By: Alan P Pearson OD MEd PhD FCOVD
©2017 Vision Clinics of Development & Learning
This is a very brief summary and overview of the important skills and processes involved in being a competent reader. It should help you to understand the logic behind the sequence of vision training and reading development therapy offered by Vision Clinics of Development & Learning.
The end goal of reading is understanding. For an advanced and efficient reader the process of reading is automatic and happens in the background so that the readers attention is placed upon comprehending what is being read and integrating new knowledge with prior knowledge and experience.
Reading begins with language. An infant’s brain is wired and ready for specific language experiences. These language experiences begin to fine tune the infant’s abilities to discriminate the specific phonetic sounds of his/her native language. This discrimination in hearing develops simultaneously with the infant’s abilities to express and vocalize sounds. The infant begins to make connections between hearing phonetic sounds, vocalizing phonetic sounds, and the meaningful changes in his/her physical or social environment.
In this way the infant slowly learns to listen, speak, and communicate. Once the basics of communication by language are mastered, there really is no limit to how advanced language skills can develop. Throughout life it is possible to learn new vocabulary and new ways of combining words to express subtle meaning. When the foundational mechanics of how to listen, speak, and communicate are in place, one can concentrate attention on the competence and art of using language. The mechanics of language move to the background, are unconscious, and are taken for granted. It becomes assumed that they are adequate for any communicative need that might arise.
Sometimes, however, the mechanics of language – the skills to listen, speak, and communicate – do not develop in a way that prepares the person best for learning to read. Certain deficits in discriminating or producing phonetic sounds while not interferring with basic communications become problematic when learning to read. For example, say the words ‘bat’ and ‘pat.’ Notice how similar sounding they are. Notice the subtle differences between how these two words sound and are spoken. The child who is unable to hear or pronounce the difference between these two words might do just fine with verbal communications because most listeners are very forgiving of pronunciation errors. But, imagine the confusion this child has when learning to read, and different symbols are being used to represent what, to the child, is the same phonetic sound.
Next, consider the following sentence: “With blim he was blam” Does this make sense to you? You can probably read it just fine, but with nonsense words it carries no meaning. Language is also about the development of vocabulary and cultural knowledge. Imagine the mechanics of language described above as like the depth of the soil, whereas the diversity of vocabulary and cultural knowledge is like the expanse of the field. Productivity is limited if the soil is too thin, or the field too small. The goal of good reading comprehension is limited if the mechanics of language are too thin, or vocabulary and cultural knowledge are too sparse. To summarize, good reading depends upon adequate development of certain mechanics of language, and enough experience with language to have developed adequate vocabulary and cultural knowledge.
Phonemic Awareness: This is a term often used to describe the individual’s abilities in auditory discrimination of the basic sounds (phonemes) of the language. Many students struggling with learning to read may have problems in phonemic awareness. If serious language based problems are suspected, then they should be evaluated and possibly treated by a professional speech language pathologist. The Reading Abilities Program™ described here will provide activities to enhance phonemic awareness and language experience, but is not meant to diagnose or treat specific language based problems. The Reading Abilities Program™ enhances phonemic awareness language skills primarily by emphasizing the behaviors of seeing, hearing, and saying together with feedback from computers or teacher coaches, which then helps the student refine his/her discrimination and expressive abilities.
Look at the picture below. Can you "see" or "understand" what it is you are looking at?
Let me give you some clues….
It is looking at you
It is probably ruminating as you are contemplating
Still can’t see it? When you finally see the cow in the picture above it will be hard not to see it. Before you could see it, you probably had good sharp eyesight, but that was not enough to get meaning from the picture. With language I mentioned the ability to discriminate the various sounds of language – this skill is auditory perception. Visually, we also have to be able to discriminate – this is the skill of visual perception. Without visual perception patterns seen by the eyes will not carry much meaning; they will be experienced only as a jumble of abstract shapes and colors.
Reading requires some advanced abilities to visually discriminate. In the physical world an item such as a chair still remains a chair even if it falls on its side, is upside down, etc. But in our symbolic world of letters and words, meanings can change with subtle changes in the visual orientation. Consider the letters ‘b’ ‘d’ ‘p’ ‘q’ all of which look very similar but carry different meanings. When reading, a student really doesn’t have the time to analyze a word in the same way you analyzed the cow picture above to finally get it. That just takes too long. Vision perception has to happen fast with reliable accuracy. Letters, and combinations of letters are called graphemes. The language sounds they represent are called phonemes. Learning to read is a lot about learning to integrate the visual aspects of the grapheme with the language aspects of the phoneme.
As I mentioned before, problems can occur with vision perception or with auditory perception which will make it difficult for a student to learn to read. Problems can also occur in the process of learning to integrate the vision (grapheme) with the language (phoneme). In other words, vision perception alone might be ok, and auditory perception alone might be ok, but somehow the student struggles to connect the two. In learning to read, there is a process of developing greater skill and efficiency in converting visual graphemes to language based phonemes and then finally to meaning and understanding. At first, the process might be slow and deliberately emphasize each step along the way…for example when a student is sounding out a word, finally recognizes the word, and moves on to the next word. As the reader improves, the process shortens and the steps compress such that an experienced reader will likely immediately recognize the meaning of a word after only a quarter of a second or less. The grapheme to phoneme to meaning just happens automatically in the same way that it is now hard for you to look at the cow picture and not see the cow, the perception in the cow picture just pops out at you, now that you know what it is.
