SOS - why do I read slowly and can’t remember it?

By Sylvia Cadena Smith

How often have you heard someone say, “I read slowly” or “I have trouble remembering what I read?” These two statements are more common that most people realize. Recent research in cognitive processing has identified a hidden group of learners that have difficulty with the sequencing steps involved in interpreting information in a logical and organized manner as it flows from our eyes to the brain; i.e.,visual processing. Not surprisingly, at the top of the list that requires effective visual processing skills is reading.


Reading requires the ability to effectively take in visual information, process the information and discern meaning from it. More than 65 percent of the pathways to the brain involve the complex integration of visual skill sets. As reading takes place, the brain receives visual stimuli through the visual pathways of visual acuity, visual fixation, and accommodation, binocular-fusion, convergence, field of vision and form perception. Schools typically test for only one, visual acuity. While visual acuity is clearly important, reading requires more than merely 20/20 vision as measured by the standard Snellen chart. A cognitive deficit in any of the other visual processing areas has the potential to negatively impact reading. Such deficits may go unnoticed or be misdiagnosed in the traditional school setting.

Research conducted by a number of agencies has shown dramatic impact on readers when visual challenges are in play. The following statistics are indeed alarming:

  • 25 percent of all students cannot read due to vision skills deficits. (National PTA, 1999)
  • 66 percent of illiterate adults cannot read due to vision skills deficits. (National Center on Adult Literacy)
  • 70 percent of juvenile delinquents cannot read due to vision skills deficits. (CA Youth Authority, 1989)
  • 90 percent of prison inmates cannot read due to vision skills deficits. (Folsom Prison Study)
  • Poor “basic skills” cost businesses $60 billion per year. (U.S. Department of Education, 1998)

Children who may have a visual deficit in one or more areas typically do not tell their parents because these deficits do not affect visual acuity and the child doesn’t perceive the underlying issue. A child with a vision-based learning problem may have excellent verbal skills, communicate effectively, and remember information when read to aloud or visual aids are used, thus leading parents and educators to think that if the child is not adequately performing in school, the child may be lazy or not interested.

The American Public Health Association has stated that 25 percent of students in grades K-6 have visual problems that are serious enough to impede learning. In addition to visual challenges, these students often display fatigue, fidgeting, and frustrations in the classroom, which can lead to a misdiagnosis of dyslexia or other learning disabilities (American Optometric Association). As a result, these students are frequently mislabeled as being unwilling or incapable of learning when, in fact, they can learn, but are “unconventional” in how they cognitively process information due to a visual processing variance or deficit.

Identifying unconventional learners™ in the classroom is challenging because, until recently, little was known about how the brain processes information. In the last 15 to 20 years, brain research has revealed that the ability to “visually process” information is critical to learning. It is now understood that the initial act of visual processing is primarily a physiological issue that is not necessarily related to an individual’s ability to cognitively process information or to his or her intelligence. Therefore, when students’ visual processing is weak, their overall ability to cognitively process information delivered in a conventional classroom format can negatively impact learning. This is largely due to a disconnect in how information was originally received and processed by the brain.

A Practical Example of the Impact of Visual Processing

All humans have a normal function called a saccade (suh-kahd), which is rapid eye movement that is part of the brain’s optomotor system. The optomotor cycle consists of three elements: the reflex (generating saccades), the fixation (suppressing saccades), and the voluntary conscious control (BlickLabor, 2010). As a reader attempts to move along a line of text, the brain executes a series of saccadic (rapid, point-to-point) eye movements and, at key intervals, pauses or fixates the eyes on data in order to process, interpret and organize the information. Readers who struggle with moving their eyes smoothly from point to point are, in many cases, experiencing what might be termed “overactive”’ or “irregular”saccades. In these cases, erratic, large amplitude eye movements instead of controlled, small amplitude movements occur (See Figure below).This causes readers’ eyes to jump around the page, causing word or line skipping and pattern glare (words appear to move on the page).

If informational patterns are not formed during the visual fixation or are disrupted due to overactive saccades (e.g., skipped words and lines), fluency is impacted and the brain has difficulty interpreting and organizing input into usable information. Poor fluency, in this case impacted by overactive saccades, typically translates into poor comprehension, thus limiting learning.

Readers who have visual challenges find that they become frustrated because they know they can learn, but struggle to demonstrate it in a traditional school setting since their reading is impacted by visual/cognitive processing anomalies. As a result, too often many of these unconventional learners drop out from learning and may exhibit negative social behaviors, creating a downward learning and social spiral.

Hands-OnTips for Informally Detecting Visual Processing Issues

A few general clues teachers and parents should consider if they suspect that a child is having difficulty processing visual information are:

  1. Is the child comfortable reading aloud, individually or in a group?
  2. When the child reads aloud, does he or she frequently substitute, skip, re-read words or full lines in the text?
  3. Does the child get tired easily when reading or doing near-point visual work?
  4. Does the child read slowly, tend to read word-by-word and/or give up easily?
  5. Are the child’s verbal vocabulary and communication skills average or above average?
  6. Does the child have a short attention span?
  7. Does the child tilt their heads to one side or have poor sitting posture and position while attempting to read?
  8. Does the child have difficulty remembering what has been read?
  9. Does the child have difficulty focusing back and forth to the whiteboard or book?
  10. Does the child avoid reading at any cost?

There are effective ways to support these learners by integrating brain-based visual processing modifications into learning situations. Simple actions should be considered,ranging from providing them with visual support reading tools to reduce line skipping and reinforce smooth left-to-right and right-to-left (reverse swing) eye movement as they read, to more involved actions such as vision therapy.

Expanding teachers’ and parents’ recognition of the multidimensional aspects of how the human brain processes visual information positions them to better recognize the call for help or S O S from unconventional learners. Helping students to recognize and adjust to their own unique visual processing styles will empower them to embrace an “I can” and not “I can’t” attitude in the classroom. The sheer power of understanding that one learns differently due to visual processing issues and not to a lack of intelligence has the potential to expand lifelong options and confidence for unconventional learners.

The first step is to become informed about visual processing and its function in learning. This awareness will help educators, parents and students to begin to constructively solve the mystery of why otherwise capable students struggle to concentrate and retain information as they read and reveal the potential of the unconventional learner that is hidden in plain sight in every classroom.

A free Visual Processing Checklist can be downloaded from the See-N-Read® Reading Tools website to help teachers and parents to informally assess if students may be lagging behind due to visual processing issues.




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Sylvia Cadena Smith earned her Doctorate in Instructional Technology, Master of Science in Curriculum and Supervision, and Bachelor of Science in Special Education. Her areas of expertise include reading, instructional design, curriculum development, e-learning, technological integration and assessment and evaluation. Dr. Smith has written and taught graduate Reading/Literacy [including English Language Learner (ELL)] courses and Educational Administration courses for Benedictine University, Instructional Design for Northern Illinois University’s Instructional Technology Graduate Program and guest-lectured at Northwestern University.
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Issue 18.3 | Winter/Spring 2017

Southeast Education Network

Our Mission: to reinvigorate the spirit of American education