Reading Is Visually Unnatural—Here's How to Help Students Who Struggle

Language Arts

Reading Is Visually Unnatural—Here's How to Help Students Who Struggle

from Reading Plus

By Kelli Anderson     Sep 24, 2018

Reading Is Visually Unnatural—Here's How to Help Students Who Struggle

When Mark Taylor was growing up near Huntington, NY, his house had a special draw no other home in the neighborhood could boast: a basement full of prisms, projectors and other cool optometric gadgets. His friends loved coming over to mess around with the devices, but these were no mere toys: they were part of a family legacy.

In the ‘30s, Taylor’s grandfather—along with his brothers—had pioneered research addressing reading inefficiency. Taylor's dad followed in their footsteps, sometimes using Taylor as a guinea pig for his own theories and instruments that tackled common reading problems.

Today, Mark Taylor is not only a happily fluent reader, he is the CEO of Reading Plus, the Vermont company that has emerged from his family tradition. The current technology is web-based, but his grandfather’s goal has survived the decades: increase students’ ease and comfort with reading—something that remains elusive to a shockingly large part of the population.

EdSurge talked with Taylor about what makes reading a visually unnatural activity, why reading inefficiency isn’t a learning disability, and how early intervention can increase fluency and foster joy in reading.

What does reading efficiently mean and why is it so difficult for some students?

When we talk about reading efficiently, we’re really just talking about reading with ease and comfort—things that we can take for granted. It means we can coordinate our eyes along lines of text and we have efficient behaviors that make comprehension easier.

Teachers are often unaware of the tremendous discrepancies in the reading challenges children in their classrooms face. Students who have developed habitually inefficient patterns have spent a long time over-relying on decoding or reading orally at very slow rates. Or they just never acclimated to a near-point activity like reading, because our eyes are much better suited to long distance. For any of those reasons, students can have really inefficient approaches to reading, and they have no idea that reading is much more difficult for them than it is for other students.

What does reading inefficiently look like?

Teachers are taught to listen for miscues when students are reading orally; they have a sense of what oral reading fluency sounds like. They can model it and they can hear it and they can coach students. But when we read silently, the only test we have is post-hoc: Did we comprehend?

When we look at eye-movement recordings, students who are reading inefficiently will make a bunch of extra fixations or eye stops. They move very short distances and make regressive eye movements. They'll move backwards to check words or confirm what they saw. It's a lot of extra energy. All of that energy is invisible to most teachers.

This is what silent reading looks like for struggling readers. The red dot in the video above is an eye movement recording of a 7th grade student; the red dot shows where the student's eyes actually met the text. Source: Reading Plus.

What part of this issue does your technology address?

There are a couple of components. When we look at anything, we have a particular visual span. For really young readers, their span is fairly small. They see a couple of letters at a time. As we become more proficient as readers, we develop a larger visual span. We can take in more characters. As we become more familiar with vocabulary, we can see those characters and we can instantly identify what word that is, and we can stack that into our short-term memory.

So inefficient readers have a smaller perceptual span and they also haven't developed a fluent set of eye movements where they're moving from left to right and knowing where to land on words.

How prevalent is this problem?

With non-proficient readers, we see easily 70% of students reading really inefficiently. With proficient readers, we see as many as 30%. These are kids who probably have really good vocabulary, good exposure and prior knowledge. They know things about the world, and they can use that knowledge to make sense of things. They probably have a lot of will and grit because they want to perform well, but they're still using an enormous amount of extra energy to perform at those levels. By the way, these reading skills don't correlate with intelligence, and reading inefficiently isn't a learning disability.

Percent of proficient and non-proficient readers who read inefficiently. Source: Reading Plus.

I think reading is a visually unnatural activity. Some people, just through practicing, become more efficient. Others really struggle with that transition. It's amazing what a small intervention can do; all of a sudden the student has a different perception of what reading is.

How does your technology work?

We produce an eye-movement recording device that is used to diagnose reading efficiency. Based on our eye-movement research, along with supportive third-party research with other eye-movement recording devices, we have developed an online reading assessment that measures a student's comprehension-based silent reading rate along with motivation and vocabulary ability. This gives us a good picture of the efficiency with which each student reads in conjunction with more cognitive measures.

It’s also the basis for a solution that helps model what efficient reading feels like. We're effectively setting up a practice environment where the text is leveled appropriately to the student, and the pace at which we're presenting text is matched to the student's rate of reading, and then we're essentially highlighting in a manner that helps them start to develop a more effective approach or habit. We call it the guided window.

This is what silent reading looks like with the Reading Plus Guided Window, which develops the physical skills needed for silent reading fluency. The personalized rate at which text is presented gradually increases to match a student's reading rate and comprehension level. This example is set at 172 words per minute. Source: Reading Plus.

What kind of improvement do students see after practicing with the Guided Window?

We typically see, on a national average, that Tier 2 students—those are readers who're generally about two grade levels behind—make a two-year gain with about 40 hours of this kind of practice.

A Tier 3 kid would be, say, a tenth grader who's reading at a fourth-grade level, who got phonics instruction, can identify words, can read orally at reasonable rates but doesn’t read because it's not comfortable. Within 60 hours, we are usually able to produce a three-year gain for those kids. It's not just the gain, but it's an attitudinal change towards what reading is.

My own son had good comprehension and a precocious vocabulary when he was in third grade. But he was reading very slowly. Never wanted to read. He spent probably 20 hours or so with Reading Plus and transformed his attitude towards reading. He is now a voracious reader.

What kind of literacy and reading problems do students have down the road if they don't address this challenge early?

I would say the biggest problem is the motivation to read. We measure motivation on a large scale with hundreds of thousands of kids a year. We see a systematic drop off in motivation as kids get up higher and higher grades.

If you think about how often you engage in things that you find laborious and unenjoyable, you probably try to avoid them. If you start doing that with reading, your attitude towards learning, in general, begins to sour. If students have an attitude that they're not smart enough in some way or they're lacking something, that plays out in all areas of learning and in life.

It's really about having an informed citizenry that can debate responsibly about information. That's the most important thing.

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