Some students develop the automaticity in getting meaning from reading in a quick and effortless fashion. These students become good readers fast and keep practicing their reading and become better and better. Other students need extensive repetition to integrate the visual, language, and meaning pieces of reading to the point that they function rapidly and accurately over and over again. For these students, learning to read is much more labor intensive, so often they do not practice as much, have few repetitions rather than more, and fall further and further behind their peers.
One of the goals of the Reading Abilities Program™ is to provide activities that integrate vision, language, and meaning in ways that assure eventual mastery through enough targeted repetition in areas the student struggles with specifically. Let me summarize what has been covered so far with an example. Press the start button below and read the story.
[Example coming soon: Flash video story displaying one word at a time in the center, each word presented for 0.3 seconds each]
Can you read the story? If so, each word is only presented 0.3 seconds to your visual system. In that short period of time you are converting the words to comprehension. You have used your visual perceptual skills, your phonemic awareness skills, the integrative skills you have mastered through past repetitions, and your language skills. If you struggled with anyone of these skills your comprehension would suffer, you wouldn’t be able to keep up with the words presented, and you wouldn’t be reading well.
But we don’t read words individually presented one by one as in the example above. Of course, we read words across a line of print burried within a paragraph. There are other visual factors that have to be taken into consideration when understanding how we become a fluent reader. Vision does not happen like taking a picture with a camera; you have to go out and gather meaning and understanding from the world through active exploration. Think of vision like the hand. To know what you are holding in your hand, first you have to GRAB the object, then you have to hold it just right (not too tight, not too loose), and finally you have to FEEL the object. Without active feeling it is hard to know what you have in your hand. Try this: Have a friend find a small object (example: a matchbox car). Close your eyes and have the friend put the object in your hand. Can you identify what you have in your hand? Notice that it is hard to recognize the object if you do not manipulate it within your hand. Actively feeling helps a lot. Vision works in a similar way. First you have to VISUALLY GRAB hold of the object you are looking at. Your eyes must be moved to orient them toward the object being looked at. This requires EYE MOVEMENT SKILLS. Then you VISUALLY GRAB the object by FOCUSING on the object with your FOCUSING SKILLS, and coordinating your two eyes together with BINOCULAR SKILLS so that they both point directly at the object. Finally, you have to VISUALLY FEEL the object by analyzing its features. This requires perceptual skills. Only then do you get vision. In summary, getting meaning and understanding from our visual world depends upon good FOCUSING SKILLS, BINOCULAR SKILLS, and EYE-MOVEMENT SKILLS. Lets explore each of these skills in more detail.
A small muscle surrounds the lens of the eye. When you look at a distant object this muscle relaxes. This causes the lens to become flattened and this flat lens focuses distant objects. When you look at close objects the muscle contracts. This causes the lens to bulge or become more round. This bulged lens allows you to focus near objects.
Ideally the focusing system should respond quickly and accurately when you shift your gaze from far to near and from near to far. Sometimes the focusing system changes very slowly or not at all. This can cause objects to blur for a short time. During this time of blurry vision it is difficult to visually feel and understand the objects being looked at. If you spend a lot of your attention trying to get and keep things in focus, then there is less attention available for you to understand what you are looking at. Focusing problems may also lead to tired eyes or headaches.
If you more than 40 years of age, then you may not be able to focus your eyes. Books and words may be blurry for you if you do not have a proper pair of reading glasses or bifocals. This is because the lens muscle system slowly looses its ability to change the focus of the eye throughout our life, and sometime between 40 - 50 years the system no longer has enough focusing ability to clear words and near objects. Reading glasses or bifocal lenses perform the focusing that the eye is unable to accomplish.
Binocular vision means using both eyes together as a team. Muscles align the eyes so that both eyes are looking at the exact same spot. Each eye sends an image of what it is looking at to the brain. Since the two images are almost the same, the brain combines or fuses them into one perception. Using two eyes in this way allows you to see in 3-D.
When too much effort is needed to align the eyes and maintain proper alignment it can lead to headaches and eye strain, or letters and words might appear to jump and move around on the page. Poor binocular skills also result in less attention available for visually feeling or understanding what you are looking at or reading. If the muscles are not able to keep the eyes aligned then double vision results.
Have you ever read a page and then realized you cannot remember what you just read? If too much attention is being used to keep the eyes aligned and in focus, then not enough attention is left over for understanding, comprehension, and memory. A good way to understand this concept is to again imagine you are feeling an object in your hand with your eyes closed. Next, imagine that your friend has a string attached to that object and keeps yanking at the string. Instead of manipulating the object for feeling to understand what it is you have to concentrate on keeping the object in your grasp. Each time the string is yanked, you have to regrab the object and hold on. Therefore, all of your attention is on the grasp function, and very little is left over for the meaning and understanding function. It is the same way with vision and reading, if the visual grasp is unstable, either by unstable binocularity or unstable focusing, then all the student’s efforts go into trying to maintain visual grasp, and not much is left for understanding.
