Breaking down vision: Why do children have trouble learning to read?
(Continued from the last blog.)
• Oculomotor Skills: Adults often forget what it took to learn to read. Reading from a book, and especially reading from a whiteboard then copying to a notebook, are exceedingly complex tasks and require great coordination of eye movements and focusing control. These are not naturally present in us as humans and must be learned. In many cases, these skills are never mastered, and these children can have ongoing and increasing difficulty with reading as academic text becomes more dense and difficult to grasp. Nearpoint stress, from working at close distances, can cause inflexibility in the visual system in even the best readers. Excessive (or constant) exposure to video games, especially hand-held devices, specialize visual skills to the point that children have trouble with the visual demands of the classroom.
• Visual-Perceptual Skills: Once the eyes target and fixate upon an object of interest (the shapes of words on a page), it is then up to the brain to make good sense of what is ‘seen’ and transform this into an accurate ‘perception’ of the intended signal (the words themselves, then the meaning of those words, and how the words string together to make a sentence to represent a thought). Very frequently, children who have trouble learning to read have deficient perceptual skills, such as ‘figure-ground’, sequential memory, form constancy, and others which I will describe in a later article. These, like oculomotor skills, are trainable.
• Gross Motor Skills: Underlying good control of visual-motor and visual-perceptual skills, is an awareness of one’s body and how it is positioned in space with respect to the world and the objects in it. When we are very young, we begin to build our internal ‘map’ of the world, and interacting physically with the world is a required element in developing this map. Children who have trouble with directionality (where is something located in relation to something else) and laterality (left-right relations) will often have difficulty in finer motor control issues such as with handwriting or eye control for reading. Again, these skills are not fully developed in some children, and this awareness is modifiable through training.
• Eye Sight: This one appears simple: If you can’t see, you can’t read. However, many children, especially those who are farsighted or those who have mild to moderate astigmatism, will show reading ability (they can read letters from an eye chart), but struggle so much to see clearly, that they expend too much energy and attention making things ‘clear’. Like walking with stones in your shoes, it’s possible, but not easy. It is often difficult to explain to parents that their child will benefit from glasses when they appear to have normal vision, but it is comparable to asking a child to walk through waist deep water – it’s very possible, but parents cannot see the effort it requires.
• Attention Deficits, not necessarily ADD: Many children are incapable of sitting still, for no other reason than they have never been required to or shown how. Chief Sitting Bull is quoted as saying that a child who cannot sit still is only half developed. Indeed, we as modern parents are all too eager to continuously divert our childrens’ attention with some new distraction and rarely encourage them (or provide the opportunity) to simply sit quietly. Yet, the inability to slow down and simply ‘be’ leads to general trouble with health and difficulty dealing with stress over one’s lifetime.
• Age: Children who are young in their grades are more likely to report or show trouble with reading acquisition as compared to their peers.
• Intelligence/Capacity: While reading instruction is generally tailored to the lower skilled children in class, some children simply have trouble learning to read for no other reason than they find it a difficult task.
• Interest/Motivation: Low interest and motivation are ongoing and significant impediments to reading acquisition. Primary contributing factors here appear to be parents who are unsupportive of education, and teachers who are less than inspired while instructing and designing lessons.
• Dyslexia: Yes, some children have a predisposition to difficulty in reading acquisition, and some never seem to be able to make sense of words on the page. These, however, are rare.
Most of these issues show up in the classroom as restlessness and an inability to focus attention for any usable period of time. While they can be addressed and remediated through modest means, very frequently they are not, leaving the impression that the child has a reading delay. Simple farsightedness (hyperopia) for example can make looking at a paper up close a tedious and even difficult task. When asked what the letters are, the child will correctly identify them, but will have little to no tolerance for reading, preferring instead to look around, bother his classmates, daydream – anything but focus on the page in front of him. To the untrained eye, this can look like dyslexia or ADD, and too frequently treatment is based on these superficial assessments. In the end, most children will ‘respond’ to anti-hyperactivity medication, but as it fails to address the underlying problems, this treatment alone solves nothing for the child – it’s like filling a bathtub without plugging the drain, more reading instruction will help only in part and is not an effective use of resources.
See also More Than Just Dyslexia 1