a word level,” Seward says. “I’ve talked to teachers and showed them what I’m making to see how well this was meeting the educational needs.”
While Seward has been testing the app on students in kindergarten and first grade, she says the tool can help readers of any age, child or adult, and is not limited to readers with dyslexia.
“At risk youth often have reading problems as well,” Seward says, emphasizing that the focus of the app is much broader. The app will be geared toward classroom use by teachers, but will also accommodate use by parents at home.
A class called experimental typography that Seward took as a graduate student at NC State served as inspiration for her work in developing this app. “It shook me up and caused me to question the way our alphabet is being represented,” she says.
Since then, Seward has collaborated with a diverse team of specialists throughout the app’s development. “Designers and education professors, a literary specialist, and a special education teacher are all involved in this process,” Seward says. “I want to make sure this digital tool fits well in the student’s hands, as well as the teacher’s hands.”
Meredith Davis, a professor of graphic design at NC State and Seward’s final project advisor when she began creating the SeeWord Reading app, says Seward always demonstrated a unique understanding of user needs, rather than simply focusing on the technical design of the application.
“She understood deeply what was going on cognitively with students,” Davis says. “It was important for her project to have some value beyond just what it afforded her as a design opportunity.”