There are two kinds of eye movements
Smooth Pursuits and Saccades
Smooth pursuit eye movements are used to follow moving objects such as a baseball or an airplane in the sky. It is like the eyes are "locked on" to the object they are looking at, and smoothly follow the object wherever it moves.
Saccade eye movements are used to look at multiple objects sequentially. The eyes look at one object and then quickly shift their gaze to another object. When the eyes are fixated or stopped on an object they visually feel the object to understand it. When the eyes are moving from one object to the next the brain must turn off the visual feeling processes, otherwise the whole world would appear to move or jump.
When reading you use saccadic eye movements
When reading text the eyes do not smoothly move across the page but rather make short jumping movements. When the eyes reach the end of the line they again must make a jumping eye movement, but this time in the opposite direction to the beginning of the next line in the paragraph. These jumping eye movements are called saccadic eye movements. If there are problems with these eye movements, it is very easy to lose one’s place.
Eye movements are important in overall body coordination
Eye movements often guide the positions of our hands and feet. When eye movement skills are poor, body coordination, balance, catching balls, or doing things with our hands and feet can be very difficult. Both saccadic and smooth pursuit eye movements are very important in sports. Most professional athletes have superb eye-movement skills.
Find or make a maze. Put a blank maze on the table next to a mirror. Now, while looking into the mirror, try to do the maze. How does this experience feel? Individuals with eye movement difficulties may experience similar frustrations when they are trying to write or do eye-hand coordination activities. Reading may be very difficult since they will have difficulties sending signals to the eye muscles so the eyes move in the proper direction and distance at the proper time.
When reading, the eyes must fixate on a word, which involves visually GRABBING a word chunk with the FOCUSING and BINOCULAR SKILLS as described earlier, and then VISUALLY FEELING the word chunk to understand it. After processing one word chunk the eyes have to let go and move to the next word chunk to repeat the process. This process has to repeat itself over and over. GRAB, FEEL, MOVE, GRAB, FEEL, MOVE, GRAB, FEEL, MOVE, ETC. This highly repetitive and sequential process has to happen smoothly and efficiently to be a good and fluent reader. As the word chunks are brought into the brain they have to be remembered and pieced together so that the reader understands the sentence, the paragraph, and then the whole story. Moving your eyes in this sequential way is not a natural skill. You must learn these eye-movements. How well you learn this highly specialized skill will influence how fluently you can read.
Difficulties can occur at many points along the way, which will result in severe difficulties in learning to read fluently. Here are some of the common problem areas:
FOCUSING SKILLS PROBLEMS:
The eyes cannot visually grab the word chunks because of poor focusing skills and the person experiences blur, or words going in and out of focus. As the eyes are trying to focus, the visual feeling process is not happening, so no understanding is taking place.
BINOCULAR SKILLS PROBLEMS:
The two eyes cannot visually grab the word chunks together as a team. One eye is looking at one word, the other eye is looking at a different word. The person either sees double or has to concentrate on one eye and ignore the other. When they switch their attention from one eye to the other, the words and text appear to jump or move, disorienting them so they lose their place, and the reading process is halted until they get reoriented. As soon as they are reoriented, their attention may shift again. Never being able to visually grab the words appropriately disrupts the visual feeling process and fluent reading becomes fatiguing, frustrating, or impossible!
VISUAL FEELING PROBLEMS:
If the person is able to focus their eyes and binocularly coordinate their eyes, then the next step is to visually feel the word chunks for meaning and understanding. In a good reader this process takes place in less than one quarter of a second. This is too fast to analyze the letter structure of the word chunk and follow phonetic rules to figure out how the word should sound. The word has to be recognized visually as a whole word instantaneously. Ideally a visual picture should occur in the mind immediately. If a person cannot learn to visually recognize words instantly, then it may be due to a visual perception problem. Some people take the long and inefficient route of converting the seen word to the spoken word, then they listen to themselves in order to understand what was being read. Using this technique limits the reader to not much more than 200 words per minute reading speed, because that is about as fast as a person can talk to him/herself. Efficient readers can read up to 600 words per minute, but in order to do this they must convert seen words into pictures in the mind instantly without subvocalization.
EYE-MOVEMENT SKILLS PROBLEMS:
Once the person is done looking at one word chunk, they must move their eyes to the next chunk. They must move their eyes just the right distance; not too far, since words may be missed, and not too short or pieces of words they have already seen are reread. People who have eye movement problems have difficulties establishing the repetitive sequential movement of their eyes and instead chaotically dart forward and backwards, bringing word chunks to the mind in a disorderly fashion. The mind then has the almost impossible task of sorting it all out to make sense of it. When confused, the mind directs the eyes to search for additional word chunks by re-reading, which contributes to chaotic and disorderly eye movements.