It began with a father trying to help his son. Adrian is dyslexic, and despite trying each day to improve his spelling and reading, he never got through a writing exercise without making multiple errors.
“It broke my heart,” says Adrian’s father, Markus Gross. “He was trying his best under enormous psychological strain.”
That strain is familiar to the millions of children and adults with dyslexia, a learning difference that involves chronic difficulty with reading and writing. Markus and Adrian tried therapy after therapy – some of them very costly – but none resulted in any lasting improvement.
Over time Adrian even became disillusioned with school as a whole because he had to read and write for almost every subject. He started to lose motivation for learning altogether.
“As parents,” Markus mentions, “we put high pressure on ourselves, too, because we were afraid of the limitations on Adrian’s life choices due to his dyslexia. That put even more pressure on him.”
It was at this point that Markus decided to come up with an approach that would fit Adrian’s strengths. Adrian could remember how to spell words if he associated a word with something more concrete and geometric.
Markus Gross is head of the Institute of Computational Science and the Computer Graphics Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. He began working on a computer program that associated letters with colours, sounds, and shapes. The exercises were sorted into learning games so that the program would be as fun to work with as possible.
The software, built with Adrian’s feedback, finally helped Markus’s son to make a lasting improvement in spelling and reading. This success raised the question: could the program help other children as well? As the program was tailored to Adrian’s needs, Markus was not sure it would be applicable to other forms of dyslexia.
Case studies were performed at the University of Zürich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The results were clear: the software could be used to generally aid children with dyslexia. Overall, the children involved in the studies improved their reading and spelling skills drastically after only a few months of working with the program.
The program was dubbed Orthograph, now distributed by the company Dybuster, formed by the researchers, developers, and teachers behind Orthograph’s creation. The software is currently used by thousands of children in Swiss schools, and by others worldwide.
“It is very rewarding,” Markus Gross says, “to see how this private project spread so widely and allows us to help so many children – and their parents – cope with the difficulties that my son and myself experienced.”