A Swing and a Miss for RTI LD Research


While conducting some research, I came across the article “Response to Instruction as a Means of Identifying Students With Reading/Learning Disabilities” in a journal on exceptional children in the classroom (see below for more information). What is remarkable about this article is that it is all too unremarkable in the field of the Response to Intervention/Instruction (RTI) research vis-à-vis learning disabilities. Don’t worry, this riddle is not too hard to work out.

Reading is a behavioral/functional problem. To assume that if eye health is in order, all other aspects of vision will also be optimally functional is a common mis-step in the diagnosis of and intervention for LD/RD. Even though it is the primary passageway for information gathering in the classroom, vision is almost always assumed to be just fine, thank-you very much. It’s an easy assumption to make for the great majority of researchers because they simply are not aware of the implications of poor visual function. Besides, if a reading problem IS related to trouble with visual function, something that absolutely CAN be addressed, well, that’s just doesn’t have the same caché as saying a child has a mild brain disorder which should be much more difficult to deal with. In this study, much like the vast majority of other similar research, children are identified by means of their poor performance on reading tasks. If they do poorly, the are subjected to additional reading practice – 10 weeks at a time in this study. Before I subject ANYONE to 10 weeks of intensive visual exercise, I will first ensure they can handle the task. From the abstract:

“… second-grade students at risk for reading problems were provided daily supplemental reading instruction and assessed after 10 weeks to determine if they met a prior criteria for exit. Students who met criteria no longer received supplemental instruction. Those who did not were regrouped and supplemental instruction was continued for another 10 weeks. After 20 weeks of supplemental instruction, students who still had not met criteria were provided another 10 weeks of supplemental instruction. Students who never met criteria were classified as no exit.” 

In other words, children who could still not read to acceptable levels after 30 weeks of reading instruction were deemed LD/RD. 30 weeks of troubled reading and at NO point did anyone give a second thought to the possibility that there was a functional problem with vision. Frankly, this lack of awareness of visual function is causing months and years of unnecessary struggle (and no small amount of grief and expense) for tens of thousands of students and parents in North America alone. One cannot blame the researchers, but a finger could reasonably be pointed at the schools and colleges they graduated from for not even considering adding visual function to their curriculum in education, psychology, and medicine. At this point, however, even these researchers should be considering the ‘possibility’ that if a child cannot read at an acceptable level after 30 weeks of intervention, perhaps the assumption that all children’s visual function is exactly the same should be challenged.

To be sure, if a child is falling behind in a race, and that’s what this schooling business is, we need to ensure he is actually able to run. Medicine will tell us if a child is in good health, but it also recognizes that not all children with healthy legs will be good runners. In this day and age, the reason child development and education researchers discount the fact that children’s visual function varies widely is beyond me. Yes, there is a place for reading instruction, obviously, but without first managing visual function, this work can be less than effective and frustrating, uncomfortable, and even painful for children.

Any time I write about problems in LD/RD research, you can expect two things will almost always happen: I will conclude that the research is flawed because problems with visual function were not ruled out as a possible contributor, and; someone will complain about it and take it personally that I have called into question the veracity of some particular research. As far as I’m concerned, in the pursuit of appropriate care for children suspected of suffering with LD/RD, there is no room for personal vendetta on the one hand, or for thin skins, on the other. Unless vision is assessed and functional problems addressed in participating children, no conclusions from research in RTI as a measure of disability can be considered valid.

What does this mean for parents? If your child is assessed by means of achievement and found to be a candidate for reading or learning disability diagnosis, all is not lost. As a measure of RD/LD, RTI alone is problematic. Indeed, any measure of the efficacy of intervention (that is, targeted teaching) will be fundamentally flawed if visual function is not properly managed initially. Like pouring water into a bucket full of holes, reading training is wasted time if visual dysfunction is standing in the way. If you are told your child is likely to have RD/LD, refer them immediately for assessment of vision. You can contact us, or refer to www.oepf.org or www.vtod.ca to find a developmental optometrist who can help.


This commentary refers to the article “Response to Instruction as a Means of Identifying Students With Reading/Learning Disabilities“, Vaughn, Linan-Thompson, Hickman. Published in the journal “Exceptional Children”, Council for Exceptional Children, March 2011. Read the abstract and buy the article here: http://cec.metapress.com/content/q742w7261667m47g/

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