Publish date: 16/05/2019

A North Canterbury education company has developed a world-first test that can identify whether a learner is using the right part of their brain for reading fluency. 

The Visual Recognition Test developed by Rangiora-based literacy company The Learning Staircase measures how many milliseconds it takes a reader to visually recognise a known word. The part of the brain that instantly recognises words has been proven to be less active or inactive in dyslexic and other struggling learners. The test can therefore identify whether a learner is able to effectively use this area of the brain, and can then track progress as the reader continues through The Learning Staircase’s literacy programme. 

“There has been a lot of research into brain activation during reading over the last 15-20 years,” explains The Learning Staircase Managing Director Ros Lugg. “FMRI scans have established that fluent reading is located in a different part of the brain to decoding, and that some learners (particularly dyslexics) are unable to activate this area. These learners have to rely on decoding as their main reading strategy which is very slow and time-consuming, but it also affects comprehension.

“If a learner can see and recognise a word in 150 milliseconds or less, they are activating the fluency area of the brain. So our hypothesis was that it should be possible to measure speed and link it to reading progress.”

The initial research project was partially funded via a grant from Callaghan Innovation and evaluated by Auckland University. “The Auckland University evaluation has conclusively linked visual recognition speed to literacy success,” explains Ros. “It has also shown that this test is even valid with five-year-old pre-readers to predict learners who are likely to struggle with literacy”.

Ros says that early exposure to the test paired with ongoing supporting education could be “potentially life-changing” for many who struggle with literacy.

“At the moment, schools struggle to cater for learners who need a more structured approach and far too many fall through the cracks,” she says. “If you haven’t learned to read at least functionally in your first two to three years in school, you then fall further and further out of step with the curriculum.  This leads, of course, to behavioural problems.  International research shows that 60-80% of prison populations are dyslexic and a very high proportion are functionally illiterate.  Instead of the classic ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’, which is devastating for both individuals and society as a whole, we should be tackling the issue in a way which prevents failure in the first place.” 

The test has been incorporated into The Learning Staircase’s own online literacy programme, StepsWeb, which provides a full literacy teaching programme applicable to all learners wanting to improve their literacy. However, Ros says they feel there is potential in promoting the test internationally, and they have received some interest from a leading UK expert at Oxford University. In the meantime, the company is focusing on ensuring the programme is reaching those who need it in New Zealand, which Ros says is “among the worst countries in the OECD when it comes to catering for lower-level learners”.

“We would advocate that our country’s approach to literacy teaching changes to provide the structure and specific reinforcement needed by those struggling learners.  If this is combined with a literacy approach which enables every learner to progress at his or her own speed and level, we genuinely believe that we could stop four out of five of the currently struggling learners from falling through the cracks in the first place.”

The Learning Staircase has been operating since 2008, and from North Canterbury since 2012. In 2014 they won the Innovation and Technology Award and the Supreme Award at the North Canterbury Business Awards. 

For more information on The Learning Staircase, including access to StepsWeb, visit