Why Learning to Read Is Difficult for Some Children
by optometrist Kenneth A. Lane, O.D.
There is nothing more heartbreaking than to see your bright and happy child struggle with reading. Most adults do not remember their early reading experiences. Reading for them is an automatic process. However, for many children, it is a nightmare. Between 2% and 20% of schoolchildren have some type of reading problem. Why is it that so many children have difficulty learning to read?
First, we must realize that reading is the most difficult neurological process that humans learn. It is much more difficult than speaking, and we are given years to learn to speak but only months to begin to read. Just because a child is six years old chronologically doesn’t mean that he or she has the visual, motor, and perceptual skills that are developed to a six-year-old’s level.
Basic perceptual skills are absolutely necessary for a young child to succeed in reading. Perceptual skills are needed to break down the visual image and to code the individual prerequisites such as feature identification, letter orientation, and proper sequencing. One of the most important assignments in reading is moving both eyes across the page in perfect harmony. Reading is much more than pronouncing words. You must move your eyes across the line of print accurately to read.
The brain cannot handle all the visual information available to it. Three quarters of the visual information to the brain is ignored when we read. Because of this, the eyes move across the page in a series of quick movements called saccades and pause to take in information called fixations. Because only a small fraction of the retina possesses heightened acuity, the point of fixation must constantly be moved to allow detailed visual processing. The eye must accurately jump from word to word, and, in young children, it must move several times in a single word to process information.
The average reader does not look at more than one word per fixation until tenth grade. A child in first grade takes in about 45% of a word. When the eyes pause to take in visual information, they do not move again until the brain figures out how far and where the eyes will need to move and when they can move. The brain must decide the exact location and the next word to land on. The prime location in a word to receive information is near the center of the word. The prime location in a five-letter word is the second letter, for a ten-letter word the fourth.
If the eyes miss the landing location in the word due to poor eye-tracking or poor attention, the penalty is in the order of 20 msec. slower reading speed for each letter that the child is away from the prime location. This is why good eye-tracking skills are critical. I have seen children’s reading speed double in as little as three months by increasing the accuracy of their eye-tracking. In fact, research has shown that if you did not have to move your eyes across a line of print and were shown one word at a time, your reading speed would triple.
More educators are starting to recognize the importance of the visual system and eye-tracking skills for reading. During the last forty years, research has identified two visual pathways from the eyes to the visual cortex. One of the pathways (the M pathway) has been shown to be deficient in many dyslexic children. This pathway is responsible for eye-scanning movements and spatial attention. Both of these are critical for efficient reading. This is why dyslexic children have an easier time reading if the print is large and the words are spread farther apart.
Visual scanning and spatial attention are now even more critical with the rise of computers and other electronic media. These skills must be trained before a child with reading problems can be successful.
Dr. Kenneth Lane is an internationally known optometrist who specializes in helping children who have learning disabilities. His main areas of expertise are reading and dyslexia. He has designed vision therapy activities to increase children’s reading speed and efficiency, which are available in a variety of workbooks.