Dalhousie University and Dartmouth-based educational software startup Squiggle Park are key players in a seven-year, $2.5 million project funded by the federal government to study literacy in a digital society.

The initiative is aimed at “ensuring full literacy in a multicultural and digital world,” and was announced on May 15 by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council -- Canada’s main funding body for practical science. It was part of a $75 million funding announcement by the SSHRC.

Led by the University of British Columbia’s Janet Werker, the researchers will run multiple studies to determine how culture and technology affect reading and writing ability. The results will be used by the study’s corporate and non-profit partners to help boost literacy levels in the general population.

“The results are actually going to be implemented,” said Aaron Newman, chair of Dalhousie’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. “They’re not just going to be in scientific journals, they’re actually going to be used in reading programs, materials that are provided to kids, and the design of commercial apps and educational games.”

Scientists participating in the study will meet annually to discuss how their individual projects relate to the overarching goals that come with the grant, as well as sharing information throughout the year.

Some of the research projects will also draw on data gathered by the private sector, including by Squiggle Park, which is headed by CEO Julia Rivard Dexter.

The Dartmouth company’s online games are designed to teach children to read. The company has produced a database that contains information from interactions with tens of thousands of users. This will offer researchers a larger data set than could be created in traditional laboratory studies.

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Topics that the grant recipients will be studying include the effects of multimedia content on childhood literacy, and how multilingualism can impact learning.

For example, one team of scientists will examine whether contextual clues, including animations and audio content, can act as crutches for children when they are reading digitally, such as when playing video games.

Another group will examine how speaking different languages at home and at school can affect children’s learning, since they may think in one language, but be required to read in another.

Newman will collaborate with Western University’s Marc Joanisse to design experiments that use neuro-imaging technology to learn more about the functioning of children’s brains during reading.

The scale of the grant will also allow Newman and his colleagues to work with specialists in neural nets -- computer systems that function on principles similar to those that govern organic brains -- to model reading-related brain function.

“There’s huge opportunity here for us to really advance our understanding beyond looking at the brain and going, ‘Oh, that area lights up. It must do X,’” said Newman. “We want to have a much deeper and richer understanding, and an explanatory model of how language is interpreted and represented.”

A 2011 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that over 40 percent of Canadians lacked the “the reading comprehension, digital literacy, and oral and written language skills to be able to fully contribute to today’s workforce.”

Statistics Canada has estimated that a one percent increase in the national average literacy rate compared to the international mean would produce a three percent increase in annual GDP.

Based on data from February -- the most recent available -- three percent equates to more than $58 billion.