UC professor’s startup promotes literacy through design

Reneé Seward’s last name is pronounced see-word, though some might not realize that when reading her name. So it’s fitting that this University of Cincinnati associate professor created an app that helps users with reading, pronunciation and recognizing letters. Appropriately, the tool is called See Word Reading.

Seward turned her idea—sparked from the desire to help one child who was struggling in school—into a bonafide business, thanks to UC’s Venture Lab at the 1819 Innovation Hub, including funding and talent to support commercialization. The local business community is taking notice: Seward was a winner at the 2015 Cincinnati Innovates competition and the 2019 Cincinnati Business Courier’s Innovation & Technology Awards.

The See Word Reading app is currently being tested in schools from Cincinnati to Singapore. Though originally created to help children with dyslexia, the technology has broad potential, from young children learning the alphabet to future products that will meet the needs of adults for which English is a second language.

Creating innovative solutions to real-world problems like this is a key component to Next Lives Here, UC’s strategic direction.

“The heart of the tool is to imbed images inside of the letterforms to help cue a person to what sound associates with those letterforms,” says Seward, who is also the communication design coordinator in UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. When a child using the See Word app on a tablet comes across a letter they can’t identify, they can touch the letter. The tool then guides them to trace the letter, then cycles through images associated with that letter. For example, the letter “P” could feature images of a peach, peppermint and pie within the letter. When the user sees and hears those pronunciation cues, they can better associate the “puh” sound with the letter “P.”

Seward first conceived the idea when she noticed her friend’s son, who was diagnosed with dyslexia, complaining about the page layout of his tests. In reality, he was having trouble identifying the sounds associated with different letters. A  in North Carolina at the time, Seward set out to develop an interactive tool that could help children with dyslexia and other at-risk youth learn to read, spell and pronounce words, building basic literacy skills.

When Seward received her Master of Graphic Design degree in 2007 in North Carolina, she was invited to be a visiting professor at DAAP, where she had received her bachelor’s degree in graphic design in 2002. Seward brought her idea for a literacy app with her back to UC and teamed up with Allison Breit-Smith, an associate professor in UC’s College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services, to create a testable tool. Together with then-UC colleagues special education professor Pam Williamson, educational psychologist Beth O’Brien and interactive design specialist Ben Meyer, they developed a prototype based on the principles Seward created in grad school.

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